On Flying and Writing

Type A’s, like me, resist surrendering control to anyone. Yet every time I board an airplane, I do exactly that. I don’t know the pilot and the pilot doesn’t know me.

So what do I do? Finding my seat, I think about something else.

Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life ends with a chapter on flight. From page 93 to 111, Annie describes her acquaintance with a stunt pilot named Dave Rahm.

First, at an air show, she watched Dave Rahm “write an intelligent message in the sky … like a brush marking thin air.”

Later, given the opportunity to fly in a single engine plane Dave Rahm piloted, she vividly describe her the extraordinary experience.

You can do that, you know, only if you walk away after the plane lands.

Dave Rahm flew Annie to see the Cascade Mountains. “The Cascades,” she said, “make the Rockies look like hills.” In Washington state, Mt. Ranier stands at 14,411 feet, the highest peak in the Cascade range.DSC_1632cr

Annie’s experience prompted me to write, first in the margins of her book and then in my journal about a flight in Alaska I had taken. Since I could relate to her words ––the parallel she makes to writing––I share my own experience on flying.

North to Alaska. Aaa-las-kahhh!

Beyond the Cascades. located in Denali National Park, the Alaska range boasts Mt. Denali, the highest point in North America. Elevation 20,310 feet, it stands as the largest mountain––base to peak––in the world.

On my flight to see Mt. Denali, instead of a pen I carried a camera. My Nikon D300 (2.8 70–200mm and 2.8 17–55mm lenses) afforded options for up close and personal both inside and outside the cockpit.

My camera kept me fastened to the moment, taking pictures instead of thoughts flitting around fear.DSC_1840cr

No guarantees you will see the mountain, the contract I signed had stipulated. Likely I signed a waiver on death as well.

Yes, this is not Disneyland. You might crash and burn.

Told that Mt. McKinley (Denali’s former name) is visible only 20% of the time, taking off on a cloudy day felt less than promising.

Annie describes her fascination with flight as a “newcomer’s willingness to try anything once.”

“I gave up on everything,” Annie writes, “the way you do in airplanes; it was out of my hands.”

She’s right, you know. Unless we are the pilot, we do give up control when boarding any airplane.

Too late to wonder Where am I and how did I get here? I am Rocket Man, “and I think it’s gonna be a long, long time till touchdown brings me ’round again . . .”

I kept my eye on the pilot. Seated where I was, I could watch his movements. Here, in flight, he selects music on his iPod.

Ho-hum. He’s not worried, why should I worry?

I mean, that little “half circle of wheel in their big hands looks like a toy they plan to crush in a minute, the wiggly stick the wheel mounts seems barely attached” is how Annie describes a passenger’s perspective.

It’s out of my hands. Wearing your seat belt, aren’t you?

Small plane vs commercial jet:  Am I scared yet?

First of all, the small plane is loud. The headset you wear muffles the noise.

Up there, stomach pitching, mind spinning, ears popping, I try hard not to think about invisible means of support, above ground, thousands of feet in the air. Don’t look down. Look out.

There’s the bumps. The drops, sudden and unforeseen. It’s not like driving a car where you anticipate the road ahead, follow the lines, pick a lane, watch the shoulder and look ahead to see what lies in your path.

Air currents at high altitude lift and swirl, batting at the plane like an insect.

The plane I rode in pitched and dropped and zig-zagged through the air. The girl in the seat behind me used her airbag the entire time.

I am Jonah swallowed by a big fish, beneath the sea, terrified yet hopeful because unlike Jonah, I am not the first person to trip with this guy. He must be good.

This camera shot makes clouds look like waves crashing against the shore of that mountain. The sky above mirrors the sea. Or is it vice versa?


Annie writes, “Our plane swiped the mountain with a roar . . . our shaking, swooping belly seemed to graze the snow.”

And that made me think of this picture I took. The plane’s wing tilted, flying so close to the mountain that it appeared the wing could cup the snow, as one might dip and measure flour.

DSC_1801 WM

Skywriting or paper trails, an ordinary person performs

What Annie Dillard wrote, if I follow her meaning throughout this chapter, parallels a writer’s attempt to keep in mind, all at once, the story he or she wants to tell.

Watching Dave Rahm write in the sky using his airplane, Annie describes her sensation.

“It had taken me several minutes to understand what an extraordinary thing I was seeing. Rahm kept all that embellished space in mind at once. For another 20 minutes I watched the beauty unroll  and grow more fantastic and unlikely before my eyes. Now Rahm brought the plane down slidingly, and just in time, for I thought I would snap from the effort to compass and remember the line’s long intelligence; I could not add another curve. He brought the plane down on a far runway. After a pause, I saw him step out, an ordinary man, and make his way back to the terminal.”

Annie Dillard marvels at Dave Rahm’s ability as a pilot and I, sitting in my comfortable chair, marvel at her ability as a writer to take me there.

To see, to feel and relate. To react. To respond.

For the writer must write with spell-binding intelligence in order to hold the reader’s attention while suspending the reader’s realization that an ordinary person has performed this feat.

Coming in for landing …

“I had a survivor’s elation,” is how Annie put it.

And that’s how I too would describe my relief when the plane touched down on the runway.

Once on the ground again I ponder how I came to trust my life to a stranger.

What made me get into and go up in a metal tube to MAYBE see a mountain, a mountain unperturbed by uninvited visitors who strain to see its face?

I don’t have a bucket list, so it wasn’t that.


I took my chances and my shot

The “money shot,” as they say in the movie business, this print won 2nd place at the Tri-State Fair that year.

A framed 16×20 hangs on my wall, bigger and better than a postcard, declaring each time I pass by, “I was there. Joined the 20% club.”



Selected images:

We flew above vast uninhabited wilderness. Desolate, but beautiful. No place to get lost.DSC_1649cr






Approaching, first glimpse of Mt. Denali. Clouds, let me get a peek at the peak.


Flying away, Bye bye, Baby, bye bye.



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One thought on “On Flying and Writing

  • July 26, 2016 at 9:54 pm

    I love reading your blog. My precious aunt, Gay Kuempel, told me that it is a “must.” I have only read the most recent entry,and I agree with her, and thank you for taking the time to write and share your photos. I will be following you and look forward to your future entries. In the meantime, I will read all your previous ones.


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