Issue #11, 1998

Solo

Susan L. Adkins

Solo

I follow the yellow line.  Six months ago, I trailed from one side of the taxiway to the other, and I chased this wide stripe as though it was moving erratically instead of me.  Often I drifted out in a wide arch over the dark asphalt before correcting back towards the center. Then each press against the rudder pedals was either too much or too little.  Today my feet finally know how to play one pedal against the other.  Though callused and laced up in thick shoes, they feel new and agile--a slight press of the left sole to avoid a patch of crumbling pavement, now a hard push against the right to make a sharp turn to face into the wind.

I am taking my time though, going slowly, following the check list, thinking before I key the microphone to talk to the tower.  The oil temperature and pressure look good, rpm checks out, engine sounds right, smells right.  There's a light perfume of 100 low lead aviation fuel in the cockpit, but that is from my clothes.  I was taught not to trust fuel gauges, so I manually measure the tanks before every flight, using a hollow, plastic dipstick calibrated from top to bottom.  It's the old straw-in-the-drink trick we always liked to play as children.  Insert tube into the wing tank until it touches bottom.  Place finger firmly over top opening, remove tube and read usable gallons, stuff gauge in jeans' pocket, smell like avgas the rest of the day.

I am surprised that I have come to love a petroleum smell, but aviation fuel smells sweet--not pungent like automobile gasoline.  Refiners add a light-blue dye to 100 low lead avgas to help distinguish it in color from other grades of fuel, but the characteristic aroma results purely from the refining process.  Days after a flight when I empty the dirty clothes basket onto the floor for sorting, the smell wafts up from the heap, and I am back at the controls of a Cessna 152.  Writing in 'A Natural History of the Senses, ' Diane Ackerman calls this a landmine.  'Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once. '  One whiff of aviation fuel brings back the thunder of the engine, the press of the headset around my ears, the resistance of the yoke against my left hand, the friction of rubber tires gripping asphalt runway, the release from earth, the climb, the wind that sometimes bumps, the wind that always grabs machine and me with it and finally lifts.

The earth recedes and flattens out beneath.  Just a few hundred feet up, I can see the whole of Virginia 's lower peninsula.  When I first started taking flying lessons, I never saw this landscape.  My hands were glued to the yoke and throttle while my eyes fixated on the instruments.  About the third flight, I finally looked outside and fell in love.  Twelve miles at its widest point, the peninsula is surrounded by the Chesapeake Bay and the James and York rivers.

I was shocked at how small and immensely beautiful it looks from the air.

From only 1,000 feet up, it is a green spit of land lying in a mass of blue water.  Bay tributaries with Anglo-Saxon and Native American names like Newmarket Creek and Poquoson River cut into its edges.  To the southeast is the geometric landscape of industry.  To the northwest, hardwood and pine forests still cover the land, defying my perception of the whole area as one giant knot of parking lots and housing projects.  Bridges project from its shore, and as the plane climbs higher, these giant structures shrink into thin gray lines drawn across wide tidal waters.  The peninsula s profile is so easy to read, I often have to remind myself that it is not just a computer simulation on the local weather channel.

Today I am anxious to see it all again.  The tower calls my airplane's tail numbers.  "Seven-quebec-golf cleared for takeoff ... winds zero-seven-zero at eight knots ... altimeter two-niner-niner-seven."  The controller runs the wind direction, speed and altimeter setting together, each word rushing to overtake the next.

My right hand flips on a navigation light.  "Seven-quebec-golf cleared for takeoff," I echo back as I press the fuel mixture control to the full rich position.  A quick taxi and I am ready on the runway, rolling down the center line, pushing the throttle to the max, steering with my feet, pulling back the yoke, launching, giving lots of right rudder.  I am thinking, reviewing, trying not to forget anything, trying not to end up on the front page of the newspaper.  "Local Woman Flies Cessna into F-15, Cost Government Millions" ... "Local Woman Forgets to Check Fuel, Runs Out  on Takeoff" ... "Local Middle Aged Woman Should Stay Home."  It is my first solo cross-country, and I miss my instructor.

Climbing to 2,500 feet, the aloneness is overwhelming.  "Check list, check list."  I call the words out loud. "Yes, talk out loud.  Go slowly.  Ask a question.  Answer it.  What do you need to do next?  Take your time.  You have all the time you need.  No need to rush.  Look outside for traffic.  Think.  What's your heading?  Right.  Now check list.  Check list."

The Newport News shipyard and the marine terminal mass below me.  Save for the sycamores and maples and crepe myrtles that line the old neighborhoods, every square foot of land is covered with something man-made.  Crisscrossed with telephone poles, streets, houses, fences, dry docks, piers, mechanical cranes and giant mounds of coal, a makeshift runway is nowhere in sight.  Even the few ballfields in this East End section of town are bordered by drainage ditches that look dark and deep in the low morning sun.  They could easily swallow a two-seater plane like this one, coming in for an emergency landing.  I spot an open patch of grass beside the railroad tracks that split the peninsula down its 25-mile length.  Could I miss the power lines further up and land on that strip of earth if I had to?

"Seven-quebec-golf over the shipyard.  Clear to the south."  These are my last words to the Langley tower for the next few hours and the last before confronting solitude.  I have made several short flights by myself, so the loneliness is not a shock.  Still I do not understand its strength.  I am practiced at being "one".  I make long road trips by myself, I dine alone, watch movies alone, live alone.  Loneliness is chronic.  My friends call it the middle-aged divorcee's arthritis--a red swollen ache inside that promises to grow worse during the coming years.

The loneliness of solo flight is different.  It is not within me.  Rather, it materializes from the emptiness of the cockpit.  I let my mind give it a presence and even a shape to make it less threatening.  After watching Star Trek all my life, it seems natural to animate my fears.  From out of the corner of my eye, I watch it stretch out on the right seat beside me.  Its face opens in a wide hollow smile and mouths words I cannot hear.  The unmuffled scream of the Cessna's engine saturates the air, and the monotonous drone swells into a white noise that absorbs all others.  Below, a train moves toward the coal piers, but there is no sound of brakes scraping against steel.  With my ears sealed beneath my headset, the earth seems mute and distant.  Aloneness sits beside me, and I imagine its thin lips slowly puckering, its cheeks pulling back to call to me.  I read the shape of two words: "You're--it."  Yes, I am "it."  I am pilot in command.  I am alone at 3,000 feet above the surface of home and still climbing.

My fellow student pilots talk about this loneliness too.  One has decided it is merely a defense mechanism of her mind, designed to make sure she stays alert.  Another is convinced his psyche is throwing up distractions, bent on self-destruction.  I wonder if it is something unleashed by altitude alone, something that strips away all our pretense.  On the ground, there are so many people around at work, so much traffic, so many email and voicemail messages, it is easy to ignore the fact that I am alone.  However, when I confront my aloneness at altitude, I must accept my oneness.  There is no avoiding my separate, solo self.  I look over at the right seat one more time, kick the smiling remnant of my imagination out the right side of the plane and fly on.

The James River is at its widest here as it passes the shipyard--more than 5 miles across to what is known as the Southside of Virginia.  This river is a liquid chameleon that changes with the sky, the light, the season of the year, the time of day.  On cold January afternoons when the sky is dry and cloudless and the sun still high, the James is as easy to read as a color coded navigational chart.  From a few thousand feet in altitude the variations in the depth shade from light to dark and in hues that range from green and blue to brown.  The shallows are startling for most of the river here is only 5 to 10 feet deep.  The channels run dark though--some merely 20 feet in depth while the trench by the shipyard digs 70 feet beneath the surface.  Topsoil eroding from a freshly turned Southside cotton field is a bloody plume contaminating the greenish blue of the river.  It is all sharp colors and fractal shapes--unseen except by a lucky few.

This September morning the surface hides everything.  The sun is still low and the atmosphere is heavy with humidity.  As the earth warms, a layer of haze will grow from the moisture and smoke and dirt suspended in the air.  For now though, the river rivals the sun.  It doesn't matter that its surface is roughened by the wind.  It reflects everything, radiates light in every direction, blinds me when I look down.  The James appears hard, set in concrete and mirrors.  It has lost its blues and greens and bounces metallic light from its impenetrable surface.

I was more than 40 years old the first time I saw the earth from a small, slow flying aircraft just a few thousand feet in altitude.  For the first time in decades, I could not automatically attach names to everything I saw.  The high angle of the light that day played with my perception, reducing the world from three dimensions to one.  Height and depth blended into width.  Green and black spots dotted the edge of a narrow road below.  They were round and flat and lying abstract against the light gray of winter grass.  Only after several seconds of dissection did I separate a green tree canopy from its twin black shadow.  My middle-aged eyes were like those of a child again, learning to read and interpret.

For a new pilot at least, it is easy to be hypnotized by the earth.  Its patterns of color and shape become sirens, luring me away from checklists, fixing my attention to a single point on the surface, making me forget to watch the heading indicator, coaxing me to lose my way.  I cross the James, heading almost due south en route to Elizabeth City, North Carolina.  To the east lie the piers of the Norfolk Naval Base.  To the west, the open fields of Isle of Wight County are reassuring.  If the engine quit right now I could glide there, just pitch the nose to maintain 65 knots, circle round one field, add flaps, give right rudder against left aileron to slip the plane down past the barrier of trees, flair just above the rows of peanuts, touchdown in the sandy soil.  I tell myself I could do this if I had to.

Leveling off at 3,500 feet, I scan the instrument panel: air speed indicator, vacuum gauge, altimeter, tachometer, ammeter, fuel gauges, engine instruments.  I lean the fuel, adjust the throttle, and the air speed indicator climbs to 110 knots.  I have climbed out over 6 miles in eight minutes and am just two minutes behind my projected schedule.  My first stop is 45 miles away.  If the winds aloft hold true to the weather report, this should be a short 25-minute flight.

I like navigating above the Tidewater area.  The rivers carve at the land, washing wide in some areas and narrow in others.  Each bay has a distinctive outline.  Every inlet cuts through the marsh in a unique way.  It is easy to match features drawn on the map with the real ones on the ground.  Both on paper and on land, the Nansemond River twists its way south and narrows into a channel that meanders through a wide marsh.  I keep on my southerly heading, overflying a small grove of radio towers that stand more than 1,000 feet in height.

The first time I ever flew over these spires I looked directly down one, and the ground rushed right up to me.  For an instant, I might as well have been balancing on one foot atop the pinnacle of a skyscraper.  The whole picture was different.  The abstract numbers on the altimeter suddenly transformed into a concrete link from me to the earth.  My mind measured the distance and banged out the numbers in my stomach while it sent my head on a roller coaster ride.  For a few seconds my perspective shifted back to three dimensions and my mind screamed, "Fall!"  A look towards the horizon separated me from this virtual tether and put my stomach and head back in straight and level flight. "You looked, didn't you," my instructor teased.  "I told you not to look down on those things."

The dark green of the Great Dismal Swamp surrounds Lake Drummond, a body of fresh water 2 miles wide and almost 3 miles long.  Amidst the vegetation of the swamp, this lake is an easy checkpoint for all pilots entering or leaving the Norfolk area.  I keep this opal of blue well to my right as I head south, watching for other landmarks.  Inside the cockpit, I also eye the steady white needle of the VOR indicator.  These three letters are short for Very high frequency Omnidirectional Range system.  A VOR station at the Elizabeth City airport transmits radio beams in all directions.  I track on one of these radials, keeping the needle on my indicator centered.  Between following my magnetic heading, tracking the VOR signal and checking outside landmarks against those drawn on the sectional map, I know exactly where I am.

Ten miles out of Elizabeth City, I call the tower. "In-bound for touch-and-go."  A woman's voice answers back, reporting the wind conditions and the current altimeter setting. "Expect runway two eight," she says.  Immediately I glance at the north, south, east, and west markings on the heading indicator.  As I check its alignment with the compass, I start sketching the picture in my head.  To help pilots land on the correct runway, each is labeled with numbers that correspond to the compass.  Runway two eight's magnetic direction is 280--almost due west.  If there is more than one runway at an airport, the second and third are laid out to align with other common wind patterns.

I descend to 1,000 feet and enter the traffic pattern--a three-sided box flown around the end of the runway.  First I fly with the wind, then turn perpendicular to it before finally flying into the wind for the touchdown.  I talk to myself a lot now.  It's one command after another.  Make sure the mixture is rich, carb heat on.  Now power back, lower flaps, slow the plane down.  Look outside, look inside, now back out.  Fly the box.  Watch your position.  Check your altitude.  Scan the instruments.

"Seven-quebec-golf, cleared touch and go, runway two eight."  The woman's flat Carolina vowels sound 10 degrees more southern than my own Virginia-trained diphthongs.

Turn onto the final approach, down to 500 feet now, keep descending on course, add the last notch of flaps, slow to 60 knots, read the numbers 2 and 8 on the end of the asphalt.  "Thank God," I mumble out loud.  Out of a possible four runways, I've managed to pick the right one without my instructor's help.

Keep the plane centered now.  Power back to idle.  Over the numbers, pull back slightly on the yoke.  Level off for a few seconds.  Gently now, pull back more, rotate the nose up, slow it down, settle to the surface, touch first on the two main wheels, finally lower the nose, let it roll, but don't relax.  Flaps up, throttle to full power.  Just touch rubber to asphalt and take off again.  That's all the FAA regulations require for this part of my cross-country.

I am on the go, tracking the center line, pulling back on the yoke, lifting off at 55 knots, climbing out at 67 knots, heading towards the Northwest on the second leg of my triangular route.  Seventy miles away and just across the Virginia state line lies a small town called Emporia with an equally small untowered airport. With this headwind it will take 50 minutes to reach.  Once Elizabeth City cuts me loose, I change the radio to the common frequency for Emporia.  It's probably too far out to hear anything, but I listen for traffic while studying the farmland below.

Like eastern Virginia, this Carolina terrain is flat, but the wide tidal rivers are missing.  For about 20 miles there is nothing but rectangular fields with precise right angles.  Tracks of yellow tobacco stalks alternate with acres of freshly turned soil.  The farms line up like one emergency landing strip after another, all pointing in the same direction.  Such a well-ordered landscape is rare in the East where highways usually snake around creeks and follow the meandering trails of long forgotten cow paths.

This parquet land disappears in a few minutes, fanning out into woods and pastures and rambling roads.  A few houses, a couple of gray barns and a filling station cluster at almost every crossroads.  I look for the one that the map labels Gatesville--a dot where two roads merge into one.  A small lake is drawn off to the right of the village, and the giant blue tail of the Chowan River is sketched about 4 miles to the left.  Though less than half a mile across, the Chowan is impossible to miss or confuse with anything else.  However, the rest of the terrain is nondescript--pasture and farmland webbed together with little two-lane roads joining and dividing and rejoining again.  Tiny villages populate the landscape at random--most looking like miniatures cast from the same mold.

I check my heading for the first time since leaving Elizabeth City's air space.  Though the indicator shows I'm 10 degrees off my projected course, I instantly discount it.  After all, I see the river. "There's no mistaking the Chowan."  I whisper the words out loud.  The intercom captures my voice, amplifies its timbre, swells its pitch and pipes the words through the tiny speaker in my headset.  Electronics inflate you with the richness and authority of your new voice.  Alone with this microphone and no chance of anyone ever knowing, I can't resist the idea of trying out my James Brown impression.

"Wo-o-o-o-w, I feel good.  Dada-dada-dada-da.  Like I knew that I would."  Everyone has these totally narcissistic moments, I tell myself.  You've done something that was hard--really hard for you at least.  Give your ego free reign and suddenly genius seems not only possible but probable.  Without a doubt you sound great, and God knows, you must look good too.  "Dada-dada-dada-da!  So good, so good, bum, bum, bu-m-m-m!"

 

Learning to fly was hard for me.  Having to change instructors twice forced me to readjust to teaching styles every few months.  Then there was a long stretch of icy weather that left me grounded weeks between flights.  However, most of the time, I like to blame the outlandish amount of information that's involved.  From the ground, the sky may look open and limitless, but actually it's carved up into different kinds of airspace with lots of regulations governing their use.  From learning how to communicate with the tower to understanding weather, right-of-way rules, navigation and medical requirements, there are thousands of new facts to learn and remember.

In addition to the cognitive load, the body itself has a physical part to learn.  A student pilot can read a step-by-step description of how to land a plane.  She can chair-fly at her dining room table and practice the steps every night for a week.  Both help, but the dining room has no weather, and the chair has no wings.  With how much force do your legs push against the rudder pedals when there is a cross wind?  What does the engine sound like when you pull back the throttle?  Are you supposed to feel like your bottom is being nailed to the seat when you do a steep turn? Without experience the body has no memories to help gauge its reactions.

A three-pound brain sits atop our bodies, packed tightly with about a hundred billion nerve cells that biologists call neurons.  Within this mass of highly structured wiry protoplasm, learning happens.  Camouflaged behind gray folds of tissue, scientists are still trying to map its complex geography after a hundred years of study.  Researchers at the University of Iowa have used an MRI scanner to discover that one area of the brain processes the names of people, animals and objects while a different section coordinates verbs.  Yet a third region is required to converge nouns and verbs into sentences.

Neurobiologists tend to be as highly specialized in their research as the brain is in its discrete parts.  Some only study the mechanics of motor-skill memories and the signaling system that enables tasks like walking and running to become automatic.  Dangling from the edges of each neuron are fibrous dendrites that receive incoming messages.  There is also an axon fiber that sends the message on to the next set of neurons.  A minute gap known as a synapse exists between each cell so that they never even touch one another.  Thus messages are distributed using two types of signaling systems.  A message is transported across the body of an individual cell and along its axon as an electrical impulse.  However, the synapse itself is bridged chemically with molecules of a transmitter substance flowing from one neuron to the next.  When I practice my landings, I often imagine the synapses in my head growing wider with each climb out.  Once I half-heartedly tried to convince my instructor that after six or seven landings the gaps had grown so large that the neurons could no longer transmit from one to the other.  "Nice try," he said with an amused look. "Let's go round again."

I tried to figure out the reasons behind my slow progress--read a lot and even interviewed a few experts studying the learning process.  When I talked with Dr. Reza Shadmehr, Assistant Professor of Medicine and Biomedical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, he recognized the situation.  "When people are just trying to learn a task, they have trouble doing anything else.  For example if they try to carry a cognitive load ... while trying to learn a new motor skill, the learning will be slower."  Sometimes existing skills that "require your limb to be used in a very different way will interfere with learning a new skill.  If someone had learned flying without having learned to drive, they would not have that interference ... You do worse because you've learned a skill that was somehow anti-correlated to this task you're now doing.  Eventually you might learn ... and keep both skills."

Shadmehr and his research associates recently discovered that "when you learn something new, the brain requires time for it to consolidate ... it needs a period of off-line practice."  No one knows exactly how much time the brain needs, but current studies suggest it may be five to six hours.  Once this time has passed, the brain is able to handle distractions and carry on with other activities while performing the task.

Using positron emission tomography (PET), Shadmehr monitored the changes in blood flow inside the brain of participants who were learning a new motor skill.  The PET images showed that areas on the top and side of the brain are most active when the skill is first being learned.  After five or six hours away from the task, the subjects were allowed to practice the skill again.  This time the blood-flow activity shifted from the front of the brain to the back where the cerebellum is located.  Apparently, even when the task is no longer being practiced, the brain is still working in the background, processing the information.  Once the brain has time to consolidate the new information and move it to the cerebellum, the information about the skill becomes stable and is resistant to interference or change.  This may help explain why motor skills that are learned incorrectly are extremely difficult to relearn.

Shadmehr believes his research " ... supports the idea that the brain creates a blueprint, or model, for performing a particular task."  Once the blueprint is in place, the task becomes automatic.  However, if a second motor skill is introduced within a couple of hours after the first, the brain is not able to reorganize and store the information in the cerebellum.  When this happens, the simple motor skill requires more time and practice to become automatic.  If the brain is also trying to recall FAA regulations, procedure requirements, aircraft systems and fine motor skills while coping with new physical sensations, it's easy to imagine the cranium afire with all the reorganizing and imprinting that must be going on inside.

 

Above the monotonous landscape of eastern Carolina, I decide to give up on finding Gatesville and its lake, and I start looking for the next place in the road.  When the Chowan forks, I stick close and parallel its western branch.  Murfreesboro is a little larger.  That's got to be it right there.  That's got to be the trailer park shown on the map, but should it look so close?  It's supposed to be at least 5 miles south of my path, but it's almost directly under me.  From 4,500 feet, how close should things look?  I've only been this high a few times, and I can't remember the picture.

The VOR's needle is deflected as far as possible to the right of center.  I switch to the Coefield VOR station, which is much closer, turn the dial until the needle centers on a radial, pinpointing my location.  "That can't be right."  I holler the words, and this time my voice startles me as it blasts back through my headset.  I switch to Franklin, center the needle and again don't believe what I read.  Triangulating off these stations shows me south and east of where I think I am.  I realign the heading indicator with the compass.  If I follow what it shows, I've got to make a big turn to the right, but the landmarks are right below.

In West with the Night, Beryl Markham wrote, "A map in the hands of a pilot is a testimony of one man's faith in other men .... A map says to you, 'Read me carefully, follow me closely, doubt me not .... Without me, you are alone and lost.'"  I study the map and the terrain for another 15 minutes and then start to talk to myself again.  Could that clearing way out there be the airport?  The sectional map shows the airport east of town and right next to Route 58, a four-lane road.  Don't see the town yet, but that's gotta be the airport so I start my descent.

"Emporia Unicom, Cessna seven-quebec-golf 10 miles southeast of the airport.  Inbound for touch-and-go.  Request winds and runway advisory."  There is no answer, but that is not a surprise.  At many untowered airports, the manager has to fuel airplanes and sell candy bars behind the counter as well as man the radio.  So I call the other airplanes that might be in the vicinity, but there is still no response.

I'll overfly the runway at 2,000 feet, take a look at the wind sock to see what direction the wind is blowing, look for other traffic, then circle back and descend for my landing.  But as I approach the airport, it disappears like a mirage.  Instead of dark pavement and hangars, there's a grove of evergreens growing in the middle of a pasture.  I see a four-lane highway and easily convince myself that it is Route 58.  No problem.  Just follow this, and it'll lead you right to the airport.  Be patient.  You'll see it in a minute.

Smokestacks and plumes of exhaust appear out of the haze.  There's a town, but there's no airport in sight.  I recognize I-95 and wonder why the map shows it to the west of town when it obviously is to the east.  The heading indicator shows I'm traveling southwest, but something doesn't fire in my brain so I ignore it.  It smells like a pulp-mill town, has a sizable river cutting through its middle and doesn't look a thing like Emporia.  Finally, my brain flares.  I'm lost.  I didn't ignore the VOR, the heading indicator, the compass or even the map.  I simply failed to believe any of them.  When the landmarks didn't match the map, I convinced myself they were close enough.  For the last 45 minutes, I've been discarding square data through the round holes in my judgment.

Training kicks in again, and I climb and circle the area, trying to get a fix.  I unfold the map, stretch it from window to window and study the draftsman's artistry--magenta highways, black railroads, blue rivers, green landscape.  My eyes strain and I feel my gaze skimming across the map like nervous fingers.  If I could pull over to the side of the road, I could figure this out.

I dial in the radio frequency for Washington Center.  "Cessna seven-quebec-golf, student pilot, at 3,000 feet. I'm lost.  Trying to go from Elizabeth City to Emporia."  A man's voice replies.  "Cessna seven-quebec-golf, squawk two-four-two-six and indent."  I echo back the numbers and then dial them into my transponder before pressing the indent button.  "Give me a minute to find you quebec-golf.  Be right back with ya."  Geez, I thought when I hit the indent button my position would light up on the radar screen like an atomic bomb.

I scan the area for traffic then take another quick look at the map.  There it is.  A four-lane road, an interstate, a river and a sizable town.  I'm over Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina.  "Seven-quebec-golf, we've gotch-ya on radar.  You're over Roanoke Rapids.  You're only about 20 miles south of your destination.  Turn right to a heading of zero-four-zero.  We'll stick with ya the rest of the way.  Let me know when you have the runway in sight."

I watch the heading indicator and scan the horizon for Emporia.  Silently it emerges from the layer of haze hugging the ground.  Everything is in the right place--the highway, the town, the three runways that look like a big capital "A" drawn with gray asphalt.  The place is surprisingly quiet on this sunny day.  No traffic at all.  I make the radio calls, ease the throttle back, add flaps, fly the box, cross the numbers, touch-and-go, add full power, switch flaps up, pull back on the yoke.  I feel my pulse push against the side of my neck--a signal to relax.  My shoulders are practically hugging my ears, and my arms must each weigh 50 pounds.  I sit back, take a deep breath and with it, a wave of relaxation rolls up from my toes and out through my fingers.  My right hand automatically reaches to adjust the trim, inching the nose up.  I climb out, turn east and head for home.  The sun is high overhead.  The surface temperature is in the upper 80's, but I'm cool and comfortable at 3,500 feet.  "I feel good."  My voice sings out strong and clear.  "Dada-dada-dada-da."

The liberating thing about flying is that you're not expected to be perfect.  Flying instructors don't fail you just because you make a mistake.  In fact, they give you many opportunities to blunder, and then they train you how to avoid mistakes and the behavior that leads to them.  Much of this training concentrates on self-awareness of your personal limitations and the perils associated with both the absence and overabundance of confidence.  Also, imprinting through repetition is one of the touchstones of aviation instruction.  Do it a thousand times, and then do it again.  Practice landings like James Galway on his flute.  He's practiced so much that when he reads each musical note printed on the white page, his fingers, diaphragm, tongue and lips automatically shape to create the sound.  Through practice, the memory becomes visceral, functioning as though it resides within the muscle tissue itself.

Memory aids often take the form of checklists that are faded and worn by repeated use, even by pilots who have been flying the same aircraft for the last 20 years.  They also show up in easy-to-remember acronyms and phrases.  Do your GUMPs check before you land; that is, check your gas, undercarriage, mixture and prop settings.  When you get lost, remember the "Four C's"--climb, communicate, confess and comply.  Climb for altitude that will increase your range for radio reception and radar detection.  Communicate with any available facility, and confess what your predicament is. Finally, comply--do what the controller tells you to.

I invested many hours in mastering this machine built especially to harness the elements.  All the while there was a kind of alchemy at work: Altitude became the catalyst for a change in perspective.  When I was 16, I made my first road trip.  My cousin and I drove 30 miles to the next town down the road and were astounded to discover we could do something without an adult at hand.  Now today, 30 years later, there are still more lessons to learn.  It seems to me that flying provides a good model for life--one I wish I'd learned when I was 16.  Mistakes must be expected and even welcomed for what they teach us.

The James River materializes from the thick haze and stretches along the horizon, reminding me of Markham again.  When she learned to fly, she claimed she also "learned to wander ... learned what every dreaming child needs to know--that no horizon is so far that you cannot get above it or beyond it."  I am an older child now, finally learning to wander.  I look down on my home and realize how small my worldly life is.  The house where I live is difficult to pick out from the air.  The house where my former husband still lives is even harder to spot from above.  The small stand of loblolly pines has grown up and crowned the whole yard with a dark green canopy.  Children might have played there once, but from the air you can't see the missing toys.  The hospital where I had my cancer surgery is gray brick and does stand out.  Still, someone flying overhead who doesn't know the area would not be able to distinguish it from a school or an office building.  If I had known all those years ago that it's not only possible but alright to get above things, climb high, to confess and ask for help, would it have made a difference?  If I had picked up a map along the way, would I have read it?  Would I have even believed what it said?

I touch each line on the descent checklist, gradually working my thumb from one item to the next.  Mixture rich, power back, carb heat on, brakes tested, fuel checked, seat belt fastened, checklist stored.  From my cockpit, the peninsula is a beautiful, silent spit of land floating in a mass of calm, blue water.  One neighborhood links to another.  Streets stretch out in a complex grid, but I don't have to follow any of them.  I take one last look for today, trying to imprint in my soul the image of the peninsula and the horizon beyond.  I want to recall this perspective at will.

"Langley Tower, Cessna seven-quebec-golf, over the shipyard, inbound for full stop."

*Susan Adkins was a long time resident of Hampton, Virginia, who had many and varied interests.  Her two greatest passions were writing and flying.  She died at age 49 in a flying accident on March 1, 1998.

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Susan L. Adkins

Susan L. Adkins was a long-time resident of Hampton, Virginia, who had many and varied interests. Her two greatest passions were writing... read more

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