‘We swung over the hills and over the town and back again, and I saw how a man
can be master of a craft, and how a craft can be master of an element.’ –Beryl Markham
I saw the machine, a silver-sheathed air rover, and my eyes glazed over. It looked
so small like a mechanical toy glued in place, held together by movable parts, dolphin-
shaped nose to fish-tail, right wing tip to left, barely able to hold one person of average
size, let alone two. It was a beautiful morning in February. The outside temperature was
0 degrees. I was bundled up. We were at a hangar for light planes in the outskirts of
Chicago, on a bright winter day living up to its reputation as only the ruthless windy city
of Saul Bellow can, winds gusting briskly, and I was with my kid brother, not a kid any
more, a seasoned pilot hosting my first sample flight, gawking awkwardly at his shining
silver and white built-for-adventure turboprop Beech Bonanza Beechcraft with red trim
which would heft us into the air.
“Just don’t step on the wings when you’re climbing inside,” he said in that
pragmatic manner he reserves for nuance. I was not planning to move a foot. The bucket
seat looked no wider in width than a child’s car seat. “I won’t,” I replied with a smile and
a wave, deciding I had better stay focused on my camera and circling the aircraft for
some good shots, and leave the preps to the experts.
“What’s that you have in your bag?” my brother inquired, too casually. Putting me
on the spot creates more bumbling in public, with me playing the victim, than I care to
recall. My burgundy and tan leather cross-body, my absolute traveling companion, on 72
hour journeys from point of departure to final destination, does tend to gain weight
whenever I am overseas, on account of the various bits and stuff that accumulates, some
from previous travels, others from a couple of decades ago, which I have not emptied.
The more vintage the look, the harder I cling to the scrap. One time I used to have a large
canvas carryall tote which could bloat, then grew too heavy. He knows me too well to not
give my bag serious consideration. However, my assumption was he had been referring
to the couple of Dostoevsky’s hardbacks buried deep, which I had borrowed from the
library for this trip. “We don’t need those,” he said without further ado, handing my bulky
volumes to the hangar-manager. Without my books to clutch I turn into liquefied butter.
My heart skipped a beat. The manager of the hangar was jovially making small
talk, issuing routine instructions for flying the aircraft, traffic procedures, when he finally
caught the look on my face, or my gut nervousness registered. He switched gears as
smoothly as executing a perfect three-point landing on the Hudson River aka ‘Sully’
Sullengerger, the hero-pilot whom the world knows, and resorted instead to making me
feel at ease, inquiring whether I had flown in a small plane before. Of course I had not! I
did not need to shout it to the world. Images of Airport and Jet Storm flashed through my
mind in sweeping horror, together with at least eight other terrifying air disaster movies I
had seen through Netflix of every possible insidious scenario that can hit you once you
are airborne over a sheet of ice. Including snakes. I gulped, letting my brother do all the
talking. Let’s be honest. For a woman from India I was managing well.
I am not squeamish, never have been deathly afraid of heights, not even when I
magically floated up the French Alps at Mont Blanc in the Aiguille du Midi cable car,
gazing at icy precipices far below, which had me re-reading James Hilton’s Lost Horizon,
for its spiritual lift, but I understood speed and velocity, head winds and groggy engines,
and the agency of fear which the concerned manager was doing his best to elaborate to
alleviate my own. My brother in the meantime was reveling in the moment, in the signals
he was receiving, being the first in our family to fly a small plane, a big first, his undying
interest in cars only outdone by his glowing pride in his latest acquisition, a six-seater
Beechcraft, and his joy at taking me up. He had flown a bunch of times to Syracuse and
back, knew his machine, and could be relied upon to give his bookish sister visiting from
the ‘boondocks’ of SE Asia, a short joy ride over a cold shimmering lake. Lake Michigan!
Over the years my brother and I have developed a kind of To Kill a Mockingbird
sibling rivalry-comfort-childhood-closeness that defies description, although I was the
oldest in our three-angle triangle, the reverse of Scout-Jem, not counting Dill. If it must
be examined it would delve deep into our childhood growing up in Bombay, having lived
city-folksy, in limited crowded spaces, where the toys we played were of a kind he could
easily rip apart and re-construct out of wires and scrap metal and odds and ends. My first
clay doll was putty in his hands, broken, torn up, except for her pretty face, setting dead
limbs right. Beats me how he did it, what stood him out, how adept he grew, but his
expertise at calibration and calculation was out of this world. He should have been an
engineer. When he needed me, I heard, not in words, but in the spaces between, in the
instant, the rush to connect, although we’ve lived continents apart most of our adult lives.
I understood how much he wanted to fly me up that day, to capture his moment
for me, one that would never recur for the both of us, because I had three continents to
cross to reach my home in Malaysia where I lived back then, and I felt like a microcosm
of the skies, Homer’s planet swimming in its ken, waiting for the stars to align, and
incredibly, I agreed. Later I would learn that had the weather been totally impossible to
undertake the flight, or too hazardous for a first-timer unused to the risky rock-n-roll
exhilarating motion of a small aircraft, the manager would have refused the turboprop be
rolled out of the hangar. He has the final say. I stared at the sky. We all did. All clear!
So, on that particular day the wind sock was our decider. We clambered into the
cockpit, my brother started the engine, which gave a healthy sound, and we lifted off.
High into the whipping cold air where the ridge of Chicago’s skyline marks the border
with the vast gray of the lake we climbed. We had to stay low, under international airport
O’Hare’s airspace, billed as the busiest airport in the world, with take-offs and landings by
today’s standards at one every ten to fifteen seconds, so as not to interfere with
commercial flights frequently landing and taking off in this huge city. Anyone who has
not been to Chicago and not seen this giant of a lake that mimics an open sea iced over in
the winter has to marvel at the sugared ice frosting, glinting from below under a weak
sun. It is an incredible sight.
We both wore aviation headsets, my brother maintaining a running dialogue
which I was encouraged to enter through the speaker system. Later I would learn it was
more of a precautionary measure to protect my ears against noise damage, and to stay
alert and engaged, although at the time I thought it was to communicate with him. In a
few short minutes the downtown was passing beneath us, and we had gained sufficient
altitude to bank off Chicago’s most famous landmark the mountainous Willis Tower
(formerly Sears Tower, a name I am more familiar with) rising up high into the sky like a
King Kong remake. Unreal, I yelled into my headset, pointing, we’re dwarfed, since our
puny little silver shadow was literally flying below, and I waved excitedly at people I
imagined or thought I saw in vague silhouettes in offices above watching us from behind
the glass windows.
He described various switches to me, how to read the monitors, which gauges did
what, info overload I would scarce remember. My distraction was the sights which
passed in less than the blink of an eye. Approaching Navy Pier at 2000 feet I think was a
true privilege, the breath-taking lakefront playground sitting intractable below us like a
giant behemoth of enticing entertainment, heavily peopled. I waved.
Our little silver shadow was humming nicely, but once over the open lake, the
headwinds blew so fierce I signaled I had had enough. We had flown far out. Below us
was a sea of gray, where the sea met the sky winking unceasingly, wobbling glassy in
the sunlight, no skyline visible. We turned around sharply, the engine noise so unfamiliar
at the apex of the turn I thought we were disintegrating mid-air. My brother gave a
thumbs up, a broad smile wreathed all over his face, and I was reassured.
The return was swift because we had a brisk tail wind. We had started our descent
and I wasn’t aware till my brother asked me to spot the runway for our landing. DuPage
has four active runways and I tried. At first I didn’t know where to look, left, right, centre,
off-centre, the plane was bobbing crazily at a fair rate of speed, energized with fuel,
giving some nasty jolts, it made location visibility impossible to detect. There were no
landmarks either. Reflexively, I imitated his stomach-twisting actions, pulling my arms
taut, gripping the control wheel shuddering in my grasp. I guess he had the flight path and
the ground rising swiftly to meet us in his sights, because he sure the hell knew exactly
where to land.
The wing tips swayed wildly in a final see-saw motion. But it was the pilot
controlling the plane. All I could see were lines of trees. Flat open spaces. More green.
Where did all this shrubbery spring from? I could scarcely recall a Chicago embedded in
such scrubland greenery. My brother got a huge chuckle from the many comical
expressions registering on my countenance, with some confident throaty noises of his
own. But he was all hard-boiled concentration. Time for the guffaws later. It was a
smooth landing by all accounts, and before I knew we were down. And my maiden
single-engine six-seater-small-aircraft flight was complete. Hurray! Ray, the manager
was at hand to greet us heartily. He had watched us land and could not compliment my
brother enough, man to man, pumping his hand like he would never let go.
My talkativeness could not be contained either, was in overdrive, suctioned out,
where earlier I had been quiet, now that I was on terra firma, my feet solidly planted on
the tarmac. I could breathe. Contain my loudly beating heart. Recover my abandoned
books. Bury my nose in a heavy dose of Crime and Punishment. Self-reflective as usual I
would brag to Ray about the shimmer off the lake, dropping out of the sky, hurled like a
lightning bolt, down-drafting with the ghastly winds, my brother’s astute control of the
Beechcraft, and my range of silver-shadow splits of my guessable flight. I guess the
longer he heard the more unstoppable I grew.
Of my kid brother the photo image of him and his small plane ripples out at me
from a side table. I look up at stone colored skies in the depths of winter and it is of the
thrum and glide of titanium internals I think. I could not be prouder.
Rekha Valliappan’s creative nonfiction features in Wilderness House Literary Review, The Blue Nib, Indiana Voice Journal, and other venues, A former university lecturer in English Literature and Law, she writes multi-genre prose and poetry published in The Sandy River Review, Ann Arbor Review, The Saturday Evening Post, and elsewhere.