The Anxiety of the Pilot Upon Attempting to Land a Plane
On Night-Flying, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and a Crisis Over Patagonia
Pablo, the flight instructor, barely ever talked to Francisco about technical issues. But deep down, Francisco knew that Pablo was there and that if, through his own fault, Francisco’s fault, they came within a few meters of the ground, Pablo would know how to take control of the plane. He knew how to calculate the last minute he could react, the very last minute, the one that made the difference between continuity and catastrophe.
Pablo’s ability to recognize the exact moment before a catastrophe, it’s not just a manner of speaking; it’s something he himself witnessed, with his own eyes. He still remembers that day. It was May after he’d been training with Pablo for more than six months. Nothing out of the ordinary had happened until that minute, or rather until a few minutes before that one. The scratch, the dawn chat, the maté, the secrets around the table, and a few words in the Piper. Francisco doesn’t know what happened, not even today does he have an explanation for it. But something, some kind of mysterious ray got in the way of his skill and prevented him from landing. As simple as that. He was there sitting in front of the panel—not for the first or the second or the tenth time, it was something he thought he had under control—when suddenly something stopped him, blinded him. Something that prevented him from landing, descending, touching ground. A kind of blackout that made his hands unable to react, his brain unable to make decisions. A kind of malignant murmur, which sedated him, hypnotized him, and rendered him lifeless. Like a paralyzing gas, emitted not from the enemy camp but from his own person.
The altimeter showed that they were at an altitude of 2,000 meters, he’d already sent the signal by radio, but everything else was on hold. He couldn’t think of the descent. It happened to him many other times over the years, after that, something vaguely similar, he thinks, trying to find an explanation. Something that doesn’t totally paralyze him but makes him resist the descent, as if deep down he knew that the moment the airplane wheels touch the asphalt of the runway marks the reencounter with a whole series of commitments, agreements, and relationships that he doesn’t quite understand, not when or how they were made. Or why. There, during those final moments before landing, it seems like none of those things have anything to do with him. As if he were in one of those movies they show on Sunday afternoons, where somebody wakes up having taken on somebody else’s life because they gave him a bad blood transfusion or mistakenly operated on his brain. Descending is, at those moments, like queuing up at the window of daily life. Intolerable, even unfair, he’d say.
The thing is that on the day he started telling me about, all that denial reached such an extreme, such a high level of tension that, instead of exploding, it paralyzed him. He exploded, but inside, it was a kind of internal stampede that raced through his veins until it stopped his circulation, dried up his brain; a backfiring, he’d say. By the time he came to, Pablo had taken command of the Piper and was preparing to touch down.
Francisco thinks he said something, mumbled some disjointed words to himself or to the mystery that can dwell in the most unexpected places. He doesn’t remember that part very well, only the physical sensation of returning home. A feeling of exhaustion, he’d call it, if by exhaustion we mean feeling like an amorphous blob that some mighty force is dragging through the streets. Defeat in every cell, but not like the counterpart to some success; an existential defeat, the curse of having been born. That afternoon he didn’t go to work at the garage; he went straight to bed and stayed there, like a corpse. Every time Pablo’s face appeared there on the white ceiling, a wave of shame, or maybe even humiliation, crashed through his body. He tried to go over in his mind where the mistake had been made, but the chain of events would break; the engine pressure, the oil temperature . . . and he wouldn’t be able to go any further because the wave would crash and he wouldn’t be able to think anymore. Why precisely now, when he’d overcome so many fears, passed so many tests, when the airplane offered barely any resistance, when they’d achieved a communion in which neither one gave instructions to the other but instead glided, united, through the sky together. Never before, not even the first few times, back when even the control panel looked like hieroglyphics, had Pablo had to take over. He’d always managed, even precariously, to work things out. How could this have happened to him now? All his life he’d always carried on: he’d just finished mastering engines with lateral valves and already he was dealing with fuel injection engines. Everything built on everything else, he learned one thing and that made him able to deal with the next. Why couldn’t it also be that way with the airplane, with flight?
In November 1929, before the end of the first of the 15 months he lived in Argentina, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry flew the inaugural flight of Aeroposta Argentina to the South. He, like Francisco, knew airplanes as well as he knew engines; at the end of the First World War he’d been recruited into the air force, but since he still had a lot to learn, he, too, started in the maintenance division, as a mechanic. By the time he arrived in Argentina, he’d already lived the life of a quasi-legionnaire at an outpost in the Sahara, where he was sent by the company. His flights in Patagonia left him deeply impressed by two things: the longing with which people awaited the arrival of airmail, and the night. He writes about the latter in Night Flight, which appears to be a novel-memoir about those flights that Jean Mermoz thought up to save the company from bankruptcy, though it is really a book about the night. About the dangers of flying, and above all about his inability to recount it, the difficulty of turning experience into a story.
The sky was blue. Pure blue. Too pure. A hard blue sky that shone over the scraped and barren world while the fleshless vertebrae of the mountain chain flashed in the sunlight. Not a cloud. The blue sky glittered like a new-honed knife. I felt in advance the vague distaste that accompanies the prospect of physical exertion. The purity of the sky upset me. Give me a good black storm in which the enemy is plainly visible. I can measure its extent and prepare myself for its attack. I can get my hands on my adversary. But when you are flying very high in clear weather the shock of a blue storm is as disturbing as if something collapsed that had been holding up your ship in the air. It is the only time when a pilot feels that there is a gulf beneath his ship.
Another thing bothered me. I could see on a level with the mountain peaks not a haze, not a mist, not a sandy fog, but a sort of ash-colored streamer in the sky . . . I tightened my leather harness as far as it would go and I steered the ship with one hand while the other I hung on to the longéron that ran alongside my seat. I was still flying in remarkably calm air.
Very soon came a slight tremor. As every pilot knows, there are secret little quiverings that foretell your real storm. No rolling, no pitching. No swing to speak of. The flight continues horizontal and rectilinear. But you have felt a warning drum on the wings of your plane, little intermittent rappings scarcely audible and infinitely brief, little cracklings from time to time as if there were traces of gunpowder in the air.
And then everything round me blew up.
Concerning the next couple of minutes I have nothing to say. All that I can find in my memory is a few rudimentary notions, fragments of thoughts, direct observations. I cannot compose them into a dramatic recital because there was no drama . . .
. . . I landed near by and we were a whole hour getting the plane into the hangar. I climbed out of the cockpit and walked off. There was nothing to say. I was very sleepy. I kept moving my fingers, but they stayed numb. I could not collect my thoughts enough to decide whether or not I had been afraid. Had I been afraid? I couldn’t say. I had witnessed a strange sight.
What strange sight? I couldn’t say. The sky was blue and the sea was white.
–Wind, Sand and Stars, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, translated by Lewis Galantière.
That morning, Francisco rose from bed like an automaton; his wife was still snoring. He got up at dawn, out of sheer force of habit, like he used to when he first started to fly and then later when he worked in the shop. He could have stayed in bed a little longer, taken advantage of his new life with no scheduled flights, an empty, aimless life. He brewed some maté, but this time he didn’t leave the burners on. His body was numb—no amount of heat could fix it. The house beyond the kitchen felt like a huge empty space, like the ravenous mouth of a giant waiting for him to fall into its jaws. How difficult it was for him to do alone what he’d always done accompanied. Now what would he do, for example, when he ran into Pablo in the street, or at the mess hall, or when Pablo would bring them airplane parts to fix in the company garage. He speculated about all of that while he sat there at that cold table. For a moment he thought he heard a scratching on the shutter, but he quickly dismissed the idea. The mind can betray us, as he well knew. Then came the knocks, and when he opened the shutters he saw Pablo, his face the same as every morning, saying that it was a little late but they should leave now. That today seemed like the ideal day for Francisco to go alone.
In his book, Take-Off, Daniele Del Giudice describes something similar. He says that the day after having flown his worst flight, when he was on the verge of crashing into the middle of the ocean because he’d forgotten to do something, like lowering the lever for the flaps for takeoff or some other mistake that for a pilot is pathetic, inconceivable, that was the day his instructor told him that it was time for him to make his first solo flight. When he, in shock, asked him why today, his instructor told him, summarily: “Because of your mistake. Thanks to the mistake, you were able to see the mistake.”
That day, Francisco took off alone and landed perfectly, as if touched by magic. Not a single hesitation, no sign of instability, doubt. He felt neither fearful nor triumphant, and had only the sense that he’d nailed it. Up there, alone, he felt for the first time that something had become whole, that he was where he was supposed to be. That it had been very exciting to watch airplanes through the window, but there was no comparison, this was on an entirely different scale. His old admiration for airplanes seemed ridiculous. A mere sporting event, no matter how much he’d thought he was in touch with the divine. He didn’t think about anything or anybody. Not even Pablo, who was carefully watching everything from the Aeroclub. He manipulated the levers as if each were a microworld unto itself. The compass, the altimeter, they all seemed like partial representations of an infinite system that was revealing its secrets to him for the first time. Those numbers and those directions ceased to be merely facts: they were part of a code that allowed him, for the first time, to be immersed in a situation in which he neither expected nor needed anything else. Up there, when he’s in control, nothing is fixed in relation to anything else, not even in relation to the landscape waiting passively there below. The meseta’s furious whiteness, which has effectively hypnotized so many. It’s a state of total suspension, literally. And then the landing: perfect. A poem. It almost left him with no time to think about what was waiting below. The heaviness of the contact with the ground was lighter, deferred, not part of the flight at all.
–Translated by Katherine Silver
From False Calm: A Journey Through the Ghost Towns of Patagonia by Maria Sonia Cristoff. Used with permission of Transit Books. Copyright © 2018 by Maria Sonia Cristoff. Translated by Katherine Silver.