Nothing stands alone. All things, all events, are both individual and parts of something else. Sometimes small things portend large consequences.
He pushed the throttle forward slowly, counting, "One, two, three," to establish the time of the movement. The little aircraft rolled over the rough grass, picking up speed with each second. He held the stick centered. The fat tire just beyond his right foot bounced a little, and the landing gear strut whipped through the taller grass. At first, he had to steer assertively. He was a bit breathless with excitement but his hands and feet responded surely on the controls, steering the craft straight toward the end of the field. In a few moments he could feel it want to fly, so he nudged the stick toward his belt buckle. The bouncing suddenly stopped, and he was airborne.
He watched the ground move away beneath him All motion appeared to slow. Now seemingly suspended over the line of trees marking the end of his landing strip, he looked around him at the exposed structure of his plane. Wind, the only thing reminding him of his motion through the air, roared past his helmet and whipped his clothes. The steady growl of the engine reassured him. The wings were level with the horizon, and the nose a little high. When he judged that he was about 300 feet up, he took a breath and let it out, and eased the throttle back a little. They had passed the critical altitude, below which if the engine failed, he’d have to try to land straight ahead, into the rough terrain, avoiding trees and rocks as well as he could to set down without breaking his neck. Now they were high enough that he could turn the ultralight aircraft back toward the field, if necessary, and probably glide safely there without power. He kept climbing until he was about 500 feet above the terrain, then adjusted the throttle just enough to maintain level flight. The wind curled around the edges of his helmet faceplate, cooling the perspiration on his face. Reaching into the little foam cooler strapped next to his seat, he took out a plastic bottle and squirted some water into his mouth. He looked straight down between his knees at the tops of pine trees. Small ponds dotted the landscape, reflecting the sun that was barely shaded by the wing over his head. He turned slowly toward the west. The sun touched his neck with warmth. "Now, this is flying," he said aloud, barely able to hear his own voice. It reminded him of being on a motorcycle years ago, feeling the wind whip his clothes and yielding his hearing to the sound of the engine. When he turned, it felt a lot like turning a bike, leaning into the turn and keeping his weight pressed into the center of the seat.
A representative of the kit manufacturer had checked over his new airplane just last week, and this was the first time he’d had a chance to take it out for more than a few minutes at a time. Before, he’d been paying all of his attention to the operation of the aircraft. Today, he was just going to enjoy flying. Real flying!
Over open land now, he could see acres of cultivated farmland showing vestiges of fall harvest. Here and there were rectangular patches of woods, tiny remnants of the vast hardwood forests that used to cover this part of the country. A few minutes later, nothing but forest flowed by under him, miles and miles of hardwood and pine, green on green, just a few hints of yellow and red. Occasional small lakes broke up the solid cover, brightly reflecting the clear sky. Now and then he could see a road slicing through the forest, appearing and disappearing. He always knew where he was, however, by a huge power line that led directly back past his landing strip, and by the city off to the south, crowned by a thin brown layer of haze.
A flock of geese crossed his path, untroubled by this noisy silver bird that shared their sky. Several honked as they disappeared behind him.
Suddenly it became quieter. The engine had stopped. Even though it was obvious, he twisted around to see that the propeller, too, was motionless. After a moment of panic, he went into a familiar routine: keep the wings level, keep the nose down to maintain flying speed, and think. He pulled several times on the starter cord that hung beside his head, but the engine did not catch. Okay, he thought, let’s set her down someplace smooth. He looked around below him, especially straight ahead, where he could glide farther. Tense as he was, he noticed that the little craft still handled smoothly and easily. He maintained airspeed by dropping the nose slightly to extend his glide as much as possible.
A large lake lay ahead of him, and at the far end a little farm interrupted the continuous surface of treetops. Sighting carefully over the little instrument panel to gauge his angle of descent, he estimated that he could glide just that far. A quick glance around told him that it was his only clear shot. If he couldn’t make it across the lake, a water landing was preferable to smashing into the trees. His mind was too busy just then to think about how he was feeling, about the impending loss of his brand-new aircraft, about the months of work it took to build, the late nights of frustrating effort to make parts fit together, the phone calls to the kit manufacturer, all the time lost to his family. An experienced pilot, he didn't dwell on the possibility that he, as well as his aircraft, might not survive the next few minutes.
The lake rose ever closer. His glide-path sightline showed only water ahead. At a few feet above the surface, he pulled back on the stick, raising the nose and slowing his descent, but only momentarily. When the wing could no longer support the weight, it stalled, and the nose dropped suddenly. He took a deep breath and reached for the buckle of his seatbelt. Then they hit the cold water, that seemingly soft surface that now felt as hard as concrete. Something smashed him in the face, and he no longer saw or felt anything.
He didn't know that the great wing floated on the surface of the water for a long time, his head just inches below. He couldn't feel the tangled aluminum structure slowly tilt to the left and, gracefully as a mallard side-slipping down from the sky, drop ever so quietly, ever-so-slowly, into the dark, deep lake. A trail of bubbles followed them down.
Minutes later, far overhead, an osprey glided across the lake. Something in the water caught the bird's attention, and it folded its wings and dove. As soon as it grabbed the piece of plastic, however, it released it and once more flew skyward. A multicolored oil slick began to spread out over the surface of the lake, catching the sun in a flat rainbow broken only by a steady stream of bubbles. The faint swish of pines in the wind whispered the only sound for a long time.
The sun traced its autumn arc across the blue sky and eased itself into a line of high clouds in the west, setting them afire. Bursting bubbles glittered on the darkening surface of the lake. The light gradually faded into blue, then purple, and then black.
The next day, even the oil slick had gone. A few small pieces of plastic foam slowly drifted away and disappeared.
In the depths of the clear water, the tangle of aluminum, sailcloth and trapped air finally reached a point of equilibrium where the density of the water exactly balanced, and it floated quietly, a strand of fabric tugging toward the surface, undulating in a slow, twisting dance of a water nymph. The stout nylon belt still held the body of the pilot in the midst of the wreckage. It all hung there, halfway between the surface and the bottom, drifting inch-by-inch with the glacially slow current of the lake.
June 4, 2003