LANDMARKS: An Aviator’s Spiritual Geography

By Jeffrey Scheuer

I. TAKING OFF

Like many obsessions, mine seemed to begin as a whim. On an August afternoon in the late 1980’s, having just purchased a farmhouse in upstate New York, I was driving along a country road when I passed a sign for the Columbia County Airport. On an impulse, I turned in on the access road. A few minutes later I had paid $25 for a half-hour “discovery flight” with the young flight instructor on duty. As we climbed out over the Hudson Valley, the landscape shed its one-dimensional cloak to reveal depth, texture, and scale. The river unwound like a ribbon below, bisecting a vast basin rimmed by the imposing Catskill Mountains to the west, and to the east by the Berkshires in Massachusetts; some fifty miles south, I could see the rugged hills known as the Hudson Highlands; to the north, beyond the distant spires of Albany, the horizon was rippled by the Adirondacks. A spectacular visual kingdom lay unfurled; yet from aloft, this landscape seemed, if not smaller, at least more connected and whole: a universe with myself at the center.

Soon after climbing out, the instructor gave me the controls. Our airplane was a Cessna 152, a small two-seater whose larger and more powerful counterpart, the four-place Cessna 172, or Skyhawk (in which I’d eventually do most of my flying), has been the cornerstone of single-engine general aviation since the 1950’s. I had flown in small planes before, but was unprepared for the sensation of actually operating one; controlling a machine in three dimensions is a unique way of relating mind and matter. Using the ailerons and rudder to bank into turns, and the elevator to raise or lower the nose, I controlled the airplane on its three axes of pitch, yaw, and roll. I learned that in most flight regimes, one uses power to climb or descend, and the pitch of the plane’s nose to control airspeed. I came to understand the inherent stability designed into airplanes, and how they virtually fly themselves in level flight, recover from a stall, or glide gracefully without power. But the real point of no return is that giddy sensation, like a first kiss, when the plane first responds to your touch.

Other pleasures lay in store: the sense of freedom in gaining admission to the sky; the discipline of entrusting one’s life to the mastery of a complex machine; enduring the rigors of demanding (and often inept) instructors. But the magic of flight, to me, has never been about power or speed. In fact, at higher altitudes it can seem – as in jetliners – as if one is creeping. Rather, it’s in the subtle, profound alterations of scale; the commutability of time and space; and most of all, the gift of aerial perspective on the evolving earth below. It’s not about escaping what a poet-aviator once called the “surly bonds of earth,” but rather, stepping back from nature to better admire its face. It’s about following the counsel of Henry Beston, to “Touch the earth, love the earth, honor the earth, her plains, her valleys, her hills, and her seas; rest your spirit in her solitary places.” To experience transcendence in any form – in art, love, religion, nature is intoxicating. I’m not an artist, but I fly to appreciate landscape with an artist’s eye; the intoxication follows. As in human relationships, obsession isn’t love; learning to fly was not always easy or pleasurable, and obsessions have their costs. But they can also be runways for the spirit.

 

II. FOR SPACIOUS SKIES

Altitude brings revelations and telling details. White water, as I observed on my first solo cross-country flight to Glens Falls, New York, and again over Yellowstone National Park, looks frozen and solid from the air. Likewise, surf forms a motionless white belt around a shoreline, until one descends far enough to discern individual breakers. Natural disasters, like the recent tornado that cut a swath through northwestern Connecticut, or the huge burn in Yellowstone, reveal their true dimensions when seen from above. A pilot gradually learns, like a hiker, to read the terrain, and like a sailor, the subtler cues of wind and water and clouds. Read these with passionate curiosity, and you develop an artist’s eye.

But panoramic views are what delight us most, and connect us in time and space. The Catskills looked much the same, on my first climbout from Columbia County Airport, as they did to Indian eyes centuries ago; and as they will to my unborn grandchildren. While cities and towns and roads are barriers in time, and signposts of history, part of the allure of wilderness is that it transcends human time, connecting us to past and future. Paradoxically, such temporal connections are precisely what is meant by civilization.

Natural vistas are deeply and intrinsically appealing, and not just to pilots: they are literally revelatory, opening the world to us, connecting us to what is remote. To see a landscape from afar is to soften or erase the man-made details – buildings, roads, power lines and all the rest. Distance is nature’s ally, momentarily relaxing the relentless grip of human artifice on our field of vision. The result is that sense of connectedness or wholeness (maybe they are the same thing) that I felt on my first flight. This is not just personal speculation: the “biophilia hypothesis” postulates a genetic basis for the fundamental human need to interact with nature – an instinct that draws us to those wild and open spaces that infuse us with a sense of mystery, possibility, or well-being. They quench a thirst that can never be wholly slaked; intoxicated but never full, I gulp with my eyes the vistas of the Hudson Valley. “Here,” said Frost, “are your waters and your watering place. Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.” I never tire of looking down.

 

* * * * * *

In October 1994, I flew with a local pilot from Scottsdale, Arizona up to Sedona, some 80 miles to the north. Just above Scottsdale, the land begins to rise up out of the desert and phase into grassland and chaparral. But the real surprise is further north: beyond Sedona lies the Mogollon Rim, where a whole section of the state of Arizona suddenly rises several thousand feet, like a giant stair-step to the flatter terrain above.

Southern Arizona is a paradise for an inexperienced pilot, or one who is not yet instrument-rated for flight without reference to the ground. The wide desert corridor that extends from Tucson west to Phoenix and into the Mojave Desert in California is one of the few areas of the West with a significant amount of low, flat terrain; and the weather and visibility are usually excellent. Here, landmarks are so prominent that, like stars, you can steer by them from great distances: to find Sedona, I had only to point the nose of the plane a bit west of Humphrey’s Peak, the dominant landmark just north of Flagstaff, and wait an hour or so.

Even on a less than perfect day, the red rock canyons around Sedona are a place of dizzying grandeur, a high-desert landscape of mesas, buttes, pinnacles, and the Rim itself. The little airport at Sedona sits on top of a mesa, like an inviting snack waiting to be eaten by a passing plane. After a brief rest stop there, we took an aerial tour of the surrounding canyons. On this bright autumn morning, there was a single sign of the season: in the nearly vertical chutes along the cliff walls, saplings of ash and mesquite were blazing streaks of red and yellow. After circling awhile, we headed back south along the Rio Verde Valley, watching as the land rolled back into low desert.

Again I was mesmerized by the paradox of space and scale that comes with flight. One seems to move slowly, and more so the higher one’s altitude. But a mere glance is deceiving; as time gathers, and the eye focusses, the visual diet becomes richer, more varied, and the land evolves, in ways both subtle and dramatic. In the space of an hour along the Rio Verde, a great swath of central Arizona is distilled for the eye – bootlegged by air and altitude. My co-pilot put things in perspective with the casual reminder that to “really” see this country you need a car. Others, like the great Western writer Edward Abbey, would insist that you need boots.

A few days later, on a commercial jetliner returning to New York, I witnessed another spectacle. As night fell, an eerie orange glow lit up the sky over Texas. Across the entire southern horizon, cumulonimbus clouds flickered and flashed like Jack o’ Lanterns, lit from within by a potent, mysterious light. I imagined I was seeing some ghastly human enterprise – the firebombing of a city, perhaps, or a giant artillery barrage. But veins of high-altitude lightning confirmed that it was a work of nature. It continued for twenty minutes, while the jet travelled well over 150 miles. News reports the next day confirmed that a giant thunderstorm system had passed through the region, lumbering east toward the Mississippi Valley looking for a bed of cool, stable air on which to die.

 

III. THE PILOT’S EYE

Sheer physical grandeur like that around Sedona is wonderful, but it isn’t the ultimate thrill. And, practically speaking, it takes skill and experience to fly safely in the high country. Winds are treacherous; wilderness airstrips are short, soft, and hard to find, often situated in steep, narrow valleys or box canyons. And if one should lose an engine over steep terrain, the options are limited. With prudence, the rewards outweigh the risks; well-maintained engines seldom fail – far less often than pilots. But while the benefits of twin-engine planes are often overestimated by the non-flying public (they are much harder to fly, especially on one engine), mountain flying, like flight over water, or anywhere at night, is by and large safer in a twin.

In any kind of aircraft, mountain flying invites us to reflect on our mortality; and there’s nothing wrong with that. It reminds us that life itself is just a ghostly flash of electrical impulses among these random, ancient conformations of the planetary surface. Here, more than ever, air seems a foreign and borrowed medium, on which we float temporarily like so many giddy leaves, deceived by our ability to ascend and alight where we please, thinking we are masters of the atmosphere. What a hoax it seems, this hubristic conquest of sky and space – but are we deceivers or deceived? The great trick of flight works until it doesn’t – usually until a dumb human mistake makes you a statistical grain of sand on the shifting beach of human experience. We temporarily defy nature, knowing we must return to earth in a few hours’ time. It’s a Kantian truth: not a logical or mathematical certainty, but necessary for all human experience. Whatever rises must return. Meanwhile, it’s good to have a farmer’s field below you.

Other factors besides safety also draw me to the lowlands. A quieter landscape isn’t just more forgiving; it can have more to say about history and geography, and even about natural beauty, than one that is dramatic and forbidding. I’m intrigued by the tallgrass prairies of the plains; the curling rivers of the mid-continent, and the old worn-down spine of the Appalachians; the beaches and estuaries of the coastlands. What poetry of place, if only Whitman could have seen these from the air – the piney islets that adorn the coast of Maine, and the great salt marshes fingering inland; the inner beauty of Cape Cod, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard; the barrier islands from New York to Georgia; the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound. And if only I could fly over my native Manhattan, one of the greatest displays of human artifice, and see it still covered in primeval forest.

Pristine nature is beautiful; but more than anything else, perspective, variety and change are what I crave beneath my wings: a landscape of subtle shifts and transitions, the interplay of geological and climatic zones, of floral and human habitation, and changing relationships of land and water; a place of visual revelation and surprise. The mountains around Mt. Desert Island, for example, are magnificent, and unique on the East Coast, not because they are high, but because, like the Scottish Highlands, they arise from the sea. Altitude appeases the eye – especially in the range between, say, three thousand and five or six thousand feet above the ground: high enough for some perspective, low enough for some detail. At that distance, nature re-asserts itself in different terms, obscuring and softening the work of man, overtaking it in scale. But by opening up great swaths of space, flight also heightens our awareness of what has gone before and what has been irretrievably lost. We can’t roll back the centuries, but from aloft we can sometimes touch time, both natural and historic. (As the novelist Allan Gurganus recalls, it was still possible some years ago to fly over Georgia and see vestiges of the swath cut by Sherman’s troops.) Airplanes allow us to see more, as well as less – and to see differently. The natural prairie that once covered much of Long Island is gone, a footnote to natural history buried in asphalt and concrete.

In human time, the extirpation of nature is irreversible. In the long run we’re all dead, and our pretty little planet too. Meanwhile, we need what’s left of the virgin land: we need to see it, surrender to it, to feel its embrace. That is surely part of what it means to love one’s country. It may also be what Frost is talking about in “The Gift Outright”:
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright…

 

* * * * * *
I fly to look down; and all pilots, when not on an instrument flight plan, must look down to fly. We maintain our orientation to the ground most directly through the technique known as pilotage, which is simply the continual cross-reference between what we see below and our aeronautical charts – and it’s harder than it sounds. Pilotage is used in conjunction with the two other methods of aerial navigation: dead reckoning (basic calculations of time, speed and distance); and radio navigation, using electronic instruments that tell you where you are in relation to a radio signal from a beacon. Dead reckoning alone would suffice, and navigation would be a simple matter of arithmetic, were it not for one brutal fact of nature: irregularities in the earth’s surface, and unequal heating by the sun, cause differences in atmospheric pressure, which in turn cause wind. Like a ship in a current, an airplane moves through the prevailing wind and sails with it at the same time; and the wind’s direction and velocity can change several times an hour. Wind is the great complication in navigation – and the bitch-goddess of good landings.

The trick to pilotage is pre-selecting good landmarks along one’s route, adjusting for drift and wind shifts, and thus not getting lost. Large, recognizable features help: a shoreline, a river, a long ridge; a lake of identifiable shape, or one with a dam; or any other feature (like Humphrey’s Peak in Arizona, or Mt. Monadnock in southwestern New Hampshire) that dominates its environs. Some areas are bereft of landmarks; the Canadian wilderness, for example, encompasses vast expanses of lakes and forest – what pilots call “featureless terrain” – and and lacks radio navigation facilities as well. Nowadays, flyers enjoy the state-of-the-art satellite navigation system known as GPS, or Global Positioning System; but good bush pilots consider any electronic system a fail-safe, and hone their pilotage and dead-reckoning skills. While practicing these, I have struggled to navigate over the wilds of western Ontario – and also to find my way across Connecticut.

The Hudson Valley, cloven by its majestic river, is an especially easy region to navigate by pilotage in good weather (a flight regime known as VFR, or “visual flight rules”) and a good place to learn to fly. The terrain is simple and varied; there are no sprawling suburbs or featureless wastes to confuse the novice pilot; a a few distinct features – the river, mountains, highways – make make excellent landmarks. In good weather, one could fly from New York to Burlington or Montreal simply by following a series of great waterways ­ the Hudson, Lake George, Lake Champlain – and hardly open a chart.

No pilot understood the effects of flight on the human mind, or the twin passions for land and sky, better than Charles A. Lindbergh. After 28 hours over the Atlantic, expecting a landfall anywhere between Norway and Spain, he crossed the Irish coast within three miles of his intended course. Recalling that moment in “The Spirit of St. Louis,” he wrote: “One senses only through change, appreciates only by absence. I haven’t been far enough away to know the earth before. For twenty-five years I’ve lived on it, and yet not seen it till this moment. For nearly two thousand hours, I’ve flown over it without realizing what wonders lay below, what crystal clarity ­ snow-white foam on black-rock shores – curving hill above its valley – the hospitality of little houses – the welcome gift of waving arms. During my entire life I’ve accepted these gifts of God to man, and not known what was mine until this moment. It’s like rain after drought; spring after a northern winter. I’ve been to eternity and back. I know how the dead would feel to live again.”

 

IV. LAZY CIRCLES IN THE SKY

Despite my obsession with flight, it was several years after my fateful turn into Columbia County Airport before I got my pilot’s license. Many factors accounted for the delay: living in New York City, and only managing to fly 40-50 hours each year; a chronic back problem, exacerbated by sitting for hours in Cessna cockpits; a compulsive caution as the father of two small children; spotty instruction; and not least, the fact that, for all my enthusiasm, I am not a natural pilot – no writer is. But I finally got the license, not in the Hudson Valley but in Palm Springs, California, and did well on the tests. From Columbia County to Palm Springs was a long journey.

It was another whim that took me to upland Maine, a few months later, to add a seaplane rating to my license. Like most pilots, I have no practical use for the SES (single-engine sea) rating. In fact, outside of a handful of the more liquid states (Alaska, Washington, Louisiana, Florida, Minnesota, and Maine) seaplane bases are hard to come by. But practicality aside, the seaplane rating is the easiest aviation rating to acquire, taking at most a few days; it provides a very different perspective on flight, and access to deep wilderness; and it’s fun.

So there I was on Moosehead Lake, on a calm August day, feeling like some sort of awkward water bug about to take wing for the first time. As my instructor looked on, I applied full power. At first the Cessna 172 plowed clumsily through the syrupy water; then, gaining speed, it got up on the “step,” the configuration for high-speed taxiing and takeoff, where the craft is hydroplaning, neither floating nor flying. Finally, with an abrupt tug, the floats broke free, and like a bird uncaged, the plane soared up off the surface. It was a lush moment, reminiscent of my first time at the controls of a plane back in Columbia County.

Moosehead itself is reason enough to go to Maine: the largest lake within any single eastern state, and a beauty. Forty-four miles long and up to 20 wide, teeming with trout and landlocked salmon, it is dotted with islands and surrounded by hills and peaks, including Mt. Kineo, whose steep rocky face surges almost straight up from the shore. Greenville, at the south end of the lake, is a wilderness outpost worthy of Jack London: a nondescript town devoted to getting people somewhere else: outfitting hunters, hikers, anglers, and seaplane pilots. But the setting is gorgeous, and it has the curious charm of being one of the few communities almost entirely devoted to water flying and related activities.

In flight, seaplanes aren’t much different from land planes, just a bit slower and less agile because of the floats. It’s on the water – taking off, landing, maneuvering, taxiing, and docking – that they’re ornery and unforgiving. Thus, as I discovered, the basics of water flying can be learned in a few days, but it takes years to master the art. The biggest peril is the seaplane itself, which, as one grizzled bush pilot explained, is “basically a very bad boat, and achieves ultimate stability upside down.” Even more than in a conventional plane, the seaplane pilot must visualize how invisible forces are working on the craft, and what will happen if the right measures aren’t taken promptly to keep those forces in balance. Unlike land planes, they have no brakes; unlike sailboats, no sails, and only small rudders at the heel of each float; unlike power boats, no underwater screw that can go in reverse. Turning on the water is tricky when there is wind; but landing and taking off are tricky when there is no wind. On glassy water, it’s harder for the floats to break free because of the suction effect; and when landing, the surface is a mirror, and the point of impact difficult for even an experienced pilot to gauge. And yet, how any pilot could forego this exhilarating hybrid experience of sea and sky, and bouncing from lake to pristine lake, is beyond me.

On my final night in Greenville, having completed the seaplane checkride, I sat on a porch overlooking the lake and listened to the weird, ghostly songs of the loon. I could discern two distinct calls: one would sink at first, then whip out across the lake like a fly ball, reach its apex, and fade in a twisted shriek, echoing off the surrounding hills. The other was an astonishing glottal trill, like a liquid drumbeat just below the lake’s surface. In their music, these nocturnal water flyers seemed to have found the elusive harmony of air and water that I was just learning to mimic.

 

* * * * * * * *
South Dakota was my forty-sixth state, so it’s fair to say that I had seen a bit of America before arriving there a few summers ago. Nevertheless, I was utterly captivated by the southwestern corner of the state. It is a region where four radically distinct and arresting landscapes converge: open prairie; grasslands; the Black Hills, which rise dramatically out of the plains, hinting of the Rockies further westward; and the barren, rugged area aptly named the Badlands, which are not quite desert, and not quite anything else.

I made my aerial survey of the region in a day, flying a wide counter-clockwise circle around the Black Hills, having driven a similar route clockwise with a friend the day before. Taking off from Rapid City with a local pilot (a bored, sullen fellow, but a seasoned flyer), I headed northwest toward Spearfish, then west to circle around Devil’s Tower, a spectacular butte that thrusts up out of the Wyoming plains, its vertical striations resembling a giant stalk of rhubarb. From there, we continued around to the south and east.

On summer afternoons, thunderstorms roll out of the Black Hills like bowling balls, afflicting the skies to the east, and the boomers were starting as we arrived in Custer Hot Springs, south of the Hills, near the supernally beautiful country of Wind Cave National Park. After a rest stop, we flew north and east over the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, and then on across the Badlands. Dodging ever larger storms across the wide-open sky, we followed Box Elder Creek out of the Badlands, and made it back to Rapid City just ahead of a drenching squall.

The grasslands held a special fascination for me; from the ground, one feels as if on the green swells of a vast ocean. It looked much the same to the first pioneers, who had never seen grasslands either; as Eliza Steele wrote in 1840: “A world of grass and flowers stretched around me, rising and falling to gentle undulations, as if an enchanter had struck the ocean swell, and it was at rest forever. How shall I convey to you an idea of a prairie. Imagine yourself in the centre of an immense circle of velvet herbage, the sky for its boundary upon every side; the whole clothed with a radiant efflorescence of every brilliant hue.”

There is a particularly rich mix of colors and textures around Rapid City, as the pine forests – approaching from the East, the first significant timber in hundreds of miles – dapple the slopes of the Black Hills. Here, the interplay of forest, meadow and rangeland creates a blend of green and gold hues that reminded me of Kate Wolfe’s song, “The Rolling Golden Hills of California.” At higher elevations, the dark green hills are offset by gray outcroppings of rock. Such vivid contrasts and sharp boundaries of hues and forms are precisely what make the Dakota landscape so striking and cornucopian, particularly from the air.

What I suspect enhances the effect, especially to Eastern eyes, is the availability of the natural horizon. It is like a subliminal compass with which we locate ourselves in space. It may also be that we are unconsciously soothed by clear natural boundaries: perhaps they suggest that nature is less overwhelmingly vast and mysterious than it otherwise seems. In some places around Rapid City, the line between hills and plains is so well-defined that it resembles a coastline. Driving down out of the hills along Route 16, and looking eastward, the prairie creates a secondary horizon just over the rim of the rolling terrain; you can actually point to where the West begins. And here’s one thing you can’t do in a plane: pull off at a scenic overlook and dance with your co-pilot as truckers laugh and wave from their passing rigs.

To be sure, many parts of this country are more forbidding up close, especially to the casual wanderer; I wouldn’t venture out across the Badlands alone – not on foot, horseback, or in an airplane. Yet, somehow, seeing the region for the first time felt like coming home. I suppose one can be jaded by natural beauty, especially in the West. Words can be inadequate currency, and also inflationary. But this quietly dramatic corner of South Dakota, so varied yet surprisingly intimate in scale, is a jewel in the American attic.

 

V. LANDING

When I began to fly, a deeply buried memory seeped up through the aquifer of my subconscious. I realized that the first spark of my interest in aviation traced back to a book my mother had read to me at age two or three. The book was “The Little Airplane” by Lois Lenski, an accomplished children’s author. A vague memory of it lingered for several years; finally, in the late 1990¹s, I decided to track it down.

It wasn’t easy. “The Little Airplane” was long out of print, and no copies were available at any public library in Manhattan. On a chilly fall afternoon, I arrived at the Brooklyn Public Library on Eastern Parkway. There, in the research department in the basement, and in too frail condition to circulate, was “The Little Airplane” – evidently the lone copy in any public collection in New York. I read it with awe and fascination. Yes, it was the same book my mother had read to me almost forty years earlier. I remembered the part where Pilot Small starts the engine (these were the days before electronic ignition), yelling “Contact!” as a mechanic swings the propeller by hand; the emergency landing, the quick mechanical adjustment, the flight resumed, the happy ending. The book I held in my hands, and carefully photocopied, had first been published in 1938, and was already in its eleventh printing in 1946. It crumbled slightly to my touch. According to the library slip in the back, it had not been borrowed in more than forty years. On the last date stamped – May 1, 1951 – Harry Truman was president, the Dodgers played in nearby Flatbush, and Willie Mays was in his first month in the major leagues. The safest and most popular line of small aircraft ever built, the single-engine Cessnas, were still several years away from production.

There was also a sign of tragedy. On the rear inside cover, the name of a seven- or eight-year-old child was scribbled, eerily resembling my own: “Jeffrey S—-.” And inside the front cover, the Library had affixed its own label, on which were typed the words: “Jeffrey S—- Memorial Collection.”

Despite this deeply somber touch, finding “The Little Airplane,” was exhilarating: I had come full circle to a point of departure. It was like reaching the end of one of the many long and often impassable roads winding back into the self. I couldn’t read it with the clean, bright mind of a three-year-old, but the magic was still there.

As I finished the story, it felt like waking from a dream: suddenly I was no longer three years old, and flying no longer meant a vague excitement prompted by my mother’s voice. Thrown into sharp relief by the story, it was once again something complicated and adult. Flying, now, was a means of transcendence that I could never have imagined as a child. It was a way to manage mortality, and in the footsteps of Thoreau, “to live deliberately, to front only the essentials of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” It was the emergence, in a pilot’s mind, of an artist’s eye.

 

XXX