Comrades of the clouds
Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earthand danced the skies on laughter- silvered wings.
SAN SEBASTIAN, SPAIN — Few pilots haven't read or heard these lines by John Gillespie Magee Jr., written when he was still a teenager training to fly Spitfires in Britain in 1941. To many, the short poem called "High Flight" expresses as well as words can the grace and wonder of flying:
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds, and done a hundred thingsyou have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swunghigh in the sunlit silence....
There are better writers, or at least those who fly and write about it with more sophistication and depth of experience. Beryl Markham, Antoine de St. Exupry, Charles Lindbergh, Richard Bach in his early books about barnstorming and flying a fighter through thunderstorms at night over Europe in the 1950s.
But in Magee's case, the youth of this flier and writer, his exuberance and awe are things all fliers feel on those days when everything goes right: when the aircraft is performing well and the pilot is at the top of his form, maneuvering smoothly and anticipating rather than reacting to things. When the light is just so, and the clouds provide substance, without being a hindrance or a danger.
It's hard to think of an activity as challenging and fulfilling as flying a small aircraft. To do so alone, and successfully, requires enormous concentration and training. One must merge exactitude with intuition, taking everything one has learned from others and from prior experience and combining it with seat-of-the-pants decisions that precede conscious thought.
"Where is there a pilot foolhardy enough to ignore his hunches?" Markham wrote in "West With the Night" (1942). "I am not one. I could never tell where inspiration begins and impulse leaves off. I suppose the answer is in the outcome. If your hunch proves a good one, you were inspired; if it proves bad, you are guilty of yielding to thoughtless impulse."
The "outcome" Markham writes about is obvious in flying, whether it's an aerobatic maneuver or a crosswind landing. Everyone - especially the pilot - knows how things went. This, too, is one of flying's attractions. There is an immediacy that pushes off contemplation until after one is safely on the ground.
Kayakers "read" the river ahead, noting what the eddies and currents in the whitewater are doing - and are likely to do to their small craft. Their knowledge is based on their experience.
Similarly, clouds - their movement, thickness, and relative brightness (or darkness) - provide a palette for thought and even inspiration. To fly among them is to feel enfolded. To fly within them - bumped and jostled by the currents of air that have brought moisture and temperature together just so - is to let oneself be a part of nature.
Like the river, clouds are teachers.
"[T]hese traces of wind over the face of the sea, these clouds golden in the afterglow, are not objects of the pilot's admiration, but of his cogitation," Antoine de St. Exupry wrote in "Wind, Sand, and Stars" (1939). "He looks to them to tell him the direction of the wind or the progress of the storm, and the quality of the night to come."
I thought about this as Arthur Hussey and I flew from Casablanca, Morocco, to San Sebastin, one leg in our 12,000-mile trip from Africa to Alaska.
Most of the flight had been lovely, a wonderful way to see the whole of Spain unfold below. Just enough clouds to make the sky interesting. But some 20 miles from our landing, we hit storms that in rapid succession included rain, snow, and hail. These clouds were more than gentle jostlers. As we descended, our path took us past hills that briefly appeared, then receded into the mist. This was weather on its own terms, not for our pleasure or comfort.
But drawing on all he had learned about flying in the past 10 years - the specific and highly precise requirements as well as an informed intuitive sense - Arthur brought us through in good shape. Within a short time we were enjoying a fine meal in San Sebastin.
"All that happens in the sky signals to the pilot the oncoming snow, the expectancy of fog, or the peace of a blessed night," St. Exupry wrote. In many ways, this had been a blessed night for us.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society