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My Career in Aviation

I woke up this morning with one burning question on my mind: Do birds fly upside down? Have you ever asked yourself that? Maybe you are one of those people who know everything and have the answer to every question, including this one. If so, save yourself the bother of e-mailing me the answer. In other words, dinna fash yersel. I donít much care one way or the other if birds can fly upside down. Itís a matter for the birds themselves. All I do know with certainty is that Iíve never seen one do it.

What brought this on anyway? I was reflecting on my career in aviation and my subconscious may have taken over.

What career in aviation? Iíve never heard you mention it.

Well, just because I havenít mentioned it doesnít mean I didnít have one. Anyway, it was a long time ago. Recently, however, Iíve been preoccupied with gliding. If there is one thing I would really like to do it is to set off in a glider and ride the wind all the way across the Atlantic.

Just thinking about it unleashes a tremendous sense of freedom. There you are, high in the sky, in the well-worn phrase "loosed from all earthly bonds", a giant-winged, modern-day Icarus, borne by the breeze, carried by currents of air over which you have no control.

Forget about the underlying physics, the long-range weather forecasts, the trade winds, the dipping and rising of the jet stream. All that is left behind. Like a giant condor in the Andes, like an albatross in southern latitudes, you soar where the spiraling warm air brings you, plunge when a cold draft seizes you, and all the time sail east, east to the land of your birth.

Morning sees you leave the land of the New World behind. Noon sees you high over ocean waters. Evening sees your shadow going before you, now on cloud, now on wave. Night sees you silent under star-filled sky.

There have been others who preceded you--Alcock and Brown, Lindbergh, and Douglas "Wrong Way" Corriganóbut they rode in machines, motor-driven aircraft, with propellers, and struts, and wheels, and man-made gadgets of various kinds. Gasoline and oil spewing fumes trailed their passage.

You donít have a propeller. You donít have struts. You donít have wheels. You donít contaminate the air behind you. You and the air are one. Below you, above you, all round you, it supports you and ferries you on your way.

And dawn, when the sun climbs through the clouds beneath, splaying them with celestial colours unmatched on land, brings a new day full of hope, full of promise, and maybe, just maybe, a brief time of terror.

I leave the ending to your own devising.

For myself happiness would be a sweet descent to Phoenix Park, Dublin, where my career in aviation began with such promise, and ended in such grief.

Ours was an early Japanese propeller-driven plane, and we built it ourselves. It came as a kit, with instructions on how to assemble it. Its wings were made of balsa, its propeller of bakelite, and its body was an interlacing of spider-thin slivers of wood. Paper strips covered the fuselage. Its engine was a rubber band.

It did not have a compass, and on its first flight it crashed in smithereens on the steps of the Wellington Monument in Phoenix Park.

Give me a glider any time, and let me fly where free winds take me.

The End


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