(From the book, Big Sky Café…)
© By Jack Bogut
All rights reserved
She had been suspicious when he went to bed early; even more so when he got up in what seemed like the middle of the night. She asked if he was sick and he answered,
"Are you leaving?"
"Are you gonna have some breakfast?" She asked, watching him head toward the door.
"No," he said.
"Are you gonna put your shoes on or carry 'em like that all day?"
"Yeah." He replied.
She looked more confused.
If he could have sneaked out of the house without waking her it would have been a boon because he knew she would ask a lot of questions he didn’t want to answer. He heard, "You'll feel a lot better if you eat some”...thunk, as he closed the door on her last word and got in the car. He turned the key in the ignition and as the engine cleared its throat, turned on the headlights and drove away from the house toward the airport. The rhythm of the windshield wipers clearing the last of the early morning dew was about the same as his own heartbeat and felt right. This was going to be a special day.
He'd been told by an old pilot that the only way to truly appreciate flying an airplane was to go up all by yourself, before dawn, and watch the slow motion explosion of a sunrise. He could still hear his voice:
"Only then will you realize what a miracle the ability to fly really is...and what little business we have up there!”
He also remembered him saying, “We all live life at the end of a rubber band...and we stretch it way out when we fly. Most people keep that rubber band slack. Once in a while they lean on the end of it like a dog on a leash, but not very often. Those of us who fly, strain at the end our rubber band until we scare ourselves silly and let it pull us back, hopefully, without smacking us up against something! But you won't believe any of this until you see for yourself sometime.
Today was the day.
The airport was deserted as his car crunched to a stop on the gravel driveway. His mind was moving quickly; he'd never been this alert before. He was all nerve ends and sensors, a sponge soaking up everything around him. The headlights seemed to fade slowly when he turned them off instead of disappearing all at once the way they usually did. In fact, everything he did seemed to be in slow motion. Even though he couldn't see much in the darkness, he was acutely aware of everything, particularly himself.
He felt his way along the rough, weathered wood on the hanger until he found the handle and pushed the big door open. He stared inside and waited until the darkness released the dim outline of a small, high winged airplane, sitting tail down, like a tired park pigeon. The faint smells of gasoline, engine oil, old tires and aging canvas filled his head as he walked in, grabbed the plane by its nose and led it outside. He made sure the magneto switch was off as he stood in front of the right wheel with the door open and reached forward to pull down on the propeller. Ruh-thu-thu-thu-thu. Once more. Ruh-thu-thu-thu-thu. Magneto switch on, throttle opened just a hair, another pull on the prop and a roar filled the air that sounded like air escaping from a giant whoopee cushion (can't expect much from a 65 horsepower motor).
The engine smoothed out as he slipped into the seat, buckled the Seat-belt around his waist and found the rudder pedals with his toes. He pushed and pulled and turned all the controls as he glanced out the windows to make sure everything was free and working. As he completed his pre-flight check of all the instruments a surprising loneliness settled over him. He was really alone now; just him and this little airplane. Not even birds were flying in the night-time sky.
"Rubber band, rubber band, stretch it out..." The words haunted him as he released the brakes and started to taxi onto the deserted field.
At the end of the runway he stood on the brakes and raised the RPM's to check the engine and carburetor heat; everything was fine so he "firewalled" the throttle, let the speed build up, pushed the wheel forward to raise the tail off the ground, and when his fanny felt the little plane trying to lift its feet he pulled the wheel gently toward his chest, raised both elbows like fried chicken wings and sprang gently into the morning sky.
He'd never felt like this before. Solo flight was nothing new. He'd done that lots of times, "touch and go" they called it; take off, circle the field, ask permission to land, touch down and take off again. He'd done that plenty of times but this was different. He knew that today he was going higher and farther away from the airport than he'd ever been before. Far enough away that, if the engine quit, he wouldn't be able to glide back to the safety of the airport, the runway. He was cutting the umbilical, putting himself and the airplane on the line...stretching the rubber band.
The sensation of speed diminished as he got farther from the ground. He felt like he was crawling across the landscape in slow motion toward a horizon that never got any closer; he was floating, motionless, while the earth turned slowly under him. The almost smooth running, 65 horsepower engine sipped gasoline from the tank he could smell just in front of the windshield. The fuel gauge was a bottle cork with a wire on the top that stuck through the filler cap; when the tank was full the wire stuck up about four inches. When the tank was near fumes, the wire rested on the cap. Sometimes, in rough air, the wire hung up on the cap and got stuck there; you never knew for sure how much gas you had. It kept him alert.
His face suddenly felt heavy as he hit an invisible pothole in the sky, forcing him down in his seat; a reminder that he WAS moving, not floating and who really controlled the sky. "Rubber band...when we fly...." The words flashed on and off in his mind like a neon heartbeat. He pushed the throttle into the dash, got the last of the 65 grazing horses and pulled up into a steeper climb. "Might as well stretch it all the way," he thought.
To someone on the ground, the buzzing dot in the sky was like a bull mosquito on a picnic, easy to ignore unless it gets close to you. But to his mother, it meant something else. Her long face shortened as she strained to see him, her eyes almost oriental. She'd squinted into the sky like this many times before, long ago, heart pounding, feeling her pulse in her fingertips, filled with the same emotions now but in a different way.
His father had flown airplanes, open cockpit, smoke belching, slow flying, window rattling, crowd buzzing curiosities that made people's feet itch and hearts pound. Her emotions poured over her body like a cold waterfall and made her shiver. Would he fly away, never to return like his father, or would he walk through the door again, lean down and kiss her on the forehead like he always did and ask, "What's for dinner?"
The relief she felt everytime he came home floated her around the room. Sometimes she could scarcely feel her feet touching the floor. He never knew it but she used to watch the sky for the little red plane everytime he flew, heart in her throat. When she saw it she'd race to the airport and park her car out of sight behind the hanger. She'd watch him land with her fists clenched until he was safely down and wait for him to put the plane away. Then she would follow him home, discreetly out of sight a few blocks behind him. When he got in the house there'd be a note on the table, "Gone to the store, be right back." Then she'd come in, sacks of groceries in her arms, acting like it was just another day. Sometimes she'd cook everything in sight and watch him put it away, eating nothing herself. With a half smile on her face she would watch his eyes as he talked to her and hear absolutely nothing he said.
She died a little everytime he flew and life made such a loud noise in her when he returned.
"We live life at the end of a rubber...need to stretch it out now and then...need to fly!" She hated those words now, even though she'd once loved the man who said them.
The jagged peaks seemed to grow taller as he lowered the nose of the plane and quit climbing. The mountains grew like a slowly inflating balloon, filling the windshield as the little plane nibbled at the distance. The air was cool and tasted sweet and clean. "Gray, licorice, ice cream sundaes," he thought as he mentally stepped away from himself and looked at the landscape. There he was, a small, red, rigid bird, so tiny in reference to the surroundings as to almost disappear. He was far enough away from the trees so that they looked like green hair, a stubble of a beard on each rock face. Yet, he was sure that if he wanted, he could reach out and scratch a match on either the mountains or the sky.
There were so many sensations pumping into his brain he felt like a pinball machine close to "tilt" so he adjusted all the trim controls until the plane few itself, straight and level and he could just sit there. This was as close to perfection as anything he'd ever felt. He didn't realize he was smiling until he felt the cramps in his cheeks. Then...bump! Another invisible hole in the sky. Startled, he grabbed at the wheel as the little plane bobbled momentarily.
"You fly the plane, don't let it fly YOU!" That voice again.
"A plane is inherently stable. It'll fly better all by itself than with your meathooks on the controls."
The Old Pilot had said a lot of things he suddenly remembered as he wandered through his mental attic. He relaxed his grip on the wheel and the plane settled down all by itself.
As he approached the mountain tops he looked for signs of the wind: trees moving, swirling snow, an eagle or an ambitious hawk floating in the air. No signs. He had no choice; he'd have to search for the wind. The air is always moving in the mountains, either up or down the slopes. Up one side, down the other. If you catch the up-side it's like riding an elevator straight up, faster than you could ever climb with the engine alone. Catch the down side and you can't climb fast enough to gain altitude; you just drop out of the sky.
He flew along the mountain side, getting carefully closer to the craggy face until he started to bounce. As the wind flowed over the steep, rough cliffs it started to boil gently. He felt his cheeks sag as the elevator started to climb. The mountain side unreeled like a painted window shade being pulled down past him. Trees gave way to stone and stone gave way to snow as the temperature dropped faster than he climbed. He was suddenly cold, like standing in front of the refrigerator in the middle of the night in your underwear with the door open. He pulled the knob for the cabin heat and had to laugh out loud; it was like flicking a "Bic" in a blizzard.
About that time the ride really got rough. He bit the inside of his cheek and the salty taste of himself flooded his senses as he bounced around in the updraft, finally turning away into smoother air. He looked at the altimeter. 10,000 feet! Higher than he'd ever flown before. Probably higher than this little plane had ever been before.
He looked around in awe; the earth started below his feet now. He could feel the blue sky draped across the back of his neck and around his shoulders like a cape. He belonged up here.
As he looked ahead, the high country started to open up to him, so much bigger than he thought; behind each mountain was another mountain...and another.
"Don't let the horizon sing in your ear and drink all your fuel while you're listening!" The Old Pilot jolted him again.
That voice was always with him in the plane; maybe that was why he flew; maybe it was because he missed hearing the voice.
He'd told him so much about flying there wasn't one situation he'd ever been in that hadn't been covered.
His senses filled to overflowing, he had just started to turn back for home when something just ahead caught his eye; a solid wall of granite with a vee-shaped wedge taken out of it seemed to wink at him in the distance. He checked the little wire sticking through the fuel cap and it was still above half full. And then he wondered. With all that bouncing around...aw, what the heck. It wasn't that much farther.
"Use your head for something besides a hat rack." That voice again.
"Itchy feet can make you walk too far!"
Sometimes the meaning was not exactly clear but it made him think.
"Itchy feet" described him to a "T." He had always been an explorer. Even as a kid he couldn't wait to see what was around the corner, over the hill, behind the door, in the box or down the hole. When he was barely able to crawl and navigate around the house he was into everything. To the consternation of his mother he would be missing for long periods of time sometimes only to emerge from a hiding place in a kitchen cupboard with flour caked in his hair or syrup smeared all over his body and clothing. He had always been a little bored with today and couldn't wait for tomorrow. He was tired of what he'd already done and anxious to get on to the next thing.
"You’re perfect pilot material.” That voice again.
Sometimes snatched from the jaws of danger by the seat of his pants, now he was depending on the seat of his pants to keep him out of trouble.
The air got smoother as he got farther away from the mountain side and he rode easier. The vee in the wall seemed to drop and widen on front of him so he knew he was high enough to fly through. That was the rule: Once you can see something behind the obstacle directly ahead you're high enough to fly over it. In fact it was nerve-racking learning that rule. You could fly straight at a mountain or a ridge, be absolutely convinced that you were going to crash into it and then, when you saw just a hint of another mountain behind it, fly over the top with the peak scratching your tailfeathers. It made you sit up straight in your seat.
Sunlight stabbed through the windshield like a laser, probing his body with warm sparks, making him realize how cold he was. He hadn't been thinking much about himself. He was just overwhelmed with the immensity and grandeur of what he saw through the spinning propeller.
A veil of vapor hung across the cut in the mountain like a lace curtain, letting light pass through but blurring images. When he burst through the mist he seemed to rise off the seat and float in the cockpit, touching nothing, totally apart from the plane. All sound seemed to disappear as he looked ahead at a more wondrous sight than he could imagine. There, through the notch in the granite wall was something he’d only heard about; something seen by only a few pilots...the "Cloud Bank!"
The Cloud Bank; where God stored all the clouds he wasn't using at the moment. They were packed into this little valley like cotton in an aspirin bottle. Beautiful white clouds. So white they were almost fluorescent. So bright in the unfiltered sunlight his eyes almost slammed shut. No one would ever see this but him. He was the only one there. It would never be exactly this way again. He felt full of life and close to death all at the same time. It wouldn't have surprised him at all to have been pulled straight up into the heavens, never to return. It was the most profound, private, frightening, exhilarating, tranquil moment he'd ever had.
His physical senses began to return slowly, like inflating a balloon. First he felt the cold plastic of the wheel in his hands, then the Seat-belt across his lap, then the gentle vibration of the engine in the airframe. He glanced at the gas gauge - about half full (could have been half empty too), and thought, "Aw, what the hell, it's all downhill from here to home. I can glide most of the way back if I have to!"
He pushed hard on the throttle and there wasn't any more. It was all the way in. This was as high as he could climb, just barely over the clouds in the little valley.
He pushed the wheel forward and felt the airspeed build up as he dipped the wheels into the clouds. He did this time and time again, glancing back to see tufts of white sticking up in his trail. Picking cotton with tweezers, that's how it looked.
Finally, in a burst of bravado that would have put a matador to shame, he dove the little red plane beneath the surface and disappeared in the whiteness, going down, down until it started to get dark inside the clouds, and then pulled the controls back, bursting up into the raging light again, his pulse hammering in his veins, fear clamped around his throat, joyously shouting and screaming at the top of his lungs.
As he looked back this time he saw boiling milk, turning smoothly over and over.
He lost all track of time until the engine coughed. It sputtered and choked and threatened to die.
CARB HEAT, CARB HEAT! ICE IN THE CARBURETOR! PULL THE CONTROL, FORCE ENGINE HEAT INTO IT! He'd heard this so many times it was second nature...but he'd never needed it before. His life had never depended on it before. It was always just practice.
He prayed and swore at the same time as he pulled on the little knob. For what seemed like an eternity, the little Lycoming wheezed and sputtered, choked and gagged, caught and released the thin air as it ran and died, ran and died. It sounded like it was going to throw up. About that time the outside edges of his tongue began to water with the first traces of nausea.
Bark...roar. Cough...cough...ROOOOAAAAAR! The ice in the carburetor was MELTING! He could imagine an icicle the size of a carrot hanging out of the carburetor, slowly disappearing. Finally, the engine caught and hung on to the steady sound every fiber in his being wanted most in life to hear. And it beat all the music he had ever heard.
Euphoria spread from his gut toward all his extremities until he thought to check the fuel. He looked...and then he looked again. The wire sticking through the gas cap. It wasn't there! It was gone. Gone? GONE!
He snapped forward in his seat like a triggered mousetrap, head against the windshield and stared in disbelief. The end of the fuel gauge laid on top of the cap like a dried worm. How long had he messed around in that valley? He couldn't have burned all of his fuel! He couldn't have been that stupid. He raised his fist to come down on the dash and caught himself. Wait a minute. He wasn't out of fuel YET. The engine was still running. But for how long? That was the question.
He eased back on the throttle and tried to think. Got to relax. Can't think when you're tight as a drum.
"Come ON! FORCE yourself! Think, idiot. THINK!" He said aloud.
Four hours, with a fifteen minute reserve. That was the fuel load he carried; he knew that. Time wise he should have been okay but running at full throttle for such a long time at that altitude...!
Instinct took over; he started looking for a place big and flat enough to put the plane down, hopefully in one piece. His instructor had drilled that into him.
"Always have a place picked out to land, you never know...."
Then he thought again. That would be foolish. Even if he could find a flat place big enough to set down without crashing he could die up here. No radio other than a little low frequency receiver, no flight plan (nobody at the airport when he left). His mom knew he was up here in this direction somewhere but she didn't know exactly where he had gone.
Panic started to drain him of all logical thought. He was looking his own mortality squarely in the face and he knew it. Before this moment it had never occurred to him that he wouldn't live forever. Life had never tasted so sweet until the bitterness of panic began fill his mouth.
"Use your brain! Use your head for something...!"
"I'm trying. I'm TRYING, DAMMIT!" He shouted over the sound of the wind and the engine.
He turned and headed back through the notch, lowering the nose gently, coaxing, pleading with distance to be merciful. He pulled back on the throttle and his small red island in the sky started downward.
"No, no, not down! Back! Back through the cut but not down!"
He had to push the throttle to the firewall again, drinking more gasoline that might run out any second.
The end of the little valley seemed a hundred miles away. The world slowed to a crawl as his mind raced through all the options available to him: Head straight back to the airport or at least flat land and hope for a smooth glide and maybe an updraft...wait a minute! Updraft! YES...if he could find an updraft along a ridge on his way out, maybe he could gain enough altitude to glide back. That was it! Got to find that natural elevator.
Through the notch he had to make a choice: Turn right or left, toward one mountain side or the other. If he caught the side with the updraft he was home free! Maybe.
He turned left and put the wingtip within twenty feet of the mountain side and waited for the elevator to start the climb. He watched the rocky landscape start to move slowly up past the wing. He was going down. Not very fast but he was going down so he forced himself to turn gently away from that side and head across the canyon. When he arrived at the other side he slowly put the other wing against the mountain and waited. Nothing. There was no wind moving. The air was dead calm. He should have know that because he was sitting stone still. Not a bump in the ride. Dead air in the mountains is rare. Why now? Why, dammit. Why NOW?
His list of options was getting smaller. The most direct route back to the airport was away from the mountains on either side of him and he knew he couldn't make it without assistance, natural or divine or both. One lone cloud in front of him seemed to be moving across his path to the left. That would indicate wind in that direction but how much and at what altitude? If he followed that cloud to the mountains on his left he would be committing to either finding an updraft or crash landing somewhere.
"Make a choice. Make a decision, even if it's wrong. Indecision robs you of all opportunity. You can't correct or change anything if you don't act! You have to do something!" The old pilot again.
And he was right. If he headed toward the mountain he had a fifty-fifty chance of being right. At least he'd be in control and not in a panic. If he did nothing and maintained his course the die was already cast, the decision out of his hands. All he would be able to do was wait for the end, whatever that was. The decision made, he felt almost calm as he turned left away from the path home and headed for the mountain ridge.
It seemed he would never get there. The wire in the gas cap hadn't moved in a long time. He thought about bouncing the plane a little to see if there was enough fuel in the tank to slosh around but thought better of it.
"Just let the wind be there. Please!" He said softly.
He approached the mountain at an angle so he could turn away if there was another down draft and put the wing within a few feet of the rocky slope. He sat tense in his seat for what seemed like an eternity and suddenly...WHUMP! He started down, down...WHUMP!
Then suddenly, he stopped with a bang that made his cheeks hang down like a beagle's. And then he and the little red plane started up with a vengeance. He picked up the wing closest to the mountain to keep it out of the rocks and hung on to the wheel with both hands. The rate of climb indicator pegged! He was climbing at more than a thousand feet a minute. He'd found it! He’d found the updraft! The gamble had paid off! He pulled on the carb heat and throttled the engine back to an idle. He lowered the nose to keep his airspeed up and still the updraft propelled him skyward. The mountain ridge alongside him disappeared below him and still he climbed.
When the needle dropped back to zero rate of climb he looked at the numbers; twelve thousand, five hundred feet, higher than all the mountains he could see. He was high enough to need oxygen. Better get out of there!
He was in a way, almost sad as he opened the throttle, pushed the carburetor heat off and turned away from that mountain. He wanted to reach out and touch it, to say thanks somehow. He also knew, deep inside himself, that life had changed in those moments, had been affected forever by something he could not see. His existence had literally hung in the air just long enough for him to get a glimpse of how small he was and how large life is when it's on the line.
The trip back to the airport was both long and nerve-wracking and short and exhilarating, euphoria seasoned with fear. His emotions were full of contradictions: he wanted to open both side windows and stick his arms out like wings, like the bird he was, and stay up in the air forever. And at the same time, he wanted to be back on earth where falling on the ground was a minor annoyance; he wanted to be at the kitchen table, pounding down everything his mom could cook. And yet he wanted her up there with him so she could see for herself what a marvelous thing it was to stretch that rubber band until it was thin, fragile, almost transparent...and then watch it snap slowly back, maybe to be stretched out again sometime; he wanted to share this private moment.
The airport grew in the distance like walking toward a door in a long hallway. It got slowly larger with every turn of the prop. He got ready to land unconsciously and perfectly because he and the plane were now one: the wings had become extensions of his arms, the wheels were his feet and legs, the engine was part of his will. He came back to earth easily, like stepping down gently off a cloud, a perfect landing. He never felt the plane touch the ground. The landing was so perfect, it was only when the wheels started to turn and rumble that he realized he was out of the sky.
Without touching the brakes he let the plane roll until it slowed by itself and turned toward the gas pump. He cut the engine, got out, unscrewed the gas cap and inserted the hose in one continuous motion. He almost ran it over. There was just barely enough room for the cork when he put the cap back on. Then he looked at the meter on the pump The tank held twelve gallons; the meter said twelve point two gallons! His knees felt weak.
He leaned against the plane for a couple of minutes, his cheek on the propeller, one arm over the cowling, until a voice from the flight shack called out,
"Yeah, I'm fine. Put it on the tab, Okay?"
And with that, he hesitated just a moment, kissed the little plane on the nose and wheeled it back to the hanger.
"Boy, I’m starved," He thought. "I wonder if mom has lunch ready?"
She watched from behind the hanger.