Flight - Kate Crowley, photos by Mike Link
By Kate Crowley
Photos by Mike Link
Ever since human beings have become cognizant of their place as terrestrial beings, I believe we have envied birds; to be free of gravity, to soar above the troubles of the land below, to lift up and be able to move three dimensionally in the same way creatures of the sea are able is something we’ve only been able to imagine. And imagination has pushed us so hard that we have gone from ancient fables (Icarus and Daedalus) into rocket powered vehicles that lift us into outer space. It is such a brief period of time in human history that we have been able to imitate birds with our flying machines, yet it has become almost ordinary for the millions who fly across the planet daily.
My first airplane flight happened almost 60 years ago. My mom, who had gotten her private pilot license a decade earlier, wanted my younger brother and I to experience flight, but since my dad had insisted she give up flying, we boarded a larger plane, a Northwest airline I’m sure, in Minneapolis and flew all the way to Rochester, where my dad met us and drove us back home. I can still remember leaning over to look at the clouds out the window at the same moment that the plane tilted into a turn. I sat back quickly, thinking I had caused the shift. It seems the love of flight might be especially strong in my genes. When I asked my mom, who is now 92 why she wanted to learn to fly, she said, “It was just the idea of being up there alone, enjoying it all”.
Dreams of flying are universal; I mean the night time version, not the daydream variety. There was a period in my life when my sleep was filled with these magical moments where I could spread my arms out to either side and simply take off. The sensation of moving through space was very real, but at the same time, there was the specter of power lines that I had to avoid - not very hard to interpret those kinds of dreams. My life changed and the dreams disappeared, but not the desire to fly.
It was around this time that hang gliding was becoming popular and I decided I had to try it. Living in Minneapolis limited the vertical possibilities, since you need some elevation to get the kite and yourself airborne. I took lessons and practiced at a hill in Columbia Heights. Wearing a helmet and the fairly heavy kite on your shoulders, we would run down the hill, trying to remember all the instructions for how to hold the control bar and launch ourselves into the air. I believe the longest I was suspended above the ground was probably 10 seconds, but the thrill was brief since I was concentrating so hard on how not to crash land. This was a short lived endeavor because I decided I would never really leap off a cliff face and I did have two little kids whom I didn’t want to leave motherless. Thirty years later one of those little kids, my son, has taken up paragliding. (And I worry).
Since then my life of flying has been more mundane, but nevertheless exciting and satisfying, even as the airlines continue to shrink the space in which we must sit for hours at a time (Finally, being short of stature has paid off). While I generally understand the physics of how planes fly, I, like so many others, still find it miraculous that this piece of metal, weighing many tons, manages to get up off the ground and remain suspended in the air. My eyes rarely stray from the window if there is ground to be seen below. I love seeing the changes in landscape and trying to figure out how that particular topography came to be and where I am at any given time.
On our most recent flight to California, we were in a brand new plane that had screens on the back of each seat with a variety of options for viewers, including an interactive map. With this one, you could touch the screen and have a Google Earth effect, changing the direction and elevation of the plane and seeing the names and outlines of places below. Unfortunately it was a night flight, so I really couldn’t enjoy it to the fullest.
On the big commercial planes I admit to being a nervous flyer when we encounter bad weather. I know the pilots are highly trained and the attendants rarely look worried, but I can’t help wonder what’s going on up in the cockpit. For that reason I am always more comfortable in smaller planes, like the single prop ‘five-seater’ we flew in last week over Baja California. Even though I was sitting in the back of the plane, I could very easily see the pilot and all the gauges (not that I knew what any of them displayed), and what he was doing. As long as he looked relaxed, so was I. Plus, these planes generally fly at much lower elevations and I am better able to see the details of the land below. In this case, it was a surprise to see that the land of Baja was so rugged and raw. Volcanic in origin, you can see how the weather and molten core of the earth is still carving and folding the rocks. Mike was in heaven surveying all this new landscape.
I will probably always envy the birds for their gift of flight, but I can also enjoy and appreciate their ability and freedom since I have had a taste of it. My eyes will always follow their movement, even as my feet stay planted on the ground.