Night Flight - The Next 30 Trips - Issue #9
I am writing a collection of essays, thirty stories from my first thirty years, spanning growing up flying in Western Alaska, to launching / landing rockets, to bootstrapping a business to space, to coming out more human on the other side. This is a chapter from that project, still in work. I would love your thoughts and feedback!
I skidded to a stop, roughly bouncing as the tires of my ‘89 Jeep Cherokee tried to grab the bits of gravel that had been spread across the ice-covered parking lot. Despite the changes in the ice and gravel mix throughout the winter, I always managed to stop right in front of our beige hangar on the south end of the Kenai airport, rather than crashing through the side. Not that it would have made much of a difference. The hangar’s siding hung dingy and dented in many places, beginning to peel away in others. A homemade wooden sign, painted in red, white, and blue, hung from the side of the hangar facing the road. It read “Air Supply Alaska” in large, stenciled letters.
I stepped out from my warm Jeep into the cold, dark, winter morning. My eyes, used to the brightness of headlights from the drive in, struggled to adjust to the relative darkness. They focused on the only real light they could find — a single old, streetlight hanging from a utility pole out in the middle of the paved area in front of our hangar about a hundred feet away. Our plane, a white 1940’s Beech-18, shone yellow in the circular pool of the lamp’s weak light.
In true teenage fashion, I was habitually under dressed for the conditions. I wore only a thin hoodie, work jeans, and a pair of untied running shoes, as if indifference to freezing all day long was some kind of show of strength. The sharp early morning air bit at every gap and seam, while I radiated what little heat my body produced directly through the ragged cotton into the dark sky. Failing to keep up my show of non-acknowledgement, I acquiesced to reality by pulling my hands inside my sleeves and throwing the hood up over my head. I then started to skate across the glare ice across the tarmac in my shoes, a weird sort of practiced shuffling slip-slide, out towards the plane.
The Beechcraft was old, built in the 1940’s and passed between operations since then until it finally reached us. It was an antique, yet a highly functional one. Designed before computers and built when the memories of early aviation disasters were still fresh, it possessed extra margins of strength in all the critical components but still managed to fly elegantly. This made it the perfect tool for navigating the rough weather and unkempt runways of Western Alaska.
It possessed twin radial engines, round and bulbous, perched slightly above and off the front of each wing. Their nine cylinders arranged in a perfect circle behind the propeller flashed in the light from under their cowlings. The smooth, globular nose stood ready to push through any weather. The stout, over-built landing gear was perfectly suited for rough gravel runways. But the most striking feature of the plane, its defining detail, was the tall H-tail standing at attention at the back. Most planes’ tails look a bit like a letter “T” with a single vertical stabilizer that has two small wings sticking out from it. The Beech’s long body instead tapered toward the back where it met a single wide, flat tail. From each side of that tail then rose a vertical stabilizer, making it look like a capital “H.” This not only made the plane unique, but it also gave it a grace unlike any other. Even standing still, the lines on that craft made it fairly hum; its elegant bearing related both its potential and purpose.
How could this be? Somehow, seventy-odd-years before, aluminum, glass, copper, vinyl, rubber, and other ordinary elements were brought together to make this plane. The bulk of the effort was technical, governed by math translated to physics, titrated into the engineering of the time. In short, it was a purely rational pursuit. The elements had been arranged in the right way to produce a plane. And though there is certainly a magic inherent to any recipe of quotidian elements that produces a machine that can fly, these particular elements had also been arranged just so.
While there are many ways to arrange elements to produce an airplane, there is only one way to produce this airplane. One that can not only navigate a constantly changing sea of air through changes in engine power, movement of elevators or ailerons, and the adjustment of rudder trim, but also do so deftly, predictably, and repeatably through seven decades. To produce such an airplane requires more than just the ability to arrange the elements, it requires heart as well. It requires craftsmanship.
The craftsmanship became clear in the minute details; the joints, the seams, the interfaces where each piece came together. It’s more than simple aesthetics. The balance, feel, performance, and identity of this craft were created not just by the interaction of individual components with each other, but also how they interacted with the world moving around it. The characteristics of planes morph with every edge in the airflow, every gram of mass fore or aft, left or right, from center, the amount of force required to move the throttles, even the weight of the controls through the yoke. The balanced and considered interplay of all these parts combine to create an expression of intelligence; a spirit in the machine. It created a singular personality, not possessed even by other planes of the same type. Even at that young age, the power of this alchemy was not lost on me.
I snapped out of my reverie. I had been daydreaming again. I was still shivering, standing in front of the plane, lost in the beauty of the machine to which I regularly trusted my young life. I fired up our old fuel truck and sat behind the wheel while it warmed up, staring idly at the frosted windshield. I watched my breath swirl and condense on the glass while the heater struggled to defrost a porthole-sized section of the glass. Helping it along with the sleeve of my hoodie, I scraped the frost clear then shifted the truck into first gear, along with reverse one of the only two gears this vehicle ever used and coaxed its frozen bones into motion.
I pulled up in front of the plane, parallel with the wing, hooked up the grounding cable, climbed up onto the wing, and gently touched the metal fuel nozzle to the bare metal ring of the fueling port. Static electricity in cold, dry conditions is a serious business. The cold metal of the nozzle burned my hands through the thin sleeves covering them, and they quickly went numb while the inboard wing tanks filled. I switched hands periodically, fueling with one and blowing warm breath into the other squatting on the wing over the open fuel port. My hoodie hitched up above my jean line as I bent over my work, exposing my back to the biting air as well.
After fueling the wings, I moved on to filling the large military surplus rubber bladder that filled the entirety of the plane behind the two front seats. We were hauling 300 gallons of heating oil out over the mountains to a village in Western Alaska, near the town of Iliamna. I reset the analog fuel meter, put in a new paper ticket, and started the pump. I watched the collapsed bladder slowly expand like an oversized air mattress from a flat sheet to an overstuffed sausage as the fuel flowed in.
As I worked, my Dad arrived. I noticed him first as a silhouette, a shadow moving silently against the dark as he crossed the icy ramp, wreathed in the frozen vapor of his breath. The rumble of the fuel truck and roar of the pump filled the early morning air, so we just nodded a quick hello. The noise provided him with a pretext to remain short with words, but I knew that he was busy with his pre-flight preparation.
It was always the same. He would slowly, methodically, approach the plane and, with a utilitarian grace, reach a single hand up to touch the navigation light in the tip of the left wing. He’d then start walking, running his hand lightly down the leading edge, feeling the smooth surface of the rubberized anti-ice boots. He’d stop at the first engine, look inside the cowl at the cylinders, check that the latches were secure, and inspect the propeller. Then, he went to the right side and repeated the same practice before continuing around the back of the plane, checking each hinged element as well as the landing gear.
A pre-flight check is a highly practical ritual, but it is also spiritual. This was where I could see the silent workings of my Dad’s heart come alive. Of course, if you had asked him about this, he’d disavow it and you’d be able to feel his heart close. He might shrug and would simply say that he was only running down the checklist for the aircraft. But even then, I couldn’t be so easily fooled. I know he felt a change coming over him, one that I would describe as a transmutation, and that he just didn’t have the words for it.
Maybe I don’t either, but I will try to find them. Throughout my life, I watched him perform this exact same ritual hundreds of times. Then I could only call it a change, now I would name it properly as an initiation. As he made his way around that plane, he was doing two things: transitioning out of the cares of daily life and checking the plane’s condition to merge his own. Whatever worries had been on his mind on the drive in — overdue bills, fears about the business, the multitude of other concerns that always buzz around the back of all our heads, the general weight of everyday life — were set down, and in their place, he picked up only the task at hand.
As he worked down the checklist, he began to cast himself out over the horizon. To see mountain passes, checkpoints, approach procedures, and the myriad pitfalls awaiting us. He integrated each of these with the new morning’s weather. He began to anticipate the decisions and adjustments that would have to be made to get us there and back again. He had to decide if we should even go, and many times we did not. Divorced completely from the urgency of customers or the existential worries of small business ownership, if the signs said to wait, we waited.
After he finished with the plane, he checked the weather for the third time. He filed our flight plan; that morning two souls on board. All the large pieces fell into place: our preferred route, our alternates, our fuel load, our weight and balance. He made himself ready both practically and spiritually to face our flights through Western Alaska for what they really were: a probabilistic casting of lots where he would be constantly responding to a complex, shifting set of conditions.
Therefore, it was important to get things right on the ground. The safest thing we could do for any given set of conditions was not take off at all. Once we were in the air, anything that came our way could only be responded to with a limited set of actions: discrete adjustments of power, pressure through our feet on pedals, and pushes or pulls of the arms to move the yoke were all we could try to alter fate. Of course, we couldn’t stay on the ground every time. Our clients depended on us for groceries, building supplies, fuel, and more.
I closed out the cargo area and double checked the tie-down straps. His initiation complete, my Dad and I each climbed aboard. We walked up the wing and squeezed through the small window on the pilot’s side. I went first, stepping first on his seat and then sliding over to mine, careful not to get my feet tangled in the wires for the headsets or the charts neatly stacked between seats. It sobered me to think that in an emergency, this same small window was also our primary point of egress. I doubted that I’d be able to climb over my Dad to get out, and I always hoped to God I never have to.
We sat in the cold, dark plane, trying to get organized. The only light came through the windshield from that same solitary lamp on the tarmac that illuminated our entire morning. We entered the next phase of ritual as we reverently adjusted our seat belts, trim tabs, headsets, and even our pant legs. Whatever it took to get comfortable, settle in, and become aligned with the task at hand. It may seem obsessive to adjust my shoulder straps by the millimeter, bouncing my body against them after every little tweak. But checking them this way ensures they allow me to lean forward enough to see out the side window, yet not be flung so far forward in a crash that I hit the instrument panel. Other rituals are less clear in their purpose. I can’t explain why I had to fiddle with the friction locks on the throttle until the levers slid just right. Maybe it was obsessive behavior. Maybe that compulsion had no effect on reality. Maybe superstition didn’t work at all. But, then again, who’s to say? If superstition has ever failed a pilot, they were unable to tell the rest of us.
We transitioned to the next checklist and began working our way down. Brakes, throttle, flaps, and mixture set. Master switch on. The gyroscopes powering the instruments began to softly whine as they spun up. Left engine start. It turned through, fired, then coughed its way to life. The engine grumbled a bit while Dad tinkered with the throttle and mixture to coax it along. After a few moments, it found its pace and settled into an easy chugging lope. He repeated the procedure with the right engine.
As both engines warmed up, my Dad flipped the switch to power on the avionics, our navigation, and radios. They greeted us with a long static squelch followed by a short beep. The current weather report was again dialed up and the pre-recorded voice ran through its briefing three times as we jotted down the details on cloud cover, adjusted instruments by fractions of a degree, and noted the prevailing winds. As the engines gained heat, I felt the first tendrils of warm air begin to reach out of the floor vent and touch my frozen sneakers.
I was startled by my Dad radioing the Kenai airport ground controller asking for clearance to taxi. It had been so quiet all morning, focused on our work, tuned to the sounds of the plane and the story that they tell that his words sounded almost alien. I realized that radio request was the first thing I’d heard him say since all morning. Speaking aloud the intention to get underway suddenly made our plans real.
We were cleared to taxi from our hangar to runway “20R,” pronounced two-zero-right. He throttled up to climb the slight incline out of our hangar parking area and we rolled out onto the main taxiway. The plane began to bounce gently on its tires as it rolled. We fell quiet again as we clipped along past all the other dark hangars toward the far end of the airport. Our path was illuminated by the plane’s taxi lights, the occasional streetlight like ours posted above some other empty tarmac, and the strobing of the small blue taxiway lights winking as we went by.
We reached runway 20R and stopped, holding short of it, waiting to cross the final threshold. The controller in the tower had undoubtedly been watching us, the solitary plane of the new morning, during our slow taxi across the length of the airport. Still, per his own procedure, he waited for us to reach out first.
My Dad turned to me expectantly, looked me briefly up and down, then smiled. His kind eyes alight with anticipation and crinkled with the joy of the task upon us.
“Ready?” he asked. I nod my assent.
He flipped the radio over to transmit on the tower frequency, pressed the mic button and called, “Kenai Tower, Beechcraft November nine-two-one-zero holding short runway two-zero-right, ready for departure and turnout to the west,” in that gravelly, low voice all pilots affect.
“Beechcraft ninety-two-ten cleared for takeoff,” came the ready reply.
Dad released the brakes, added some throttle, and kicked the rudder pedal to swing our nose down the runway. Once pointed in the right direction, he pushed the propeller control levers full in and smoothly rolled power on until it was full. The engines responded eagerly, shifting from their laidback lope to a purposeful roar that drowned out all else. We picked up speed and the white lights lining the edge of the runway began to tick by ever faster until they became a steady blur, adding visual effect to my sure feeling that we were leaving our current dimension through some portal to another.
Light forward pressure on the yoke lowered the nose which in turn lifted the tail wheel off the ground, causing us to balance us on the two wheels of the main gear. Constant, intuitive adjustments on the rudders kept our heading straight. The whole craft hummed. In my seat, I felt the wings begin to fill as the air rushing underneath them built and swelled. Then, just as lightly as he’d pushed it forward, Dad now pulled back slightly on the yoke and held it. The plane responded by easing neatly off the ground. We cruised straight down the runway in ground effect, trapping air between the ground and bottom of our wings to generate extra lift, while we built speed. Dad scanned the engine instruments and verified their health. All looking good and speed built, he lifted the landing gear and I felt the rush as we began a steep climbing turn to the right, out toward the western horizon and into the dark morning.
Hearts and minds engaged, we crossed the flats toward the water and watched them fall away down sandy bluffs before giving way to Tikhatnu, the frozen inlet that separates the Kenai Peninsula and its roads from the boundless wilds of Western Alaska. I noticed the light of the moon for the first time that morning. It illuminated the monochrome landscape of snow, ice, and water with its muted yellow light, much as the streetlamp had back on the ground.
How, with so much excitement, with feeling this craft and ourselves tuned to a single purpose, could I not let myself get swept away by my imagination? I saw our plane as a cocoon radiating light, heat, and noise out over the sleeping void. I saw it as a microcosm of earth itself: a loud, unlikely, somewhat absurd buzzing of life traversing an otherwise dark, cold expanse. I marveled at our hubris as we crossed the dangerous inlet in minutes, slipping past a resting volcano on the other side. We covered distances in hours that before took humans lifetimes. I pondered the audacity, but also what felt like the eventuality, of it all.
As much as my Dad wanted me to be practical, I felt that great things took both. Of course, I’d need practical skills to achieve any kind of dream, but without heart how could one conceive of a worthy dream in the first place? How else to notice which things, like flying, like working with the miracle of modern machinery, might light me up and help illuminate whatever path I chose to travel?
I knew his focus on practicality was an attempt to keep me safe and to prepare me for the real world. But in that plane the lie of practicality was laid bare. In that left pilot’s seat he was more engaged, more present, and more alive than anywhere else, and it was all due to being lost in the romance of flight. As for safety, well, what safety? In just the fifteen minutes I’d been daydreaming we’d already crossed beyond roads, beyond cell service, and beyond any hope of immediate help should we need it. Our safety was born from our equipment, our craft, our plans, and ourselves. It was a convenient illusion but one we trusted in. And as for the real world, I couldn’t imagine anything more real than mountains, ocean, snow, and the starry sky spread out in front of us.
That was okay. I resolved to go along with the story that practicality was all that mattered. Most things in a young life don’t make sense, and we often must hold multiple dueling truths at the same time. But I also hoped I would remember the feeling of heart and mind coming together toward a worthy task. I couldn’t imagine I would forget, but then we always say that. We think that we will remember a moment clearly and hold onto it forever. We never consider how the future might alter that perception.
Nothing would be required of me until the plane landed. I let myself change tracks and start to dream about how far humans had come. We’d somehow developed from small groupings of bacteria that learned to cooperate to gather resources more efficiently. From that cooperation over millions of years, cells developed. Over millions more we developed bodies that served as homes for the cooperating bacteria and in that way became full-fledged organisms. These new organisms became extensions of the cells’ desire to develop, procreate, and grow. They became something more than the cells could have been on their own.
As we slipped along, I felt that our plane was like the next step of that evolution. We were more when we were coupled to it. It became an extension of our bodies, translating our pedal pushes, yoke pressure, throttle changes, and myriad other adjustments into coordinated progress over the mountains and ice below, all while hauling a few thousand pounds of cargo with us. That was something my Dad and I could never have achieved on our own. And we used this extension of our abilities for the same purpose as living things always should: to further organize and cooperate. To bring food, fuel, vehicles, and materials that support our communities and their special way of life. It felt special, and it felt worthy.
I looked out the window at the frozen world below. It reminded me to appreciate the warmth, finally flowing freely from the floor heater. I wiggled my toes and enjoyed feeling the circulation return to them. I leaned back in my seat and stuffed my Dad’s jacket between the headrest and the wall. I closed my eyes and let the hum of the engines lull me to sleep as we flew through the dark over the horizon, a singular beacon of life’s determination, to the sleeping villages beyond. I could sleep so easily because I felt safe. After all, we can only enter that place where dreams and work to make them real, try to unite the heart and mind, when we feel safe.