Many things may have changed by the time anyone reads this. But I think the surreal and defining image of that morning will burn in our memories forever: a gleaming Boeing airliner flying gracefully toward the World Trade Center and then, unbelievably, continuing on into the building’s side, leaving a gaping hole of fire, destruction and death in its wake. Seeing the graceful beauty of an airplane in flight twisted into such a horrible weapon and such an agonizing nightmare of torn metal and lives is a gut-wrenching travesty as irreconcilable to the heart and soul as seeing an innocent child’s love twisted into pain and fear by an abusive parent.
My heart broke over and over as the week progressed and the stories of loss accumulated until I wondered how I could have any more tears left to shed. Our losses are both personal and collective, physical and psychological. The enormity of the tragedy, and the incomprehensible viciousness of an act designed to kill so many innocent people, is so great that we may never be able to really get our hands or understanding around it. It reminds me less of Pearl Harbor than it does the cold-hearted murder of the Holocaust; an act less of war than of hate. Indeed, I think it’s an unspoken understanding of how universal this enemy of hatred is—a grief over the damage done by individuals who descended into the darkest side of our human nature—that prompted such outpourings of tears and support from countries as distant from us politically as Russia, China, and Cuba.
And yet, from the images that have come in from around the world and made their way out of the ashes in New York and Washington, we have also seen the flip side of that darkness. People reached out to victims regardless of race, religion or ethnic background. Poor and rich suddenly became equal—equally vulnerable, and equally important to each other for survival. For at least a few moments in time, millions of people left their petty squabbles and differences behind to reach out through an almost instinctive memory of our shared humanity.
It’s a reminder to me, once again, that just as the shadows of a painting define and highlight its depth, color, and light, the shadows of our own sorrow, vulnerability and risk highlight the strength and importance of some of life’s greatest lessons and gifts.
As pilots, we live a little closer to the edge than many people do. At some point during most people’s pilot training, the realization sets in that we can die doing this. It’s possible. And it happens. I didn’t know anyone who perished in the World Trade Center, even though I grew up in New York and still have a number of friends and family members living there. But I know all too well the pain of losing someone I cared about in a sudden, violent and traumatic manner, as most pilots who’ve flown for any length of time do. And because we recognize that ever-present possibility of loss, I think we tend to grab hold of life with a little more gusto, appreciate the gifts and joys of living a little bit more, and hold those moments, experiences and people we cherish a little bit closer and dearer.
The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon didn’t suddenly make life fragile or uncertain for everyone else in America—but they certainly emphasized its fragility and uncertainty with a wrenching kind of impact unknown even to pilots. And yet the dark shadows of that realization also brought into sharp relief for everyone the value of those elements that give our lives their meaning and light. In the wake of the attacks, people suddenly called friends they hadn’t spoken to in ages, hugged those they loved just a little bit harder, and greeted the sunrise with a little more appreciation than they otherwise might have. We also reached out for a sense of community and the hands of others in a way we haven’t in more than a generation.
One of the things that made the September 11th attacks so frightening is that they reminded all of us of how vulnerable we are; how easily it could have been us on those airplanes or in those office buildings. But our awareness of that vulnerability is not just a liability. It can also be a powerful gift.
When I learned to fly, one of the most amazing surprises that came with the package was the discovery that I’d suddenly joined a worldwide community—a network of pilots and aviation personnel who were willing to give other pilots help and support without even knowing their names. There have been times when I’ve been stranded somewhere and had perfect strangers cancel dates to help fix my plane so I could get on my way, loan me parts and tools, and offer cars, rides, meals, and even places to stay if I needed them. But we feel the strength and value of that community even more when things go wrong in the air, where we’re at our most vulnerable, and others reach out to try to help us get safely home again.
One cold March evening, a friend of mine was ferrying a Commander 114 from Oklahoma to California. Mike was flying in the clouds, but the IFR conditions were predicted to be relatively benign along his route of flight. Just east of Albuquerque, New Mexico, however, the weather deteriorated and he began to pick up heavy ice. He turned around, intending to return to where conditions were better. But the weather had worsened behind him. Even at the altitude and location where it had been smooth just a few minutes before, he was still picking up ice, and it was accumulating quickly.
Mike realized he was in serious trouble. He couldn’t maintain altitude, and he couldn’t find any airports nearby with an instrument approach. He radioed his problem to an Albuquerque controller named Jim, who handed off all the other traffic he was handling to someone else so he could concentrate on his pilot in trouble. At first, the controller tried to steer Mike south, out of the weather, but the ice on the Commander was accumulating too quickly. Mike needed to land, and soon. There was a small airport only five miles away from his location, but it didn’t have any instrument approaches. To make matters worse, Mike had descended far enough that the mountains were interfering with the controller’s ability to reach him by radio.
Thinking quickly, the controller enlisted the help of another pilot flying at a higher altitude to relay his instructions to Mike. By watching the plane’s progress on his radar screen, the controller relayed heading and descent instructions to try to line Mike up safely with the airport’s runway. Less than half a mile from the airport and only 300 feet above the ground, Mike finally broke out of the clouds and saw the runway. Two minutes later he was safely on the ground.
It took three people, in three different places, to bring Mike’s airplane down safely. But that help was there because there’s a community in flying that recognizes not only how vulnerable each of us can be, but also how easily, with a simple twist of fate, that pilot in trouble could be any one of us. Indeed, that community, with all the camaraderie, generosity and support we value so highly, exists in large part because we recognize those things.
Everyone across America got a sharp and painful reminder of our collective vulnerability on September 11th. In a few awful minutes, the things we sometimes think will protect us—money, position, and power—showed themselves for the weak reeds they really are. The stories from that day underscored with unwavering certainty that when the chips are down, what really allow us to survive are our connections with each other, regardless of race, religion or wealth.
Antoine de St. Exupery once wrote, “Men travel side by side for years, each locked up in his own silence … ‘til danger comes. Then they stand shoulder to shoulder. And they discover they belong to the same family.” We are all part of the same family, regardless of our color, religion, economic situation or ethnic background, and no matter how technologically advanced we get, we still need each other. It’s at once one of our greatest weaknesses and one of our greatest strengths. For our recognition of that need drives us to forge a weapon made of the one element that’s stronger than all the fear in the world and all the hatred it can breed. Call it bonds of brotherhood or community, or call it love. It’s the same thing. And it’s undefeatable.
Violence and hatred are not new. Their dark shadows have been with us for centuries and, sadly, will probably continue for as long as we humans do. But the shadows of life, like the shadows of an artist’s masterpiece, also bring out the brightness of its colors and light. If it were not for our vulnerability, we would not build a sense of community that can give us warmth, happiness, and the strength to get through the challenges and dangers of flying or living. If we didn’t ever run the risk of losing life, we wouldn’t really appreciate it. If we didn’t know sorrow, we wouldn’t know the compassion that bonds us—and heals us—with a power stronger than fear or hatred will ever be.
The world got a harsh lesson in all of these things on September 11th—a lesson delivered, ironically enough, through four gleaming, silver airplanes. But for me, the events only underscored what other airplanes have already helped to teach me: that we need to cherish each moment and person we hold dear, live our lives to the fullest, and both value and nurture the ties with our fellow humans that give us the strength and comfort we need not only to survive, but for our hearts to remember, even in the darkness, the power of love, the joy of living and the beauty of freedom and flight.
Shadow and Light
By Lane Wallace
© 2001 Flying Magazine
First appeared in FLYING Magazine, December 2001
It’s an odd thing, sometimes, writing essays into the future. The constraints of Flying’s production schedule mean that the thoughts I speak in August are not heard until October. So by the time anyone reads the words I write here, the gray, chill skies of November will have descended again over New York City, and the world may be a very different place. Even my own thoughts may have evolved or changed by then.
But as I write this, it’s a warm and sunny September day. A disconcertingly sunny September day. On a day like this, my thoughts would usually be drawn to the beauty of a crystal blue sky or the magic and joy of a colorful autumn flight. But I’m having trouble feeling the beauty or joy of flight at the moment. For just two weeks ago, I watched that beauty contorted into an ugliness that will linger in my memory for a very long time.