In less than six months, we will mark the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks. I wrote this essay a week after that, and have revisited it from time to time over the past ten years. The feelings I was trying to express that day have never dimmed.
My friend's home on High Haro sits on the west side of San Juan Island. From almost every window in the house, and particularly from the deck, you can see Haro Strait, Vancouver Island, and the approaches to Victoria International Airport. From there, in the summer, at the end of a long day, you can watch the sun sink into the mountains.
The place belongs to some extremely prudent friends who, on an academic income, bought the land decades ago, and, years later, cajoled a famous architect into designing this modest and beautiful house. By small plane, it is an hour or so from the city, and before we built our own home on the adjoining property, we came here when we could.
When the events of September 11, 2001, changed our plans to fly our small plane to California, we came to High Haro instead. It turned out not to be second choice. There we talked on and on about how the crisis had made us feel; whether our life would ever be the same. There we decided we would have to defer indefinitely buying a new house. There we realized (as if people long past young could possibly think otherwise) how quickly and without warning things can change forever.
I'm a pilot. Watching an airplane -- an airplane -- fly into a building shocked me beyond comprehension. Days later, when the numbness wore off, my airplane partners and I turned our attention to the practical side. The airplane was in the shop: One of our navigation instruments had been having problems.
The avionics repair folks had figured out what was wrong . . . but the parts were in Pennsylvania, and overnight shipping was impossible. And in any event general aviation was under a complete prohibition known as a ground stop. Later, flight under instrument flight rules (IFR) came back. But flying visually looked as if it might be gone forever.
A small thing, compared to the horrendous (how quickly we run out of what used to be hyperbolic words!) loss of life on the East Coast. But nothing brought home to me with greater force what we had lost that day. Nothing touched me personally in such an immediate and unmistakable way. For me the general aviation ban stood for the loss of personal freedoms, the end of spontaneity.
When I started my private pilot training in 1993, I knew that, as a middle-aged person, my flying days were finite. The friend who encouraged me to start flying also said, in that "Tsk, Tsk" way old-timers have, "You're starting just when general aviation flying is coming to an end. It's nothing like the old days, you know." But for me it was like the old days. I didn't mind having to learn airspace restrictions, or talk to the tower to take off from my mildly restrictive home field. It was part of being a pilot, and to master the airplane and fly in the air was a never-ending delight.
Before I retired, someone mentioned to me that the pictures decorating the public part of my workspace all had as a theme the sky. And so they did. Just as sailors say about the sea, the sky is a pilot's home. We know that people really aren't meant to live in either the sea or the sky. When we do, even for a little while, we share a life that divides us from those who live exclusively on the land. Although it is probably trite to say that those of us who go into the sky are a brotherhood, nevertheless we are. On that post-9/11 day, waiting in the ferry line to come to this island, I talked to a man who said, "I haven't taken the ferry in years. I always fly my plane to the island." We talked, we strangers. We talked about what had been taken from us and whether it would ever be returned.
I have an instrument rating. I'm a reasonably competent instrument pilot. Like most instrument-rated pilots, I like to stay current, to talk about approaches, to fly with precision if I can. I thought that if all I would be allowed to do is fly on a highly structured instrument flight plan, that's what I would do.
But true visual flight is something else. For many, it's the point of flying planes. It's getting into the plane and taking off and only then deciding where to go. It's the hundred dollar hamburger. It's going one way and coming back another; different altitudes, different routes. It's deciding on the way back from the seacoast to fly over a mountaintop without having to ask for permission.
September 11 looked like it might take that away forever. It certainly took away our vacation plans, at least to go to California. So instead, we came to High Haro.
From this place, before September 11, small airplanes were always overhead: float planes going to Vancouver; all manner of general aviation planes bound for Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor; commercial flights coming into Victoria. When we got there on September 18, the skies were silent. A chopper one day, a Beaver the day before. Some contrails. Nothing more.
I had become almost obsessed with the loss of VFR, checking the automated aviation weather center recording on the phone every hour. When we got to High Haro, I began setting up my internet connection so I could check aviation websites, hoping against hope that my pessimism was wrong, and that when I came back home I'd be able to get in the plane and go where I chose, on my own time, at my whim. But the more I read the news, the worse things seemed. GA was "dangerous;" it was prohibited "indefinitely," "until further notice."
Late one afternoon during that week, I called the aviation information center yet again. The recording still said, "General Aviation VFR flight is prohibited." It sounded final. The late afternoon sun was no longer warm, and I went inside to read. A little while later, I heard an airplane. I went outside to take a look. For a time, I couldn't see anything. Then, there it was, a few thousand feet up, over Haro Strait. It glinted in the sun. Just another IFR flight to Vancouver or someplace, I thought. But then the yellow plane rolled, twice. It flew a bit further north. It rolled again, two rolls. Well, I thought, I guess you could do that on an instrument flight in good weather.
It rolled again. "Come out here," I called, and my husband came out and looked, too. Nothing happened for a long moment; perhaps I had been mistaken. The yellow plane went into a loop, then, amazingly, went into a steep turn and changed direction, back to the south. It looped, it rolled. It flew a knife-edge. The pilot's joy was written on the sky.
After the yellow plane flew out of my sight to the south, I went into the house to pick up the phone to call Flight Service again. But I really didn't need to. My brother in the sky had already told me everything.
Glenna Hall, a retired superior court judge and mediator,
lives on San Juan Island, Washington.
James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
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