The airplane has unveiled for us the true face of the earth…We are able to judge man in cosmic terms, scrutinize him through our portholes as through instruments of the laboratory.Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
17:27, Friday, Republic Airport
The wind thumbs its nose at gravity, and lifts the Cessna 152 off of Runway 19. Like an old man collapsing into his chair after work, the wheels rattle and vibrate in crescendo until they come to an abrupt stop, ready for their well-deserved rest. For two hours today, their burden will be relieved. We are on our way to Connecticut. We being the wheels, wings, engine, and me. No instructor; this is my first solo cross-country flight.
17:39, First Checkpoint, Northport Stacks
Modern student pilots still learn navigation techniques that have been guiding aviators through the skies for a full century. Landmarks, waypoints, a compass, a stopwatch; the tools of the men and women of leather caps, silk scarves, and jodhpurs.
17:54, abeam Calverton VOR
Air Traffic Control around New York City aren’t used to these old techniques. My headset crackles to life with a gruff Long Island accent, advising another airplane of traffic. “Traffic at your two o’clock, east bound, 5,500, a Cessna 152. He’s all over the place, north, south, I don’t know where he’s going”. He’s talking about me. The other pilot confirms that he will be on the lookout for me. I feel like a kid who snuck downstairs after bedtime to watch the adults play cards and drink, only to hear them discussing my transgressions.
18:02, abeam Mattituck Airport (21N)
I’m following the sinuous northern shoreline of the island. The controller is used to the world of airways, approaches, and the rigid magenta line of GPS. He knows my destination, but not my methods. He knows my direction, but not my incorruptible link with the ground. My waypoints: rivers, towers, airports, bays, made by nature and man, not by computers and satellite beams. I stab my finger into each point on the map, and drag myself along like an ice climber with his pickaxe.
18:23, Groton-New London Airport, Connecticut
The wheels chirp back to life, the wings sigh and release their burden. No rest for the weary, however, we exit the runway, fill up with gas, and immediately taxi back to the departure end. We are only here to reaffirm the liminality of airports. Just passing through, don’t mind us, between destinations, we’re not even here. As we lift off, I secretly hope we leave some rubber on the runway. If we do not make a mark, were we ever there?
19:09, abeam Plum Island, Westbound
Airborne again, westbound, chasing the sun. I hang over the gap between Connecticut and Long Island, 2,000 feet, and increasing, of air between my feet and the water. In a high-wing airplane, one can’t help but experience the sensation of hanging, suspended. I’ve never flown in a low-wing small airplane, and I wonder to myself if it feels like riding on a sled. I can’t imagine I would like it, what point is there to being in the sky but to look down? I don’t want a wing impeding my view. I want to judge and scrutinize man in cosmic terms. I want to pass my hand over his efforts, his quiltwork of agency over the land. Hanging there, under that magical wing, the world becomes whole. At height, the idea of a city slips into reality through the veins and arteries of its connections, the inexorable, piecemeal struggles of wind and water against the landscape reveal themselves. Altitude is the greatest partner in the mind’s non-stop adventure to contemplate the vast.
19:55, Republic Airport
The wheels rumble once again on Runway 19. The sun is passing beyond the buildings, a friend too far away to call out to, gone until next time. Shadows slither across the taxiway, the wind ruffles the grass in a half-hearted attempt to stave off the night. I park the airplane, and tie it down, one strap for each wing, and a rope for the tail, as if it might covet the air once again and take flight on its own. Securely grounded, with the door closed and locked, silence falls. I take out my logbook and start writing.