tail of an airplane

For those that read Weather or Not, you know I planned to fly myself to Atlanta for the weekend. The universe apparently had another idea for me since a wicked line of thunderstorms barreled through the southeast on Thursday. Given the scenario, and expected rainfall projections for the southeast over the weekend, I passed on flying myself, as well as driving, and opted to book a commercial flight instead. I usually prefer being the pilot, versus the passenger, because I always learn something new about flying, or myself, when I sit in the left seat at the controls. But the flight wasn’t wasted in that regard as there were a couple of things I learned on this commercial flight.

The first thing I realized is I don’t derive the same sense of pleasure I once did from looking out that 8 x 10 window on a commercial flight. In the past, I loved the window seat and the view from above that it offered. But after sitting in the cockpit for so long, experiencing the whole view straight ahead, that tiny glass pane can’t compare. It’s like getting a scenic tour of the grand canyon through the peep-hole of a hotel door.

The other thing I noticed was during takeoff. There was lots of chatter throughout the jet when at the gate and while taxiing to the runway: traveling coworkers discussing company business, vacationers excited about their trip, people meeting for the first time, spilling their life stories to each other.

But something happened when the plane swung wide onto the runway and the jet engines whined upward. The conversations throughout the aircraft started to die down. Then as the plane charged forward, pressing passengers into their seats, everyone on the plane went silent. I guess I’ve noticed this phenomenon before, but this time it jumped out at me. What’s happening here? Maybe some were nervous, trying to calm themselves by whispering a silent prayer? Some were gazing out the windows, I suppose watching the gray runway blur before it dropped away as the plane lifted skyward, putting distance between it and the ground. But even someone who had only been reading, silent already, set her book down for a few moments and seemed to stare into space.

Who knows the exact thoughts going through everyone’s minds? I’m sure apprehension plays a part for some. Maybe others are just tired of talking and want a break. But I believe something bigger is happening. And that something is this: no matter how often most of us have flown, there is a subconscious reverence and awe for that magical moment of flight when we first lift off the ground. For thousands of years, most humans believed flight was impossible. Only in the last hundred years or so have we achieved it. So for a moment in time, that aircraft is more than the sum of its parts, more than just bolts and metal and electronics. For that period, it’s transformed into something sacred, holy ground in the sky, if you will.

But after some contemplation, I realized the comparison goes beyond those first few moments when we become airborne. Think how closely the seats in an airplane resemble, in formation and alignment, to the pews in a place of worship. And in the cockpit, we have this god-like figure called a pilot, who, for a certain period of time, is in control of our destinies. We trust he’s there even though we can’t see him. At least we think he’s in that cockpit, but how can we know for sure? On this particular flight, I never saw the pilot. The cockpit door was closed the entire time.

I suppose paranoia could set in. How do we know the plane is not on autopilot, that pilot-god didn’t bail on us, already miles behind us, fingers on the parachute ripcord, leaving us alone on this adventure to fend for ourselves. But sometimes as we wonder if he is really up there, he speaks to us, just a voice from thin air to comfort and soothe us, telling us there may be turbulence, and it won’t last forever, but we’d better fasten our seat belts just in case. He even sends smiling flight attendant angels to take care of us, answer our questions, focus on our immediate needs.

And we depend on him to protect us, bring us safely to our destination, some end point many miles ahead in our journey. However, we aren’t guaranteed of the final destination, are we? Even though we think we know where we are going, only the pilot really knows. He may learn we have to change destinations long before we know due to circumstances we aren’t privy to yet. We may think we’d know if we veered off our flight path, but would we? The pilot can make a slight course change of 5, maybe 10 degrees in the beginning of a 3000 mile trip, and it might mean the difference in arriving in Seattle versus Los Angeles. And none of us would know until we arrived. But eventually, we’d learn there was a good reason for diverting.

As I said, I always learn something when flying. But this time I walked away with a little more than I was expecting. I walked away knowing that we just need to sit back, relax and enjoy the ride while we trust that the pilot knows what he’s doing, where he’s taking us, and that we’ll get there safely, wherever that destination may be.

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