chapter 18

Sitting in the Seat

Being a crop-duster pilot is not your ordinary run-of-the-

mill job.  It's different.  It's so different that I could talk about it till the world looked level and never make you understand what it's like.  So I'll just try to give you a rough idea of what it meant to follow such a trade.

            I use the terminology "sitting in the seat", because the pilots that I knew spoke of it that way. 

            In speaking of his plans, a crop-duster pilot might say, "Naw, I can't go tomorrow.  I've got to sit in the seat."  Or if he saw a strange ag-plane parked on the ramp, he might turn to a friend and ask, "Who's sitting in that thing?"   After lunch he'd likely say, "Well, boys, I guess it's time for me to go sit in the seat."

            I've had old friends call me late at night from far-flung places looking for a job.  "Y'all got any empty seats down in that part of the country," they'd ask?   So I use the phrase, "sitting in the seat", because it was part of the lore of the trade as I came to know it.

I can think of very few reasons to recommend this profession to a young man, and many arguments against it.  There is the chronic lack of money, the worn-out old airplanes, the worn-out old trucks, the way you live, the places that you live, the bad food, the long hours, the way you smell at the end of the day.   And of course, there is the danger.  There’s just no sound reason for a sane man to enter into this trade.

            Unless, of course, he has a love for flight that will never be satisfied in any other way.

The only way to learn to fly a crop-duster is to strap one on. And that's what I did.  I learned to strap down hard in that thing.  Heavy web lap-belt cinched tight across my pelvis.  Narrow shoulder straps pulled tight across my shoulders.  The complete harness soaked with yesterday's sweat, soon to be displaced by the sweat of the morning, to be replaced by the sweat of the afternoon.

            My shoulders became callused to the constant sawing of those straps across my collarbones.  My torso became accustomed to being lashed to the structure of the machine.  My head, arms, and legs were free to be in constant motion.

            And when I strapped myself into that life, I knew that I was seeking something more than a revenue-producing job.  I was seeking something more than my need to fully experience life, or the craving for physical challenge and mental stimulation. 

I was seeking something more.  Something I could not define, some vague yearning that drifted out beyond my understanding. I was seeking myself, my identity.  I was seeking a glance inside my soul. I was longing for something that I once thought could be found in books, in classrooms, in intellectual discussions with other seekers.

But I willfully abandoned all those conventional avenues into personal insight.  I chose instead to return to the earth, to confront myself face-to-face as a primitive man would confront the glowing eyes beyond the safety of his campfire.

And my search was not unsuccessful.  But the things I learned were not at all what I had hoped to learn.  For what I learned was that I was seeking answers I was incapable of understanding, to questions I could not even imagine.  I learned that my noble quest was in truth quite childish.  I learned that I only imagined that I was worthy of sitting at a table with the Almighty and engaging in a lofty exchange of views. 

I learned that I was pretentiously seeking insights into the core meaning of man's presence upon this earth, when in fact I barely possessed the intellectual and moral capability of successfully making it through a routine day of my insignificant life.

I learned that the tools for life had been provided.  I learned that the important questions were really quite simple, and that the most common, the most ordinary answers were the best.

And if these things are true, I might have discovered them in any number of different occupations.  But as it were, I came to believe these things while strapped into a series of beat-up old airplanes in a place called South Texas.

I came to love the heat.  Heat boiling out of my bones.  South Texas in July, in August, in September.  One hundred degrees by mid-morning, and by noon the wind would begin to blow. Great irregular waves of rolling air.  Thermals growing from the surface of the fields and vaulting thousands of feet into the sky.  Wind gusts driving around hills and mesquite thickets, rolling down gullies and launching upward over limestone and

prickly pear.  Shears of scalding air mixing from every direction and twisting into tight, frantic little tornadoes of hot sucking air, cornhusks, dust, grass, and heat.

            I came to love the misery of it all.  I came to glory in my rawhide body writhing within that narrow cockpit, soaked in its own private ocean of dust, salt, and sweat.  I came to love the tight steel-tube cage in which I daily went about my business.  I came to love the shaking-screaming-heaving of that madman machine.

            I came to love the gallons and gallons of water poured down my throat, and the way that same water flooded out across the surface of my skin.  I came to love the fluid movements of the hinges and sockets of my frame.

            I learned to load the hopper to the brim with organic phosphate poison, and roll down those miserable short dirt runways.  I learned to let it roll to the very last ragged edge of flat dirt, and to lift her gently into the air.  I learned to ease her across the broken ground, tires brushing the weeds, to lift her over the bob-wire fences, to float her into a gentle turn still riding on a boiling cushion of hot air compressed against the surface of the earth.

            I learned to balance her carefully in the turn, knowing I could never climb over a tree rushing at the nose.   I learned to carry that fragile craft within my fingertips, to lift her across the rocks, and brush, and scrub oak.   To suspend her between the power of my mind and the tingling of my fingers, until finally I could feel the power of the air began to build beneath my wings.

            I learned to crack back the throttle with the oil temperature gauge bumping against the red line, and to let her fall through the turn for the first pass across a field.  I learned to hold her gently, to feel her slowly come alive with every gallon of spray that flowed through the 44 nozzles behind the trailing edge of the wing.

            I learned to feel her come alive as the weight bled off, feel her rise and soar and become a creature of flight.  I learned to fold into my mind the patterns of wires and fields and tree lines.  I learned to keep her low, tires kissing against the cotton leaves, and to brace against the wild, turbulent air.  I learned to accept the tension of the harness as it bound my frame against the sudden violent gusts, the great walls of broken wind rolling across the broken land of South Texas.

            I learned to move the stick with soft and savage thrusts, to slam the rudder pedals from lock to violent lock.  I learned to control through mind and muscle the steel tendons leading from the flight controls to the living wings of that aircraft.

            I learned to slip her slick as glass between the wire fences and the power lines stretched taunt above.  I could sneak her through that slit in the wink of an eye, raise the nose above the advancing tree line, and slam her over hard into a vertically-banked turn. 

            I learned the violent, fragile art of executing those turns.  I could pull the turn hard and tight for the precise few seconds, slam her over into a vertically-banked turn in the opposite direction, and pull the stick hard back into my lap until the g-forces tried to pull the skin right off my face.  I could hold the weight of the aircraft in the palm of my hand and caress the wing foil along the feathered edges of a stall.  I came to know precisely where those feathered edges lay, and where they slipped into the ragged pits where flight could no longer be sustained.  And I learned to slip along that broken edge like a squirrel flying through the tender branches of the trees.

I came to know exactly how to hold a heavy airplane, how long to hold the nose before allowing it to slice down thought the horizon.  I became a master of the art of playing the wind drift through the turns.  I learned to know the airspeed of the aircraft by the weight of the stick in the palm of my hand, and the sound of the wind flowing past the cockpit.  And even as the stick grew slack, and the flow of air over the wing began to break, and roll, and shutter at the stall, I could still deftly nurse a few more degrees of turn from that reluctant aircraft.

And as she grew light, and came alive in ways that, even today, still brings a burst of joy into my mind, I learned to set her free. I learned to set her free, to vault into the summer sky, to soar into fantastic pivots, to plunge back again and slip against the surface of the earth.

            I could fly that airplane through the thick and thins.  I could take her down into a thicket of live oak trees, oil field pump jacks, high-line wires, and irrigation ditches without batting an eye.  And I could weave her into and over and under and around all that maze like a snake gliding through the grass.

I knew exactly when to bring the nose into the turn, when to break the dive, when to slam her flat and duck beneath the wires.  I knew how to ride her as the airspeed built beneath her wings, how to hold her with the airspeed being bartered for a few more feet of sky beneath my nose, how to drop her back into a field, and to catch her in my fingers.

            I learned to ride her over the wires, under the wires.  Down among the trees, down with the weeds, and brush, and bob-wire fences.  Hour after hour after hour.  Turn after turn after turn.  Throwing the flight controls from lock to lock.  Fifteen loads a day, 20, 30. Every take-off in defiance of the science of aeronautical engineering.  Every turn a sparring match with the laws of physics.  Every pass across a field an opportunity for disaster.

            I learned to go back every day.  To live, think, fly on the absolute edge.  Until the banality of this routine seemed perfectly normal.  I might catch myself one hot summer day, dozing off in a 30-second turn, and think nothing of it.

            I learned to relax.  Not to flinch.  I learned to make every heaving of the arms and legs count.  Perfect coordination ceased to be a matter of esthetics.  Perfect coordination became an absolute of aircraft performance.  My body came to move the controls with little instruction from my conscious mind. 

            Up, around, under, over, the aircraft soared.  Wing tips brushed past objects at the correct, precise, few inches.  The tires slipped over the leaves and grazed across the fences.  My mind wandered off to other scenes, my thoughts drifting a million miles away.

            Some body/mind thing took over.  As I daydreamed another part of my mind computed fantastic intervals, rates-of-closure, distances, angles, speeds.  My arms and legs moved without my being aware of that movement.  My eyes recorded a thousand tiny details beyond my knowing.  The stick and rudder-pedals meshed in patterns as timeless as the stars. 

And the aircraft moved as with a mind of its own.  Diving into fields and out over the trees, soaring into vertical banks, shuttering at a stall.   Diving back against the contour of the earth, reaching again into the sky, seeking the pivot, the fall, the rotation of the wings along the imaginary parabola that twisted deftly beneath the high-line wires.

            I came to love the violence of the air, the rush of the earth a few feet below my seat.  I came to love the certain knowledge that my fate rested upon my actions of the next few critical seconds.  And I came to love the way those next few critical seconds linked together, and together, and together, endlessly into the hours of every heat-soaked, sweat-drenched day.

            I learned how to sit in the seat.  And I loved every minute of it.

 

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