What we learned from the air

Life lessons on the human condition, kindness, and home

I look at the sky differently now. It's not up there somewhere, a bowl of blue or a soft ceiling of inconsequential clouds. Rather, it's a robust environment in which to operate, a playground and a testing ground, a place to be.

I look at the globe differently, too. Here is where the men casually carrying AK-47s asked to see our passports. There's the place where ice began to build on the wings, forcing us to turn back. Over there, a family invited us home to dinner. And here we saw a flock of snow geese below us, headed east over the tundra toward Hudson Bay.

In "Cat's Cradle," Kurt Vonnegut writes that "Peculiar travel plans are dancing lessons from God." Our travel plan - from Southern Africa to Fairbanks, Alaska, in a light aircraft - certainly was peculiar. And although dancing was hardly possible in our cramped cockpit, fancy footwork was required to dodge bad weather and appease aviation authorities. Whether we have learned the holy lessons that Vonnegut alludes to is another matter - one that may take a lifetime to sort out.

One thing is sure: A flight like this, with all its challenges, puts things in perspective, highlights the things that count. Things that don't count when navigating a single-engine Cessna through storm clouds: the ups and downs of the stock market; whether Microsoft will be split up; how much the recently traded quarterback will make under his new five-year pro-football contract.

Things that do count: Knowing that your family is pulling for you under circumstances that are probably more trying for them than they are for you; feeling confident that there's enough fuel in the tanks to reach your destination; hearing from friends and strangers who e-mail everything from weather reports to poetry to flying stories of their own; seeing first-hand that the amount paid the recently traded quarterback could sustain an African village or an Inuit town in the Arctic for years.

While the comforts of Europe in the middle of our odyssey were enjoyable, it was the beginning and ending regions that were the most interesting. Here, people and communities get by in circumstances that most of us would find unpleasant, if not intolerable. And yet many are doing so with a grace and sureness that is humbling and sometimes inspiring.

When we were getting to know each other by e-mail eight months ago, pilot Arthur Hussey noted: "I find the starting and ending points of the trip, Namibia and Alaska, to have enormous similarities.... Both are heavily natural-resource-based economies, largely controlled financially by metropoles outside their borders (Cape Town and Seattle), with substantial Caucasian-indigenous splits, in very fragile natural environments that are, on the whole, sparsely populated...."

This is all true, and was made clear. And yet as I draw together mental images of the trip, it is not the geography but being in the sky that is strongest - as it apparently was for our fellow travelers.

"Learning to read clouds and skies intrigues me," one friend e-mailed when we were stuck on the ground due to Arctic weather. "I've been noticing in the Bible how close those folks were to the sky - especially as they went out on the ocean in pretty little craft (like you in the sky) or stayed out all night with livestock. You can see why Jesus wanted them to be as expert in reading mental currents as they were in reading the sky."

The mental currents linked to the sky and to the weather apparently affected others as well as ourselves.

"I was holding my breath as my browser was downloading your latest dispatch and let out a big cheer as soon as I saw that you and Arthur finally made it out of Iqaluit," wrote Lumi Michelle Rolley of Brooklyn, N.Y. "I had no idea that the suspense created by the weather conditions was getting to me. I imagine many of your readers felt the same."

About a mutual friend, another electronic correspondent wrote: "Cliff flew with you every mile - vicariously of course. He perspired in Africa, shivered through Greenland, and wore mukluks the days you were grounded." How nice to know that we were not alone.

"Every traveler has a home of his own, and he learns to appreciate it the more from his wanderings," Charles Dickens wrote. All of us know this intuitively. After two months spent largely in the air, I see it more clearly than ever.

Flight stats

*12,561 statute miles traveled

*108 hours total flying time

*Average speed: 116 miles per hour

*1,510 gallons of fuel burned (8.3 miles per gallon, average)

*Prop turned 25.5 million times

*Passed through 17 countries and nine time zones

*Flew 21 days, rested four days, delayed 10 days for weather and three days for administrative reasons

*Dealt with 22 air-traffic controls

*Flew 24 legs: five under visual flight rules (VFR) and 19 under instrument flight rules (IFR)

- Compiled by Arthur Hussey III

How to plan for a trip like this

Pilot Arthur Hussey replies to a reader:

First, head straight for your mental-health professional and marriage counselor. If that doesn't cure you, talk to your banker.

If you're still in the game, give yourself a year of planning if you plan to do just North America to Europe, a little longer if you plan to go farther or elsewhere. Talk to anyone and everyone you can who has done the trip....

Stay comfortable flying in heavy-duty Instrument Meteorological Conditions; learn (if you do not know) how your aircraft performs in heavily loaded, rearward center-of-gravity conditions, especially while climbing. Know how to fly nonprecision approaches well. You'll need instrument and topographical maps....

Permits are required for all overweight operations and ops with [auxiliary fuel] tanks in all countries.... Insurance varies widely by country, with Denmark (Greenland) topping the charts, requiring $8.5 million in third-party liability....

It's a great experience, but not for the faint of heart.... It entails well-above-average aeronautical decisionmaking skills, an enormous attention to detail, a willingness to wait out weather, and a family that, if they do not necessarily want to participate with you, at least respect your constraints. Enjoy your trip!

*Last of a Monday-and-Thursday series. The first part ran May 1.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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