Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Best flight ever

Date: May 17
Mileage: 31.1
May mileage: 169.9
Temperature upon departure: 43

Good ride today - mostly sunny, light wind, late enough to beat most of the traffic (which can be kinda bad, actually, because there are so few through-roads here, and so many more drivers in rented RVs than most towns this size.) The ride was so good that it was completely uneventful.

I'm still taking flack for my whiny airport post on Monday, so I thought I'd counter it with my "Best Flight Ever" story.

It was about this time last year that a friend of mine invited me on a morning joy-flight with some friends of hers from Pocatello. They picked us up in Idaho Falls in their four-seater Cessna, and we took off over the volcano outcrops and potato fields of northeastern Idaho. Our destination was Dell, Montana. Dell isn't really much of a destination town. If you blinked at the right moment while driving up I-15, you'd likely miss it entirely. But according to the Pokey residents, the town offered good breakfast and some semblance of an airstrip, so to Dell we went.

We killed a few hours over greasy plates of comfort food (I think I just had toast. Nothing robs me of my appetite more than flying, except maybe a 24-hour mountain bike race.) Upon leaving the diner, we were unpleasantly surprised by horizontal sheets of unseasonable snow - and thick clouds - whipping across the valley. The storm was moving quickly to the south, and there seemed to be blue sky behind it. The pilot decided we could ride this little patch of good weather home.

I'm not usually afraid of flying, but I distinctly remember taking one look at that blowing snow and telling my friend that I was going to thumb it home. "It'll be fine," she said. "Herb (or whatever his name was) is licensed to fly instruments down" (whatever that means.)

We took off into the backside of the storm, climbing through light fog until we reached the narrow eye. Clouds were swirling all around us, and Herb announced that he was going to climb to 8,000 feet to get well above any, well, mountains that could blindside us without warning. As we circled upward, more clouds encroached. Herb announced that he was going to fly above the storm, but all I could see were mountains of rolling white water vapor stretching beyond my field of vision.

Upward we circled, the engine growling, the plane lurching in cloudy turbulence, me clutching my earphones with every expectation that the next words out of Herb's mouth were going to be "Mayday! Mayday!" I began to notice deep shivers rolling through my body, but not until my teeth started chattering did I realize that I wasn't just nervous - I was cold. The sharp air tore at my throat. I glanced over at Herb's swirling altimeter ... 13,700 feet ... 13,750 feet .... 13,800 feet.

"How high does this thing go?" I yelled into my mouthpiece, gasping in the thin air and the realization that I was uncomfortably close to being as high in actual atmosphere as I had ever been ... without the benefit of slow acclimatization through hiking.

"About 16,000 feet," Herb yelled.

His wife, sitting shotgun directly in front of me, turned around and ominously shook her head. Her face said everything about Herb's machismo and the nonchalant way he was leading us to high-altitude oblivion.

As we reached the pinnacle of our climb, my mind when very dark. No deep, life-affirming thoughts revealed themselves. I didn't even have enough sense to properly pray. All I did was ramble the "Lord's Prayer" over and over in my head - and I don't even come from that kind of Christian background. But that's all I had.

I've lost track of most of those long, foggy, dark minutes. I don't even remember how or when we got out of the storm, but somehow we did. In fact, the only thing I remember after the Lord's Prayer is climbing through our last cloud on approach to the Idaho Falls runway, and how unbelievably happy I was that I could see that strip of pavement. So happy, in fact, that I still access it as one of my great moments of joy when life looks especially bleak.

I still maintain that the flights in which you think you're going to die are better than the flights in which you wish you would.