You know, cliches get to be cliches because they're used so often. That means, deep down underneath, they're true.
Take this one: "my heart leaped."
I spent the cost of a year at college, out in the sun at the airport. I scared myself half to death, grinding my mind against physics, meteorology, mechanics, federal regulations, and the chance of sudden impact, to learn to soar in the sky, in a mechanical contrivance. I've learned well. It's very seldom terrifying anymore. My heart leaps when the ground falls away, and I know a kind of joy few people can achieve.
September eleventh is the theme of everything these days, and I see it through the eyes of a pilot.
When I looked up at the TV that fateful day (in memory I always feel like I'm looking up, seeing on its screen those tall towers and the plane entering them again and again like a knife smoothly into the heart) I didn't just see something that would change the world. I felt the momentum of the flight, the swing of the plane, the pull of gravity and centrifugal force on the bodies of everyone in the shining craft, as they swung around and went in at an angle to the World Trade Center towers. Imagination still tries to make me feel aluminum beams slamming into my face, but I always stop imagination there, before the clouds of flame come out.
In a small single-engine plane, your best speed is eighty, ninety knots. 100 miles an hour on a good sunny day when the temperature's cool and winds are calm, the sky like smooth water.
One night last January I flew badly. I did a good job, but I did the wrong thing.
I'm a good pilot, but I had no business flying in the weather that night. It was darkening, with a low cloud cover and a threat of rain or snow. I delivered a kid to her parents. With my teenage daughter as the other passenger, I flew to a marvelous landing strip at the harbor of Lake Superior.
The dredged peninsula of land sheltering the harbor from the lake is seven miles long, two blocks wide, and if you swing a small craft out over the black water in a circling approach, you can hear the strains of Gordon Lightfoot's "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," and feel the gravity of that deep water, hungry to eat you and your metal shell.
I know the route. It's a lovely flight on sunny days. When we took off I could barely see my familiar landmarks in the growing darkness, but north is north, and after a couple hours we were there. The girls were bored.
Sky Harbor Airport is one of those little strips you can't buy a ticket to. The runway lights, a double line of amber in the dark, look more beautiful than any Christmas tree you've ever seen, when you're lined up and coming home down between them. Touchdown was smooth, though finger drifts of snow threatened to hang up the small airplane wheels. The girl delivered to her parents, the wind brisk, I shivered back into the plane to head 150 miles home.
Taking off, sans friend, my daughter was already drowsing in the seat beside me, her eyes closed. My own eyes were big as saucers. I knew we were in trouble.
No way I was going to let her know what a rotten night this was to be flying I was just taking her home, like I'd done a thousand times in the car. Her trust was complete. She could sleep, and she did. We had to get home. I rose to the level of the cloud ceiling, swung west to catch the freeway and follow it back home.
The blue-sky pilot's joke is "I fly IFR." We private pilots who haven't got the more advanced certification to go up when the weather dictates Instrument Flight Rules, in clouds or fog or conditions that preclude being able to see where the hell you're going, joke that the way we find our way home through cloudy or foggy or dim conditions is "I Fly Roads," (or rivers, if we're afield far from good visible highways). I flew home blind that night, tearing through the sky at a hundred miles an hour with a brisk tailwind and no right to be there.
I couldn't see a thing but Twilight-Zone grey ahead, but it was beautiful out in my peripheral vision, where I didn't need to look. The low wings of the Piper Cherokee Warrior gleam in the moonlight on a clear night. It's like the dream of holding out your arms and being able to fly, really fly.
Those wings have strobes and colored lights at their tips: green on the right, so a pilot coming at me at night knows she has the right of way, just like the driver at a four-way stop. Red on the left wingtip; if you see that light, descend or turn away – I have priority, I'm on your right. All I saw was diamonds. The ice crystals were blinding reflected in the strobes, just off both wingtips, the only thing in the sky to see.
There was no precip on the ground, but up in the thick wet clouds there were sparkling crystals of snow that didn't fall but clogged my carburetor till the icing slowed my airspeed and made my engine choke. I knew the signs from training. All flight training is about what to do when things go terribly wrong, and I pulled on carb heat for the first time ever during a flight, routing incoming engine air over the hot manifold so it'd melt the ice in the narrow neck of the carburetor and let air and fuel into my engine. It barely worked. The engine regained power and kept going.
Scan the panel, over and over, faster because there's nothing outside but diamonds and fog. Fly by feel. Don't trust the feel, because blind, your "seat of the pants" instinct tells you that you're circling down to the left, when small foggy gauges say you're really veering off sharply to the right, This is why it takes a lot of time to learn IFR: you'll survive if you ignore all your feelings and go by the dim little circles on the front panel.
The GPS says I'm on track but ninety long miles from home. Any tiny variation in altitude, pitch or the slant of the wings could put me into a JFK Junior Death Spiral, or send me far off course. Stand on your tiptoes on a narrow board, blindfolded, in a cold wind, with your baby sleeping in your care. That's a bit what it's like to fly blind by instruments at night without the training you need to do this. Don't fuck up: then penalty for foolishness is death. This is why it takes a long hard time to learn to fly.
It felt like years before I got home to the city with its unbearable reflected orange glow of metro lights in the haze, and touched down smoothly on my own home runway.
Such a long way, such a long time it was from the previous spring, when I'd completed my private pilot checkride and gone flying alone. I racked up hours in the spring and summer, tearing around the skies alone, doing a solo cross-country to the great golden disk of Lake Mille Lacs and skimming over the Mississippi River and its furry bluffs and taking an additional qualifying checkride in a new kind of plane, the Warrior, a faster and bigger one.
Back then I'd asked Sei to give me an IFR lesson, to start the next phase, my instrument training. Seifu Alemu is my flight instructor who hails from Ethiopia and has learned most of what he knows about American culture these last ten years he's lived here from the Cartoon Channel.
We'd done a thorough preflight, checking the oil, fuel (stick my finger in the tank, don't trust the gauges), control surfaces, ailerons and flaps, rudder, cables, those teeny wheels and their brakes, the propeller and all the greasy hoses and belts in the engine. I've put my fingers on and in all its parts, an intimate relationship. Only then is the entire machine is mine, and I'll trust it to respond to my fingertips on the controls.
We'd done a neat takeoff, circled the airfield, gone off to the practice area and found ourselves in skies that were half clear and half towering cumulus clouds like the magnificent billows of the "Cloud City" planet in one of those Star Wars movies. We were in a huge arena, 3000 feet over the land, a wide open space crystalline clear with risers of huge clouds all around us.
We played. We careened (steep turns) and zoomed (power-on stalls) and fooled around, laughing. Sei would shout on the headphone intercom "Bogie at ten o'clock!" and I'd lay in some left rudder and wheel over and make "Pew! Pew!" firing noises, and we'd laugh and do a steep climb to get over the clouds and then go tearing right into one, braced for impact but feeling nothing at all as we sailed right through the side of the brilliant mountain into cool blinding fog.
I wish I'd done more instrument training with Sei before my awful, no-business-being-there winter night flight. But back in the summer, it didn't seem important to rush it.
One hot summer day after that joyous Star Wars lesson, I found another American tradition my instructor wasn't familiar with. I tried to explain to Sei what Halloween's all about. He considered it thoughtfully then said mildly, "In Ethiopia, every day is Halloween."
I listen. I write. I'm a private pilot, an informed citizen of the world, a lover, a parent of lovely babies, a humorous cynic, and I tell stories because telling them wonderfully and with style is one's only revenge against a cruel, sad, tedious, amazing and potentially influenceable world.
ABOUT STELLA STARR
more about stella starr
IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
10.16.01 @ 10:03p
Stella dear? Is this you? Did you have French Silk pie on Tuesday?
And if this isn't the Stella I know, the question still stands. I'm not proud, perhaps just delusional.
10.17.01 @ 9:50a
Yes it is, yes I did, and I hope I can finally fly when I'm home this weekend: the "big airport" nearby has all our little ones shut down. (Temporary Flight Restrictions in Enhanced Class B airspace," to use the FAA term). I'm in withdrawal.
10.18.01 @ 11:27a
I wondered what that twitching was all about! :)