For The Love of Wings

 

 

Why is it that some people, when the conversation turns to flying, enter into an almost rapturous state, their eyes a’gleam like an Old Testament prophet?   Why will they spend fifty dollars to fly a hundred miles or more to eat a hamburger served in a little café alongside a strip of asphalt called a runway:  A hamburger that is no different than the hamburger they could buy just down the street?  Why will they drive a fifteen-year-old car so they can afford to own an even older airplane? And what drives them to go to an airport and spend time just sitting in the cockpit or idly dusting the surfaces of their plane?  All these things are irrational.  But these same people are seen mowing their lawn, attending PTA meetings and even singing in the choir at church, behaving as perfectly rational people.  So what is it about flying that causes them to behave like a teenage girl getting ready for her first big date? 

The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning tried to explain love by writing and answering the question: “How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.  The result was a poetically expressed list of ways in which she loved her lover, but she said nothing about the  “why.”  Love seems to be like electricity; you know how it makes you feel when it passes through your body but you don’t know why.  Perhaps it’s like the slogan sometimes seen on the spare tire cover of Jeeps.  “It’s a Jeep© thing.  If I have to explain it, you won’t understand it.”  But since I am one of those people who becomes an unsafe driver anytime I see a small plane landing at an airport; a rational man, who has done some insanely ridiculous things to fly let me try to explain why.

First off, please understand this.  I’m not writing of the flying people do when the walk down a jetway, step into an aluminum tube, strap their derriere into one of hundreds of upholstered seats and wait for a Flight Attendant to serve pre-packaged food.  That isn’t “flying.”  That’s simply traveling by air.  Commercial airline pilots, while they may “fly” when they are off-duty, in fact many of them do own a small airplane just so they can “fly," when on duty are more superb technicians who monitor hundreds of “systems” while hurtling through the sky.  But their flying doesn't engender the glassy-eyed  look of a lover.  They are busy tranporting people swiftly and safely.

I once rode in a helicopter with a man who, when I questioned him about his feelings toward his aircraft, said, “Oh, it’s just a tool.”  I said no more to that man and could not wait to be on the ground and out of his “tool.”  He was not flying.  He was driving an aerial truck: And I felt sorry for him.  I have never met a “Crop Duster,” but they, too, are not flying as they drop down to crop-top level, spray their chemicals, rise steeply, pirouette and drop back down to do it again.  It takes a high level of skill to do, a skil l I do not have, but it is not flying, it is driving an aerial tractor.  Nowhere will you find a poem such as “High Flight” written by a Crop Duster.

So what IS flying that it can reduce an otherwise reasonable gentleman into a lusting “Whatever it takes” man?  Flying is being hundreds or thousands of feet above the ground controlling an airplane small enough to fit into a double car garage and feeling the profound solitude.  It’s being alone with nothing but 10,000 feet of clear air between you and the ground and looking across your shoulder in awesome wonder at your wings - marveling at how such tiny appendages can keep you in the sky.  It’s tipping your wings, looking down at the earth so far below and feeling just how tiny and insignificant you are in God’s world. 

Flying is sitting behind the instrument panel of a small, single-engine aircraft on a beautiful moonlit night with the land of ground-bound mortals spread out below you, their towns defined by clusters of light surrounded by great patches of darkness.  But it includes accepting that should your engine fail you must land in one of those dark patches without knowing whether its darkness hides trees, ditches, boulders, barbed-wire fences, or a well-maintained pasture.  Flying is the joy that comes when your airplane touches down so lightly on the runway that you scarcely know your wheels are rolling along the asphalt.  It is a feeling of freedom, self-reliance, and fear that comes with knowing should an emergency arise no one on God’s earth can truly help you.  We who love flying love it because it is an island of self-reliance in a world that glories in interdependence, teamwork, and compromise.  While flying his airplane a pilot of a small plane is truly beyond human help. He may be given advice or information but ultimately only he can control the airplane. 

But it is also those times when lightning flashes much too close to your wingtips and the wind shows you that it can toss your little airplane around easily as deals with a small boat in a heavy sea.  The flying I speak of is those times when icy fingers of fear come clawing out of your stomach and do their best to take over all your thought processes and you know your survival depends upon your acknowledging it and then locking it in a room somewhere in the back of your mind while you take care of the business at hand – which is bringing you and your airplane safely to your destination.   

There is another dimension of this love in which the “lover” shows his foolishness. It is the feeling that prompts him, after flying his plane, to, when he thinks no one is looking, lightly kiss his plane’s spinner and “thank her” for a great flight. Love an inanimate object?  Yes.  And even more foolish is this man’s belief that somehow his plane loves him because “she” has done things her Owner’s Manual says she is incapable of doing when under the hand of the man who loves her.  Foolishness?  Of course, but Cole Porter, a famous composer of yesteryear wrote of this foolishness in his song “What is This Thing Called Love?”  His words were: 

“What is this thing called love?
This funny thing called love?
Just who can solve its mystery?
Why should it make a fool of me?”

So, if you have the fortune, good or bad depending upon your viewpoint, to be in a relationship with a man who flies and you want him to be rational, keep him away from small airplanes, airports and conversation involving small airplanes.  Do that and, barring other unpleasant quirks, he will be a sensitive companion whose friendship you will enjoy.  But should you want to send him into a rapture take him to a small airport where little airplanes buzz around.  Or better yet, ask him to take you flying. But be prepared, as he gets near his airplane he will likely become a little giddy and begin speaking dreamily of clouds, winged adventures and obscure places where small planes gather.

Finally, please do not be offended when he speaks of his airplane as if “she” were his mistress.   YOU know . . .  IT is, after all, only a machine . . .  isn’t it?    

 

 

Lost Bag in Lisbon
A Test Pilot's grandson
 

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