Night landings

WE'RE on final approach to San Francisco. It's been a long flight through bad weather; the rain drives down hard through the darkness. The flight attendants have turned down the cabin lights. Below us is water - the still-invisible currents and whitecaps of the San Francisco Bay. Pilots know that following a westerly compass heading along the bay will take them directly to runways 28L and 28R. Passengers, who are not obliged to think about such things, have more time to spend with the scene itself - the descent into darkness, or extended wings.

Landing over water at night is completely different from landing over land. Coming in over land, over suburbs and industrial parks, the plane finds an incandescent welcome mat.

Over water this comforting familiarity disappears. It's out there, of course: we can see the distant lights. But what is below us? Nothing - nothing but water, darkness. This might seem ominous, but for me the opposite is true. Landing over water offers a different order of comfort. These landings reenact one of my favorite modern dances, in which the partners are nature and machine. In an unchoreographed waltz, each partner leads, and each follows, and neither is the master - or both are; until finally, skidding synthetic rubber on concrete, the airplane returns to the human world and leaves its dark partner behind.

What are the steps to this improvised dance? On the machine's side, they are almost innumerable. We now use computers to control them. Tonight, out the window, I can see the trim tabs on the wings rising and falling. With each of their movements the plane rocks slightly, as if in sleep. A few minutes earlier the flaps dropped down 10 degrees, then 20; now, at 40 degrees, they rest, fully extended. The wind rushes loudly around them. The port and starboard wing lights flash, quickly, brilliantly; the wing tip spotlight beyond my window swings out from its nesting place, cutting a swath of light through the dark rain, and slowly rotates upward to illuminate the final approach. Everything is in motion here. Yet the result is an equilibrium of forces, in which aluminum and kerosene and steel ride smoothly downward through the rain.

And below at 500 feet, perhaps a half mile out, we begin to see the dark whitecaps. Like us, they trim themselves to the wind. Tabs of froth peel back from the waves, rising and falling in the surging or ebbing air. They show us what, encased in our calm fuselage, we cannot see - the turbulence of motion, the raw power of driven water and of the air that even now is pouring from our Rolls-Royce engines. Turbulent, rhythmic, the whitecaps dance beneath us to the shore; breaking over the rocks, they retreat, return, break again, retreat, as we leave them behind for the deep blue lights of runway 28R. For we are home now, beyond the dark water, bowing toward our carry-on luggage as the dance concludes.

I wonder, after such landings, whether we admire our machines so much simply because of what they do, or because they are our best attempts so far to emulate nature itself. Mirror images: the wind-tossed bay, never emptying, never overflowing, with its turbulent equilibrium; the airplane, in a controlled fall, humming smoothly through the storm, shifting slightly, staying in balance. They are not really mirrors, of course. For all their sophistication, our machines are still clunkers compared to sea and sky and molecule. Yet with our machines we harmonize contradictory forces. We lift our heavy selves into the sky, reconciling gravity to thin air. It would appear to be a kind of hubris, the Icarus complex reenacted in modern alloys, except that - as in nature - the balance is all: For our machines to work, they must reconcile forces, not merely use them.

Is this what our inventiveness comes down to, finally - dancing? Surely these serious achievements cannot ultimately lead to something as frivolous as dancing. But there is nothing frivolous about this dance. We hold ourselves, our lives, in this balance of forces. Accepting the invitation of nature, we kick our heels and fly into the air like creatures especially favored, and descend once again to tell the story. We might almost be dreaming. But leaving the airplane, touching its painted aluminum skin, we can taste salty air, and know that this dance is no dream.

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