Saturday, September 12, 2009

Flight of Fancy

One of the fringe benefits of living out here in the sticks is the air traffic.

The closest big city to us is Washington, D.C., which combines two attributes: a large and affluent population, and the largest chunk of controlled airspace in the country. The controlled airspace comprises an area from Baltimore southwest beyond Dulles airport; this entire area is either under a TCA (Terminal control area) or is simply restricted.

What this means is that all those affluent and frustrated private pilots must go beyond the suburbs and the exurbs to rural areas like ours to find an accommodating airfield to fly from for business or pleasure. Within thirty miles of us, there are a dozen or so small municipal airports, hosting all manner of small planes, plus a number of private grass-strip fields and even some private helicopter landing areas.

In the past, we have seen small planes performing solo aerobatics in the spacious skies above our property, rolls and loops and stalls and dives and all manner of uninhibited play. We have seen Cessnas and Pipers and Stearmans and Culver Vees and business jets and all kinds of other single-and twin-engine delights. It delights me no end, no matter the time day or night, to hear the sound of an unmuffled engine far above, so slowly carving its way through the endless sky. And nothing focuses your attention so vividly and instantly as having that droning engine sound suddenly disappear—your heart pauses sympathetically and waits for the sound to return before beating again.

But today might just have topped it all. We were sitting outside below the pale grey clouds, a quiet cool late summer day, when a rumbling engine sound slowly massed in the northwest. At first, it sounded like any one of the countless groups of motorcyclists that pass through on any Saturday. But it dawned on me that there was no road nearby to account for the location of the sound and its course.

Shortly after I realized this little puzzle, we saw motion through the canopy of trees.

It was in fact a flight of four biplanes in staggered formation, moving ever so slowly from northwest to southeast with stately grace, followed at a respectful distance by a lone single-engine low-wing monoplane. They were all low enough to make out the detail between the upper and lower wings; the engine sounds of each were distinct. Their progress was regal and ...human-scaled. I felt I could have run along the earth beneath them, shouted and waved to the pilots of each and every craft (had I been in the clear) and would have received a wave of the wings in acknowledgement.

In short order, they disappeared behind the trees, leaving only the dwindling regal buzzing behind. But what a treat for those below, lucky enough to spot their brief and beautiful passing.

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