"Tower, this is Cessna three-five-one. Permission to leave your nice little airport." She slipped the bows of her sunglasses under her headphones and tugged at the bill of her cap. It never quite went away, this little nervousness at the beginning of a flight. The anticipation of flying always brought damp palms and that peculiar nudge in her midsection. The engine ticked over quietly, her patient servant Cessna, forever ready, never nervous like her, but competent and steady. Leaning forward to scan the parking and taxi ramps, she eased off the brake pedals and let the aircraft inch forward until they were at the edge of the runway.
"Cessna three-five-one, Watson Tower. You’re cleared for takeoff on two-seven. No other aircraft in the vicinity. Heading north again, Jen?"
"Three-five-one. Yes I am."
"Watson Tower. Jim was up there north of the power lines yesterday. The snow is gone now, and visibility is good."
"Thanks. I’ll stay south of that today. I figure I’ve got four good hours."
"Thanks. Cessna three-five-one out." She breathed in deeply and let it out.
The Watson runway was streaked with tire marks from hundreds of student pilots practicing touch-and-go’s. As the little Cessna turned to line up with the runway, she adjusted the bill of her cap to shade her eyes from the sun, and pushed the throttle forward with a practiced hand. The seat pressed into her back and carried her quickly down the runway. Moments later, the plane was airborne. She turned north when she was clear of the airport traffic pattern at five hundred feet, then straightened her cap and with a crooked finger pulled her hair up over the adjustment strap in the back.
The late morning sun was high enough that she could see the shadow of the Cessna down to the left and ahead of her. As she gained more altitude, the shadow became smaller, but still raced with her across the roads and farms and trees.
Flying was in her blood. She still remembered her first flight, sitting next to her father with those huge earphones perched on her head threatening to topple her five-year-old body over in the seat. She couldn’t see over the window sill without straining, so most of what she saw was sky. But the feeling of flight! Like those elevators in the big buildings downtown, scary and fun. And when her father banked the plane, she clung to the panel and the framework and looked straight down at the ground!
Back home, her mother couldn’t stop her gushing about the flight all through dinner. "Dad says I can get a license at sixteen!" The glances between her parents were not friendly at that point.
All through the "bad years" after her mother and father separated, she lived with the same dream, even though she saw less and less of her father after he moved away. By the time she reached the magic age, he lived far away, and they saw each other only occasionally. She spent a week with him during summer vacation one year, but he no longer flew then, and finances didn’t permit flying lessons for her. "Some day," he promised, for the twentieth time.
In college she joined the student flying club and paid for her lessons by tutoring other students in whatever subjects she happened to be taking at the time. When she soloed, she wrote to her father the same night. A month later, he replied with appropriate congratulations. He hadn’t flown in years, but when she visited him she noticed a photograph on the mantle of him standing next to his old red Taylorcraft. "Too busy lately to go up," he told her. She felt an emptiness in him.
And a distance. This god of her childhood was old now, and too busy to fly. The thing that had kept him alive in her as she grew up without him—flying—seemed not in him anymore. She kept her old image of him, though, and when she finally could afford to buy her own airplane, she named it after him. One weekend, when she flew it to where he lived and asked him to go up with her, he said no. Her heart sank.
A few years after she had bought her Cessna, her mother had written to her that he had bought an airplane kit. He lived alone out on an old farm and commuted an hour each way to work. "It’s an ultralight," her mother wrote, "Looks more like a toy. I hope he never finishes it, because he’ll just kill himself in it." Her mother had remarried, but she exchanged occasional letters with her ex-husband. Their daughter felt both gladness and further isolation, especially that he had not shared his news with her.
As much as she had told him of her passion for flying, he seldom took her aloft while she was young. The air was his own private place, his retreat away from the dullness of work and the stress of an unfulfilling marriage. To share it with others changed the experience for him. She came to know all that after she grew up. She thought she understood, but it remained a keen disappointment, an undigested lump inside her.
They were past the farms now, and below the Cessna she could see nothing but forest. "A small plane could go down in there and never be seen from the air." She’d told herself the same thing twenty times since she arrived two months ago to help search. It seemed a hopeless effort, but she couldn’t just quit.
At three thousand feet, she could see for miles, but the ultralight would be just a speck on the ground, so she alternated her passes between higher and lower altitudes. The low winter sun cast dark shadows between the trees. A warm spell a week ago had melted the snow that had covered the area for the past two months.
She no longer hoped that he was still alive. Other pilots in the area had helped search for a couple of weeks, but eventually, one by one, they went on with their lives. A downed plane reminded them of their own mortality, and they hoped it would be found. It could have been them, each one was aware, and the longer the search went on, the more they felt the need to move on, put the incident behind them, forget it. She got to know several of the local pilots, and every so often one would phone her to report on where they had recently scanned.
He had loved flying so much when she was young. It seemed to be most of what he ever talked about. She remembered a lot of arguments between her parents about the money his airplane had cost the family. The old Taylorcraft finally took too much to maintain, however, so he sold it to a young man who thought he could restore it. That happened about the same time they divorced, and her father seemed to change afterward.
She wrote to him after she found out that he was building the ultralight, and reminded him of those dreams they had shared. He confessed that he might not live long enough to finish the aircraft, or might be too old to fly it if he did. He’d let his pilot’s license lapse years before. It was a hobby of nostalgia. He finally brought her in to visit the craft a couple of times while it was under construction, but she couldn’t see much progress. He did finally agree to go up with her in her Cessna, but he seemed distracted in the air, and after taking over the controls for a few minutes turned it back to her. She glanced at him, but he had looked away, off to the side, where the wing skimmed over the blue-gray horizon.
The air today looked crisp and clear with visibility at least twenty miles. She watched contrails from high-flying jets criss-cross over her, and once she saw a small twin flying about a thousand feet above her. Otherwise, the sky belonged to her. She banked the Cessna into a slow three-sixty turn, and looked almost straight down at an old farm beside a long lake. Leveling the wings again, she watched the ground through the left window, sometimes banking a little for a better view without changing the general direction of her passes over the forest below. A well-used map lay on the seat next to her, divided into blocks with a felt-tip marker.
Ordinarily, this would have been a time of quiet joy for her, suspended like this over the landscape, identifying roads and buildings, keeping her bearings so that her back-and-forth passes covered every acre of the green and brown forest beneath her. Flying gave her a sense of relationship with the land that she never got on the ground. When she drove on the highway, she didn’t feel any connection with another car in passing—it was just a vehicle that she needed to avoid running into. From the air, a car on the road seemed alive—or perhaps it just symbolized life to her. It was going from this someplace to that someplace, carrying human beings that were like her. She pictured the occupants anticipating getting over there or remembering having been back there, two different times as well as two different places, while from her vantage point she could see both places at the same time. And in her mind, a house seen from the air was always occupied. A woman tying the shoes of her four-year-old before sending him out to play, a farmer sharpening his tools in the garage. A little girl watching her father tinkering under the hood of the family car. Or the family airplane. A familiar knot formed in her stomach.