flying an airplane above cloudsJanuary 2000

by Kate Bernard

This narrative essay, submitted in a slightly different format for my college application, is based on a flight I took in a Grumman AA-1A Trainer on December 11, 1999 with Bob Willemsen.

Up! There is no direction I would rather move. A little airplane carries me up and to the west, its engine chugging merrily in the cold December sky. The pilot and I are warm and cozy in the cockpit, and for the moment, I forget that the air outside is harsh and bitter. I don’t know why I am flying today. It seems completely irrational. After all, the sky is hazy and the clouds are overcast at only 2,700 feet above the ground. The weather is less than ideal. The snowless landscape is far from beautiful. There is only one reason I strapped myself into the copilot’s seat: I have a rare opportunity to do something I have never done before. I’m going to fly above the clouds.

I wait in anticipation as the pilot keeps the plane’s nose above the horizon. We are heading in a straight line, climbing to some unknown altitude. This is boring. My eyes wander. Above, the sky is hazy blue. A few miles behind us, the airport has disappeared in the mist. A line of clouds stretches north and south behind us, and a parallel line looks like a bumpy shelf just ahead. I glance at the ground, which is gray, brown, and monotonous. Yuck. The large hole in the overcast ceiling beckons the pilot to continue climbing.

Spinning altimeter needles indicate five thousand feet, and the ledge of clouds descends. Our plane is an elevator taking us to a private observation deck. At almost six thousand feet above sea level, we are higher than the clouds ahead. The pilot levels the plane. The horizon, which was hiding behind the instrument panel during our climb, is now in view. The clouds ahead look different. Instead of a shapeless layer of gray, I see depth and luster. The plane accelerates and races toward the alluring white shelf. Soon we are above the clouds.

My jaw drops. I blink and stare. I shake my head in disbelief. What in the world? Is this an illusion? I never knew clouds could be so beautiful! I can’t help but smile in awe. Brilliant clouds stretch to the horizon like a cottony blanket. The sun, no longer masked by haze, shines into the cockpit with radiant warmth. Mountains of cotton candy tempt me to jump out of the plane and land in their pillowy softness. Shadowy valleys contrast white-rimmed peaks. I am convinced that the earth has disappeared and that this is another world. Yes, the earth and all its problems are gone. There is nothing left but these two people in this little plane, the blue sky, and the white sea.

Nothing is familiar here. I don’t know where I am. Dimensions are warped. I can’t tell whether the wispy hills around us are a hundred feet tall or a thousand feet tall. I can’t tell whether the canyons below are fifty feet wide or five thousand feet wide. Is that peak over there a mile away or fifty miles away? I’m not sure. And even though I know the clouds are light and airy, they look solid. Nothing makes sense, but strangely, I feel completely at ease.

I can’t resist the urge to explore this new world. The pilot gives me control of the plane. I take the yoke and rudder pedals, and I turn to follow ridges of clouds, gleaming like mounds of marshmallow fluff. I could eat them up. But the laws say I have to keep my distance. Trouble is, I don’t know what distance is up here. I do my best to avoid flying into the beautiful clouds. Too many pilots have died after flying into these innocent-looking mountains of mist. I understand how someone could be lured in.

As I bank the plane, a circular rainbow appears behind its wingtip. A circular rainbow? I’ve seen many rainbows in my life, but none like this. As I gaze at the colorful halo, I wonder how many more discoveries are waiting to be made. My smile widens. There is so much to learn!

I curiously fly to a valley in the clouds that is darker than the rest. I discover that it is one of the few breaks in the overcast. Looking through the hole, I see the ground, which appears dull compared to its bright frame. I never want to return to that ugly place. With gentle pressure on the yoke, I turn the plane away.

My effort is futile. Digital numbers on the clock remind me that I must descend. We can’t stay up here forever. I spiral down through an enormous hole, leaving the clouds behind me. City streets, naked trees, and gray roofs fill the windscreen.
The pilot guides the little plane to a smooth landing on the cold, hard runway. It’s getting dark now. It’s still dreary down here. Before we open the canopy, I close my eyes and remember that there is still something beautiful up there somewhere.