I crave the cinematic. That craving explains why I like certain types of music and movies, and why I tend to resonate more certain types of people. That craving also explains why I sometimes try to turn normal moments into moments that are extremely beautiful / intense / sad / fantastic.
A few weeks ago one of my Appalachian Trail buddies emailed me something he wrote in 2003. Before we met on the trail, Darren flew cargo planes out of Tennessee. Right now, I'm sitting at a desk in an office in Brooklyn. I'm searching for Darren's email in my inbox and rereading it. I guess I'm rereading it because have to.
26 years old now
Bearded, clothes wrinkled
From lack of the dryer that doesn't exist in the hangar.
I go to my friend's apartment to do laundry.
Not that it matters, of course-
No one sees you that late at night...
I put on my long johns
My cargo pants, which hold things-
Charts, maps, cell phone, flashlight
Next the fleece jacket, fleece toboggan
And full raingear- pants which flare against the hiking boots
Waterproof (mostly); rain slicker
I pull the hood over my head..
Lastly, the gloves.
Fur-lined, brown leather gloves
The most important thing
That keep your hands warm in the dark preflight
Keeps the aviation fuel from giving you frostbite
Keep your fingers from freezing to the throttle at altitude.
A rainy, dreary, cloudy sky
It's all I seem to get these nights
Just tiny, perfect droplets of water
Suspended above the ground
Waiting their chance to become what they must be!
Ice on the first thing that smashes into them.
My courier arrives.
Millions of dollars of checks, fireproof bags
I can take a thousand pounds and be safe
It's more than that tonight
I take it anyway.
Time to go.
I get clearance to Atlanta from ground control. The same spiel, every night
Go to this runway, climb on this heading, climb this high,
And talk to these people once you're airborne.
Methodically, I check everything
I don't need a checklist, but I still use it- probably the only one in the company who still does.
It doesn't pay to take chances.
The engine roars to life
I stroke 300 Horsepower in gloved hand
Enough for 200 miles per hour with a half ton in the back.
I taxi, and notice my electrical is acting up....
Nothing big, an occasional spike on the ammeter
These planes are older than I am, after all.
Nothing to worry about...but I'll watch it anyway.
Off we go.
Cleared for takeoff, flight express 315
Turn left heading 340
Climb and maintain 4000 feet
Anti-ice measures come on
The wheels leave the ground
Goin' up, gear up
And within a minute I'm in the clouds.
Doing my thing- night cargo dog. I was made for this.
The ammeter's dancing now
Popping back and forth
And the cockpit lights start pulsing, like a rave gone wrong
Something's definitely wrong
And I know it
I drop my gear while I've still got power
Because if I crash, it protects you some.
Training takes over.
The clock starts ticking.
I call tower- I'm coming back, I tell them
Got a situation here.
How bad is it, they say.
I want priority, I tell them, roll the equipment.
In other words, "mayday".
I've never spoken this before, not ever. And never have since.
Acrid smoke starts to waft into the cockpit.
Southwest Partygoers from Vegas,
Delta Businessmen from Dallas,
They all get spun
To clear a path for me.
Pilots listening on the radio to see what happens.
I'm having trouble hearing them on the radio now.
I pick up their vectors, but can rarely respond on the radio...
My last words before the radio won't transmit:
"Slam dunk me".
Code for flying an approach as fast and tight as possible
No room for error
Pulling G's on final approach, you face sags
Still in the clouds
I level out on course.
Then....darkness. Total power failure.
I'm descending through the clouds to an airport, somewhere below me.
My lights are gone. Stealth mode. Only the mini-maglight in my mouth
Illuminates the flight instruments, which still continue to work.
Tried to reset the breakers, but when the sparks flew, I shut electric down for good.
Ice, the pilot's worst enemy, cakes my wings
And the smoke is getting worse. It smells like burnt popcorn.
Two options: fly to Arkansas, where the weather is better
Or fly down into nothingness
Hoping you break out of the clouds in time
To find somewhere to land.
The airport is at a standstill. Nothing moves, the tower is silent.
I choose the latter. Down we go.
1000 feet, continuing down.
800 feet, still no ground.
600 feet- I'm committed. No turning back now. Let them know I died doing the right thing.
500 feet above the ground....the clouds break.
I'm far right of the runway.
Make my corrections
And go for the closest one
It's easy to find
With all the fire trucks
And police cars
Their lights extra beacons to the right of the runway.
No landing lights, no lights at all,
Smoke drifts from the cowling
I touch down.
I am alive.
Back at the hanger
We learned the starter never disengaged
And had melted the wiring in the nose
A few more minutes
And the fuel lines would have exploded.
That's what they told me.
I walk inside. Drink a coke. My friends pat me on the back.
Richard says, "close one".
Yeah, close one.
Ten minutes later I'm reloading my new plane, take two.
My knees shake all the way to 10000 feet.
Somewhere over Georgia, I relax.
BTW, these days Darren works at Dell.