Flying High

Flying high somewhere between Italy and Philadelphia, April 2006.

Sometimes when things become ordinary I forget how extraordinary they are – like flying on airplanes.  It is so easy to get anywhere in the world by simply buying a ticket. It’s so easy that I forget that flight is a relatively new phenomenon. It was only about a hundred years ago that commercial flight became available, and while that may seem like a very long time ago, in the grand history of the world it’s practically yesterday.

My immigrant ancestors spent two weeks on a ship to get to America in the early 1900s.  I often wonder what they would think about the fact that I can reach their homelands today in about 8 hours. While there have been many, many inventions since they lived and died, I can’t help but think that air flight might be the one that would amaze them the most.

Although flights became available in my grandparents’ youth, it was something that only the rich could afford. None of my grandparents ever flew on an airplane. My father took his first flight in his 20s – a very short hop to Birmingham, NY for training for his job.  Even though he traveled the world as a sailor in the U.S. Navy, that short flight remains his first and only.  My mother has only flown two roundtrips in her life, and the first was not until she was in her early 50s.

My brother and I got to experience the joy of flying a bit more often – and, despite the hassles of baggage, security lines and searches, screaming babies, and long periods of waiting and boredom, it is still a joy.  My brother first flew courtesy of the United States Marine Corps and has been on several trips on his own since then. My very first flight at the age of 18 was a doozy – a long, crowded, transatlantic charter – to Rome, Italy! I didn’t know any better at the time, but looking back with more wisdom that flight was horrendous with turbulence almost the entire time.  Having never flown before, I just thought it was a lot like riding a bus with the bumpiness and I was as happy as can be.

It would be seven years before my next flight, but since then I’ve had the good fortune to go on many.  My job occasionally requires me to travel by air – some years I’ve only traveled once or twice, but other years I’ve been on a dozen trips. I’ve also been very fortunate to fly for some of my vacations, so over the years I’ve become a rather experienced frequent flyer. But all that time up in the sky or waiting in airports makes me forget just how amazing it is to board an airplane, magically rise 5 or 6 miles up into the sky, and safely land far, far away from my home just hours later.

On one work trip, I sat and listened to the flight attendants go through the safety information for what felt like the thousandth time in my life.  After a long wait, I just wanted to get where I was going and the charm of being on a flight had long since worn off.  That is, until a child seated near me exclaimed, with all of the wide-eyed wonder only accessible to children, “Look, it’s a tiny table that opens up!” As he squealed with delight at the discovery of the tray table, I had to smile myself – yes, this flying thing and everything associated with it is pretty amazing, isn’t it?

While my trip to Rome was exciting because it was the first, and a vacation to California at age 25 was exciting just because it was a vacation to California, it was a flight when I was 28 years old that gave me a different kind of euphoria – it was my very first flight alone.  I was flying to Denver, Colorado to meet friends flying in from elsewhere. To this day, I remember waving good-bye to my father and walking through the security checkpoint – and at that moment, I felt a sense of exhilaration and broke out into a large smile. I was about to fly somewhere I had never been, I was all alone, and I thought it was the most wonderful feeling in the entire world!

As I said, my job has required me to take a fair amount of flights.  I’ve experienced some very long ones and the longest was a trip to Seoul, South Korea.  I think it took about fifteen hours, and I was very blessed that I was allowed to take First Class (a rarity in Government travel unless the flight exceeds fourteen hours!).  The shortest flight I’ve ever taken is a tie between either Norfolk or Boston – both are about 20 minutes in the air. However, one flight to Boston was so bumpy due to bad weather that it actually felt longer than the trip to Seoul! I also had a very short flight from somewhere in Florida to Pensacola, and an encounter with turbulence almost sent the world’s tiniest beverage cart flying down the aisle towards my center-of-the-back-row seat.

A U.S. Air Force C-130 military transport plane. Taken at Schriever AFB, Colorado Springs, CO in February, 2003 as my teammates board the plane.

My friend Leona and I aboard the C-130, February 2003.

The most unique flights I’ve ever taken were on military aircraft. I had the privilege of flying on an Air Force C-130 from Colorado to Nevada. The flight was equipped with standard military seating, also known as “tactical configuration” which is what they use to jump out of airplanes.  There was no need to worry about my seatback being in an upright position, because military seating does not mean the standard rows of seats in a commercial airline.  Instead, there are four rows of seats going down the plane lengthwise, and the seats are made out of webbing.  So, it is the equivalent of sitting in a lawn chair for the entire flight. But at least we didn’t have to jump out of the plane…

Another military flight was far different, though. I was in a leadership program with about 50 other civilians from around the country, and one week we had to fly to several locations in North Dakota, Alaska, and Tennessee.  Rather than attempt to get commercial flights for all of us, we had a jet at our disposal piloted by a flight crew of National Guardsmen.  Since we had the flight all to ourselves, they were the most enjoyable flights I ever took. And I even sat in the cockpit part of the way from North Dakota to Alaska! Now I know for a fact that pilots have the best view of all.

This was way, way better than flying on a C-130!

The pilot was cool, but he wouldn't let me fly the plane.... Taken somewhere between North Dakota and Alaska, April 2003.

The view is one of my favorite things about flying. I have seen many awesome things from the air, and they are no less impressive at that height.  In fact, they were likely more impressive as seen from up above than from on the ground.  My first and only view of the Grand Canyon so far was from a plane about 30,000 feet in the sky – and even at that distance, I could not believe how big and beautiful it is.  Similarly, I had never seen the Mississippi River before – except from the air. I did not realize how big it is – and if it looked big from that high up, it is definitely wider than I ever imagined.

Other awesome sights from the sky include the Norfolk Bay Bridge Tunnel where you get an incredible view of the disappearing road as it goes underwater – and then reappears.  I’ve seen a close up view of the skyscrapers of New York City, and I’ve even flown over Citizens Bank Park during a Phillies game.  The single most incredible sight was during that “private” flight to Alaska.  The pilot was granted permission to take the plane as close as possible to Mt. McKinley. It was a beautiful, clear day and the pilot announced that he was going to take us for a closer view. The friend next to me and I were leaning over in our seats to look out the window.  “Is that it?” he asked, pointing to one of the mountains. I didn’t know.  “Maybe,” I said, “it looks pretty big.”  We were looking down at some mountains trying to determine which one Mt. McKinley actually was when suddenly this massive mountain appeared next to the window at eye level.  In fact, we had to look up to see the top of it. We both said simultaneously, “Wow – that’s it!” I’ve seen many mountains from the air, but I have never seen anything quite as big as that one.

Mt. McKinley from the sky...awesome! Taken in April, 2003.

What’s my favorite view from the sky? I have two.  First, I love looking out and seeing a brilliant blue sky and a carpet of clouds. I know that everyone below those clouds is having a cloudy, dreary, and rainy day. But from my view, the sun is shining! It reminds me that life is all a matter of perspective, and sometimes from a 30,000 ft. view things don’t seem quite as bad.  Next, my favorite site is the view as the plane approaches home. It is fun to go away, and amazing to see beautiful sights from the sky. But I really feel like I’m flying high when I come home again.

My ancestors never got to experience the wonder of flight – but did they feel that same “coming home” feeling when they saw America for the first time?

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