week fifty: pitch and yaw

pilotThe only time I’d been in a really small plane was on a sightseeing trip over the Grand Canyon when I was a girl. All ten or so passengers threw up on the turbulent flight except me and that was only out of sheer will. So a few months ago when my friend first asked if I wanted to go up in his plane I think my answer was “Uhhhhhh…” But then I started to think about it; I’ve been traveling by plane since I was an infant and being up in the sky has always enthralled me. Give me a window seat and something other than solid clouds or uninterrupted darkness and I’ll be happy staring out at the toy trees and patchwork quilt and the city clouds for hours and hours. So why not take a look from a lower, more agile perspective?


It’s a gorgeous little machine – a 1964 Beechcraft Bonanza – and it felt more solid inside than I expected. As we raced down the runway and lifted into the air, my joy rolled over my excitement rolled over my fear. We flew towards Mt. Hood, looking at the river valley, the lava flow, the geography of 10,0o0 feet. We practically grazed the mountain, or at least it felt that way. And though my stomach stayed relatively calm throughout the trip, knowing I looked out that window and saw the top of a mountain, and the art of The Dalles’ tilled and untilled fields and the beautiful ribbon of the Columbia thousands of feet below now brings waves of giddy pleasure. I feel like I was inside some miracle: two humans turned into one bird.


About a month ago, my friend listed the factors of flight and challenged me to write something about them. While I now know what the terms mean, I didn’t when I wrote this:

I Barely Understand the Toaster, so Don’t Bother with the Factors of Flight

The only part of physics I’m good at is blindly obeying its laws.

No use explaining how a machine can float through the air at wild speeds.

I prefer the mystery of it anyway.

Just take me into the sky and let me be part bird, part boat.

That is, whatever part of bird and boat allow them to fly and float.

Let pitch be the blackness into which we launch ourselves.

Let yaw be the long, soft story you tell along the way.

Let lift be a measure of strength and roll be a measure of ease.

Let drag be the pull of waves and sand around our heels

once we’ve landed and strolled down to the beach.

Let the lesson be this:

The ground is not as solid as it seems.

The sky is not as distant.

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