Of all the subjects I stressed in teaching the occasional flight student I had, weather was the main one. Making the wrong decision about weather has more dire consequences than any rushed preflight, or choice of the wrong airport cafe "special" just before a 3 hour flight. So I drilled it home, teaching it with great detail. Sometimes when the weather is foul, that's about all you can teach, Sitting in the classroom off of the hangar with my student, we'd pour over charts and terminology, hands waving in the air to outline a point, driven by the wind that was increasing its tempo outside.
Even as a child I was fascinated by weather, by the unpredictable forces of the unknown, of the fire in the sky, the way the clouds gathered in clustered groups of gossip, then disbanded. Growing up at the base of mighty Western mountains, we didn't have the tornadic weather that I now see on the Plains, but the mountains fueled some wild summer storms. The first time I remember seeing a really severe storm, I had to venture out to take a look. I ran out in the back yard, out of my Mom's reach, chasing it like a groupie, the viscous rain trickling like a stream through my red hair, the moisture seeping into me, making me feel completely fearless. I was looking for something, hoping for the first marks of rotation, the sky twisting into itself in cotton like coils, too young to be afraid of the dangers that sort of weather wraps itself with. There's such strength when air masses collide, and though I have no specific memory of that storm, only what's brought back through a picture my Mom took, I can see it in my minds eye.
We had more snowstorms than thunderstorms so when we got a good one, it was as if the clouds had gathered for some boisterous party to which I was invited, lightning popping in celebration, the lights flashing like a thousand flashbulbs from ancient cameras, every clap of thunder shaking me with laughter. I was frankly smitten with the sky, happy to be invited and like a lingering house guest late at night, reluctant to leave. Only when the lightning started would my mother yell at me to get in the house, with the stern sound of worry only a parent can have. I would start for the house, reluctantly, like a child chastised by a nun in school, head down, movements slower than conditions warranted, then faster, running as if the rain had washed away my chastisement, cleansed me of the cloak of shame that others wished to place on us.
Even when I was grown, I'd sit by the window looking out at the horizon searching for that first sign of disturbance in the sky. As the storm built, so did my interest and I'd smile with each gust of wind against the eves. If the winds were such that there were no flying projectiles, no lightning to strike me, just heavy rain, I'd put on my rain gear and go out in the wild, delighting in the feel of cold rain on my skin as my lungs drew in the cold air, cleansed of the smoke of the past regret. Liquid crystal drops kissed my face. I laughed into the wind and was not cold.
Learning to fly was usually weather that was often laden with both snow and high winds off the mountains. Many days, like today, were spent sitting in the hangar, waiting for the rain to abate, clustered like Maytag repairmen around a ready airplane. Winter storms were the most lingering and strong, coming from the West with the speed of a tanker truck, pushing everything out ahead of their path. On days like that, it was best just to go home and dream about flying. For weather in an airplane is a whole other matter. Weather will kill you without a moment of hesitation and more than one airman has poked his nose into the face of Zeus, daring a fight, and been smote for the attempt.
When flying a plane, wind is the essence of your day. You want enough headwind to give you some good lift on takeoff, and not so much crosswind to cartwheel you when you come back. Only pilots, sailors and and those truly in sync with nature seem to pick up on the inertial energy in the wind. So many things get blown away in a stiff breeze, so many things swept out of your mind with the wind in your face in an open cockpit. Repressed longings, fruitless desire, ghosts of sad reflection, a hundred thoughts never formed and a thousand words never uttered. Wind in your wings, in your face, sweeping your head of any emotion other than the moment, until all is blown past you to tumble to the earth below.
So on a storm tossed day, like today, when it too dangerous to go out, in any airplane, we simply sit in the hangar with a cup of coffee and our flying stories, watching the clouds build and the thunder roll. Watching the atmosphere of the heavens, contemplating the atmosphere of our lives, as the surface of the earth, the surface of our skin heats, particles of warm air rising with breath. Watching the storm build, rich offering calling for some bolder hearts than ours.
As a tiny child, during the fiercest of Storms coming off the mountains, I was told that it was God bowling up above, and I looked with glee upwards trying to get a glimpse of a tumbling pin in the celestial abyss. Now I know better, and can spout off all the meteorological terms with the best of airmen. But it's not the science that fascinates me, it's the weather itself.
Because the summation of the skies is a visible affidavit of all that's powerful and mighty in the atmosphere, in ourselves. It's a cold blowing truth that there's something within all of us that can be gathered up, strengthened. Something commanding that can change the form of a life. The weather brings components of force, some deep innate working in our selves. Lightning cleaving the sky as a machete, the smell of cordite in the air lingering like gunpowder. Thunder echoing as a a brace of artillery booming under a gunmetal sky, the power of the sky a transcendent weapon that can form or scar, however we view it, the landscape of our world.
There's another line of thunderstorms moving in, so there would be no flying for us on this day off, the other recreational pilots gone home. The building is silent but for the gust of wind against the door and I'm left in the hangar, alone in the gathering wind, under a sky worn and gray, ripe with deep recognition. For just a moment my grown up self was whisked away in a storm of time and space, and all that was left was a child cold and tired, wishing there was someone there with her to call her in, to run into the arms of safety. But the airport is empty, and I am alone.
I feel the raindrops on my face, and find that though I'm still under cover, the rivulets are falling from my eyes, salty and clear, leaving crystal trails down my cheeks. I close up the hangar, walking out towards the parking area as light flashes around me, raising the hairs on my arms and illuminating my path. I walk on down towards my truck, toward the empty parking lot where the liquid sterling of the rain calls to me from a distance, the staccato beating of water against my world, the might of a Midwest storm. The storm is powerful and strong, as am I.
I look upwards and outward, I do not look back.