By lex, on September 3rd, 2009
For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return. — Leonardo Da Vinci
I was walking across a footbridge from one cube farm to another yesterday with a co-worker and I couldn’t help but notice the towering cumulus clouds billowing over the Cuyamaca mountains east of the county. Hovering like jovial gods in the thermals that gave them birth. Bright faced, but changeable. Concealing an inner darkness that reveals not their truth. Waiting only for an updraft to hurl them through the freezing level and turn their smiling faces to wrathful frowns. Placid valleys and echoing canyons in the skies between them like hallways. Athwart them the hall bullies, edging in. Uncommitted.
Was a time, I remarked to her, when I could put the blowers in, climb up in the vertical and touch their faces. Rolling over on my back over the top all but whooping with delight. Gather speed down the back side to try it again. Play pretend atop a $40 million fighter that the cloud is a mountain and how low can you go?
As low as you dare and then some. The white whipping over your canopy if you’d misjudged. No harm, no foul. No memorial service.
Was a time, she said.
Yes. All you needed was a jet and gas and a few moments of your own. Now I can’t even get my hands on anything that would get me up there. Funny what you take for granted.
Aviators know their clouds like a woodsman knows his forest. Better, perhaps. A felled tree might or might not fall upon the unwary axeman. But an anvil-headed cumulonimbus will take you for a ride you’ll never forget if you live through it, and leave you weeping in the aftermath if you do. Sharp up and downdrafts. Hail and lightning. Icing clinging to your wings, canopy and engine inlets. Dragging you down. Accumulating and shedding. Back through the spinning fan blades.
Fair enough when you see them coming, and can fly around or over. Sometimes they’re embedded in a broader gloom that turns darker by degrees. Growing with your impatient dread until the rain starts lashing at the canopy. Darker still and then the turbulence, illuminated by flashes of lightning. The sense of some ravenous thing trying to claw its way in.
I once scampered home to Key West, flying southward at 30,000 feet with a line of thunderstorms towering over the coast to my left, another wall five or ten miles to my right, out over the Gulf. Facing each other like sturdy battlements. Brilliant exchanges of silent artillery. In the dark of night, with no other feasible destination but my home field I lowered my dark visor half way down across my eyes and then touched the switch that electrically lowered my ejection seat. Facing the comfortable familiarity of the attitude gyro, airspeed indicator and altimeter. Not wanting to be blinded. Not wanting to see. Wanting only for it to be over.
I’ve flown low atop altostratus clouds that were perfectly leveled as though some cosmic carpenter had done his lathing there. Sanded it to perfection before stepping away with a satisfied grunt, content. Gray beneath and white on top. Flew 500 knots just atop – just barely – and then lowered my tailhook, dragging it through. Plugging the burners in to climb and look over my shoulder at the secular tracework left behind and acknowledged it a kind of vandalism. A barely forgivable desecration of something vestal. Then dove down to do it again.
I once saw a cloud bank off Oshima that had a western boundary so sharply demarcated that it looked as though it had been carved with a cake knife. Thought it would be a lark to dive down and skim my starboard missile launcher through the wall face. Found to my dismay that sharply defined wall clouds are borne of grossly intemperate turbulence. Helmet striking the canopy, shoulders hurled against the restraint straps. Learned about flying from that, and prodigious forces unreckoned with.
Stepped down the footbridge and into the now.
Was a time.