The Mechanics of Flight

Vacation time is upon us and my girlfriend and I have been caught in a flurry of activity as we prepare for a few days hiking in the Cascades.  The bills have been paid, house sitters are arranged and pets have been seen to, but there are still many things to do before we catch our flight in a few days.

“Catch our flight?”

It seems like such a casual way of describing one of the true miracles of the modern age.

It is astounding to me sometimes, the things we take for granted.  We are captivated (however briefly) with the features of the newest smartphone but the ability to transport ourselves across landmasses and oceans has slipped almost beneath our notice.  No destination is too remote for us these days.  We’ll just “Catch a flight.”

We act as if we can simply will ourselves into the heavens like Kryptonians under the light of a yellow sun.

Have you ever wondered if this guy gets bugs in his teeth?

It’s not that easy.

There are some very real mechanics involved in the magic of flight.

Rituals, oft taken for granted, which must be followed.

“On a day Fotis came running to me in great fear, and said that her mistress, to work her sorceries on such as she loved, intended the night following to transform herself into a bird, and to fly whither she pleased. Wherefore she willed me privily to prepare myself to see the same. And when midnight came she led me softly into a high chamber, and bid me look through the chink of a door: where first I saw how she put off all her garments, and took out of a certain coffer sundry kinds of boxes, of the which she opened one, and tempered the ointment therein with her fingers, and then rubbed her body therewith from the sole of the foot to the crown of the head, and when she had spoken privily with her self, having the candle in her hand, she shaked parts of her body, and behold, I perceived a plume of feathers did burgen out, her nose waxed crooked and hard, her nails turned into claws, and so she became an owl. Then she cried and screeched like a bird of that kind, and willing to prove her force, moved her self from the ground by little and little, til at last she flew quite away.”

—Lucius Apuleius – Metamorphoses

Of course, Flying Ointment is harder to come by these days and transforming into a bird still leaves one with some pretty serious range limitations.  At least when we board an airliner we know that we can bring along a change of clothes in our carry-on luggage.

Why pay $10 for an inflight meal when mice are free and plentiful?

In lieu of arcane transmutation, we shall observe the modern rituals required for flight.

We begin with the indignity of the security pat-down from the ill-tempered man with the blue gloves.  This is followed by the headlong rush to the gate, only to discover that our flight has been delayed.  Soon thereafter will come the moments of trepidation as we watch other passengers boarding, wondering if we’ll be stuck next to the large sweaty fellow who has no concept of personal space, or the mother of the incessantly bawling infant.  And finally, we shall greet that moment when blood flows prickling into our legs once again as we walk on our own numb feet out of the plane and into the chaos of an unfamiliar terminal.

The ancient gods of Ireland are said to have arrived on a mountaintop in a white mist. Likely this is because they knew better than to try and navigate their way around Dublin Airport.

These rituals, however burdensome, are very necessary.  Should we fail to observe these rites and protocols, we would have almost nothing to say about the experience of flight at all.

It is not as if boarding a 150,000 pound aircraft with a 112 foot wingspan and being rocketed 30,000 feet into the air by engines producing more than 25,000 pounds of thrust is actually boring.  We simply “choose” to be bored by it.

Perception is reality and the reality in this case is that we WANT to be bored by flight.  The best kinds of flights are the uneventful ones where we never have to actually think about the insanity of what we are doing.  We do better when we focus on the tedium and leave the mechanics of flight to the pilots and engineers.

We are not birds who may take to the skies with so little effort.  For our kind, flight requires a blend of science, ritual and the communal effort to alter our perception of reality just long enough to arrive at our destination, sanity intact.

The most revealing moment of any flight comes after the plane has landed and taxied to the gate.  The seatbelt sign clicks off and everyone lurches upward as quickly as possible, wedging themselves uncomfortably into the isle.  The truth of human flight is exposed in that simple moment when all your fellow passengers reveal just how desperate they are to get out of that contraption.

Now, if you’d all please fasten your seat belts and return your seats to the upright position.  Thank you.

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Filed under Magic, Modern Life, Travel

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