THE WORLD ABOVE. Contributing writer Marc C. Lee flies at first sunrise on New Year’s Day.
The other day, I made one of those “out in the morning/back in the afternoon drives” to Los Angeles for lunch with my daughter. It was 800 miles of automotive contradiction: hundreds of miles of serene desert solitude separated by two endless streams of car brake lights. When you’re cruising through the predawn desert, your mind can’t help but wander. Besides the ever-present “wish I were in my airplane” thoughts, which immediately were followed by “sure glad I don’t have to fly into L.A. airspace,” I found myself clicking through some classic aviation moments.
The sudden sunrise of an early morning takeoff: You’re at the airport and preflighting by flashlight, your collar pulled up against the chill. As you line up on the runway, the horizon is threatening to turn a deep blue-gold. The throttle goes in, and for a short period, you’re concentrating on the art of turning 2,000 pounds of inanimate junk into a finely tuned, breathing being. Without warning, you climb into an instant sunrise as the cockpit is flooded with liquid gold. You look down at the dark homes below, keenly aware that the sun of a new day won’t enter their lives for many minutes.
The joy of center line: You come through the middle marker right on altitude, the localizer dead stable, the glideslope forming a perfect cross on the panel. But the windshield is a dark and murky gray, and you’re watching the altimeter unwind to a number you don’t want to think about. It’s a firm rule that you don’t bust minimums: Too many loved ones are waiting at home for you to do that. But it’s not looking good. Just as you’re about to hit the power and do a missed approach, there’s a flash in the windshield. You glance up to see the runway centerline stripe painted brightly on the windshield. You’re home free!
The relief of solid earth: It was a great trip—until the engine quit. Then you got busy quickly, and the sweaty spots on your palms grew bigger (even faster than the power poles separating you from the runway, which providence placed within gliding distance). The last pole disappears under the wing, scant feet from you. The touchdown is blissfully smooth, the speed dissipates and the airplane rolls to a stop in the throat of a taxiway. You sit for a few seconds, your nerves doing an adrenaline-fueled dance; the silence is so thick you can slice it. You release the breath you took many minutes ago. You’re down. You’re safe. And the relief robs you of every ounce of strength you had.
Grass makes it worth it: The little yellow airplane isn’t fast, but with the bottom half of the door folded down, your view of the dying day is unobstructed. In fact, in your mind, the airplane ceases to exist. As you slip around the corner of an abbreviated approach and settle into ground effect, you toy with the ground, not wanting to give up flight until the last moment. Just as the bottom half of the door starts to float up, signaling that the airplane is almost done flying, you hear, as much as you feel, the tires whispering through the tops of the grass. The airplane gives an audible sigh and settles back to earth. Such landings are so clean, you can smell them.
Coming back to the real world: You’ve been VFR-on-top for more than an hour. The untouched sanctity of the solid deck under you is perfect, and a little frightening. The radio says cloud cover at your destination is still broken, so you relax and enjoy the ride—almost. As holes appear beneath your wings, you select a particularly big one and drop through, acutely aware of leaving a beautiful, clean, bright world for the gloomy reality of life on earth. But you love the fact that you know the bright world above exists. And you can visit it at will.
The perfect snap: The pilot in the front seat is a Sierra Hotel fighter pilot with more than a thousand carrier landings. He says he wants to see a snap roll, so you oblige, knowing he has seen and done everything. You nail both the entry and the exit. Dead nuts on! Bam! Bam! A split second of violence, and it’s over. A long moment of silence is punctuated by a voice in your headset: “Absolutely cosmic!” Well put.
First flight: The person in the right seat is along for his first flight. He has never been near a small airplane before. He doesn’t know what to expect; neither do you. People react in different ways to first flights. You can sense his tenseness; he’s a newborn in a new world. As the aircraft’s nose comes up, you’re preoccupied with pilot stuff, and the newbie is on his own. The airplane climbs smoothly through 500 feet, and a voice from the right, in a quiet, reverent tone, says, “Wonderful.” We’ve hooked another one!
Hammered silence: The up line going into the hammerhead was good, and the pivot at the top was as crisp as you’ve ever done. As the nose whips around and hits the down line, the windshield is filled with nothing but ground, and you snatch the throttle closed. The world goes into a state of suspended animation. Nothing is moving—nothing! Although the airplane is pointed straight down, gravity takes several long moments to get into gear. You’re granted a surreal few seconds to savor the feeling of hanging there, pointed straight down, challenging gravity to come and get you. And it does—eventually.
A place to be you: It’s a tiny airplane with an even tinier cockpit. As you step over the side and slide in, you do a familiar, intricate dance of insertion as the airplane comes up around you. The last motion is reminiscent of an East Indian dancer’s move, your elbows come toward each other to clear the sheet metal. You’re where you’re supposed to be: You’re home.
These are some of my favorite moments. Now come up with some of your own, even if only in your mind. When you’re stuck in traffic or on a long highway headed nowhere, you can relive these moments again and again. Just because you’re on the ground doesn’t mean at least part of you can’t be forever airborne.
Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII and CFIA, and aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center. Visit his website, www.airbum.com.