Friday, August 19, 2011

America: The View from 2,500 Feet

From the window of a small plane, the country is a living Norman Rockwell painting


From the time my husband was a boy, he dreamed of learning to fly planes. He finally indulged his passion some 13 years ago, when the moratorium we agreed upon early in our marriage of "not until the kids are grown" ran out. The day our youngest got his college acceptance, my husband announced, "I think I'll head out to Gaithersburg to take a few flying lessons." We bought a single engine, four-seater plane in 2000, sold it when we moved to China to live for 3 years, then traded up to another used 2006 model on our return about a year ago. This plane, a Cirrus SR22, has won its place in my heart for the parachute that is built into the top of the fuselage. Even I, who usually ride shotgun, know how to deploy the chute in an emergency, one that might for example disable the pilot or the plane. I always sleep like a baby the nights before we fly, reassured by the fact of the parachute. Remember those little balsa wood toy planes with the parachute that gently and evenly lowers the whole plane if you drop it? That's the general idea of how it works on our plane.
capn-jim2.jpgOwning a plane is about the last thing I ever dreamed of doing, but I appreciate it now for its functionality (visit the grown kids at a moment's notice) and even more for the pleasure as well as the complete disengagement from everyday pressures that it brings to my husband. He's a natural flyboy.
It is hard to justify this plane economically, except if you start calculating the best-case formula for a trip that includes maximum number of "souls on board" (a term used in filing flight plans that always make me pause for a moment), price of last minute commercial air tickets, or driving time. Here's how a scenario like this works: four of us fly from Washington, DC, to Maine and back, costing about $500 in fuel (which is about $1.50 more per gallon than gasoline), taking about two and a half hours. Sometimes the flight is wonderfully efficient, like flying from Washington, DC, to the tip of Long Island, which would take God knows how many hours of driving. More often, it makes no sense at all, except for fun and mental health.
We have taken lots of flights by now, including a three-day cross country trip from our then-home in Berkeley to Boston, where we were delivering an offspring to college one year. We have flown to the Oshkosh Air Show, which is the Holy Grail of flyers' destinations (think Woodstock for 1960s hippies). We have also taken a number of milk runs to nearby beautiful places, like our recent trip to Portland, Maine.
Heading for Portland, the first interesting views over the Washington, DC, area look down on the Amish country of southeast Pennsylvania. If we fly especially low, say about 2500 feet, I can pick out horse-drawn buggies on the roads. Going north, Pennsylvania always surprises me for its reminders of the infrastructure that keeps our country organized and running: rock quarry after quarry, distribution centers thick with orderly swarms of containers backed up to warehouse loading docks, neatly laid out schools looking rich and privileged with football fields and baseball diamonds, nuclear plant towers spewing white plumes of vapor, shopping malls with outsized parking lots.
The beauty of America is astonishing from the air, and always makes me think the Chinese were right when they named America Meiguo, which literally means "beautiful country." They could have just gone with something that sounds close, like Ao-dah-li-ya (Australia) or for something less lovely, like Faguo, "law country," for France. Meiguo is flattering and apt. One early morning flying low over Iowa, I watched a Norman Rockwell painting come to life: a yellow school bus inches down a country road, pauses in front of a big farmhouse surrounded by an emerald-green lawn and white picket fence, then slowly starts up again and mosies along down the road.
Through the mid-Atlantic states are farmers' fields, geometric and marked by different color crops. The mighty Susquehanna is spanned by elegant bridges. Reservoirs are everywhere, and lakes are bordered by forests growing right to the water's edge. Up into New York, West Point sits regally on a bluff, guarding its point over the Hudson.
On a summer weekend day, looking down, all of America seems to be out recreating -- yes, even now, with all the country's obvious economic problems, this is how it looks from above. It's hard to tell how populated are the countless swimming pools, except by the number of cars in their parking lots. In New Jersey, nearly every house in the planned developments has a pool, although by the time we reach Maine, the pools have become fewer and changed from in-ground rectangles to above-ground circles. (If you were a foreigner looking down on America, you would think everyone had a private pool.) Boats leave wakes zigzagging around the lakes. And the air traffic controllers (ATCs) are busy following small planes to all kinds of summer destinations: Cessna to Long Island; King Air to Martha's Vineyard; Mooney to Great Barrington; NetJet and ExecJet pilots with their deep, gravely voices requesting shortcuts to Cape Cod. The ATCs call out warnings to watch for gliders, hot air balloons, aerobatic activity, and jumpers. We see a blimp resting on the ground, full and fat, in a small airport in New Jersey somewhere.
On the way home from Portland, we encountered a little weather. We watched the storms on our Nexrad radar display, and we could see towering dark clouds out the plane windows. We diverted course a few times to fly behind a cell of thunderstorms. The air traffic controllers were particularly busy but always even-keeled, even facing some drama. Helicopter 952SJ Lifeguard, a medical helicopter, called en route to the Westchester Medical Center, requesting advisories. The ATC responded that there was a level 6 thunderstorm over the Center, and said that no one was landing there. (The radar echo intensity of level 6 is defined by the FAA as ""extreme" with severe turbulence, lightning, large hail, extensive surface wind gusts...") The pilot asked if the storm might be clearing. The ATC responded that the cell was building.
This kind of repartee is not infrequent and always riveting. I expect the other listeners on the frequency feel the tension I do when hearing such exchanges. I've heard ATCs coolly guiding pilots through fires, emergency landings, any number of traffic alerts for nearby aircraft, warnings that airspace is "hot" with military maneuvering, or suggestions to increase altitude or change heading--now. I tracked Helicopter 952SJ as long as I could, until we crossed south into airspace of another controller at a different frequency.
It is such a privilege to enjoy when air travel is not an endurance test, but an adventure.

This piece first appeared on here.
(photo from goingslo/Flickr)


  1. A reader from, Stuart McClay Smith, posted this interesting comment about a relief mission that he and his wife flew in his Cirrus SR22 to Haiti:

    Deb, would love to share this life-altering experience with you and your readers.

    It all started with photos and a plea for help being posted to the Cirrus Owners and Pilots's Association (COPA) website by pilot and orthopedic surgeon Dr. Richard McLaughlin. His post was titled "Things I Need in Haiti Right Now". He was one of the first pilots on the scene, arriving shortly after the earth stopped shaking. My wife Tracey and I read his accounts, cried over the pictures and decided we had to go. Now. We arranged for our oldest daughter to watch over our youngest and headed for the airport with a loose plan and whatever flying data I could pull together.

    We departed Southern California on a glorious winter morning and as I reached my cruising altitude of 17,000 feet I turned back over Los Angeles where we picked up an 100 knot tailwind. I thought it might be God's way of saying "Hurry!"

    We had filled the airplane with donated medical supplies and toys. One girl from our local high school donated her entire Beanie Baby collection to the injured children. We really didn't have a plan other than to get to Nassau in the Bahamas and do whatever the missionaries required. Donations were flowing into distribution centers in Florida and Nassau but there weren't enough airplanes to get the materials into the smaller rural airports in Haiti where the items were needed. We were assigned to the village of Les Cayes in southeastern Haiti. The tireless workers at the distribution center prioritized the donations. I think our first load was mostly syringes, bandages, and flashlights (and Beanie Babies).

    The flying was tricky. We awoke each morning to a briefing and the most important information was which islands in the area had fuel. Our plan was to fly to Turks and Caicos to top off the tanks before continuing to Haiti and then return to T&C for more fuel, followed by a long overwater flight to a night landing in Nassau.

    The landing in Les Cayes was surreal. We overflew the airport expecting bustling ground activity and airplanes competing for ramp space to unload. What we saw was a nearly abandoned airport with disco music playing on their radio frequency. After landing we taxied into the parking area and then the magic began. Small faces came out of the trees and pushed their startling thin arms through the chain link fence. Their voices had a Creole, melodic quality as they cried "food please, we need food". We took a few minutes in the plane to compose ourselves and wipe away the tears. We unloaded the supplies nearly losing the entire load to a corrupt customs official. Once the supplies were in the right hands we approached the children at the fence. Anything we had in the airplane that could be spared we tossed to the waiting children while skeptical but grateful adults watched from a distance. Departing the island we felt both a sense of accomplishment and futility. How could one small plane load of stuff make a dent on the overwhelming suffering before our eyes? We decided that we had helped those few children at the fence to have a better day, that day, and that had to be enough. Hopefully there were more airplanes coming.

  2. I have just read your book "Dreaming in Chinese" and discovered your blog. Your book should be "required reading" by anyone who wants to live and work in China.

  3. Deb: I just finished your book, here my review on Please don't go tell your husband you are a better writer now. But I do enjoy your book more, on a personal level.

    "This is my second husband and wife books on China this year, first being Peter Hessler (just won a MacCarthy Genius Award) and Leslie Chang. And again, wife's book speaks to me on a more personal level. I am also learning Chinese, although my starting level is higher than Fallows'. What she writes is directly to the point. I can relate. I have recommended her book to my fellow Chinese students."

  4. Thank you both. My husband, Jim, has just finished his new China book, which will be released in the spring. Watch for it!

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