Flying at Night

loganatnightI spent the evening of my 45th birthday napping in the back of an idling 757. In one of those special Hells that the airlines seem to have mastered, United kept us waiting on the tarmac at Logan Airport for about four hours before taking off for Chicago. First the pilot was late, then the weather in Chicago was bad, and then the weather around us in Boston was bad. All this without so much as a pretzel to eat. Finally, at about 10:30 we took off. As we left Boston behind us, I caught a glimpse of Fenway Park, brilliantly lit with the grey-white tarpaulin protecting the infield. Someone near me mentioned the Red Sox had been losing the game, 4-1, but the striking green of the outfield grass still warmed my heart.

I hadn’t planned to spend my birthday in an airplane, least of all an airplane taking me to business meetings. But such is life when you are self-employed–when the work is there, you do it, whether the work is in Chicago or not, and whether or not it is your birthday. But I am not griping. I like my work, I like making money, and I like traveling. I didn’t travel much for work until I was in my late 30s, so I have not burned out on business travel. For the most part I go to places I enjoy–New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia.

The real irony of the moment wasn’t so much that it was my birthday; the real irony was that I was napping. Somehow, in a jam-packed airplane, I had three seats to myself, and once I knew that we were in for a long delay, I lay down and quickly fell asleep. This wasn’t a first for me, but it was close to one. I am a nervous flyer, and always have been. I don’t nap in airplanes because I am convinced that my nervous energy is a big reason for the plane staying in the air.

I didn’t fly until I was 21, and my first flight–all the way to Greece–culminated in a teeth-grinding, gust-blown, and gymnastic final approach and landing that had everyone cheering and crying in relief when we finally touched down. I was traveling with my girlfriend and her parents, and we were all shook. My girlfriend’s father was a quiet man, not prone to histrionics, and when we discussed it afterwards he admitted after the third aborted landing attempt he decided maybe we were not going to make it in safely.

(If you have never been in a Jumbo Jet when it aborts a landing, I probably cannot do the moment justice. But imagine that you are in a plane, a few feet over the runway, about to touch down, when suddenly the nose of the plane lurches up and the plane fills with the deafening roar of the engines at full thrust. There is a horrifyingly long, pregnant moment when you realize you are still going down even though the pilot is clearly urging the plane to go up. The G force has you pressed in place–even if you could decide whether to duck and cover you are effectively paralyzed.)

I won’t bore you with the long list of things I did to get myself to fly with any regularity. Suffice to say that the winning combination proved to be drugs, a learned relaxation technique, and knowledge. I finally realized that planes–and pilots–do the things they do for a reason. For example, I was terrified for years by the habit planes have, after roaring to a takeoff, of slowing down after the initial blast into the air. Flight after flight I imagined the plane was losing power and stalling, and I would go blind with fear imagining what happens to a 200,000 pound jet that has stalled 1000 feet over downtown Boston.

Finally, one day on a flight the captain invited us to listen to air traffic control and I did. Much to my delight, I discovered that the pilot was doing precisely what he was told to do! In this case, to take off and then level off at 3000 feet and a speed of 200 knots. Suddenly, there was an order to the universe. Those agonizing dips of the wing and turns when preparing to land? The seeming devil-may-care rocky descent down from cruising altitude? Again, they are told to do this. Moreover, they are amazingly calm and matter of fact with each adjustment.

“United 245,” the air traffic controller will say. “Climb and maintain 10,000 feet.”

“Roger,” I will hear my pilot’s bright reply. “United 245 climbing and maintaining 10,000.” A split second later the engines will rev up as the pilot begins to urge the plane upward. All is right with the world.

Believe me, I still have my anxious moments. The shuttle from Boston to La Guardia, for instance, can give me a couple of jolts. Depending on the weather and the approaches they are using, a typical La Guardia approach and landing has the plane making a steep turn directly over Shea Stadium. If I make the mistake of looking out the window at the wrong moment, it seems as if I am about to spill out of the plane and into centerfield. The irony of me being a Red Sox fan and Shea being the scene of the crime in the 1986 World Series always feels especially cruel at that moment. Then the actual landing is always bracing. I have not looked this up, but I think La Guardia has absurdly short runways, causing the planes to brake much more sharply than they do at other airports. The shuttle seems to land, brake violently, and take an immediate right-hand turn into the terminal. In my mind’s eye, the plane is on two wheels, the right wingtip sparking off the tarmac. (I compare this with landing at Indianapolis, where the runways are the length of the state of the Indiana and we seem to taxi for a week.)

So sleep I did, only to be gently awakened by the flight attendant as we were about to finally take off. This is when I glimpsed Fenway. Then I stayed awake long enough to get my pretzels and drink before I fell asleep again.

The next day in Chicago was a whirlwind. Two meetings at two ends of the metropolitan area, and a long drive back to the airport. I got good and lost, and the air was heavy as I drove. It wasn’t raining yet, but they were close to calling off the White Sox home game that night, and it was only 5:00. I feared a repeat of the night before–hours waiting out the weather before I could get home. So far I had resisted feeling sorry for myself, but my resistance was weakening.

As it turned out, the pilot was late again, and the weather was bad. As I ate a quick dinner in the terminal food court, I could hear the rain drumming off the metal roof, and the wind was pushing torrents of rain back and forth across the tarmac in front of me. They were nice enough to let us wait in the terminal this time, so we spent 3 hours lounging around the gate before we finally boarded. I had eaten my fill, and I had three seats to myself again, so this time I didn’t even wait for the snack before I lay down and fell soundly asleep.

Once again, the attendant woke me. The weather in Boston was clear, and it was well past midnight as we passed over the city and began an arc out past my hometown of Winthrop and out into the Harbor. I say hometown, but in fact it is the town of my youth. I live 10 miles north and west of Winthrop now, but many days it feels 1000 miles away, even more now in the few months since my mother died. It is a peninsula that juts out into Boston Harbor, almost curling around the airport and the downtown skyscrapers; this time of night, it was perfectly outlined by its streetlights. With the shape I knew so well glowing beneath me, the plane made a long, lazy turn out over the Harbor and then began its approach to the runway. Winthrop was out my window again. I marveled for a moment at being in the air, and remembered the hundreds of times as a child I had stood on that ground below me and watched planes passing overhead. Where were those people going, and where had they come from?

The air was still, and the plane was straight and true as the pilot edged the nose of the plane up slightly and slowed for touchdown. There would be no gymnastics tonight. In a few minutes I would be in my car, driving the 15 minutes home to my wife and boys. I thought of my birthday for a moment, and then of my mom, whom I had said goodbye to just weeks before in a nursing home somewhere in my vision right now. I miss my mom, but the soft glow of the lights seemed to be telling me that–just as this familiar shape of Winthrop was here for me now–so too perhaps was she. There were few cars on the road, and few lights besides the yellow-amber glow of the streetlights. I would be the last person to call Winthrop pretty, but, tonight, in this light and from a few hundred feet above, it may have been the prettiest thing I have ever seen.

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