Soaring over California

I love to fly.  I always have.  Early childhood memories are full of the thrill of boarding a 747 and marveling at its size, grace, and the wonderment of flight.  And no matter how cramped one might be in coach, the simple idea that one is cutting through the skies toward an as yet unreached destination is enough to make me go online and search for cheap tickets to almost anywhere (Ulan Bataar, Sydney, Milwaukee, it doesn’t matter).

So when my friend Wade told me that he is the proud owner of a little Cessna and would I be interested in flying with him, I couldn’t believe my luck.  And of course my answer was a resounding “yes.”

The appointed date of departure arrived, with an unscheduled morning jaunt (when you have your own private plane, you can pretty much take off whenever you want) from Whiteman Airport in the north San Fernando Valley across the mountains to Lancaster.  Our goal, to have breakfast at the diner at the Lancaster airport.

I have flown in a Cessna once before, and to be honest the experience was unsatisfying.  I was shooting material for an art installation piece so for the most part I didn’t fully feel much of anything, shielded as one gets behind a camera’s viewfinder.  I do recall one moment where I put the camera down to enjoy the flight, and then realized I was effectively flying in a lawnmower with wings.  Hmmm.

Cessna’s are tiny planes, to be sure, but as Wade explained to me, it is this simplicity of the machine that makes the flying all the more enjoyable.  You are in complete control of the aircraft, much the way you are in more control of a manual transmission car, which I also prefer.  You might argue about safety and whatnot, but I won’t bore you with statistics.  Go look it up online and then you tell me whether you are safer on the ground.

We pulled on to the runway; early enough not to have to even notify the tower (which doesn’t begin operating until 8am) and took off without much ado.  The plane simple raced forward, and the ground fell away.  So simple as to be almost anticlimactic.

Save for the view.

Flying no higher than about 6000 feet, the world transforms into a spectacular miniature of itself, and yet in so doing somehow becomes larger, more magnificent and awe-inspiring.  There is a vast difference between the view one gets from 35,000 feet in a commercial aircraft and that at the much lower altitude.  From 35k we are certainly afforded a more Godlike view, the world bending at its corners.  And yet we lose all detail, instead viewing the globe as just that, a globe of enormous proportion which we have the capability of spanning in a mere matter of hours.  The scope of what we are accomplishing by flying at that height and those speeds, though, is hard to identify with, much like a broad statistic of mass casualties in an earthquake or tsunami in a foreign country.

But 6000 feet is perfect for understanding how incredible an accomplishment it is to fly, the world unfolding before you in all its complexity and beauty.  The soft curve of a mountain. The myriad inlets of a lake. The fragility of a man-made structure pressing upward from a valley.  This is what it feels like to be god and I am reminded of being a child, lording over my Lego city and feeling omnipotent.

Twenty minutes later and we landed in Lancaster.  There we enjoyed a well-earned and thoroughly greasy breakfast, transformed from the mundane to the spectacular by virtue of our inbound journey.  And with food in our bellies, we got right back onboard our little plane and flew across the mountains again, passing Castaic Lake, Magic Mountain, and Valencia on the way.  All breakfasts should be this thrilling.

Oh yes.  At one point on our return trip Wade handed the controls over to me and let me fly the plane.  This was sort of like being handed a loaded gun and I was instantly filled with massive respect for the machine and no small amount of fear thrown in for good measure.  After a couple minutes of steering almost imperceptibly to the left (it’s a lot more complicated than you might think, between the wheel and the rudder pedals) I was quite happy to turn the controls back over to Wade, not that he ever truly relinquished them.  I may enjoy the experience of flying, but I’m happy to let someone else do the actual work.

Pictures don’t do the experience justice.  However, I have uploaded a short video I shot on my still camera (forgive the quality) of our perfectly smooth landing back at Whiteman which you can view here.

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