Above Ground Level

Herb's wife died. She was not yet forty. I met her just once.

The victim of an automobile accident, Mona was compelled to wear a 'halo,' a stainless steel ring surgically attached to her skull. Metal bars connected the halo to a rigid body-brace, which immobilized her head.

There had been a collision years ago. It was the early sixties. Before headrests. Waiting at a stoplight alone in her car, Mona was struck from behind. A drunk, Herb told me. She never recovered from the debillitating whiplash.

Few people at the office knew about Mona. Yet, except for this aspect of his private life, Herb was anything but secretive. From Herb, you always receive more in the answer than you bargain for with your question. A shirt-sleeves department manager in one of our factories, Herb was bespectacled and balding. A native Noo Yahkuh, he liked to break me up by speaking with an exaggerated Bronx twang. He describe his outside interest as studying the classics, pronounced in three syllables, "clee-ass-sicks."

My guess was that Herb had a desire to take up flying, for he would listen intently, face glistening, whenever I told him about some recent adventure in the sky. Still, Herb would not accept my invitation to go up. "Maybe next toy-im," he'd say.

I thought Herb, like so many others, was afraid to fly. One day I dropped by his office and invited him along on a flight to Paso Robles to pick up my wife, who was visiting her grandmother. "It's a shame to fly with empty seats," I said.

Herb took me into his confidence. "The prognosis is not good," he told me. "Mona and I are making the most of the time that's left."

"Why not bring Mona to Solvang or Catalina?" I asked. "A short hop in Two-Four Fox would be high adventure."

Herb shook his head. "The bumps, Mona can't -- "

"We'll fly in the morning. It'll be smoother than a ride down Ventura Boulevard in your Dodge, Herb."

He stood up and turned toward his office window.

"Hell," I exclaimed. "My wife's grandmother is in her nineties and frail. I took her up a week ago. We buzzed farmhouses in Paso Robles. She didn't ever want to come down."

"You could pick us up at Burbank, couldn't you," Herb mused.

"Or Van Nuys, whichever is closer. How about this Sunday?"

Herb turned slowly to face me. "It was Mona," he said, "who got me into skiing, you know."

"So let's make it Big Bear."

Herb pushed his glasses higher on the bridge of his nose. "And your landings?"

I feigned indignation. "No worse than pulling into your driveway."

Herb grinned "Sunday, did you say? What toy-im?"

Mona was game. "Her eyes danced," Herb told me. I checked the weather that Sunday morning, and called Herb. "High winds and turbulence are expected before noon in the mountains, not uncommon for this time of year. The Big Bear trip will have to be postponed."

Herb invited me to stop off for brunch on the way to Paso Robles. He drove Mona to the Van Nuys Airport to meet me and parked the car so that Mona could watch through the windshield as Two-Four Fox taxied to the transient line. I waved through the windscreen.

My memory of Mona is dominated by the cruel contraption she wore. I cannot even recall the color of her hair. She offered me her hand through the car window. I quickly released her thin fingers and climbed into the back seat of their car. We drove to Woodland Hills and Mona's favorite restaurant. I chattered self-consciously about my flight from Orange County. "Sorry, Mona, but with high winds, Big Bear is no fun for anybody."

Mona expressed disappointment. "They had plenty of ski-able snow up there this year."

I remembered Herb telling me that skiing was his wife's passion before the accident. She would give anything to ski again, he had said. The subject made me uncomfortable, and I assumed that Mona would prefer to talk about other things.  Wrong.  As we took our places at a table, I asked her what she taught at Cal State. 

"English," she replied.  "Do you ski?"

At Mona's request, I sat across the table beside Herb. "That way, I can keep my eye on both of you," she said. From her wheelchair she could also view the coastal hills behind us. 

"I am just a pilot," I answered, looking away.

"When did you become interested in flying?" she asked. It was a question calculated to put me at ease.

"First, I suppose, I was born," I quipped, not for the first time.

"Same here," she said. "Only with me, it was skiing. They are much the same, wouldn't you say?"

"Never thought of it," said I, gradually becoming conscious of Mona's eyes, trying to study mine.

Herb looked up from his menu. "Will you be having loo-obb-stuh?" he asked his wife.

"The speed," she said. "Maneuvering on a favorite slope: faster, then faster, almost out of control. I think of it as a form of flying."

"You're still too-walk-ing about skiing, I hope," Herb said with a straight face.

Mona winked at me. "What else?"

"I'm afraid I'd be out of control," I said, still not ready to be amused. "And just about all the time, too. I'm not all that coordinated."

"It takes coordination to fly, does it not?" Mona asked. She grasped her menu in both hands, trembling slightly.

"Flying is much more forgiving than skiing," I said. Seeing Mona's furrowed brow, I explained that we do all our maneuvering at altitudes where coordination, however desirable, is not absolutely essential. "For the most part, you just point your nose in the direction you want to go and let the plane fly itself."

"So loo-wong as you stay up there," Herb commented.

The waiter arrived to take our order. "Altitude," Mona said. "The third dimension -- altitude is everything, is it not?"

"It's important enough. We aviators must know -- and control -- the plane's altitude at all times." I really liked this woman, who was challenging me to think about flying in new ways. "Altitude is something you don't have in skiing," I said, raising my eyebrows.

"Oh, but we do," she countered. "The best mountains for skiing are likely to be found at high altitudes indeed."

"Ah, my error," I conceded. "But we aviators speak of two kinds of altitude. One is what the altimeter tells us. It is referenced to mean sea level -- 'MSL,' we say. The same as that used to describe the elevation of -- well, your mountains."

"And the other?" she asked.

I frowned into my menu and shrugged. " 'AGL'."

Mona's eyes squinted intently at the foothills outside the window. She held up her hand, a plea for me not to explain.

"Above ground level," said she, blinking.

I chuckled. "That's where we do all our flying."

Mona repeated the words almost in a whisper, "above ground level," as if they carried a mystical significance.

"Five thousand feet MSL is not the same as five thousand feet AGL," I said to Herb.

"Shoo-wah," said he.

Mona could not shake her head. She waved her hand instead. "The obvious is not always apparent, Herb" she chided. Mona turned her eyes on me. "We spend our whole lives... " she paused for a breath. "No matter what mountains we climb, what heights we attain -- we spend our whole lives, at zero altitude, AGL, don't we."

"Until Orville and Wilbur came aloo-wong," Herb amended.

Mona suddenly brightened. "And their fabulous AGL machine!"

At that moment, the steel bars were gone. The braces and the wheelchair became invisible. Even that infernal halo had vanished, and I was free to laugh.

The waiter jotted our orders and whisked away.

Herb gestured with his arms. "I like it when you can look down on the tree-aff-fick."

Mona spoke wistfully: "AGL is a different vantage point."

"For just about everything," I commented. "Since taking up flying, I have come to see many things differently.

"Clouds," she said. "Do you see snowy castles and buffalo heads?"

I shook my head and quoted from something I wrote once. "A pilot, feet firmly on the ground, looks up at clouds and sees them not as amiable companions in the sky but feels their invisible forces, shudders at their ominous meaning."

"Are all clouds dangerous?" asked Herb, dropping the accent.

"Nothing in the sky is dangerous," I pronounced. "Except the pilot."

"What are you assuming when you say that?" asked Mona.

"That nobody forces you to go aloft in bad weather. And I also assume that you have access to valid -- at least conservative -- weather information. Everything else depends on the pilot's judgment and skill."

Mona squinted her eyes again. "In our complex society, one's well-being often depends as much on the judgment and skill of others."

I nodded. "Exactly. Take the airlines and -- " Oh God, I almost said "driving." I stared at Mona without seeing.

"Driving," she said with a shrug in her voice.  "But not skiing, Paul.  I might just as well argue 'There are no dangerous hills, only dangerous skiers'." This valiant woman is determined to dispel my misguided feelings of pity.

"Skiing is different from flying in at least one other way," I said. "Zigging down an icy slope with those funny slats strapped to your feet, zagging past boulders and between pine trunks hardly qualifies as sensible adult behavior." I smiled villainously. "If you don't have to, that is."

"How can you say that?" she asked. "You're not a skier."

"A pilot," I replied, "has exceptional credentials for judging the dangers of the downhill."

"What has one to do with the other?"

I spread both hands before me. "Ever hear of the Socratic Method?" I asked.

Mona took a sip of water. "You mean, 'eliciting a rational truth through questioning.'"

"Close enough," I said.

Mona spoke behind her hand. "He's going to ask us a string of questions, Herb. You watch."

"Where does one ski?" I began.

I looked across at Herb. He shook his head. "Herb seems disinclined to play," I said to Mona. "Either that or my question is too hard for him."

"In the snow," she said.

"Is it fun?" I asked.

"I enjoy skiing," she answered, deliberately in the present tense.

"Where do you find the snow?"

"In the mountains -- at a ski resort, mainly."

"What makes it fun?"

"Speed," answered Mona. "That's what you wanted me to say, isn't it."

"Are there dangers?" I asked.

Mona pondered a moment. "You can get hurt," she said with diffidence.

"Who gets injured?"

Herb grimaced. "Excuse me, but I don't see where you're going with this." Mona waved Herb aside, a signal for me to continue.

"Severely?" I asked.

"Do skiers get injured severely?" Mona relayed my question to Herb.

"Not always," said he.

"What is a typical minor injury?" I asked.

"A sprained knee," she answered for him. "That's what happened to Herb on his first time out."

"Who treated his sprained knee?"

"A doctor."

"Was he a local doctor?"

Mona grinned. "She was, yes."

"After treatment, what happens?"

Herb gave me a come-to-the-point look.

"The skier with a sprained knee," I prompted, "stays in the lodge by the fire, isn't that right?"

"Sipping wine," said Herb.

"For judging the hazards of the sport, then, what do you skiers see in the ski lodge?"

"Other skiers," Herb answered with finality. "Sipping wine."

I fixed him in my gaze. "Are they having fun, Herb?"

"Possibly not," he said, reaching his limit. "So you don't ski because you're afraid you might hurt yourself. What does that have to do with being a pilot?"

"What do pilots do?" I asked.

Mona spoke up. "Fly AGL machines."

"Pilots fly to and from ... ?"

"Airports," said Herb, now cool to the task.

"Where are the airports?"

"Near cities -- "

"Cities, Herb, and near recreation facilities" I prompted.

"Does the Socratic Method require such smoo-wall steps?"

I expedited matters by answering the next question myself. "Is a ski resort a recreation facility? Yes." I turned to Mona. "Consider the injured skiers: the ones with the sprained knees -- they are lying around up at the lodge. What about a skier with a severe injury?"

"What do you mean by 'severe'?" Herb inquired.

I may have gone too far here, I thought to myself.

Mona answered portentiously: "A broken back."

I winced. "Let's change the subject. How about ladies' ski fashions? We pilots have opinions about that, too."

"No," said Mona. "Your next question, please."

I cleared my throat. "Who treats a broken back?"

Herb stared blankly.

"Not the local doctor, let me tell you," I told him. "A specialist -- and where do you find the specialist?"

"At a large hospital," Mona answered.

"Right you are. And where is the large hospital? Don't say nearby, in the mountains, folks."

"In a large city, most likely," said Herb. He smiled grimly, and posed the next question himself: "How does the skier with a broken back get to the large city?"

Mona sighed. "By airplane."

"Ambulance plane," added Herb, getting the idea..

"Where does one find the ambulance plane?" I asked Herb, with a beckoning gesture.

"At the ski loo-wudge," he said on purpose.

"No, Herb," Mona corrected. "At the airport."

"Here's a tough one," I said. "What happens if the ambulance plane doesn't happen to be at the airport?"

"Oh my," said Mona.

"The poor bastard," Herb mused. "He'd have to lie there and wait."

"Along comes some guy like me in a Cessna with his happy little family. We are sight-seeing, and we approach the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, and we see on the chart an airport symbol labeled 'Long Valley' -- "

Mona interrupted. "There's a ski lodge nearby called 'Mammoth Lakes.' We've been there."

Our salads arrived. Mona concluded my story for me. "So," she said. "You land there and you see a stretcher -- "

"A row of stretchers," I interjected.

"-- a row of stretchers, with groaning skiers, waiting for the ambulance plane."

"We do not see sprained knees, that's for sure," I said.

Herb unfolded his napkin and sat for a moment. "Or skiers sipping woy-ine."

Herb told me at the office the next week that during our Sunday conversation, his wife's vitality reached the highest level he had observed since the accident. For a time, she showed signs of improvement and was looking forward eagerly to the Big Bear flight.

"Just what the doo-walk-tuh ordered," he said.

Thinking back to that day, I remember the drive back to the airport. Mona continued to query me on various aspects of flight. This, despite what had become for her a long outing. I could tell she was tiring.

"Have you ever had a real scare?" she asked.

"Last week, as a matter of fact," I answered. "On our way north, with the whole family aboard."

From the front seat, Mona was able to raise her eyes and fix me in her cosmetics mirror attached to the sun-visor.

"We completed our climb over Topanga Canyon, and as our plane leveled off, suddenly there was this screeching sound. It grew steadily louder. Woke up my daughter in the back seat. First time I had ever heard such a noise."

"Were you scared?" she asked.

"Not just at that moment. That may seem strange, but it's true.  I was not immediately scared.  That came later.  The sound seemed to surround us in the cabin. I assumed the source was in the engine. Some kind of a run-away assembly, spinning itself to pieces. Yet, there were no abnormal indications on the instruments."

"I thought you said there is nothing dangerous in the sky," chided Herb, as he turned the car into the airport parking lot.

"I did say that, didn't I."

"Let him finish," said Mona.

"The symptoms, the screaming sound, developed quickly. So fast that I recall not having time to build up much of a worrying feeling, the kind that whispers, 'In so many minutes, you are going to die.' And, yes, Herb, a mechanical failure aloft can mean exactly that. Still, in the case of an engine quitting, generally you have time to find a place to land."

" 'Dead stick,' right?" asked Herb.

"I prefer the expression, 'power-off glide'."

"So do I," said Mona.

Herb parked the car facing the runway. "How high were you?" he asked.

"We had just leveled off at 8,500 MSL -- most of that AGL, by the way. With a descent rate of about 600 feet per minute, we would have more than a quarter of an hour to contemplate matters. As I said, Herb, everything depends on the judgment and skill of the pilot, especially in a situation like that -- a 'crisis', some would call it."

Mona squinted into the mirror. "Crisis," she mused. "The stakes are high and the outcome is not certain."

"In the sky, the outcome can be certain -- but not immediate. Such a crisis makes for a unique human experience. It is what you hear captured in the transcripts of emergency radio transmissions and on cockpit voice recorders." I paused to reflect. "You know, I have to confess a fascination for the subject. I call it 'The Foreknowledge of Doom'. Where else but in flying can such an experience arise?"

" 'Foreknowledge of Doom'," Mona whispered.

"A common crisis produces despair, helplessness," I added. "In the sky, these might be the feelings of a passenger but not the pilot. There is always one more thing you can try."

"What happened?" asked Herb. "You're here, so obviously you did something right.  What?"

I got out of the car and crouched beside Mona's window, arms on the sill. "In less time than it takes to describe it, both of my hands, each with a mind of its own, moved about the cockpit, doing mostly appropriate things." I went on to describe how my right hand first dialed in 121.5, the emergency frequency, then picked up the microphone, leaving the engine controls untouched.  Meanwhile my left hand banked and pulled the plane around toward the Santa Monica Airport a mile and a half below -- easily within gliding distance.  "Naturally," I chuckled, "I was watching what my hands were doing, with more than a casual interest."

"Did you make an emergency landing?" asked Herb.

"Didn't have to. The noise stopped just as suddenly as it started."

"What the hell was it then?"

"A whistling cabin ventilator," I said. "That's all it was. After the climb, as the plane reached its cruise speed, the howling began. Resonance, Herb. Like an organ pipe. While banking back toward the airport, I must have slowed the plane slightly and the sound stopped. Speeding up again, I got it back. My right hand reached up and tweaked the ventilator adjustment. That got rid of the sound permanently."

"At what point did you become scared?" asked Mona.

"The real fright took quite a long time to develop -- and to go away. I don't think I stopped shaking until we were descending over San Luis Obispo an hour later."

"And your family?"

"My daughter went back to sleep."

Herb walked around the car to shake my hand. I stood up and mumbled something useless. I like to talk, but I have never been good at good-byes. I stepped back and glimpsed Mona through the windshield. She tossed me a fragile kiss.

As I strode away toward Two-Four Fox, Herb called out to me: "Mona thinks you should write a boo-wuck." I made an aw-go-on gesture.

On departure, I obtained permission from the Van Nuys tower for a fast pull-up. Two-Four Fox and I accelerated to full cruise speed just above the runway, then passing the parking lot where I knew Mona would be watching, I hauled back, cheeks sagging, into a zooming climb.

Mona's flight to Big Bear was not to be. In a matter of weeks, and before we could re-schedule the trip, she went back into the hospital. Her condition worsened sharply.

I sent Mona a copy of Charlie Chaplin's autobiography, which had just come out. When I asked how she liked it, Herb told me his wife was no longer strong enough to hold up a hard-cover book.

Home Page
Table of Contents
Contact Author