From Chapter One
The View from Above
After a century of flying, we still live at a moment of emergence like that experienced by creatures first escaping from the sea. For us the emergence has been given meaning because we can think about it, and can perhaps understand the nature of our liberation. Mechanical wings allow us to fly, but it is with our minds that we make the sky ours. The old measures of distance no longer apply, in part because we hop across the globe in single sittings, but also because in doing so we visit a place which even just above our homes is as exotic and revealing as the most foreign destination. This book is a travel book about that place, and it takes the form of a spiral climb. At the end it will arrive overhead of the point where now it begins, with the idea that flight's greatest gift is to let us look around.
At first I mean a simple form of looking around, and one that requires little instruction--just gazing down at the ordinary scenery sliding by below. The best views are views of familiar things, like cities and farms and bottlenecked freeways. So set aside the beauty of sunsets, the majesty of mountains, the imprint of winds on golden prairies. The world beneath our wings has become a human artifact, our most spontaneous and complex creation. Tourists may not like to contemplate the evidence, with its hints of greed and self-destruction, but the fact remains that the old sterilized landscapes--like designated outlooks and pretty parks and sculpted gardens--have become obsolete, and that it is largely the airplane that has made them so. The aerial view is something entirely new. We need to admit that it flattens the world and mutes it in a rush of air and engines, and that it suppresses beauty. But it also strips the faades from our constructions, and by raising us above the constraints of the treeline and the highway it imposes a brutal honesty on our perceptions. It lets us see ourselves in context, as creatures struggling through life on the face of a planet, not separate from nature, but its most expressive agents. It lets us see that our struggles form patterns on the land, that these patterns repeat to an extent which before we had not known, and that there is a sense to them.
Discovering that sense requires not only that we look outside while flying but that we get over the illusion of smallness, the "Everything looks like a toy!" that blinds us at first to what we see. I write "us" but frankly mean "them" or "you." The truth is I can only imagine learning to see from the air, because my father was a pilot with pilot friends, and I grew up inside their airplanes, gazing at the world below. Day after day through the seasons and years we wandered the sky, and I sat looking outside. To make the time pass I picked points on the airplane--a strut, a rivet, a fairing on the leading edge of a wing--and used those points as sighting devices against the ground to measure the airplane's speed and to define flight's independent paths across the landscape: for a while along a country lane, but then straight across a field and through someone's swimming pool, over a factory, into a city and out again. It was quite early in my childhood, as these unusual paths began effortlessly to fit together, that I developed a pilot's integrated sense of the earth's geometry.
This was in the 1960s, the merest moment after the Wright brothers. When I first flew alone, in a sailplane at the age of fourteen, the experience seemed so normal to me that I have practically no memory of it now. It wasn't until college, when I took an air-taxi job and began carrying passengers for hire, people unaccustomed to flight, that I realized there was anything unusual about the view. Of course, some passengers did not want to look outside. But others were curious. For me it was like witnessing Stone Age people seeing photographs for the first time, getting used to the scale, then turning with growing excitement from the magic to the content of the picture.
Use of this excerpt from Inside the Sky by William Langewiesche may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing, or additions whatsoever, and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice: Copyright© 1998 by William Langewiesche. All rights reserved
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