“Once again the pilot in full flight experienced neither giddiness nor any thrill; only the mystery of metal turned to living flesh.” -Antoine de Saint Exupéry, from Night Flight
Gravity seems to work differently in flight. Raise a wing to sixty degrees off the horizon and your legs suddenly weigh two times what they do on earth. Push the nose down, arcing the plane through a parabola in the sky like a collapsing rainbow, and your arms float inside the cockpit. It’s the defying of gravity which supports flight, the usurpation of barriers, the bending of rules so seemingly rigid on pavement. In flight, weight becomes positional, depending on forces of acceleration and torque, on the geometry of air; it’s not a fixed concept like it is on the ground.
Icarus, overcome by the joy of flight, lost his bearings and melted his wings before falling into the sea.
Twenty-five years ago, I heard the news of the Challenger disaster in Mr. Gregory’s Algebra II class. As the shuttle exploded in peaceful blue skies over Florida’s Atlantic coast, I was studying binary operations. Mr. Gregory quietly announced the news then put on the television and let us watch the coverage.
A little more than two months before, on November 9, 1985, I took my first solo flight in a Cessna-150. After I landed and caught my breath, I felt an instant kinship with other pilots, with those astronauts even, which has never left me. It’s a strange thing, to fly a plane alone.
A deep, pervasive mythology surrounds aviation, a hero-worshiping ethos of austerity, courage and clenched-jaw reticence. By the time I soloed, such a mythology had already saturated my young boy’s brain. I took the shuttle tragedy personally. And in an odd way, the loss of the Challenger and her crew cemented that mythology in my mind. To a sixteen year old boy filled with the desire to fly, there seemed to be a certain nobility about a fiery death. I don’t feel that way anymore. I don’t know what I’ll say if one day my son or daughter asks if they can start taking flying lessons.
James Salter, a fighter pilot in the Korean War, describes his first solo flight in his memoir Burning the Days. Like many fledgling aviators, the day of his first solo began in bleakness. He had just completed a flying lesson and was being shredded by his flight instructor:
“That was terrible. You rounded out twenty feet in the air. As far as I can make out, you’re going to kill us both.” I see him rising up. He climbs out of the cockpit and stands on the wing. “You take her up,” he says.
This consent, the words of which I could not even imagine. Alone in a plane, I do what we had done each time, taxi to the end of that bare spot, turn, and almost mechanically advance the throttle. I felt at that moment—I will remember always—the thrill of the inachievable. Reciting to myself, exuberant, immortal, I felt the plane leave the ground and cross hayfields and farms, making a noise like a tremendous, bumbling fly. I was far out, beyond the reef, nervous but unfrightened, knowing nothing, certain of all, cloth helmet, childish face, sleeve wind-maddened as I held an ecstatic arm out in the slipstream, the exaltation, the godliness, at last!” (81-82)
The words, “you take her up,” resonate like an incantation for anyone who’s ever flown an airplane alone. They weave an almost mystical web around the memory of that first solo, when the desire for flight, the long-held dream of it, comes face to face with the reality of actually flying the fucking plane alone. Nothing really prepares you for that moment. Nothing in life can really top it either.
Salter’s words also remind me of Icarus’ ineffable desire for flight. My dreams cracked a little as fragments of Challenger rained down into another sea. I still connect those two events in memory, my first solo flight and the Challenger disaster. For a young boy, the double-barreled blasts of joy and tragedy, of exultation and grief, of confidence and confusion, had a powerful resonance.
Watching plumes of rocket smoke split apart in the Florida sky reminded me not only of the precariousness of flight, but also of the way hope can fall apart.
It seems hardly possible, just the blink of an eye, that a quarter of a century has passed.