Monday, March 8, 2010

night flight

(originally posted Wednesday, December 10, 2008 at 8:39am. but I love this one.)

I FEEL like a techno-flapper.

My ridiculous hair is what caused it- think old lady 'do only in dark brown instead of white, and you're tracking with me. My fro' is a perfect imitation, close curls exploding from my scalp in all directions. And I know what awaits- this mess doesn't grow out, just down. Sorry, Navy. I'm gonna look like a clown for a while.

So the partner in crime for this jazz-era throwback is the Energizer head lantern I'm sporting, cascading a tunnel of red light down onto my binder as I record Hobbs and Tach times, check my fuel tanks, and sump the front line. December in the panhandle is like perfect fall weather, all the time. I'm hustling around the wingspan checking Nav lights in one of my favorite sweaters, a thick butternut squash number from J. Crew that I undoubtedly found at some thrift store in Colorado. The leaves are at full turn now. Driving to the midwest in a mere ten days is going to be a seasonal shock to the system, but one that I'm looking forward to.

I made a pumpkin pie last week because I enjoy making them; I brought a healthy slice of it to my instructor because he enjoys eating them. In return, tonight out on the tarmac by the light of the beacon and the hangar lights and the moon, he payed me back with a backflip. Dawn and I showed him a few OCS RPT exercises in return, doing six-90's in perfect unison, heads off the deck. My adrenaline was already primed, and the exercise (haha... I can hear in my head, a very familiar voice.... all too-geh-ther, EXERCISE!) pushed it through my system.

I've been up on a couple of night flights before with Dave, another ensign who was in our ground school, but got ahead of me because of a ridiculous medical hold for allergies. (Honestly. I'm sure clearing your ears isn't THAT important.) I already know I love being up there in the dark, the lights spread off to the north like some great Christmas tree, knocked to its side, rope after rope of twinkles glistening. We take runway 14 and glide up and out, over condos cast in weird relief by gaudy, colored illumination. It's impossible to tell where the sky meets the water as we head south of the coastline. The gulf stretches out in front of us like a soft dark mouth opened wide enough to swallow the whole world.

We get to Panama City quickly, and the runway I'm supposed to use dumps directly out into the bay. I'm serious, the threshold starts and before that it is just water, reflecting the markers back at me like a blackened mirror. Not to mention, I'm on a three-mile final per the tower's instruction. You always feel like you're low at night anyway, and that doesn't help particularly. My right hand, pinky and butt-of-the-palm slung over the throttle, and thumb and forefinger on the trim, never gets a break. Aileron, aileron, rudder, rudder, pitch speed power ground effect flare dip TOUCH and I keep the elevator back and dump the carb heat because you know, this is supposed to be a soft field landing. We stop on the runway completely and flaps go to ten, brakes are in and full power, rotate at fifty for short field.

Long after we've left the pattern at PFN, when we're tracking Destin on the Garmin and toying with the edge of the shining skirt-hem of the emerald coast, it comes to me. I'm sitting slightly on my left hip, weight cocked over to that elbow, left hand held by relaxed fingertips on the yoke. My right hand never leaves sentry, but it too is near-limp, familiar with what it holds. Dane and Dawn are both quiet, the air is a near-perfect headwind, the engine hums and we admire Mars and Venus out the port window. I find myself comfortable. Like being in a car at night, fingers entwined loosely with a sleeping passenger's, lightly beating the rhythm of the soft background music on the back of their hand. Knowing there's just the journey ahead of you, and the stars above you, and the wheels and the road... only now it's the wings and the air. But the feeling is just the same. Just the same.

We land short-field, Dane asks me where my aiming point was again and I say, "Back there." We laugh together as we taxi. I know I won't be up again at night for months, and I can't even find it in myself to be resentful at the old bucket-of-bolts that I'm attempting to steer with burnt-out taxi lights. Later, when I'm out with the old girl on my own again, replacing the pitot-heat cover and tying down the wings and tail with snug hitches, I can't stop thinking about how lucky I am. This is my job. I switch my head lantern to white and leave the Cessna behind.

(apologies for lack of tense-agreement. it's sort of on purpose, mostly by design.)

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