mindfulness in thin air

4872033-De-la-terre-la-recherche-d-un-arbre-de-bouleau-blanc-Les-feuilles-au-sommet-de-l-arbre-vert-vif-clat-Banque-d'imagesThis morning I greeted a sky so blue I couldn’t see where the tips of the trees ended and the heavens began. I envisioned the air so pure and light that it could carry a feather swinging in lateral paths. A small airplane flew overhead, dividing the atmosphere. Its nose came into focus, the twin engines became louder; I located the rudder. The plane looked similar to the one I flew a few years ago. I remembered that early morning began just as it did this morning.

I hit the road early on July 1, 2013 with blue skies and a sun that showed the exceptional day well with a temperature of seventy-one degrees and light winds. Forty-five minutes later, I found hangar 1005. I was cashing in on a flight lesson at Chicago Executive Flight School. After the flight I realized there was something more to learning how to fly.

Seated in his office, flight instructor Michael and I reviewed the day’s weather. “Let’s get started,” he said while swinging the computer screen for me to have a look. After studying weather reports from local airports, we concluded our weather check; off to the hangar we went. My eyes popped from the reflective shine from the floor and walls, casting spotlights on the small planes. The Leer jet, however, made its own statement. We walked out of the hangar into blinding light.

“Wow, kinda like a scene from Top Gun,” I exclaimed.
“Yep, it is,” Michael chuckled. “And this is our plane, the Sundowner.”

Its blue and yellow stripes from tip to tail broke up the continuous spotless white. After a thorough examination of the exterior according to the preflight checklist, Michael declared,

“Okay, let’s get in.”

Knowing “Grace” is not my middle name, I stepped up on the wing, slowly maneuvered my right leg inside and then hit the seat with a sunken plop. I located the black instrument panel, close enough for me to see the small print, what little of it there was. While Michael turned the radio’s little black knobs (glad he was doing this–too many knobs, so many frequencies), I flipped switches and read gauges as he instructed. I planted my headset noticing it covered each side of my head. Small microphones would now absorb our conversation.

“Starting from left to right,” he said, “find the ignition. Here’s the key, turn us on.” I chuckled. At least I knew where to put the key. The engine ignited in sync with the propeller’s start. Reading the instruments was fast, easy and made sense after an orientation. My instrument reading put me back in school where I struggled to understand mathematical equations and science jargon. I’m of the creative side of the brain, imaginative and colorful. I just don’t do computations well.

“Let’s get clearance from the tower. Press this button toward you and say this,” as he handed me a small sheet of paper with my lines. Michael’s follow-up words into the mic sounded like he was singing a jingle.

We taxied, steering the plane with my feet and before I knew it, he pulled the throttle for power. “Pull up, pull up, pull up,” he said. Never having a feel for how much “pull” would get us “up,” I was too conservative with my ascension. After a more emphatic pull, we were up and flying. “You don’t have to keep a death grip on the wheel, you know,” he said. “The plane is pretty much flying itself right now.” How is it possible that I‘m sitting in a 1300 pound machine cruising at 90 miles an hour and doing nothing to alter its movement? It’s counterintuitive to me.

“So what do you think?” he asked.

“I have no words. For someone who thinks of words constantly, I have none. This is an incredible experience.”

I transitioned from being on the ground to focusing on the next steps and flying through air, like how I spend my days, flying through them. I left the below behind and felt as if time slowed and then stopped. Mindfulness was automatic.

030We skimmed the Chicago skyline in too short of time. Turning away from the city was difficult. I felt secure watching my familiar, a tall and welcoming sight, as I hung in the unfamiliar. Back to straight and level, my favorite skill of all, where I matched the plane’s position to the diagram on one circle. With the city riding now with me on my left, I revisited a place I knew would be out of sight quickly. We shouldered the north suburbs of Chicago, picturesque as ever, and made our approach.  “. . . and there’s the airport right over there,” he said. I had a visual. Michael took over, banking the plane left and then leveling. The runway was in sight and soon we were floating, down, gliding to taxi.

Back to our beginning place, we reversed actions to review post flight check. Getting out of my seat was difficult not only because I needed to concentrate on the reverse of how I got in but also because I needed to reserve a few minutes to embrace the experience. Though the noisy drumming of the propellers had competed with Michael’s conversation in my ears, I embraced a silence and solitude of my thoughts that matched with the unending blue heaven.

“We have to debug the wings. Here you go,” he said, tossing me a wad of paper towel. We sprayed and scrubbed bug guts on the wings until they were shiny clean, just as we greeted the plane. My sluggish land legs challenged me as we walked back into the building, succumbing to the wavy, bumpy feelings as the sensation of flying lingered. “You’re really good at what you do,” I said shaking his hand. “That was an experience beyond my expectations.”

I was lucky and grateful for this opportunity. I hoped Michael didn’t see his position limited to executing a job and looking to the next opportunity while not recognizing the value he has to himself and to others. But I could say that about us, too. We focus intently on getting ahead, planning out our lives, scheduling our months that we don’t realize how a mountain of minutes in the present can be rewarding and make us happy.

Turning off the momentum of flying through my day was sudden, only to be replaced with a turn on of mindfulness of the moment. Flying high begged gratitude and a perspective on the big picture where the small present moments can have the most value. Now it is every birthday when I am reminded not only of the swift passing of another year, but also the mindfulness of the present, in slow moments, to remember when I sat low in an airplane seat, hands-free, steering in no particular direction.

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