Flight: an essay

I’ve always intended that this website highlight our weekend trips away and share what we found to work out great and what we didn’t do so well.  I’ve never intended that it be about personal reflections. This could be a one-off post or instead something broader about travel and wanderlust and a way to conceptualize that which is bigger than we are.  I don’t know.  But for now, I’m writing…

Flight

I’m going to give you context.  I’m flying. I’m literally moving through the air, catapulted to 400 mph.

The captain has just released the fasten seat belt sign.  My computer is open.  I’m listening to music.  I’m on a plane to Chicago.

I’ve just looked out the window.  Stark blue sky fades into white cloud cover.  We’ve left earth behind.  I’m on an Embraer E175 with 76 other passengers rooting on the two General Electric CF34-8E jet engines rated up to 14,500 pounds of thrust in our fight with gravity.

Air travel is a transactional endeavor.  Even before arriving at the airport, it begins.  The boarding pass may be obtained via app or computer or at the airport via check-in desk or automated system.  Then  you get assigned a security line based upon your TSA-pre check.  You present your identification and boarding card.  Then the machines take over scanning and interpreting your person and your luggage.  And before you even set foot on the plane, you come into contact with the gate agent and the flight attendant.

The click of the seat belt.  It is unmistakable.  The seat belt on a plane is entirely distinct from that of a car or an amusement park ride.  This piece of metal and relatively thick fabric hold you down as a combination of combustion and jet fuel propels you to 400+ miles per hour.

Thrust, lift, and drag. 

We tick past 15,000 feet.  It’s a clear day.  The clouds stretch out for miles beyond the thick, rounded-edge window.  I forget about the people and machines I’ve engaged on my way to this place.  Here I sit.  Longing for, I’m not sure, other ground, maybe.

Maybe the romance has disappeared because we’re all crammed in.  The WaPo WonkBlog recently published a story about the density of flying by reference to a 1,000 square foot apartment where you host a party of 155 of your closest friends and your cat.  Yes, your cat.  It turns out that the cat is not happy.  I wonder what he would do on this flight.

Sometimes on flights I do work, as if I were still in my office.  Or other times, I’ll read a book as if I were home in bed.  It is true that I am hurtling through space in each of these places, but I am not feeling it.  When I am propelled through the air, sailing along wind currents (or sometimes against them), I feel it.

The plane levels out.

Sometimes on transatlantic flights, I close my eyes and think about the world I’m leaving behind and how my feet will find earth again.  It’s a different earth.  One that my feet had not trod before or may never again.  I think of my place and the indelible mark I’m leaving upon history; or history leaves upon me.

I’m struck by the people who do not fly either because of economic circumstance or emotional distress.  Not struck in the sense of exasperation or shock or failure to understand.  Instead, I’m struck with how cavalier I am about it.  I make flight reservations like I would dinner reservations.  I go to the airport like I would work.  I board a plane like I would take a breath.  A breath, while it is not lost on me, that I could not take outdoors of the metal tube I sit in now.

Descent.

The nose begins to pitch downward.  The wings extend.  A shutter of air rocks the plane as the engines decelerate.

I find the romance in the physics of it all.  “This thing should not fly,” I often remark.  Like a cruise ship displaces water and stays afloat, we stay aloft by displacing air.  This is when the ground becomes my safety.

I find romance in the unknown of it all.  Someone on the ground, a stranger, is talking to my pilot, also a stranger, to get me where I need to go.  I find romance in the mechanical.  An altimeter is telling my pilot how high we are in the air (give or take a few hundred feet because of weather, air pressure, etc.).  Likewise, navigational systems are guiding her toward our final destination just a hundred miles or so up the road.  Trust.

Gliding.

The cloud cover has given way to giant square blocks of green and beige below.  The sun refracts in a rainbow off of the waves of one of the Great Lakes.

And then I think about where this plane has been today.  It started in Salt Lake City. Exchanged passengers in Chicago.  Stopping in Washington, D.C.  Only to turn around to Chicago before continuing westward once again.  It’s seen four different groups of passengers with their idiosyncratic interactions.  It’s had guide dogs and babies; businessmen and families.  It’s seen cold and cloudy, sunny and warm, and rain.  It has had sixteen different hands controlling its every move.

Landing gear. 

The seconds before the landing gear makes contact with the tarmac is reminiscent to me of a first kiss.  The build-up is mighty.  It is the will-they-or-won’t-they moment.  Coasting, almost effortless, just feet about the ground.  The rush of air underneath the plane’s wings counterpunches the force of gravity bringing the plane into contact with the earth.  Our attraction countering our nerves.  The feeling of euphoria upon lips linking for the first time.  The rush of anticipation.  I cannot decouple the thought of instant attraction with the white smoke billowing up from the tarmac when the still wheels hit and immediately speed up to 200 mph.

The taxi.

The sign goes off.  The bell dings.  Its not that I hate being up in the air; rather, its that my feet like having the sensation of solid ground against them.  It must be why I do not linger longer on the plane or think about what has happened over the last two hours while I was not tethered to soil, but instead file out with purpose.  Yet here I am; about to engage a world that had not expected me this morning.  And that, is what makes air travel so remarkable.

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