Finding hope and grace on the landing strip

I don’t like to fly. There’s just something unnatural about strapping yourself into an uncomfortable seat and hurtling across the sky at 35,000 feet. Each bump, turn, seatbelt prompt, and varied engine whir unsettles me.

Illustrations by John P. Weiss

What’s worse, we are stuffed like sardines into those pressurized canisters of recirculated bad breath and stagnant air. And there’s always a screaming kid.

On one flight, as I tried not to envision a fiery nosedive, a nervous woman next to me asked, “Are the engines supposed to sound like that?” My perverse sense of humor considered, “No, that’s the sound engines make before they stall.” But I took pity on my fellow aviophobe and reassured her the engines were fine.

Travel means growth

Air travel today is one of the safest ways to get around. Despite my trepidation, I force myself to fly so that I don’t miss out on the opportunities of life.

My wife, who is a more experienced traveler than I, helped me a great deal. Whenever I try to talk myself out of a trip, she brings me back to reality. As a result, I have flown to study landscape painting several times in Idaho.

I studied writing and blogging with the author Jeff Goins by flying to Franklin, Tennessee. I’ve flown with my wife to New York, where I immersed myself in the endless artwork at the Met.

My wife, son and I enjoyed vacations in Costa Rica and Ireland, all thanks to the convenience of modern air travel.

If one wants to grow, one cannot live under a rock.

Flying requires a good deal of waiting. Waiting at airports for connecting flights. Waiting for takeoff. Waiting for hours in the air until the flight is over. Waiting for landing and arrival.

Once the flight reaches cruising altitude and I relax a bit, I’m able to reflect about flying, airplanes, people, and life.

I have studied the diverse people on planes and in airports. In fact, I love to sketch them in my small, leather sketchbook.

Final sketch of the guy across from me at the airport.

Here are a few other, quick sketches I did of people at the airport.

There’s so much humanity of varied ages, sex, nationality, and personalities at airports. All with different destinations, dreams, families, jobs, and futures.

I have also studied the many different planes at airports. Like their passengers, airplanes have their own destinations, body types, peculiarities, and stories.

Planes are like people

Can you imagine the stories that planes could tell? About nervous flyers, close calls, magnificent flights, and worldly experiences.

Like people, airplanes sometimes have turbulence in their lives. They have schedules to keep, places to go and responsibilities. They must take their jobs seriously, for they carry precious cargo. Much like a mother carrying her baby, or a father driving his infant in a car seat. And like people, planes eventually retire and grow old.

One of the world’s largest airplane boneyards is the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona. It is there, where the dry climate limits corrosion, that over 4,200 military aircraft have retired.

Photo by Tanja Zöllner on Unsplash

Their parts are scavenged and engines stripped for reuse. They have become shells of what they once were. No longer airworthy, all they can do is sit with their memories. Not unlike old folks in retirement homes.

Their maiden flights and distant travels are behind them now. The many souls lifted into the clouds to sunset horizons have long forgotten the reliable planes that carried them.

The world moves on. Newer, upgraded and fancier jets have emerged. They continue to edge out their aging predecessors, like new employees who replace the senior and retired ones.

The uncertainty of life

Of course, some planes never made it to the boneyard. They were struck down in war, suffered mechanical failures or crashes. The same is true with people. Some are struck down on the battlefield. Others suffer medical events or accidents. Air travel, like life, can be uncertain.

Comedian George Carlin once cracked:

“If black boxes survive air crashes, why don’t they make the whole plane out of that stuff?”

Wouldn’t it be interesting if people had their own black boxes? Recordings we could listen to after they’re gone, to better understand what went right and wrong. But then, maybe it’s better that we take our secrets with us.

It would be nice if the world was completely safe. If there were no accidents, medical emergencies, pain or suffering. But perhaps the sweetness of life would be less without the comparison of loss?

Perhaps the turbulence makes us appreciate the miracle of flight that much more? American journalist, Alexander Chase, wrote:

“Lovers of air travel find it exhilarating to hang poised between the illusion of immortality and the fact of death.”

Hope and grace

Every time I take a flight, my favorite part is the landing. Some people hate it, but with each descent, I feel the exhilaration of having overcome my fears. I also feel the anticipation of reaching my destination and the journey ahead.

My least favorite part of flying is the takeoff. But I grit my teeth, close my eyes and hurtle forward anyway. Because doing so moves me closer to my goals and a life well lived.

With each landing I experience the hope I have for the future and the grace in knowing that I am alive, living an artful life and pursuing my dreams.

Soon enough we all taxi to our final hangar or boneyard. The key is to soar skyward, for as long as our engines and wings allow, and journey ever higher, over the great landscape of our lives.

Before you go

I’m John P. Weiss. I draw cartoons, paint landscapes and write about life. Thank you for reading.

This article first appeared on Medium.