11:50 a.m. Wind nearly straight down the runway, from 150 at 25, gusting to 31. Visibility, 10 miles.
Eight vehicles, a mix of sedans and pickup trucks each driven by a man alone, park scattered along the observation area at Hector International Field, the airport in Fargo, North Dakota. Most are pulled up close to the split-wood fence. Three have backed up into spaces against a berm. There is a picnic bench with a small roof, but no one moves there. It’s too windy, still a bit too cold. The cars are filled with men spending their lunch hour alone. The guy in a red Jeep Cherokee has binoculars.
The view is expansive. Left to right: the terminal; a FedEx ramp; a site for the military; the Fargo Jet Center; an Air Guard base; the airport fire station; the south ramp; the air museum. In the short distance, the Fargodome, two red-and-white water towers. In the farther distance, smoke from the sugar beet plant on the Minnesota side of the Red River races north, a good indication that can be seen a lot farther away than the airport windsocks. Above us, the gargantuan prairie sky.
At the moment, the pattern is clear.
The airport authority does not keep statistics on how many people visit the observation area, but I am here a lot, sometimes very early in the morning and sometimes very late at night, and I have never been here alone. Hector Field is a midsized airport. Twenty commercial departures a day, not counting the lessons, the touch-and-go or missed approach visits. Not counting the 747s flying cattle to Russia. Not counting the Goodyear blimp or the AN124. Not counting the pilot who got so lost she landed without radio contact, pulled up to the commercial terminal, got out and walked away, never to return. This is the best place to wait when collecting guests or family. Watch the plane land, drive to the terminal, park and walk inside. You’ll always beat your guests to the TSA exit.
This is the place you wait after you’ve dropped someone off and promised to wave as the plane ascends. As long as they are on the right side of the airplane, they can always see you. Sometimes, you can see a hand in a window waving goodbye.
There are landing lights in the sky now. American Airlines lands an ERJ. With this headwind, the jet seems weightless, only crawling forward, the touchdown as gentle as a breath. The sound of the thrust reversers is brief.
When the plane taxis by, only one car leaves. I cannot tell you if the other people waiting here are pilots, spending what free moments they have, like me, just watching the art of lifting metal and lives into the sky and then returning them safely, but I am sure that every one of us finds beauty in the shape of an airplane, in the sound of an engine, in the breath-holding suspense of a flare. I am sure that every one of us dreams of flying.
The hospital’s Eurocopter goes by. One car up by the fence leaves and one of the guys who had parked by the berm pulls forward into that space. A better view.
Nearly every airport has an observation area. If the airport is small, an adjoining pasture or county road serves nicely. Children hold their fingers on a chain-link fence and marvel at the size of an aircraft, at the sound of engines spooling up, the buzz of a propeller. Pilots look through that same fence and either smile or groan as a 172 makes a crosswind landing, getting it right or leaving some room for improvement.
A jogger goes by. The road to the terminal is long, tree-lined, a circle drive with farmland in the center. It can be very pretty. Once there were plans for a golf course here. Once there were plans to bring a decommissioned tower cab and make a learning center. At other airports, the observation areas hold playgrounds, coffee stands, informational plaques, 25-cent pay-per-view binoculars.
Delta lands an E175. No one leaves. Two more cars arrive. Yes, I think, this is the place where mysteries take shape, where we watch souls onboard lift to the sky.
The observation area is a place for dreams. Lift off here, land in Paris or Tokyo or Jaipur. Lift off here, cross starlit oceans at night or checkerboard prairie at noon. Lift off here, cross mountains, fly through storms. My God, we think. Lift off here, have a life that sings.
Land here, we think, and someone will welcome us home.
W. Scott Olsen is a professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He holds the world and national records for the fastest flight across North Dakota in a Cessna 152. Scott’s books include “Hard Air,” “Never Land” and “Prairie Sky.”