Shades of White

"Scroll down for flying pictures; they will load while you read the essay."

As I approach Charlottesville, Virginia, the clouds ahead thicken. Three hundred miles from home, I am on my first solo flight as an instrument rated pilot, alone in a single engine airplane. Most of the trip has been in clear weather. Now, I see a layer of clouds between my destination and me. A ridgeline rises to my right. I remain level at 5000 feet and proceed straight into the vertical edge of moisture, a brick wall of white fluff. At 145 miles per hour, I point straight at that which is un-solid, a boundary that is visually hard yet intimately soft. Into the void I fly, engulfed by whiteness.

I've trained extensively for this moment. On nice days with an instructor by my side, we have pretended to fly in the clouds, with me wearing a gizmo not unlike the plastic collar worn by a dog after surgery. The plastic "hood" forced me to focus only on the instruments and prevented me from looking outside the plane. But when the instructor wasn't looking, I could sneak a peak and grab a piece of peripheral vision that told me the ground was below and the sky above. Today, I'm a healthy puppy with no instructor by my side and a new instrument license in my pocket. I barrel headlong into actual clouds. 

A rainbow of infinite whiteness streaks past my windshield. This must be heaven, an unknown void of emptiness, with subtle shapes and curves and soft colors that heat and cool with variable streaks of amorphous light. My brain tells me that I am turning left, so I instinctively start a gentle right turn to roll level. I scan the dials and see that my brain is wrong.

The plane has been straight and level all along. The assortment of instruments in front of me collectively paint a picture of where I am although I can not see. I listen to these indications, even though they do not match my bodily sensations. I abort the "correction" and trust what I see on the dials as real.

I fly deeper into the whiteness, wondering if I will come out the other side. My life flashes before me. I don't see crisp images of my past, only wispy images of my future: my lofty, unprecedented, unreasonable and almost completely out of view future. I'm flying fast, into unfamiliar murky soup. I think I can make out sadness and anger, the emotions that leave me most disoriented. Vulnerability, pain, loveÖ everything nebulous and beyond my control is in here with me. We will need to get acquainted, if I am to pass through.

Scared, I tighten my grip on the control yolk and almost head up out of the clouds, away from this confusion, toward the clear air and the easy way out. But I canít do it. That would be self-betrayal. This is my path, as I craft a career and a life that is uniquely mine. So I follow the invisible airway and rely on the gauges to guide me.

I hear voices. My father asks me why in the world I have traded a white picket fence and a perfect sod lawn for this adventurous life. I'm sad that he doesn't understand. Still, I thank him for the ability he gave me to analyze and master anything, including this plane and the instruments upon which my life depends. My mother speaks to me and reminds me that all of life is an adventure. I smile because I know she gave me the wings to stay in the clouds and explore. She taught me to navigate through this answer-less space.

The voices evaporate and softly fuse with the unlimited expanse of sky. Unlimited questions, unlimited growth and development. Iím alone in the clouds once again, searching for answers and trying to accept my flight into the unknown.

I squint, and I see death's foggy eyes in this cloud with me. I can't be with the possibility of my own death on the ground. I fill my time to avoid experiencing the notion that Iím not here forever, until some illness or the death of a friend or someone else's plane crash forces me to look. But when I fly, IĎm conscious of death and weíve been playing a game. Each time I land safely, I declare myself the winner. Elation is my prize. Today, I realize death is always my partner. It's with me wherever I go, a part of my life like everything else in this cloud. I want to open the canopy and let it in, so we can land together and finally go forward as partners.

The controllerís voice suddenly fills my headset. She advises me to leave 5000 feet and descend to 3000, to begin my approach for landing. I am tracking a radio signal that will lead me to the Charlottesville airport and clear of the mountain I last saw off to my right. I swallow hard and push the yolk forward. I watch the altimeter unwind as I push deeper into the belly of my cloud. It spits me out its basement at 3000 feet. And there beneath me is Virginia soil. Tangible things like houses and roads and cars and fields. The mountain is still comfortably off to my right.

"Do you see the airport?" asks the controller. "Airport in sight," I reply.

A world away from home, I land at my destination, both the end and the beginning of my journey of trust. I tie down my plane to the solid earth and launch into my life on the ground once again. I aim for the nearest cloud.

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The following photographs were taken in Central Pennsylvania on a different solo IFR trip in the airplane referenced above, a Grumman Tiger. The first picture is with a friend and pilot mentor, Pepi Sayre, who flies professionally for US Airways. Pepi took the pictures of me taking off, bound for Connecticut; I took the remaining pictures from inside the cockpit as I disappeared into the clouds.


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