Sunday, April 16, 2017

At Sea, At Sky

A ship embarked on a voyage across water is correctly said to be “at sea.”  An airplane embarked on a voyage through air is said to be “in flight.”  This inconsistency puzzles me.  It seems that an airplane underway should be described as “at sky,” for the airplane is truly in the sky just as much as the ship is in the sea.  I think of this now because of a journey that I made recently aboard a small aircraft which was simultaneously at sea and at sky.

At 12:14pm on Friday, March 17, 2017, with my son James at the controls, Miss Patty and I took off from Boire Field in Nashua, New Hampshire, aboard a Cessna Skyhawk and proceeded toward Biddeford, Maine.  It was a bright, sunny, and clear Saint Patrick’s Day, truly a beautiful day for flying.  I had not travelled in a small aircraft since the early 1980s, so this was a special occasion.

James taxied to the end of runway 32, and we took off into the wind to the northeast.  Once airborne, he banked the plane as it continued to ascend and turned sharply to the east.  At about 1,500 feet of altitude and in turbulent air, we passed over the northern part of Nashua.  I looked at our neighborhood below with some trepidation as the little airplane lurched through the turbulence.  I sincerely hoped that Saint Patrick was watching over us on his special day!  James knew exactly what to do, though, and the ride became more comfortable as he ascended into calmer air.  At a cruising altitude of about 3,500 feet, we flew east-northeastward towards Portsmouth and then into Maine.

Looking southward and seeing Portsmouth and its environs from the air was a special treat, and it brought back many happy memories.  I had been assigned aboard the Furman here in 1985 and 1986.  She spent a lot of time slowly loading subsea telecommunications cable at the Simplex Wire and Cable Company dock in Newington.  She also sailed up and down the Piscataqua River many times to shift berths and go on engineering trials.  In later years, when I was no longer sailing, we often brought the children to Portsmouth.  They played in Prescott Park, hiked across the Memorial Bridge, visited the lighthouse at Fort Constitution, and explored the grounds of Fort McClary.  They also saw ships there.  They toured the historic Bluenose II and the not-so-historic State of Maine at the State Pier.  They also admired the submarine Albacore, the cable carrier Global Mariner, and the cargo ships Atlantic Erie, Alexandria, Rays, and Nel.

Continuing toward Biddeford, James piloted the little aircraft overland and parallel to the coastline.  The great Atlantic Ocean stretched infinitely to the somewhat hazy horizon.  At its edge lay the beaches—Wells, Long Sands, and the Footbridge—that we had frequented with the children when they were little.  The lighthouses stood there, too, including the old family favorites that James promised to visit more closely on the return flight to Nashua.

Descending next for the approach to the small municipal airfield in Biddeford, James maneuvered the airplane through more low level turbulence and landed in a strong crosswind from the northeast on runway 24, one hour after our departure from Nashua.   After parking and securing the Cessna, we met James’ maternal grandmother who was waiting for us with an automobile.  A family reunion and luncheon at a nearby restaurant followed.

At 3:15pm it was time to leave again.  James took off on runway 60 heading east-northeast this time, still contending with the strong northwesterly crosswind.  Once aloft, as the small airplane was again buffeted by the low level turbulence, James turned the craft to starboard and headed seaward. Most of the haze had by this time disappeared, and the view of the Maine coastline and the open Atlantic was magnificent.  To port lay the sandy crescent of Old Orchard Beach capped by the rocky peninsula of Cape Elizabeth.  To starboard lay the assortment of rocky headlands interspersed with short sandy beaches that stretches back down to Portsmouth.  Just offshore a scattering of small rocky islands punctuated the coast.  Several of these islands sported lighthouses, and as he had promised, James turned southwestward over the Atlantic and set a course for sightseeing.

The first waypoint was Wood Island Light, just a few minutes’ flight from the Biddeford airfield.  Flying high enough to avoid the turbulence but low enough to see the lighthouses clearly, James next took the aircraft offshore and out to sea around Goat Island.  The coastal communities of Biddeford Pool and Fortunes Rocks passed by on the starboard side.  The broad, blue Atlantic stretched out infinitely to port.  This was my favorite part of the flight, and I enjoyed the ineffable feeling of simultaneously being at sea and at sky gazing down upon the sea.  It was sublime, supernal, and serene, despite the continuous hum of the motor.  After passing Goat Island to starboard, James continued southwestward toward Boon Island.  Kennebunk, Wells, and Ogunquit came into view on the starboard side.  The great, blue Atlantic remained omnipresent to port.

The time seemed to slow down as I stared at the open Atlantic on this leg of the flight.  I could have looked at it all afternoon and been very content.  But then, suddenly it seemed, we reached Boon Island.  James turned to port, rounded Boon, and headed next for the Nubble.  Long one of the family’s favorite spots, we had visited Nubble Light often when James and his siblings were younger, and from that vantage point had sighted the Boon Island Light on the horizon several  miles distant.  Seeing both lights from the air was a new experience, a broader and more breathtaking perspective.  At the Nubble, James turned the aircraft once again to port and followed the sea to the Isles of Shoals on the Maine-New Hampshire border.

Once again, I looked out to port and imbibed the view of the wide, blue Atlantic.  It was tremendous, but unfortunately we would fly over it for only a few more minutes.  We came upon the Isles of Shoals all too quickly, and James circled around them so we could see the small white lighthouse on White Island.  This beautiful little archipelago lies only about seven miles offshore.  The time was not slowing down now; it suddenly seemed to be going by much too fast!  After a very brief further interval of blissfully looking down at my Atlantic, the little aircraft came over Hampton Beach in New Hampshire.  My view of the wide-open ocean was then replaced by a view of the densely built up seaside resorts of Hampton and Seabrook.  From this point westward, we flew overland back to Nashua.

My mind remained at sea, however.  Today’s flight over water reminded me of two previous journeys that I had made, one long ago and one fairly recently. 

The first of these two flights took place aboard The Portlander, a small Bar Harbor Airlines Beechcraft 99, on Friday, December 16, 1977.   Enroute from Bangor, Maine, to Boston, it flew just offshore and paralleled the coastline from Penobscot Bay to Winthrop Neck near Logan Airport on a clear and sunny afternoon with excellent visibility.  The views of both the snow-covered New England coast and the cold, blue Atlantic Ocean were magnificent beyond description.  I’ve made many airline flights over the years, and this one ranks high on my list of favorites.

The second flight took place aboard a Tam Airlines 767 enroute from Sao Paulo, Brazil, to New York.  In the very early morning of Mother’s Day, May 8, 2016, I opened the window shade next to my seat on the port side of the aircraft and gazed contentedly down at the western Atlantic between 20 and 30 degrees of north latitude.  I had sailed on this stretch of ocean many times aboard several ships, and it felt good to be back.  I would have been perfectly happy to sit quietly and look at the Atlantic Ocean for the rest of the flight to New York, but this was not to be.  After a little while a cabin attendant came to my seat and asked me to please lower the shade.  It was letting too much light into the darkened interior of the airplane, she explained, and the cabin crew wanted the passengers to sleep as long as possible before they served breakfast.  I lowered the shade as requested.  As I did so, however, I glanced around and felt bad for the other passengers.  Very few of them had window seats, and I supposed that even fewer had any interest in looking at the great Atlantic Ocean.  And here, after all my voyages, I felt like a plank owner of the Atlantic!

As our homeward flight drew to its conclusion, James descended to about 1,500 feet and passed directly over his old school in Hudson, the Presentation of Mary Academy.  Then he brought the little Cessna back across the Merrimack River and over downtown Nashua.  At 4:15pm he landed on runway 32 at Boire Field, and our journey was complete.

In two hours of flight, we had seen the beauty of the sea and the sky, two of the primordial elements of the Earth.  The aerial voyage brought to mind the words of the psalmist:

                        They that go down to the sea in ships,
                        that do business in great waters;
These see the works of the Lord,
                        and his wonders in the deep (Ps. 107:23-24).

This applies to airmen as much as to seamen, for both traverse the vast stretches of sea and sky in their voyaging.  Whether on a ship looking out at the sea and up at the sky, or on an airplane and looking out at the sky and down at the sea, these magnificent elements speak to the human soul and touch the human heart.  The psalmist further asserts, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1), and more recent revelation informs us that, “The elements are the tabernacle of God” (D&C 93:35).  Whether at sea or at sky, then, the opportunity to experience Divinity and commune with Deity is at limitless as the elements themselves.

A few photographs from our journey:

Portsmouth Harbor.  The Piscataqua River separates Kittery, Maine, on the left, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on the right.  Several local landmarks are clearly visible:  the Navy Yard, the three bridges, Albacore Park, Prescott Park, Fort McClary, Fort Constitution, and downtown Portsmouth.

Boon Island, about six miles offshore from Cape Neddick and Nubble Light.  This is a very isolated spot, despite its proximity to the mainland.

The Atlantic Ocean.  This view is to the southeast from a point between Boon Island and the Isles of Shoals.  As I looked out on the wide expanse of the blue sea, I also observed the wing of our aircraft, and I marveled at the fairly recently discovered principle of physics that enables air to support the weight of the airplane, and its passengers, cargo, fuel, etc.

A few of the Isles of Shoals.  Depending on how one counts them, there are about ten islands in the cluster, which is bisected by the Maine-New Hampshire border.  They are easily accessible by ferry from Portsmouth.  This places them far enough from the madding crowd without being too isolated.  They look like a great location for my retirement home!