WHAT AV-LIFE ARE YOU LIVING? Whenever you take to the skies, remember that you’re surrounded by fellow aviators pursuing their passion for flight at the same time.
As I was out walking this morning, my brain, as is usually the case, decided to go somewhere else so it didn’t have to deal with the tedium of exercising. This time, it began visiting cockpits around the world. In a matter of seconds, film clips of pilots, who at that exact moment were readying their birds for flight, started playing in the theater of my mind.
It was fascinating to imagine that, while I was wending my way through our neighborhood, somewhere on a deck halfway around the globe, a young man may have just slid down into a Hornet’s seat. As his hands fly purposefully around the cockpit, orchestrating an engine start and bringing avionics online, he’s oblivious to the deck crew dance he knows is going on around him. He feels the solid clunk as he taxis up and the launch mechanism firmly grabs his airplane. He salutes the deck, lays his head back on the headrest and, seconds later, becomes a screaming missile inbound to a thoroughly foreign country to support some grunts on the ground. The precision of his actions and the intensity of his purpose are, at the same time, foreign but familiar to me. More importantly, another few blocks have disappeared under my sneakers.
My brain flips to another channel, this one featuring a grizzled-looking pilot whose unshaven face is barely visible in his drawn-down parka. The snow crunches under his feet as he walks around a weary-looking Super Cub in the steel-gray dawn. He knocks a light skim of snow off the wings, stomps the leading edges of the skis down to make them plane up on the surface better, then wrestles his bundled-up body through the door and onto the front seat. Every breath is visible and, as he labors, frost builds on his mustache. The engine cranks. Nothing at first, but then one of the plugs finds enough energy to fire, then a second, a third and a fourth. He works his way toward the track in the snow that’s his runway, mindful of the mountain of stuff behind him in the backseat—and the mountain of rock and trees directly ahead. Well before he’s lined up, the throttle is coming forward, and by the time his nose is pointed at the obstacles ahead, his tail is in the air, the throttle is against the stop and his day in the office has begun. I grin, thinking how bundled up I am to endure the early-morning, 50-degree air of Arizona. I know he’d laugh his butt off if he could see me.
Then, for a change of pace, the mental av-video program goes local and focuses on a well-known face in a helicopter on the western fringes of my airport. Three or four other helicopters on the same ramp are turning up, each of them displaying the identifying logo of a local TV station on its side. The helicopter pilot lets the studio know he’s lifting off, and a live feed of his face lights up a console in front of a director somewhere. As the helicopter lifts off in the direction of a traffic jam, the cameraman fiddles with the broadcast camera. The sky is still a dark purple with a rim of orange to the east. The city below is largely black, though lights are winking on as a population prepares to meet the day by turning on the TV to see how bad the commute will be. They’ve grown accustomed to having their coffee while watching their favorite news-chopper guy tell them what to expect. They don’t stop to think that he has been at the airport for several hours, whereas they’re barely out of bed.
Somewhere in chilly upstate New York, I imagine a hopeful young pilot coming in for his last landing of a long night. The instrument lights cast long shadows on his tired face; he has spent the last seven or eight hours boring through the dark, picking up and dropping off freight. Never mind that he’s being paid next to nothing and that the aircraft he’s flying is anything but pristine and that half of the night was spent in icing conditions, while the other half was spent dodging storms. He doesn’t care. He has added that much more multi-engine time to his logbook, every minute of which moves him closer to the right seat of a commuter or biz jet in which every system works: There won’t be that strip of duct tape with “INOP” stretched across an instrument face. Or two.
And another helo driver, this one squinting through magnified night-vision goggles and a gunsight, hovers in the dark of a faraway desert. As he watches the gray/green images, he hopes they’re unaware of his presence, but as orange golf balls begin floating lazily toward him, he knows he has been spotted, and his gunner lights up the target. For an instant, inbound and outbound tracers float past each other. Then an explosion at the far end announces that a particular fight is over, and he turns away, in search of other targets. It’s all part of a day’s work, and he’s hard at it while I’m barely able to raise my pulse rate traipsing past sleeping houses and barking dogs.
The two miles end before the images do. Now I can’t get them out of my mind. I can’t help but wonder what’s going on in the av-world while I tend to my daily chores. I seriously doubt that anyone out there wonders what I’m doing, which is fine, because compared to them, I’m doing nothing.
Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII & CFIA, aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center. Check out his website at www.airbum.com.