The first time I was a passenger in an airplane was at about the age of 10. My friend and I boarded an Eastern Airlines DC-3 in route to Washington, DC, via Charlottesville. We took turns by the window, faces pressed to cold glass, propellers whirring, our seats vibrating. It was 1968. As we rose above the earth for the first time I sensed the expanse of place, beyond neighborhood and city, beyond home. I knew maps but lost all bearing there in the air, didn’t know how to make sense of what I saw but wondered at its beauty.
I am not a pilot, but I know a few and know their love of flight. In his recent book, Skyfaring, 747 pilot Mark Vanhoenacker is like a poet of flight, using finely crafted language to capture the feel of seeing the earth from above. He says “Flight is the cartographic, planetary equivalent of hearing a song covered by a singer you love, or meeting for the first time a relative whose features or mannerisms are already familiar. We know the song but not like this; we have never met the person and yet we have never in our lives been strangers.”
For those who fly, the sky must be like coming home. You already know the song. You met somewhere in your imagination or maybe the tug of elevation was buried deep in some gene, was activated when your father tossed you in the air, was primed by the helicoptering swings from an adult’s arms, was nurtured by the flight of books, by high buildings and roller-coaster tracks to the sky, by watching a balloon float high above.
The first flight must carry some sense of deja vu, some echoing memory of soaring. And when you rise, when wheels are up and the ground falls away, and you poke through the clouds and float over a bed of air, an ocean of billowing cloud-sea just below, then earth-bound non-pilot that I am, all I can think is that it must be like hearing Pet Sounds for the first time, every time it happens, must be like those first chords of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” or the fading train and dog coda of “Caroline, No.” Hearing it, feeling it, all I can say is “Play it again. One more time,” and hit repeat. And I'm soaring. Is that what it’s like?