The weather is not good tonight. Here at the Dakota border, the real temperature is 22 degrees below zero, wind from the west at 18 knots. Yes, the ceiling is unlimited and visibility is a lot farther than 10 miles, but it’s a hard night for flying. On television, the weatherman calls the evening brisk.
I have no place to fly tonight, and even if I did I wouldn’t go. This isn’t the kind of weather that would find me up front. My experience is too small.
Still, there are a thousand airplanes in the sky this evening. A cup of strong coffee in my hands, I can see them blink their way across the snowfields south of my home. There are passenger planes, cargo planes, charters and sightseers, too. I have no idea who is flying. And yet I know them well.
Like many of us, I admire Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Wind, Sand and Stars is as close to the soul of flying as I’ve ever read. And on evenings such as this, when I watch airplanes arc a difficult sky and I find myself wondering who’s flying, it’s his voice I often hear in my head.
“Thus is the earth at once a desert and a paradise, rich in secret hidden gardens, gardens inaccessible, but to which the craft leads us ever back, one day or another. Life may scatter us and keep us apart; it may prevent us from thinking very often of one another; but we know that our comrades are somewhere ‘out there’—where, one can hardly say, silent, forgotten, but deeply faithful. And when our path crosses theirs, they greet us with such manifest joy, shake us so gaily by the shoulders! Indeed we are accustomed to the waiting.”
We all tell stories. One small shared detail—icing, perhaps, or a roiling wind 30 miles east of some mountain range, or just the deep and simple beauty of a frozen river meandering in moonlight—and we talk as if we shared mothers. Did you see? Yes. Did you feel? Yes. It doesn’t matter how the years have kept us apart or if we’ve just met.
It’s the experience of flying that makes us comrades. It’s the beauty and the risk and then the math as well as the love that binds us together. On evenings such as this one, I often turn from the window and dial up Live ATC just to listen. I’ll look for bad weather on the radar and tune in a nearby airport. Or I’ll put in the letters for an airport that holds a small piece of my history or curiosity, wondering who’s up there and what it must be like.
For example, as a writer, I’ve been to the aerial firebase at Billings, Montana, a good many times. I’ve hung out with SEAT and heavy tanker pilots and know that routine well. But as a pilot, I’ve never landed there. I have no idea what that approach looks like with a yoke in my hand, so with the radio I often go there first. This evening, the ceiling is 25,000 AGL and the wind is WSW at 19 knots. The radio talk is routine, comfortable, polite. Maintain runway heading. Traffic in sight. Contact tower at 127.2. What I hear, in the tone of their voices, however, is that tonight is a fine night to be flying there.
There’s weather coming into Salt Lake, but still some distance away. The traffic is a good bit busier than eastern Montana. It sounds like fun. Sir, can you tell me the runway again? Expect one one left—I’ll see if I can get one one right. Some light precipitation just popped up six miles in front of you. Clear to descend to one one thousand. Delta 2333 cleared visual approach runway three four left. Turn left heading seven zero seven. Alpine 623, say requested runway. Follow the CRJ. Caution, wake turbulence.
I listen to Toronto, Grand Rapids, Dublin, Seattle, Boston, Chicago. I listen to Hong Kong and then Joplin, Missouri. Grants Pass, Oregon.
Here, at home this evening, I’m just a radio flyer. I listen to people I’ve never met speak in a type of shorthand code. But as every pilot knows, that code means everything. It’s clear. It’s exact. And if the conversation goes off-script, then something fresh has happened. It could be soul-stirring. It could be lethal. So listening to the radio lets me hear this evening’s flying stories. Not the dramatic and exaggerated tales told in a lawn chair near an open hangar door on a lingering summer evening. Listening to the radio I hear the present tense, right now as it happens work and joy of being a pilot.
On the radio, there isn’t a single voice I recognize. I doubt I know anyone in the sky tonight. But I admit I admire every one of them. As Saint-Exupéry says, “Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction. There is no comradeship except through union in the same high effort.”
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.”