The Finest Hour
The finest flying I ever did took place late one winter evening about a
mile north of the Mexican border and a few miles up the river from San
I was flying doubles with Bob. We were flying winter vegetables on the
La Perla Ranch, "The Pearl." It was an old ranch, established on the north
bank of The Rio Grande sometime in the previous century. When modern
irrigation practices had come into existence the La Perla owners
discovered that they were situated on some of the most fertile ground in
that part of the world. They had expanded their cattle ranch to include a
farming operation. For many years thereafter they grew winter vegetables
nourished by water pumped from the Rio Grande and directed into their
fields through a network of ditches.
I had flown the La Perla many times. Bob had flown it many, many
Bob and I had based our long friendship on our ability to antagonize
one another. We were always mad at each other about something. This
went on for years. On the ground, we were constantly inventing reasons
to heckle one another. In the air, we were constantly criticizing each
other's flying skills.
When flying doubles, this mental sparring was always its most intense.
Our best teamwork, greatest coordination, most efficient flying, always
took place in an atmosphere of scornful criticism. In some strange way,
this constant critical examination of one another's flying had given us the
ability to almost read one another's mind. When working tight and fast
this ability was at is keenest.
That particular winter evening we were pressing to finish before the sun
went down. We had been flying hard all day, blanketing several hundred
acres with high-volume fungicide. We had total confidence in one
another's flying and were willing to work together with much closer
tolerances than either of us would have accepted with any other pilot.
When our aircraft repeatedly come face to face, one slicing down into a
field in a steep turn, the other emerging from the field and slamming over
into a vertical bank, we knew exactly how the other man was going to
react, exactly when he would lift an on-rushing wing-tip, exactly when he
would make a minute' correction to give the other man the extra fraction
of a second he needed.
It was a situation in which each pilot would find himself flying both
aircraft at once. When I needed a bare little sliver of time to complete a
pass, I need only will that the other aircraft relax its turn a fraction.
Invariably, the wings of Bob's aircraft would nod off a few degrees. An
instant later I would have the extra spacing I needed, and I would will the
other aircraft to return to its hard turn. It always did.
And in the same way, I could feel Bob's mind at work inside my own
cockpit. I would be high in a turn, kicking the tail around for the plunge
back into a field, when his caustic voice would come drifting through my
mind. "Ease off, damnit!" the voice would say. "Give me a little room. We
don't have to spray the whole world in one day!" I would instantly
respond, complaining about it vehemently.
That day at La Perla, our flying had been superlative, our criticisms
their most intense. Every time I rolled it over the top and began to fall
back in for another pass, I could hear his nagging voice. "Tighten up that
turn, boy, we're running out of daylight." And I would tighten up my turn
until I thought I would pull the teeth right out of my jaw-bone. A moment
later Bob would be half a heart-beat late as our wing-tips slashed past one
another. "Open your eyes, old man," I would mutter scornfully. "You're
running miles behind."
And so it went. For five or six hard-flown hours. Like circus performers,
each of us was willing to hold the ace of spades clinched between his
teeth, while the other shot it out with a Colt 45.
Only we were using real bullets.
As the day drew to a close, our flying took on a freshness. I could feel
Bob's senses sharpen, his actions grow more crisp. I knew that he could
sense the same thing in me. With every load we were flying tighter than
we had ever flown before. Every action grew more precise, every turn less
susceptible to correction. Every movement of a flight control became more
emphatic. Every fraction of a second, every interval of space and time,
was shaved a little finer.
Our final field that day was about 40 acres in size, and shaped like a
long triangle. The rows were running cross-ways to the longest side of the
field. There were no high-line wires or obstructions of any kind. We made
our first pass on the end with the longest rows, and began to work across
the field into a gentle evening breeze. As we progressed across the field,
the rows became shorter and shorter.
As the rows grew shorter, and the time each aircraft spent in the field
grew less and less, our interaction in the turns on either end was
progressively pressed closer and closer, till finally, we were striking at the
field from either end, our turns a swarm of flashing wings and slashing
limbs. Our passes fell so quickly one upon the other that our spray,
melting into the evening air, was never completely gone. On every entry
we slipped against a mist of floating pearls, glimmering in the final rays of
the setting sun.
Glancing back over my shoulder at Bob's aircraft, soaring in a high turn
against that setting sun, I was shaken by the wild sense of joy that
seemed to be tearing open my heart. I knew that Bob was considering my
last pass, and my sweeping turn across the darkening sky, and across the
evening air drifted his unexpected thoughts. "Beautiful," he was thinking.
And as his wings flashed over in the turn, and he fell from high for the
final time to lay down a fresh mist of shimmering pearls, I too could think
only that same thought.
"Beautiful," I whispered. "Beautiful."
He didn't make a turn after that final pass. He just began a gentle
climb-out heading back up the river toward Laredo. As he climbed out to
about 1500 feet I moved into a position about 50 feet off his right wing.
Looking out across the silhouette of his aircraft, I could see the sun
moving down into the west, far off behind the Sierras, falling off beyond
the Pacific, slipping off beyond our world. The sky was smooth as glass,
the air without a murmur. Bob turned and looked at me, and we both
Twenty miles north I could see the first lights of Laredo popping on into
the evening twilight. I thought of that day's work and knew a sense of
grandeur I had never known before.
I knew that I had never known a day of flight as splendid as that day's
flying had been. In all the years I had been flying, I knew that there had
never been another day quite like that day. And I also knew that no
matter how many years I might fly into the future, I would never again
master the art of flight as I had done that winter evening.
I knew that that day, just north of the Mexican border, a few miles up
the river from San Ygnacio, I had known my finest hour.