20 November, 2010

In flight

It was the same airport, five years ago. Mom's cousin in Maryland invited me to spend New Years with him - a week of Canada goose hunting and also volunteering with a managed deer hunt in the park where he worked as a ranger. I'd been aloft twice before, in Cessnas and seaplanes, and even sat once in the cockpit of an F-15 - but December 31, 2005 was my first time aboard a commercial jet. As i stared down at Manchester cul-de-sacs etched like bark-beetle galleries into the skin of earth, i tried to reconcile ecological sensitivities with being borne aloft on petroleum-powered wings.

Curious birds,
staring down a long stretch of asphalt -
how can i curse them
having known the joy of flight?

Now i'm in Manchester again. As one of the attendants mimes the routine, i remember the short hop from Anchorage to Kenai aboard a De Havilland. The attractive young Russian attendant didn't even try to make herself heard over deafening propeller noise; the other passengers were all seasoned, rough-edged men who'd seen the same seatbelt-fastening act a hundred times.

Sometimes the safety instructions become tiring, repetitious. Always put on your own mask before assisting the person next to you. I've heard them - or more likely tuned them - out eleven times so far this year. But just when i start to think, "been there, done that", i remember the reason they're repeated on Every. Single. Flight. There might be a "virgin" on board. I imagine what she's experiencing as the wheels lift off the ground, as setting sun glints off greying shreds of cloud below and cities emerge, a Lite-Brite scatterplot against the black construction-paper earth.

Until this month, i envied travelers lucky enough to experience a Flight of Perpetual Sunset, as the aircraft's speed more or less matches earth's rotational speed, hugging the terminator between day and night. During our year of correspondence, once pen-pal Daniel, an Israeli studying medicine in Latvia, wrote me from Chicago. The flight there had reminded him of St. Exuperey's "The Little Prince" - as in, it made him think of a the lamplighter's planet, which the Little Prince was very sad to leave because on it he could see one thousand, four hundred and forty sunsets every day.

Of course, there are other memorable moments for the frequent flier. When the co-pilot announces we have a medical situation on board, i wonder how this will play out. My seatmate, oddly enough, is an off-duty flight attendant on her way to Charlotte to crew another flight. When i ask if she has stories, she just laughs and nods.

On the second leg of the return trip from Copenhagen just three weeks ago, the flight crew asked if anyone on board spoke Arabic. I could feel passengers around me grow apprehensive, as did i until i remembered seeing an elderly Lebanese(?) woman board. There was no reason to worry, and the sun remained just below the horizon until the towers of Boston glowed against an apricot sky. That perpetual sunset was just another thing to remind me of a long-lost friend.

Flight 3293 to Charlotte is not so lucky. A mid-flight medical emergency not only lands us at Washington Dulles, 50 minutes flight short of the regional hub, but it depletes the aircraft's oxygen cylinders just below the required psi for flight. Taking on extra fuel and getting the oxygen cylinders serviced grounds us just long enough to miss the last CLT-PHX departure of the night. The best i can do to reschedule is a 7 AM departure from either Charlotte or Washington DC.

There's an upside, you know. I have a friend in DC i've been wanting to visit, and i'd actually been wishing there was a DC layover for more than an hour. Wish, serendipitously, granted. On a Saturday night, no less.