Slowly opening our eyes and absorbing the scenery, we find ourselves riding on the swirling airborne dreams of a colored landscape, liberated by the wind in a place where mountains, light, and shadow blend our perceptions of heaven and earth.
When we look upon mountains, we imagine a sense of static permanence, as though something so grand must be “forever.” When we look upon ripples of sand on the beach, we understand their transience, as though something so small could not stand the tide…Then we come upon a vast range of dunes, slowly moving and shifting, achieving the scale of mountains while ever-changing to adapt to the prevailing wind…And no longer can we rest our logic upon the partial truth of scale, instead we must look toward the elements that make up our world and seek to understand their adaptations, synergies, and motion as they redefine permanence.
When the way ahead is tinted by the yellow of aspen leaves, a brilliant glow emanates from the rising landscape, calling to us as though a siren on the mountain beckoning us to take a closer look. The marvel of an aspen glen, a single organism responding to a changing world in perfect symbiosis.
We stand on solid ground, or so we believe…Yet the earth constantly quakes and we ride imperceptible waves of tectonic motion, rising and falling, as we go about our everyday customs…If we were to stop and think about the immense power engaged in moving the earth, we might feel overwhelmed. But there is another side to this…It can also be a comfort, in times such as these, to know that for all the emotional and political tumult of our world, our petty grievances and follies are inconsequential to the rolling, churning, shaking, lifting, and falling forces of Earth…Although we may feel as though we are lost at times, the Earth does not care and her mountains and oceans will continue to move in search of equilibrium, ignorant of our tiny proud footfalls.
We are blazers of trails and builders of paths. We tend to make them passable for the least agile among us. That’s kind and thoughtful as it opens a view of the world to many who would not otherwise venture out…but it is not the way of things in the natural world where exploration and adversity are often the price of discovery…As we look to the earth, we find that she leads us to places of wonder with her jagged contours and meandering forms of rivers, ridges, and valleys. These details are not benign paths to follow, instead they present obstacles that simultaneously lead our gazes to objects and places of allure and present challenges that we must overcome in order to earn the sense of wonder on the other side. Often times the reward is in meeting the challenges along the way and we find that one adventure is simply preparation for the next.
Although I often dream of being “up there” when I am on the ground, I rarely dream of being “down there” when I am in flight. Up there, the simple mysteries of what lies around the bend or over the hill are revealed in a glance, their wonder to be consumed as a small part of a bigger picture. The cumulative effect of these simultaneous revelations can be overwhelming, leading our senses to reel…that spinning feeling we experience with our first steps onto the airfield, that moment we recognize just how big and vast is the sky above and around us. That feeling never stops, though we get better at managing it, we put our excitement in check, letting it linger as a small electrical scintillation up the backs of our necks, and we work through our routine of slowing down time, hyperaware of our every impulse, action, and reaction. To live on the wing is to be part of that wonderous big sky and we forget about earthly things for a while.
I’ve been on the ground for a few months. I don’t bemoan that fact as it is by choice, yet every time I look at the wrong side of a passing cloud or gaze upon the radiance of a dusty sunset, I long to be up there where I belong. My choice is one that many of our younger pilots don’t have the luxury of making for themselves…I’ve been in that position before. Many junior pilots, men, women, fathers, mothers, daughters, or sons, all of them someone’s friend, are preparing to leave the airlines as part of involuntary furloughs. That sounds benign enough, their jobs will be there for them when the economy demands more of us on the job, but nothing about it is easy. We are in one of those rare career fields where our identities are intertwined with the job we do. That makes it harder when no one needs us to do that job. It’s not like taking a leave of absence in which we know when we will return to the air. Instead, it is fraught with the ambiguity of waiting for the phone to ring or a letter for HR to arrive welcoming the pilots back. When on furlough, a piece of ourselves is left behind. When I went through that experience, I was fortunate to have good supportive friends that helped me focus on the positive as I looked at all the other pieces. It took a lot of soul searching to unwrap my identity from my job, to look for other innate skills and passions, to determine other ways to find purpose in my everyday life. We are so much more than pilots, we are blessed with a career that allows us to spend our days on top of the world, we undramatically face critical situations when all the world around us seems ablaze, we see the beauty in a singular ray of light reflecting its way through the atmosphere, we know what it feels like to surf on clouds, and we know what it’s like to fly straight into the teeth of a storm. If you’re someone facing furlough or unwanted time on the ground, I can offer you this, you are so much more than a job…you can do anything you set your mind to doing…and I guarantee you have people in your corner who can help you focus your energy on understanding all the positive and powerful things of which you are capable. If you feel alone in this, reach out to others who have been there. You can reach out to me. The sky will not change while you are away, so all your good dreams of flying will continue to be real, and we will await your return.
In the days that surround September 11th each year, I think back to all of the events leading up to that horrible morning and all of the events that followed. For those of us who were close to these events, we will forever feel as though there is an empty seat at the table when we gather to reminisce. It took a long time for most of us to put things in perspective and to put to rest the unsettling and unproductive selfish thoughts of “why wasn’t it me?” A certain sense of jovial callousness and gallows humor are excellent coping mechanisms…But still there are echoes of those moments in our reflections…voices of friends lost, images of detached horror, perpetual columns of smoke, candlelight vigils in hotel parking lots…the warmth of strangers sharing loss, and the roaring sounds of silence from an empty sky. As long as these silent echoes resound, we will never forget.
On September 10, 2001, my mid-day flight had been delayed due to a weather system moving through the northeast, so I found myself driving to Logan Airport in heavy afternoon I-95 traffic. This drive stuck in my mind, not because of what would happen the next morning, but because of the words I heard on the radio. [I was a relatively new airline pilot, still on probation and a paltry probationary salary, so my entertainment options in my old Volvo station wagon were somewhat limited.] NPR was broadcasting the National Press Club luncheon where (then) Senator Joe Biden was the keynote speaker. At the time, the administration was preparing to back out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in order to test intercept missiles as part of the Strategic Defense Initiative. Biden’s remarks focused on a vision that the United States has a responsibility not to act unilaterally, backing away from our agreements and our allies, and instead we should maintain our global leadership role while focusing on countering nuclear, chemical, and biological terror threats posed by non-state actors to which we were far more vulnerable. [A clip of his remarks can be found here: https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4551371/user-clip-joe-bidens-foreign-policy-views-91001] Glorious weather followed the passage of the front and everything about that afternoon felt routine and innocent. We had an uneventful flight from Boston to Los Angeles and, having landed late, went straight to sleep, only to awaken to the news of our next LA bound flight’s fate. Given the events of September 11th, Biden’s words struck me as having been a clarion call for action to counter terrorist threats that we could not yet fully comprehend…
Yosemite fills the windscreen, Half Dome’s distinctive silhouette emerging from the mist as the setting sun illuminates the floating dust and water vapor, warming our vision and welcoming us in from the darkness.
The places we pass through on our way to the sky, at their finest, inspire us, warm us, and create a sensory experience that lasts a lifetime. National Airport is one such place…each day that I pass through that portal, the sensation of walking through the old terminal for the first time, almost a half century ago, comes rushing back to me with each shimmer of radiant light captured in polished reflections of architecture and shadows.
When we put a destination in mind, suddenly, we have defined a “here” and a “there,” we get in a hurry, and everything in between becomes meaningless. Flipping that notion on its head for a moment, the great circle that defines our journey becomes an infinite collection of points, each uniquely defining the singular moments along the way…Here, where the road map is useless and unmarked, the adventure begins and, embracing the in between and all its possibilities, travelers become adventurers.
As we slide along in smooth air between the layers, weather builds in fibrous strands of stratiform as though some invisible engineer weaving a web of vapor to capture the fading light.
Inspiration is most easily found when we aren’t looking, but choose instead just to open our eyes…The old pilot who knows the name and nomenclature of every rivet and widget to roll out of the Boeing factory, and approaches his craft as both a science and an art…The passenger who patiently allows a more manic and less polite traveler to push past him by in line, knowing that they’ll both arrive at the same time…The former Air Force Colonel taking tickets in the airport parking garage, far from his life and home in Africa…The little girl with fire in her eyes as she watches the cockpit lights illuminate their test patterns to the sound of bells and klaxons…The lovely middle eastern lady working the opening shift at the airport Starbucks on Christmas morning that proudly shares that she doesn’t have to work on her Christmas…The ground crew carefully transferring baggage while standing cold-soaked in the rain…The van driver who makes her 27th trip of the day to “you name the” terminal, but who smiles and greets us all as though she’s just happy to be here with us. If we are observant and ready to receive the lessons, every one of these people has something to teach us…diligence, courage, tenacity, patience, perseverance, sense of duty, raw enthusiasm, hope, sacrifice, peace, and determination…We are all more alike than we will ever recognize and in the most ordinary of places, we are surrounded by the greatness of risk takers and prophets.
Storms have a way of dominating the landscape, darkening skies, and darkening moods as we feel the weight of the atmosphere falling down upon us…Clouds are a story in and of themselves, as they change their shapes and states, conserve and express their energy, and move along their way. When a storm has passed, we search in its wake for a rainbow…reassurance that we have weathered the storm…and we revel in the beauty of the rainbow’s spectral light. We often delude ourselves into thinking that sign means that the storm is gone, like some bugaboo magically vanishing when we turn on the light, but the rainbow only lives on the edges of the storm. Our storm has not vanished, it has simply moved on and, with the perspective of the rain falling on someone else, we look upon its distant display and allow ourselves to see the drama played out in the symbiosis of earth and atmosphere…beauty resides along the edges of every storm.
We’ve all had a little more time on earth lately. Deprived of our time among the clouds, we still look down upon the earth with our aerial lenses, picturing all things as if from our usual perch and dreaming of our motion on the invisible currents of the skies…But here on earth, we watch as the water flows steadily from a mountain lake, accelerating as it flows over the rocky shallows, while strands of marine plants illustrate the invisible motion as they are pulled along by the current.
It can be murky, the features of our surroundings hidden behind a heavy shroud or barely recognizable under a thin veil…Whether obstacles to sight, perception, comprehension, or spirit, we struggle to fix our place in the atmosphere and occasionally feel lost until a single ray of light appears to help show us the way…Our lens on the world changes with the perception of light and shadow. In that rare moment of illumination, the details become clear and seem all the more glorious for our previous deprivation.
When we dream of flight, our feet planted firmly on the ground, we experience an adventure in relative motion…rarely do we fly in a cloudless sky with no horizon in sight, instead we soar over farmlands and cities, the things that we know well from our life bound to earth…we circle around and through clouds, drawn in to the mysteries of their effortless levitation…When we dream of flight, we unlock the secret perspective of the bird and the hidden fluidity of the wind…Seeing only at first, we eventually feel the sensation of flight and bind our dreams to our reality. Before I ever flew, I dreamed of flight…Spending my life in the air, those dreams are now intertwined with my memories and I will forever see the world from above as though in a dream.
No matter one’s perspective, there is always a climb to be made…up a gentle slope to the top of a hill, up a steep incline to a jagged ridge or mountain top, up through an open sky to the tropopause…we feel a sense of accomplishment at the pinacle, although we’re only halfway there. Every successful journey has ups and downs, a symmetry of purpose, a venture upward and downward, outward and inward…no adventure is complete until we have the perspective to reflect on the whole of the experience.
Where there is a storm, let us not go into it blindly, but let us not turn away in fright when the reality of the storm is the least of our fears…It is incumbent upon us to deal with it. Sometimes that means sitting it out and waiting for it to blow out, watching the radar and wind reports, listening to the radio for cues as to what others are experiencing, and developing an understanding of the threat we must plan to engage…Sometimes, we rock and roll. Sometimes, we sit motionless and watch a light show. Sometimes, we go around…Unlike any other profession, sitting still or suddenly pivoting to furious action can both result in successful outcomes. In either case, this is our calling…to face the storm, to exercise prudence, to ensure the safety of our charges…to be the calm within the storm.
It’s not a smooth ride, but it is intoxicating. Standing at the foot of the mountain, I dream of being up there amid the ripples and rolls of this tortured sky, at one with the motion and absorbing the radiant yellow light. If I could paint such a sky, I should think I was in heaven and I would never stop. This is the sort of moment that lingers in our minds for an eternity.