Budd Davisson, Air Progress, 1983

Phantoms of the Storm

Right now it's nearly midnight and an unbelieveable driving rain beats against the glass door of my cubbyhole office. The rain sounds like the far off rumble of Ichabod Crane's nightmares.

I'm sitting here at my drafting board, laying down the lines that will soon be the convoluted assembly that Benny Howard called axles in his little racer "Pete." The drafting lamp is pulled low over the board and is the only light in the office, the other one flickered out a week ago and I haven't gotten around to fixing it. With only the one light, my office is losing the fight with the night as it forces into the room. The pounding of the rain, the thickness of the dark, the halo of light in the middle of the vellum taped to the drafting table combine to give the night a presence that is almost tangible. I'm certain I will feel the dark brushing against my legs, if I swivel quickly in my chair.

As is my ritual, a radio sits on the table spilling out the maudlin best of Nashville. Late night FM country stations sound the same everywhere. On an East Coast country station, only the accent is different and the DJ spits his tobacco during records rather than when the mike is hot. But, tonight Nashville has a phantom voice that cuts through and drowns out even Hank Jr. for a quick moment. My cheap little portable radio and its even cheaper electronics is being forced to eaves drop on busy souls passing overhead.

"Roger, center. United 236 is out of five for three."

The voice is unmistakable. It's that universal airline pilot's monotone that tells you nothing of the struggle he's going through in that malestrom that sits on top the Sparta VOR and my house. That cloying, violent being which is the storm has snared me, the VOR and an endless stream of airline pilots in a black, three-dimensional Sargasso Sea.

I'm 270 degrees and two miles from Sparta (SAX), one of the two or three primary gateways for the sleek people tubes on their way to JFK, LGA or EWR. If you come to New York from the west, you come within sight of my place.

But, tonight, sight doesn't exist. I imagine the cockpits above me; the panel lights are turned as bright as possible to fight the momentary blindness that floods the cockpit with each flash of lightning. The windshield is the inside surface of a solid wall of water, compressed into a gelatinous mass that engulfs the crew's world.

"Center, you might pass along the word that there is moderate turbulence in the vicinity of Sparta. Roger, my heading is 070 degrees and descending to four."

Why don't they just come out and say that it's rough as hell up there? I can see the lightning leaping from cell to cell in horizontal patterns, going for miles before it is swallowed by what looks to be the granddaddy of all cellular weather. It has been gorging with turbulence spiked with lightning all night and any minute I expect to see it explode in a ragged pattern across the Kittatiny Mountains below. It shares the sky with those phantoms who sit at the controls of Boeing and Douglas machines and practice their monotone dialogue with a voice on the ground that doesn't have the slightest appreciation for what the pilot is going through.

Behind the front bulkhead of each machine, I know what's going on:

"The captain has turned on the no smoking sign. In preparation for our
approach into Newark International Airport, please extinguish all smoking materials and make sure your seats and tray tables are in their up-right, locked position."

I pictured the stews busying themselves, shuttling down the aisles, picking up a glass full of wadded napkins here, pushing a button to raise a seat there. Little white haired ladies are stuffing their belongings back into crochetted vacuum cleaner handbags and mothers are going through the get-ready-to-meet-grandma routine with their kids.

There is little concern and virtually no fear in the cabin. After all, this is 1983 and, if it wasn't safe, the pilot and the airlines wouldn't let us be up here! Oh, yeah? Try telling that to the line of cells that makes all approaches into the New York area look like fearsome steeple chases.

Each voice that short stops Nashville for a moment has several hundred souls following along behind it. They trust the voice. They've heard it over the cabin speaker and it's calm. The voice isn't nervous. Why should they be?

I notice the last line I drew on the axle, the one between the two mounting flanges, isn't as clean as it should be and I look down at my hands. The palms glisten. I know it's empathy; there's a part of me that's upstairs in those cockpits and my hands are connected to that part. They are doing what they always do in situations like that. The sweat glands in my hands don't like heavy weather. They don't even like hearing about it and my subconscious knows that tonight is the kind that kills airplanes. Big or little, it does not make any difference. Tonight is as bad as they come and The Voices know it too. Yet, they still sound calm.

Sweating palms make no noise.

"Roger, Center. American 304 out of four for three."