Saturday, March 25, 2017
A Sea of Open Sky - A Brigid Post
The sea is a broad expanse that neither eye nor voice can span, and when it's calm it lulls you into a false sense of comfort as the engines hum and you gaze out the window with clear, unconscious eye. You are not pondering thoughts that come to you poignant and silent, the order of your conscious, the conduct of life if there really is a proper way to die. You are not thinking of the operational capacities of a Vickers Pump or your own limitations. No, you are thinking about the really cold beer you will have at the end of a day, and the laughter of companionship. That is when you hear it, or think you hear it. That sound.
Then it is gone, if it ever occurred at all except in your mind, the engine only emitting a steady, slow hum, like somnolent bees. But your senses are back on red alert, that seeming malfunction that the mind hears on such over water trips, ministering to a boldness as forged as its own pretense of fear. What is it to fly such a vast distance, one youngster asked me once? I replied, " it seems like 999 minutes of boredom and 1 minute of stark terror."
Then there were the mornings where you went out to the flight line and there, on the tarmac, perched four large birds, three of them bright, shining and gleaming, perfect in form. And the fourth, older than the dirt upon it, with a stain of fluid on the ground underneath, the Scarlet Letter of hydraulic fluid. The smiling crew chief is happy to introduce you to them like an old Puritan father to a prospective bridegroom "here are my four daughters, Faith, Hope Charity and Pestilence", and you know which one you are going to end up with. Even if you got a good aircraft, there would be days they could be as unruly as a mule, refusing to start, to move, and occasionally willing to give you a swift kick. It is sometimes the smallest of things that can be your undoing.
I remember one flight that would have a stop on an island, a piece of land in the middle of an ocean, just big enough for a tourist's fat wallet and the occasional aircraft. There was great oceanic storm brewing off in a distance, but it was to have no impact on our flight path, according to all of the aviation weather experts. Still, as the craft pitched ponderously in air that was to have been still, even if the sky was clear, there was this nagging tickle at the back of my neck, that said "should have stayed in bed". As we passed the calculated point of go on or retreat back to base, the controllers telling us it looked good ahead, the clouds began to build and form, not so huddled we couldn't easily pick our way through them with the right tilt of an antenna, but building nonetheless, and rapidly.
My copilot was very young and fairly inexperienced, not with the craft, as he was fully trained, but to this whole environment. I could sense him getting pretty nervous. I just smiled and said "we're almost there". There is no quitting in this sort of thing, and often there is no going back. You endure because you have a conviction in the truth of what you are doing, duty being not a thing, but a name, that establishes the order, the mortality of conduct and the outcome.
"Skipper?", a gentle voice from my right.
We checked the weather for our landing destination. The wind was very heavy but not beyond the limits of my skill or the aircraft's proven handling, but it was going to be Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. What concerned me more was the torrential rain, barely enough ceiling and visibility to land, "barely" being optimistic but enough to make the Precision Instrument approach and hopefully see the required lighting. Otherwise, we'll declare an emergency, get a good signal on the approach, keep the needles centered and the donut amber and fly it to the ground. There were no other options when the nearest bit of land is hours past the fuel you have.
We were either going to succeed or we were going to be scorched by a flame that fate will flick at us without pity, with no time to utter any last words of faith or regret. But I wasn't going to tell him that.
I gave him my sweetest smile and said simply -
"We're going to land this mother*(#*er".
And we did, dropping our nose and descending down into that somber wall of rain and grey that seemed the very stronghold of that small place we were trying to breach, picking up the runway there through the rain at the right moment, the wind pounding us like surf. When we landed, my copilot wanted to kiss the ground. I simply gave my aircraft a grateful pat on the nose, like the trusty stead it was, as it stood there, trembling in the wind as if it had just run a great race.
I'd not ever quite seen weather change so violently and rapidly outside of the forecast. Apparently Mr. "Giant Rotation of Water and Air" took a sharp bend in the hours we were aloft, pushing some weather up our way. Not yet hurricane strength by any means, just the nasty stuff you generally try and avoid.
After that, I think I was owed my 999 minutes of boredom and just wanted to go perch on a bar stool somewhere dry.
There were days we left the ramp, to launch into that deep sea that is the sky, no one to see us off, as in days of old, where the ships left port while some quiet mothers and anxious maidens cried waved lace handkerchiefs and dreamed undrowned dreams. We were on the move so much, most of us had no time for such ties, our connections were brief sparks from cold stone, unexpected and as short lived. For now, at least, we just had our crew and crew chief that, who, while immensely competent, normally ate tacks for breakfast and was typically as excited to see us arrive or leave a house cat.
There were days of fierce delights, of sun that bounced off the nose, like some weaponized ray of an alien craft, its power deflected by mere sheet metal, and more relays that anyone knew (seriously, when they built this craft, SOMEONE was having a sale on relays). There were nights we hung motionless in the air, with no sense of motion, ourselves a futuristic craft that flew beyond a brace of suns into the darkness, awaiting the kiss of imminent adventures.
I understood the conjured diplomacy of relationship between earth and sky, alive to its looming dangers and measured mercies. I bore the power of the atmosphere and the criticism of men, the levy of duty and common severity of the tasks that build a backbone and enables you to break bread. It's a life that will check the edge of your temper and the point of your command; that will affirm the character of your fight and the hidden truth of your fears. It's a life that beguiles as it disenchants, a life that frees you even as you willingly let it enslave you.
Our world was long drawn out days, a future that disappeared moment by moment into history, days that fell forever into the arms of the sea or drifted down upon deserts or mountains where they caught and hung on the landscape like clouds. Our world was one aircraft, that fired up with a belch of smoke, then hung there, lonely under that smoke, til we were released with a quick salute.
I don't miss it, and I do, there on those nights, when the golden blaze of sunset bites into the rim of the earth and the night casts its shadow upon me. On such nights I see the form of an aircraft overhead, not the modern airliner, but a craft that's seen some battles, one with ancient radios, and tired rigging, visible there in the last remnant of light. I don't see them often, but when I do, I simply stand, there in that slant of light, the form moving away to the heart of a sky that is its own vast enigma. Only the moon now watches me, hanging in the sky like a slender shaving of pale wood. I watch that aircraft until it's only a flash of a strobe, one that captures all that last bit of light in the sky, disappearing into the darkness, gone, even as it's forever contained in the center of it.
The sky is an incomplete story and for that I am grateful.