Ecstacy in Flight

There are times when flying family members and myself, medical patients, or colleagues from work, that an aircraft is little more than conveniently fast transportation; a time machine.

Then there are other times, like this weekend, when flying is almost a religious experience.

Friday night I flew to an east coast city to pick up my aviator son who had been deprived of aviation for quite some time. Since it was late, the only air traffic was me, “a little guy” as a paternalistic air traffic controller referred to me, and the commercial jet pilots headed to Savannah, Jacksonville and Orlando. The controller was asking Delta pilots if the weather ahead was likely to be a significant issue for me. They replied it wouldn’t be, and indeed it wasn’t.

I truly appreciated the thoughtfulness of the controller, and the assistance of the Delta pilots. Professional pilots and controllers are good people.

After I followed the flashing approach lights to the active runway at Cecil Field, I found my son waiting for me, eager to get airborne for the return trip. However, storms had closed in behind me, and we had to wait until morning for the flight back. What a good decision that was.

We arrived at the Fixed Base Operation (FBO) when they opened at seven, east coast time. There were high clouds and light breezes that kept the temperatures on the asphalt parking ramp pleasantly cool, something I had not experienced in summertime Florida for over a month. I was quite comfortable following my son around as he preflighted the plane with his usual thoroughness.

Soon we were climbing to 8000 feet, heading west under the watchful eyes of Jacksonville Center. The sun was behind us but we couldn’t see it because of the high cloud cover. At cruise altitude the air was chilly, and I was closing vents to remain comfortable. That was, once again, something I had not done for quite a while, even at 8000 feet.

About the time we were approaching Tallahassee, the high cloud cover started thinning, and ahead we could see brilliant blue sky. And then west of Tallahassee, 60 miles out from our destination, we received a treat that would excite us for the rest of the weekend. Layers of clouds loosely surrounded us, giving the air character and texture. And the air itself had a transparency we seldom see in the Southeast. We could see our destination airport from 55 miles out, and could see hotels and condominiums on the distant coast 100 miles away spotlighted by bright morning sunshine. 

An airline passenger at 36,000 feet does not get the same visual experience as a general aviation pilot and his passengers at 5000 to 10,000 feet. The difference is like being in the audience for a concert, versus being in the middle of the orchestra. Being in the orchestra, or in the small cockpit, is an immersion experience. We were witness to a wide variety of cloud structures, with dynamic shapes and colors, below us, at our altitude, and even far above it, with mares tails reaching above the realm of the commercial jetliners.

8000 feet going home. Click for larger image.

With the sun behind us there was no impediment to our vision. It felt, in fact, as if we had supernatural vision, hard at work taking in all the beauty, both natural and man-made, that was laid out before us.

As we were nearing our destination I was almost sad having to leave our lofty vantage point one and a half miles up. But even the most awe-inspiring spiritual experience is short-lived, and we had just enjoyed one of those magical moments that only aviators can experience; albeit briefly. Perhaps it is its brevity, and rarity, that makes it such a memorable experience.

The recognition that my son and I had shared something very special and beautiful, put a smile on our faces, and a glow in our hearts, for the entire weekend.

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