We leave only vapor trails as our legacy in the heavens. So real a part of our world that they lend us a sense of belonging as we write our stories on the cloudscape and look for the tails of those who preceded us. With the passage of time, we witness the effects of the atmosphere’s constant motion, made visible only by the wind-born dust and the cycle of water…and somewhere in between we come upon a singular cloud, asking ourselves where it falls in the scheme of things and how it was formed, only to realize that it is the dissolution of a story that was written before we passed this way, now caught in the moment of its belonging.
Thin layer of smoke linger in the atmosphere, striping the heavens with narrow striations as the setting sun catches and reflects on the many colored particles hanging in the air.
We are in the business of being unemotional. Not that we are without emotion; we don’t let emotions intrude on the performance of our tasks. We are likewise in the business of ensuring the well-being of those people, both friends and strangers alike, who buy a ticket and put their safety and their lives in our hands. We uphold a sacred trust each time we suit up and walk onto the flightdeck. The events of September 11th, 2001 introduced a tarry cloud of emotion into the well-ordered world we had previously known. The sudden, violent, and tragic events of the day violated our very sense of purpose and left us angry, adrift, and hopeless for a time. Our vision was clouded as though hurtling through a dark sky, unable to bring the world back into sharp focus.
Trees now grow along the edges of earth made fertile by the remembrance of the souls consumed by the vacuum of the shrinking towers and we try to remember how many years have passed since the world came crashing in on our once protected existence…Now the memories pass into dreams and the horrid sleepless visions of the days that followed September 11th seem blurry and less real…but we will never forget.
After the attacks, it took me the better part of a week to return to Boston from Los Angeles. When I did, it was as though I were returning from a different world to an unfamiliar home…Though the streets, like the skies, were still largely silent, each and every overpass seemed to be adorned with an American flag…not professionally hung, but twist-tied and knotted to chain link fences by plain folks who knew that these symbols were what we all needed to see woven into every scene. More than anything else, I remember the empty skies and those flags that signaled a collective sense of unity and resolve.
We learned that we are not invulnerable while the rest of the world witnessed the unity, the fury, and the resolve with which we faced that realization. When we have been willing to challenge ourselves, we have also learned that we are not infallible and that there is always time to make a course correction. We must resolve to be better, to unite in peacetime as we unite in war, to eliminate our enemies by diminishing their causes and grievances, to abandon the delusional conspiracy theories that seek to divide us at our core, and to make this broken world a better and more beautiful place…Wabi-Sabi.
Happy Labor Day and thank you to all those who have dedicated their professional lives to promoting fairness and safety in the pursuit of our profession. For all of my brothers and sisters who find themselves laboring today rather than relaxing in the sunshine of a holiday weekend…May your travels be swift and safe…May you care for your charges and deliver them safely…May the sun shine upon you, but never in your eyes…And may the wind be always at your back. I’ll see you along the way and listen for you on the air.
No matter where you sit, the sense of drama is unmistakeable. We seek to avoid drama…dramatic people, dramatic scenes, and even dramatic weather all take their toll on us, drain us, and rob us of the energy to meet the demands of our days…but when we have the opportunity to view dramatic weather from a safe distance, detached as though watching a theatrical performance unfold from the comfort of the balcony, we relax and enjoy the chaotic beauty of the building storm as it unleashes its energy back into the surrounding atmosphere.
Racing to the window in the aftermath of a storm, we look to the sky for a rainbow, thinking only of its colorful curvilinear path through the sky, as though it were an object with strictly defined properties…in flight we pass over, under, and through them…We recognize that while the meteorological conditions are similar in many ways, the circumstances of each event are wholly unique, as though each occurrence were painted by a different hand…and we come to understand that the wonder of the rainbow is not in how they seem to magically appear, rather the wonder is that each rainbow is singular in its beauty and detail as it assumes the essence of an ethereal watercolor painted on a constantly varying vaporous canvas.
Lost in the details of myriad peaks in the North Cascades National Park, we follow the jagged ridge lines as they meander, giving no signal of directional flow, only a reminder that some paths seem random but fill us with wonder, none-the-less. An appreciation for that seemingly random path is like possessing a secret formula for a life of grace…we may not exercise control and our force of will may not seem to have an effect, yet we turn and twist along what may seem at times a torturous path only to find the beautiful, the dramatic, the positive, and the hidden way that overwhelms our senses and leaves us grateful to be alive.
As we slide along the edge of night in the face of the approaching dawn, we experience the spectral separation of colors as the earth’s shadow lifts away from the landscape. This striped horizon divides a world of black and white from a world of color, the narrow band of refraction intensifying and fading as the colors merge into bright white of daylight, the terminator retreating. This conjurs the thought that perhaps separation needn’t be associated with disconsolate emotions, instead, as we find comfort in a dark world suddenly filled with color, it becomes a source of beauty in transition.
Reading a storm on the horizon is like reading a teasing dustcover description of a novel…we understand that a story will unfold, it’s internal dramas revealed, as we wade into the work. But that is where the analogy ends, as our work is avoidance and we seek to understand the storm from a safe and comfortable distance…our perspective develops and constantly shifts as we advance along our path, reading the edges of the storm while allowing our radar to penetrate the vapor and paint a more solid picture. We strive for the undramatic and give the weather the widest berth possible to achieve that result.
As the twilight recedes into the western sky, the super moon rises through the terminator, looming bright and large in and on the aerial horizon. Caught in this moment, we feel the closeness of our world in the sweeping light and we extend our arms toward the moon just to be certain that it’s still too far away to touch…
We cross a sea of smoke dotted with islands made from mountaintops and the gravity of the fires takes hold of us as we observe their ever present grip on the earth below…smoke clutches to mountaintops while seeping into every valley, crag, and hollow, stopped in its upward flow only by the weight of the atmosphere, it spreads and tars the landscape, all the while warming our little world.
Jagged crests arrest our scan and we find, revealed beneath us, a world defined more by its glorious rough edges than by the soothing greens and blues that color its many faces.
A long last flash of molten sun illuminates a narrowing band of daylight as darkness overtakes us. Cruising in the narrowing light, we experience a wash of calm punctuated by moments of elation and ecstatic joy defined by the colors that subtly seep through our windows.
The sun rises through an atmosphere clouded by drifting smoke…though half a continent away, the fires shape and color our perspective on the approaching day.
Watching smoke rise into the air is at once fascinating and horrifying. Our contributions to a rapidly accelerating entropic process not withstanding, we feel victimized by fire and a profound sense of loss overcomes us as life, hope, and dreams are reduced to vaporous streams of carbon rising into the lower atmosphere. There, it hovers thickly, draping mountains and filling crevasses as the winds aloft drag the veil of tarry vapor across the face of the earth.
In flight, our minds travel faster than our bodies and in so doing, they soar ahead of our human constraints, propelling us on imaginative journeys where we walk on air and explore unreachable places on earth and in the heavens beyond.
Watching the growth of a storm is mesmerizing, as though watching the creation of a landscape in minutes or hours…a wonderful abstraction of tectonic motion and the eroding effects of water on an earthly landscape, expressed in vapor and shifting lines of isobaric pressure.
When we close our eyes at night…the mission complete or the trip ended…we find ourselves back up there, floating above an earth in soft focus, a million stars above, illuminating the night sky and guiding us toward morning.
Thousands of private fireworks shows carry on unseen beneath a veil of clouds while another show unfolds above in the tropopause…more private, more serene, unconcerned with patriotic causes, the light flares from deep within a distant storm, illuminating the deep blue recesses of twilight passing over a storm tossed sea of clouds.