These passengers had ridden on the airlines but had been herded into their cabin seats, distracted by magazines, and given shoulder-height triple-pane windows at right angles to the direction of flight. They had been encouraged not to look outside but rather the opposite--to draw the shades for the movie and pretend not to fly at all. And now suddenly they found themselves in a cockpit wrapped in glass, awash in brilliant light, in a small airplane lingering near the ground.
Some passengers simply could not understand the view. I remember a pristine young woman who, ten miles off the San Francisco coast, looked down from our airplane at a ship plowing through the Pacific swells, then looked up at me and smiled prettily.
I was charmed. I said, "What do you think?"
She said, "Is this the Napa Valley?"
The airplane was noisy. I said, "The what?"
She repeated it, less certainly. "The Napa Valley?"
I may have laughed. She looked concerned. Only later did I understand. First flights can confuse the senses and cause normal people to stop thinking.
On another occasion I had a passenger who during a smooth flight at 15,000 feet over Baltimore suspected that perhaps he had died and gone not to heaven but to a strange and suspended place like a purgatory. He meant this quite literally. His face turned numb and chalky white, as if he were about to faint. I asked him what was wrong.
He stammered a confused admission: Had we by chance been in a mid-air collision back there over Wilmington when the controller warned us about that oncoming airplane which we never spotted? The question put me in the unusual position of having to assure someone that both he and I were indeed still alive. These are the things they don't tell you about when you learn to fly.
He was a German art dealer from Berlin and New York, and he did not know Baltimore. The softness of flight had combined with the visible abandonment of the streets below to give him the feeling of death. I explained that it was Super Bowl Sunday and that all Baltimore was watching the game on television. He had been long enough in the United States to understand. The color returned slowly to his skin. I think then that he became interested in the view, which was indeed the view of a sort of afterlife--or of a city still in decline.
The German would have felt better over Berlin or New York not because they are healthier cities but because reading the ground from an airplane is easier if you understand some of the local customs. Residents of Baltimore would see their city from the air more clearly than any transient foreigner, and would find the landscape not dormant or deadly, but compelling. Rather than simply knowing about the Super Bowl, they might share with the city below a genuine interest in the game's outcome--and as result they might not even see a Baltimore in decline. Who could say then whose view was deeper, theirs or mine? But I do know that they would not choose that moment in flight to prefer watching television, because television is dull compared to the view of home from overhead.
I have imagined teaching the aerial view. The best approach would be to apprentice young children as I was apprenticed, to teach them without elaboration simply by flying them to different places, encouraging them to navigate, and to make the translations between maps and the world. Effortlessly they would develop the habit of seeing the world from above, and the more subtle trick while on the ground of understanding the scale and orientation of their surroundings. Flying at its best is a way of thinking. Because of that, once having left the earth's surface, people never again quite return to it. But also because of that, adults often find it hard to make the leap. They simply have spent too many years on the ground. To teach them the aerial view you would have to overcome that landlubbing prejudice which equates driving on a country road, or sleeping in a hotel and visiting the restaurant part of town, with having "been" somewhere, to the exclusion of other possibilities.
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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