The Wonder of Flight

by John Delach

Planes, Trains and Ships run in my DNA. For as long as I’ve had a memory, these three forms of movement and commerce have fascinated me. Today, I address the wonder of flight. My two favorite aviation books are Earnest K. Gann’s, Fate Is the Hunter and Richard Bach’s, Stranger to the Ground.  Each captures the majesty of flight.


I am about to add a third offering, Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot. The author, Mark Vanhoenacker, a British Airlines pilot invites readers to submit their favorite photographs taken from window seats. I have never photographed such a moment, but I do have four experiences permanently implanted into my memory. Each happened serendipitously on business flights. My brain recorded each of these images as I peered from a window seat when the air was crystal clear, three happened at night and one during the day. They are  as vivid to me today as when I witnessed them.


We begin one afternoon in 1974. I was summoned in the afternoon to make a flight that night to Miami. Those were our salad days, Mary Ann wasn’t working, the kids were five and three; we had one car. Mary Ann packed a bag for me, drove to LaGuardia with the kids and kissed me goodbye. By the time the Eastern L-1011 lifted off it was night. The flight pattern was unusual, north across Long Island Sound, west over Westchester County then south down the Hudson River. Manhattan shined like a constellation as I sat in awe taking in this unimpeded and uninterrupted view of this city of towers and lights from a First Class window seat. I remember glancing back into the mostly empty cabin realizing I was alone to witness this incredible display. “Damn,” I thought, “Lucky me.”


The same powers that sent me to Miami decided to have a marine conference in San Francisco open to Assistant Vice Presidents and above. As a newly elected AVP, I just made the cut. We were still living in Middle Village and a snow storm on Friday night threatened to postpone my Saturday morning TWA flight. But the morning report on WCBS radio advised John F. Kennedy had one runway open so it was off to JFK for the   flight. A group of us had chosen this airplane, in this case another L-1011 and I recall a universal joy when we lifted off.


My moment of record came when the aircraft was flying over the Rocky Mountains in Western Colorado. Looking down, I was so disarmed by what I thought I was seeing from 30,000 feet, that I asked my seatmate, Dick Sullivan, to change seats with me. What shocked me was that I thought I could see the shadows of evergreen trees set in the snow. “Sullivan, look down at the trees and can you see their individual shadows in the snow?”


He looked down, looked at me and simply remarked, “Yup, You got that one right Delach.” Remarkable, truly remarkable.


My third experience happened on a late night flight out of Atlanta. I began my journey in Mobile, Alabama but delays conspired so that I didn’t check in for my connecting flight out of Hartsfield until after 10 PM. My airline of record that night was Republic, a short-lived successor to three disparate partners, Southern hubbed in Atlanta, North Central based in Chicago and Hughes-West out of LA. Back then, if you flew with a full-fare coach ticket and boarded a flight after 9 PM, you’d fly first class.


And so it went. I sat in a window seat up front on the left side of an empty 727 on a perfect night. From Atlanta north I watched the panorama of the megalopolis that is the East Coast present its brilliant light show from Richmond through, DC, Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia and Trenton, The show grew in intensity as we neared Gotham; all the while the flight attendants catered to me, their only charge with beer and peanuts.


My last observation happened near the end of a non-descript flight back to New York. My airliner was making a routine approach into LaGuardia over Brooklyn. Mundane to most passengers, this flight path over Brooklyn and Queens flies over the places where I grew up, went to high school and college; where I came of age. So I remained alert to the sights on this passage. On that particular crystal-clear night I looked down as we passed over the ice skating rink in Prospect Park. A girl / woman was twirling and as God is my witness, I saw her outstretched arms.


Each of these moments touched me and gave me opportunities to understand the reverence of the aviators and authors about such wonderment.