Look Out the Windows

The miracle of flight lies outside the airplane, not in it.



** Sometimes it seems all too easy to forget
that the great thing about flying isn't the
airplane or the convenience or the glass
panel. It's the world around us.**

My morning routine is to get up at 6 o’clock or so, make coffee — an elaborate ceremony that involves measuring out and grinding the beans, pre-wetting the grounds, dribbling water over them at a certain temperature, and all that stuff; I think I prefer the ritual to the coffee — and sit on the patio to drink it, and to drink in along with it the coolness, the morning chorus of the birds, the changing light on a few straggling clouds.

Often, as I sit there, a certain Cessna 152 passes low overhead. I’m sure it’s always the same one because the time and position and heading are the same. It’s aglow with the golden-hour light beloved of photographers, and the soft growl of its engine and the modest andante of its progress remind me of the time several decades back when this was what most of general aviation was: high-wing airplanes with 100 or 150 horsepower, putt-putting along a couple of thousand feet up at 100 or 120 mph.

I feel a certain warmth toward that fellow — I imagine the pilot to be a man because I put myself into his place; it could just as easily be a woman, or a couple of people — and I envy him his regular early morning flight over the barely stirring city. He must drive out to his airport when it is still dark or half-light. I think of the fluid sound, part jingle and part slither, that tie-down chains make when you drop them into a heap, the snap of the door latches, the smell of the worn interior, the way those little four-bangers have of jarring the entire airplane when they bark into life, and the moment when the rumble of the wheels on the runway ceases and you rise glass-smoothly onto the morning air. I treasure all that; I would like to be him now.

Late last August, Nancy and I were in Boston. As we usually do when we are there, we took a long walk at what is called the Concord Unit of the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. It is a large pond or wet meadow, near the Revolutionary War town of Concord, that is ringed by forest, much taken-over at the moment by lotus plants, and frequented by geese, egrets, herons and dragonflies. Only a few lotus flowers remained, most having shed their white petals to expose conical seedpods of extraterrestrial appearance. Bees hurried among the purple loosestrife, and crumbling cattails disgorged their fluff in vain expectation of a breeze. Warm, humid, silent, alive — the Concord Unit gives a strong feeling of place: All of your senses tell you in chorus that you are there.

The Concord Unit happens to lie under a departure path for flights out of Hanscom Field, one of Boston’s major general aviation airports. It was a Sunday afternoon, and takeoffs were infrequent, but from time to time the stillness of the meadow would be swept aside by the crescendo of a turbine, and I would look up to see a jet, still low in a shallow climb and heading westward on what I supposed must have been a noise-abatement departure.

I did not envy them.

I find an ambivalence in flying; I wonder whether other pilots feel it. The phrase about hours of boredom interrupted by moments of stark terror does not capture it, though it makes a good, and perennial, joke. It’s more a matter of the pilot’s relationship to the world around: engagement versus detachment, exposure versus isolation.

I angered some Flying readers many years ago when I remarked that flying a jet at 41,000 feet was an alienating experience of immobilization, dim white noise, and removal from the world. If I felt that way, they wrote, why didn't I stay on the ground? They could fly the jet in my place, and, by God, they would find it glorious.

But sitting at the front of a cruising jet on autopilot, though a great thing for one’s self-esteem, is not that different from sitting in the middle, and I never cease to marvel at the number of people on airliners who don’t look out the windows. Granted, sometimes the ground looks as faded as old clothes, or you’re above a thousand-mile blanket of featureless cloud; then, I agree, there might not be much point gazing out. But when you can watch the shadows of dusk grow longer, yellow day fleeing westward before the blue-black armies of night; or the strange and gigantic signatures of ancient oceans upon a western badland; or the swirling sheen of sun glint on a wind-scoured lake or river; or the spider’s web of towns and roads sketched out in points of light upon a nighttime land where, a few generations ago, there might have been (had it been possible to fly above it then) only the flicker of a solitary campfire or the baleful wink of a distant thunderstorm embedded in infinite black — when you can see all those things that until my grandparents’ generation no human eye had ever seen, how on earth can you pull down the shade?

People get used to flying; they forget how miraculous it is. But this world, our world, is our only one. It can be wondrous on many levels, and flying opens new ones to us — it’s a matter of attention, of awareness, of being alert to the world’s moods and not too wrapped up in our own.

When I see the 150 pass over as I drink my morning coffee, I imagine its pilot immersed in the contemplation of his surroundings in the special way that flight makes possible. He is low; he can see the cars, the people, the city coming to life beneath him as the early sun mounts the sky. He has that sense of movement that you get when flying low, or near clouds; and the air is smooth and still over the city at daybreak, so his motion resembles an ice skater’s frictionless slide; and his departure and his arrival are closely enough linked in space and time that his flight becomes like a physical gesture, a leap — up, then down. He and his airplane together — they are united, for the moment — are similar to one of those gods of the ancient Greeks who swooped casually from Olympus and, spying a beautiful nymph bathing, alit to accost her. He is above the world, but not out of it.

But when I look up from the Concord wetland at the jet passing above, I suspect — perhaps unfairly — that the sense of the embracing world that is so strong here on the wild, watery and silent ground is all but extinguished in that luxurious and pressurized shell, where passengers are opening their newspapers or laptops, and where the crew, acolytes of the hypnotic minor god Routine, are punching altitudes into a flight management system.

When I was in my 20s, I inveighed against simple airplanes that flew low and slow, and I urged amateur builders and manufacturers alike to strive for sleeker, faster, more powerful machines that would fly high and far and in all weather and everywhere. They did so — not at my urging, but because they, and their customers, shared my fascination with the extreme and the heroic. But in this, as in everything, time passes, the tide ebbs and flows, the pendulum swings.

It is common to see airline and corporate pilots, nearing the end of their careers or having retired, acquiring a Swift or a Luscombe, or restoring a Stinson, or building a Pietenpol or something else diametrically opposed to their by-then-all-too-familiar experience of guiding gigantic and swift airplanes across continents and oceans. They crave an antidotal airplane, something leaky, smelly, slow-climbing, that whistles when you pick up speed. Something that shakes; something in which you have to keep the ball centered. Something that never gets so far from earth that you forget what it is and who you are.

Something that reminds you what a privilege it is to fly.