You see them at air base terminals around the world. You see them in the morning early, often at night.
They come in Nomex flight suits and hatted, wings over their left pocket; they show up looking ready to fly.
There’s a brisk, young-old look of efficiency about them. They arrive fresh from home, from hotels, carrying hang-up bags, battered book bags; bulging with a wealth of technical information, data, and manuals filled with regulations and rules.
They know the new, harsh sheen of Charleston’s runway. They know the cluttered approaches to McGuire; they know the tricky shuttle that is Travis; they know but do not relish the intricate instrument approaches to various foreign airports; they know the volcanoes near Sigonella.
They respect foggy Travis. They know the up-and-down walk to the gates at Dallas, the Texas sparseness of Abilene, the very narrow Berlin Corridor, New Orleans’ sparkling terminal, the milling crowds at Washington. They know Butte, Boston, and Beirut. They appreciate Miami’s perfect weather; they recognize the danger of an ice-slick runway at JFK.
They understand short runways, antiquated fire equipment, inadequate approach lighting, but there is one thing they will never comprehend: Complacency. They marvel at the exquisite good taste of hot coffee in Anchorage and a cold beer in Guam. They vaguely remember the workhorse efficiency of the DC-3s, the reliability of the DC-4s and DC-6s, the trouble with the DC-7 and the propellers on Boeing 377s. They discuss the cramped beauty of an old gal named Connie. They recognize the high shrill whine of a Viscount, the rumbling thrust of a DC-8 or 707 on a clearway takeoff from Haneda, and a Convair. The remoteness of the 747 cockpit. The roominess of the DC-10 and the snug fit of a 737. They speak a language unknown to Webster.
They discuss BMEP, EPRs, Lost COMMs, fans, mach and bogie swivels. And, strangely, such things as bugs, thumpers, crickets, and Traps & CATs, but they are inclined to change the subject when the uninitiated approaches.
They have tasted the characteristic loneliness of the sky, and occasionally the adrenaline of danger. They respect the unseen thing called turbulence; they know what it means to fight for self-control, to discipline one’s senses.
They buy life insurance, but make no concession to the possibility of complete disaster, for they have uncommon faith in themselves and what they are doing.
They concede the glamour is gone from flying. They deny a pilot is through at sixty. They know tomorrow, or the following night, something will come along they have never met before; they know flying requires perseverance and vigilance. They know they must practice, lest they retrograde.
They realize why some wit once quipped: “Flying is year after year of monotony punctuated by seconds of stark terror.” As a group, they defy mortality tables, yet approach semi-annual physical examinations with trepidation. They are individualistic, yet bonded together. They are family people. They are reputedly overpaid, yet entrusted with equipment worth millions. And entrusted with lives, countless lives.
At times they are reverent: They have watched the Pacific sky turn purple at dusk and the stark beauty of sunrise over Iceland at the end of a polar crossing. They know the twinkling, jeweled beauty of Los Angeles at night; they have seen snow capped Rockies.
They remember the vast unending mat of green Amazon jungle, the twisting Silver road that is the father of waters, an ice cream cone called Fujiyama; the hump of Africa. Who can forget Everest from 100 miles away, or the ice fog in Fairbanks in January?
They have watched a satellite streak across a starry sky, seen the clear, deep blue of the stratosphere, felt the incalculable force of the heavens. They have marveled at sun-streaked evenings, dappled earth, velvet night, spun silver clouds, sculptured cumulus: God’s weather. They have seen the Northern Lights, a wilderness of sky, a pilot’s halo, a bomber’s moon, horizontal rain, Contrails and watched St Elmo’s Fire dance on the windows.
Only an aviator experiences all these.
It is their world. And once was mine.
And remains in memory…