Another wondrous occurrence which we can often take for granted is that of flight (see Flying book list). It is easy in these days of delays from tightened security, full flights, and service-cutting airlines to think of flying as just a cross-country bus on wings. We are a long way away from the glamour and style of the earliest commercial flights in the 1920's and 1930's.
I have been flying all my life, since I was two months old. As a management consultant, I was accustomed to many dozens of flights in a year for a couple of decades. The thrill of flying should be thoroughly ground away for me. Yes, there are irritants and personal affronts and inconveniences. Crowded and dirty planes, rude behavior from fellow passengers (though not as much as you might expect given the experience and circumstances), delays and unpredictability; the list is long. And yet . . .
I almost always sit in aisle seats owing to my height, but every now and then I end up in the window seat. It is then that the sheer awe, wonder and enchantment of flying returns, slipping in unbidden and not to be ignored. Whatever reading or work I might have had planned gets set aside as I gaze out the window in sheer appreciation that I live at this time and have the privilege of watching the world gliding by 35,000 feet below me.
Part of the wonder stems from reflecting on historical comparisons. My grandmothers, now deceased, were born some one hundred and ten years ago. When they were born, there were, for all practical purposes, no cars. All travel was by foot, horse, wagon or train. I remember my paternal grandmother, born at the turn of the last century in the hard-scrabble environment of the Ozarks, telling me of one of the pleasures of her childhood. When she was a young child, every few weeks her father would saddle up the family mule and ride into town for mail and supplies. It was an all-day journey of a few miles from the farm to the small town, and if she had been good and asked nicely, she would occasionally be allowed to ride up behind him on that great white mule. That was her thrilling adventure. In barely three generations we have gone from a travelling horizon of a few miles to gliding over the earth seven miles up in the heavens. That is an almost unfathomable gulf.
Flying all around the US and around the world I have had many moments of sheer delight, awe and even terror. Clouds of startling beauty that seem so embracing when seen from above rather than below. The colors of a sunset on and through thick clouds. Rainbows in the heavens that never touch the earth. The unearthly colors of the aurora borealis seen over Greenland. The sheer absorbing beauty of flying over the wondrously varied terrain of the US: the tree covered miles and miles of the Appalachians, the silvery majesty of the Mississippi in low light, the improbable depth of the Grand Canyon even from such a great height. I can still remember the gripping sense of energy the first time I took off from La Guardia one night and we banked south of Manhattan so that we could see straight up the island, a man-made canyon of lights and magic.
Then there are the moments of terror that make flying, even after millions of miles, still something not to be taken for granted. Sometimes the terror is not from some present danger but from a sense of disconcertedness. I think the first time that this ever happened to me was sometime in the early sixties. I was probably not much more than six or eight years old. We were travelling from Africa back to the US for a summer visit with family. We hade been travelling for many, many hours on a journey of several legs. We were connecting through Chicago. I was at that point of physical and mental exhaustion caused by too many miles and too many time zones, where you drift in and out of sleep and are usually half-way in between.
We arrived in the vicinity of Chicago and, as was so common in those days, ran into congestion. Planes were stacked up for miles around waiting for clearance to land. We were put into a holding pattern some distance from Chicago, circling and circling. I drifted off to sleep. At some point I awoke and felt a thrill of something being unreal. We were circling in a very tight turn, the plane probably tilted at a 40 degree angle. I was in a window seat staring out and upwards into a blank blue sky with no object in sight for any sort of reference. In that peculiar state of half-consciousness there blossomed the terrifying thought that we were stuck here forever and ever, circling, staring into the blue, never to land. Silly - yes; but utterly terrifying in that instant.
There are also the moments of fear which are much more grounded in immediate cause and effect. If you seek thrills, try flying through the magnificent summer thunder storms across the South. The ones that are so big you can't fly over or around, just thread your way through them as best you can. Sometimes, with the right frame of mind, you can sit back and marvel at the awesome display of the power of nature with lightning snaking across a night sky, illuminating fragments of the looming cliffs of cloud in shades of pinks and dark rust. It is just as your plane muscles through this meteorological roller-coaster, lurching, dropping and soaring, that you turn to prayer and to attempted calming thoughts about probabilities and certainty in the construction of the plane; knowing as you do so that your heart and mind are not travelling the same path.
There are very occasional moments of sheer panic that are rational at one level and entirely groundless (so to speak) at another - rather like when you are sitting in a restaurant and just as you put a fork full of food into your mouth, it crosses your mind "I wonder how many mouths this fork has been in before." It has only happened to me perhaps a half dozen times over the years, if even that. We will be flying along at cruising altitude, some hours into a flight. Then from somewhere will come the thought - "There are only about six or twelve inches of material between me and the ground thirty-five thousand feet below." Like a bad song stuck in your head, this is the kind of thought that, once brought to the surface, is very hard to put aside.
You don't even have to ever rise off the ground in flight to be taken with the idea of flying and particularly of the beautiful engineering of flight. Years ago I attended a boarding school in East Anglia in Britain. We were half-way between two airbases, Mildenhall and Lakenheath (RAF facilities but with a primarily USAF presence) and the grounds of the school were a visual identifier for planes approaching either airbase to peel off to the left or to the right. In the spring and summer terms, there were frequently air-shows at the bases and it was thrilling to stand outside on a beautiful warm day watching old World War II planes come banking across the sky at a few thousand feet. Flying Fortresses of course but also Sterlings, Halifaxes, Lightnings, Mustangs, Spitfires, Hurricanes and all sorts of mechanical vestiges of the flying past. You couldn't help but be moved by their beauty and the thought of the stories they represented.
We have gathered together a grab-bag of stories related to flight; stories that will feed those already enthralled with the thought of flying and those merely anticipating it. Here are stories of some of the early pioneers and heroes such as the Wright brothers, Earhart, Lindberg and the other adventurers. There are the stirring stories of warriors in the air, struggling to conquer gravity, their equipment and each other. There are stories causing one to reflect on the nature of flight, mysteries involving planes, and the sheer adventure and romance of flight.
Let us know of your favorite books that convey the wonder of flying.
Stellaluna written and illustrated by Janell Cannon Highly Recommended
Bat Loves the Night written by Nicola Davies and illustrated by Sarah Fox-Davies Recommended