Searching for a Moment

March 27, 1999

Tuesday night it was warm here, if you consider 35 degrees warm. The sun had been out all day and I had just returned from the do-it-yourself car wash. I had an important meeting in the morning, a meeting that was designed for my best interests, would be painful, none the less.

I needed a moment.

As I stood in the driveway I scanned the tops of the trees looking for movement. The night seemed still. Still and warm for this type of clear night. "I can be warm tonight," I thought. I grabbed a light ski jacket from the closet and a pair of matching red gloves.

I went to the airport.

The moon was only half full tonight, but it was clear, and I could see Orion's belt just to it's left. I like Orion's belt. It is a wintertime friend for me, and I was looking forward to seeing it up close and personal.

I knew that once I took off, I could climb and climb and climb, straight into the moon.

The hanger doors are large; their blue paint faded to chalk by the sun. They are about 15 feet high and 20 feet long. You have to push one door at a time; they roll poorly these days. The hangar is old.

There it was. Silver gray, a couple of red and white stripes painted on its side. The nose cone covers the workings of the three bladed propeller. Three blades are attached to 300 horses. It is part of the pre-flight to check the blades for nicks, but while my hands search for problems, they are full of affection.

The red tow-bar lay in front of the nose wheel, just where I had left it after the last flight. The tow bar is a simple tool. With a T handle on one end, the other has two prongs that insert into the nose wheel fitting. I thought to myself, "I am sure glad I don't have to pull the car out of the garage every morning." This craft weighs three thousand pounds when full of fuel and I struggle to pull it free of the hangar.

After I finished the pre-flight with my flashlight, I turned the blades about 10 times to loosen up the oil and then climbed up onto the wing and into the cabin. I knew it had been some time since I had flown so I was concerned that the battery might be dead. I clicked on the red master switch and all of the indicators on the autopilot started to flash. It was a bad sign, because that meant the battery was really low.

I primed the engine, opened the window, and yelled; "PROP CLEAR." Even though there is not a soul around, it's what you do.

The starter growled and those three blades jerked and rotated slowly. Fortunately the engine roared to life and I flipped on the switches for the panel lights. Oil pressure is up. Good, that means we don't have to shut down. The radio master switch is flipped on. Eight separate sets of digital numbers burst into orange light.

I was ready to roll.

The tower had asked, Saratoga 33224 what is your direction of flight?

"Straight out" I replied. I wanted to say straight out and straight up, but unfortunately this was not a Lear Jet.

Although this night was not especially cold, I was very careful on takeoff to advance the throttle slowly. The three hundred horses prefer a smooth and gentle waking. The throttle is T shaped and my right hand dwarfs it. I remember the slow push forward, as the airplane started to roll. I put the petal to the metal and held it there.

After a quick scan of all the instruments and I can begin to feel the acceleration. When the airspeed indicator hits 80 miles per hour, I gently pull the yoke back toward myself and the wheels are off.


This baby is off the ground. I am airborne and the moon is just hanging around waiting for me.

I'm outta here.

But the moment was not there. I had watched the moon the entire time that I climbed. An airplane will climb best in cold air, and tonight was no exception. By the time I had decided I had gone high enough, the outside temperature had fallen 50 degrees. It was now minus 15 Fahrenheit. Frost had covered much of my side windows, so the view was a little impaired.

When I realized there was no magic moment here, I lowered the nose of the airplane, and pulled back the power to an idle. Airplanes are creatures of balance. If you pull back the power, the nose drops. When the nose drops sufficiently, the airplane picks up speed that increases lift, and bingo, the nose rises again. Ok, so it is not a glider, but it sure will glide. For every mile of altitude lost, this airplane will cover about 12 miles on the ground. I trimmed the airplane for a long glide and just stared out the front window. My hands were folded in my lap, I was able to steer using the rudder pedals.

For the next 20 plus minutes, I just sat there, descending in a giant lazy circle. By the time I was down to only five thousand feet I had looked over the lives of millions of people. I saw no details, but I imagined a city of love and anger, birth and death, fear and joy, sorrow and laughter. I watched the headlights of thousands of cars weave their way across the interstate.

Have you ever wondered about all the thought power at work in a city of millions? All that energy at work, the frantic pace we live, and in the end, for what purpose?

I kept looking out the window and thinking.

I straightened the airplane out with the rudder pedals and pointed it toward the airport that I had left over 45 minutes ago. I called the tower, advised them that I had the airport in sight, was about 7 miles out and I requested permission to land.

Permission granted.

The tower then asked: "Saratoga, What are your intentions?"

They know me by now.

"I'd like to stay in the pattern and practice."

"Cleared to land, advise this frequency."

I was a mile out, on final approach. There had been no real moment, just flight, and balance. I had watched the moon reflect on my wing, I had watched millions of lights dance through the motion of the propeller. I had forgotten about my search for a moment.

I did a couple of landings, taxied back and then took off again. Finally I decided to just to some touch and go's, which means landing the airplane and then immediately taking off again, once the controls are reset for normal flight.

The moment came just after my first touch and go.

This airplane is powerful and reaches pattern altitude very quickly. I turned to the right for the first leg of the pattern around the airport and quickly had to turn to the right again to fly parallel to the runway. I was only 800 feet above the ground and I put the airplane into a relatively steep bank. This was the moment. I felt the turn; I felt the increase of gravity and I glanced out the right window. The right wing of the plane was alive with light; it was reflecting the multitude of lights that were thrown at it from the ground.

It was not a moment of ecstasy, but a moment of balance, when it all came together. I was suspended above the ground, I looked down that long wing, felt the turn, saw the lights below - and the airplane and I - became one.

For a moment, I could fly.