Pilots don’t talk.
Pilots only yell.
ROGER TOWER CLEAR TO OPTION OVER – NEGATIVE CONTACT ON VISUAL – SKYHAWK ONE NINER FOXTROT CHARLIE TANGO ON APPROACH
A full year of Saturdays spent in the air, and this is what the girl has learned. (Not that she hadn’t heard yelling before.)
But maybe if the pilot wasn’t wearing an enormous headset. Maybe if she wasn’t wearing earplugs. Maybe if the airplane’s single front propeller wasn’t so loud it makes her tummy queasy and even the drugs her mom makes her swallow each time before takeoff don’t stop the airsickness so finally she starts wearing earplugs as the only thing that lets her fly without vomiting into a bag.
Maybe if the pilot wasn’t her dad.
Or if she had chosen to be here, or could choose to leave.
Even if she could just understand what lesson this weekly punishment with the plane and the shouting and the long silences is meant to teach her—or at least when it will stop, when she will finally be seen as having learned her lesson enough to go home—maybe then she might be learning something more than shouting.
SKYHAWK ONE NINER FOXTROT CHARLIE TANGO
But, she thinks, also maybe not.
* * *
Of all the things to feel proud of growing up, being the daughter of one of the world’s preeminent experts in fracture mechanics is admittedly a bit esoteric. Fracture mechanics, if you’re unfamiliar, is the branch of modern engineering that strives to improve the performance of materials under stress. Engineers who specialize in this field study design components that are susceptible to cracks: AKA, tiny fractures that form, expand, and will eventually cause an entire object to fail. Think steel girders in bridges, space shuttle shielding, the rear axle of your car. Think aircraft engines.
Predicting fractures requires a complicated mathematics, which is represented on paper with strangely bulbous, potato-like shapes. I never really understood how the potato blobs decorating my father’s office walls captured the grinding, shearing, prying forces that convert microscopic defects into massive system failures—but, to be honest, I never really tried.
The math itself wasn’t what I found interesting about cracks. Only the problem under the math.
A crack, you see, starts as a logical impossibility. At its very beginning, before it propagates or is even detectable—years and years before the calamity of cars tumbling into rivers or airliners falling from the sky—a crack is two distinct and non-identical surfaces occupying a single, unitary plane.
Two planes that are one; one plane that is two. Now doesn’t that deserve better imagery than a potato?
(Oh! And to be clear, I mean plane like flat, not plane like flying. Though I can see how one might get confused.)
* * *
Other than the airplane’s call sign, CLEAR is the only flight message the girl understands. Because it takes place on the ground before takeoff and the propeller starting and all the propeller’s noise.
Her father unlatches the side window and hollers “CLEAR!” to warn anybody who might be close that the engine is about to start. If they don’t want their head cracked open, they better move.
Because a prop will crack a skull.
Even better than it chops birds.
She still has nightmares about the birds. A whole flock of them, starlings probably but maybe grackles, sunning themselves on the warm tarmac. They don’t realize a plane is coming until it is almost on them. They don’t hear the prop until they try to fly away and instead fly right into it, the engine roaring and the propeller chopping and bird bits hitting the windshield like tiny rocks that bleed and smear red across the glass.
Her dad pulls up on the stick as birds crash and die. He radios the tower to clear their bodies off the runway before he circles back again to land.
15 corpses, he tells her later. He doesn’t say in how many pieces.
* * *
The aspect of airplanes I paid most attention to as a little kid was when they crashed. Strange as it sounds, news of a crash always made me excited.
The important context, lest I sound sociopathic: every time a commercial jetliner went down, my dad would get called in to investigate. I don’t know exactly what he examined at these disaster sites, though I realize now someone must have ported the torqued engine fragments and other wreckage to a pristine hanger location for him first. But a plane crashing meant my father would go away for several weeks (and what kid doesn’t love that!), and then he always brought me a present when he came back.
Flying itself, I must confess, mostly bores me. The only times I enjoy are when a plane hits turbulence: those low-pressure pockets in the atmosphere that can’t provide adequate lift to the wings, causing the aircraft suddenly to sink or thrust up. Noticeable turbulence in a big airliner is rare, but in a small four-seater? Just cruising too close to a stratocumulus cloud can be enough for a Cessna to drop beneath you by a foot or more, leaving your body floating mid-air and only your seatbelt keeping you tethered. I used to go up with my father every weekend when I was small—6 or 7, I think? continuing until I was 8—and I prayed for turbulence every time.
Which is why it amuses me today when fellow passengers cower or cringe during such moments, as if the wind failing beneath our wings is what’s most likely to bring down an airplane. It’s not nature’s big, dramatic gestures that you need to worry about during flight; not when it’s the small ones that kill you. The infinitesimal defects left growing in silence. The two-planes-in-one.
* * *
The girl is lying when she says she doesn’t know why she’s here. Her mom told her why. She’s here because she gets too angry. She’s here because Saturday cartoons are giving her temper tantrums. She’s here because she doesn’t control herself.
She doesn’t remember the tantrum, or getting angry, or yelling so much that only flying with her father could fix her. But that’s what her mother explains, the day the girl learns she is no longer allowed to spend weekend mornings in her pajamas watching Bugs Bunny, or the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, with her big brother. Instead she will sit in a Cessna Skyhawk, nauseous and silent, earplugged, too airsick to read a book and too short to look out the window and see the ground below, next to her father for hours as he hits mysterious buttons on his control panel and occasionally shouts at unknown people on his radio.
It’s important to learn how never to be angry.
That’s what the airplane will teach her.
* * *
I learned a great deal about clouds during the years I flew with my father. Whispy-thin cirrus stretching like lambswool carded against the sky. The dark threat of the cumulonimbus, towering anvil shape of storms to come. Cumulus, cheery and ubiquitous on good flight days.
Something about that story seems—?
No matter. Maybe I learned about the clouds then, or maybe I just watched a lot of clouds and later, in school, started matching what I had seen with what science class was teaching.
Point is, I love cumulus clouds. They float flat-bottomed, like giant puffs of whipped cream sitting on glass. It’s a feature hard to fully appreciate in a commercial jet; only in a small plane, with its much-lower cruising altitude, do you find yourself flying right beside them and between them. Sometimes you fly right through them, long minutes with the windows swathed in nothing but glowing white, so dense and luscious I used to imagine I could step right out of the airplane and be buoyed up in that world of cloud. Part of my fondness for where I live today, upper-floor apartment in a highrise, is how close I can still feel to cloudy skies.
Especially on days like today, when a thick morning fog enveloped my building, glowing like a cumulus against the windows from sunlight not yet burning through. I opened my living room window and leaned out, enjoying the damp tendrils of mist against my face.
A woman’s shriek pierced the white, then just as suddenly cut off.
* * *
“YOU SEE OUR HOUSE? RIGHT THERE, YOU SEE ON OUR STREET—”
“THE ONE WITH THE ROOF? YES! I SEE IT!”
Satisfied, her father straightens the airplane out of its banking turn over the neighborhood and resumes flying level.
The girl is lying. She doesn’t see her house. She never sees her house, or any of the other houses she’s supposed to. The girl can’t tell which blocky building is her school, or the mall, or the office where her dad works. She doesn’t understand why she is supposed to see, or why care. All the houses have roofs. All the houses look like Monopoly pieces, minus the green plastic. She stops trying, once she realizes a quick “YES!” is enough. Better, as the lie makes everyone happy.
Her seat tilts under her again. What now? She hates the sideways lurch of a steep bank, the way her body presses towards the thin metal door and only the shoulder-strapped seatbelt saves her from testing the strength of its gentle latch. Her feet, legs too short to reach the co-pilot-side floor, flop sideways and hang loose above the fuselage.
She thinks about screaming.
She thinks about crashing.
She thinks about clouds.
Giving one swift pull with each hand, the girl unbuckles her seatbelt, unlatches the door, and falls out into the sky.
* * *
I can’t tell where the scream came from but someone clearly needs help. I reach over to the corner where the front wall of my living room meets the side wall and fumble at the latch that holds them together. I manage to unhook it, and the front wall swings open on complaining hinges, like a rusty dollhouse opening from the inside. I step out onto the fog.
It feels spongy under my feet, like a bouncy castle with a slow leak, but solid enough I press forward.
“Hello?” I call softly. “Anyone there?”
No more screams, though from far away on my left, I hear what sound like the howls and yips of a coyote. I take a step forward, then another, balancing myself against the give and sway of the mist underfoot. The open wall of my apartment disappears behind a swirl of cloudbank, and I am surrounded entirely by thick, white glow. Then, almost directly overhead, a guttural snarl. I see a dark shape flash past, an outreached hand, a body moving too fast for me to grab. I dive after, frog-stroking through the fog like a swimmer.
When I finally catch up and stop the tumbling figure by pulling it to me, I see that I’ve caught a little girl. She’s young; maybe six or seven, eight years old at the most. From the rictus set of her jaw, I assume she must be the one whose scream and snarls I heard, but then I look closer: her mouth is jammed full with feathers—darkly iridescent and many of them broken, quill tips stained with blood. She looks up at me and wetly blinks, though I can’t tell what emotion her tears betray.
Deep inside my ribs, something is grinding loose. Fracturing off like the rasping of metal shards, sliding silently into the fog below my feet. I feel a warm, wet space opening near my heart that hadn’t been there before.
“Come here, sweetheart.” As I cradle her to my chest, she curls into an almost fetal ball and cuddles against me. “Let’s see if we can’t get you home.”
I push off from the cloud like leaping into the air. An itching near my shoulder blades turns suddenly sharp, then disappears as wings unfurl from my back, pearlescent as a dove’s, expansive as an eagle’s. As I beat my wings to power us upwards, I realize the girl in my arms feels much smaller than before. Glancing down, I see a tiny face beam back up at me: feathers gone, her smile revealing the toothless gums of an infant.
I press her against me, into me, into the tender new space under my heart. As I break through the top of the clouds and into the sunlight, my chest fills. My arms empty.