The idea of the world, in a pilot’s mind, is one of a vast, Euclidean plane below, comprised of thousands of points named in memory of every place anyone has ever gone. We fly here, we fly there, sometimes we fly over that way for a bit, and often we come back here and then fly way up over there. We have the landscape memorized; we know it as well as we know our own backyard.
Louisville is right down there, Dallas is back that way, Minneapolis is up over there, and Paris is way up that way, past Halifax and Gander, just a ways past the Lizard. That’ll be Pueblo, then the Springs, and Denver is right up there. Cuba is on the right, then Provo and Grand Turk, Cap Haitian off to the right, Puerto Plata, Punta Cana, and by then you’ll see the lights of San Juan. Las Vegas, at night, looks almost the same as El Paso—bright lights appearing out in the middle of vast blackness—except, of course, that Las Vegas is green, red, and an occasional splash of purple. Richmond up ahead, Norfolk to the right—you can see the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel—and that’ll be Washington, Dover, Philadelphia to the left and Atlantic City to the right, and now there’s the Verrazano. Charlottesville, Lynchburg, Roanoke over to the right, and if you know enough to look in between, Bedford, home of the Bedford Boys. Look just to the left as you descend into Stansted, England, and you’ll see the Cardington Sheds, home of the R101 dirigible.
For a longtime pilot, the views are like familiar faces.
Right over here, if you look just to the left of the Mississippi, is Malden, Missouri, where I once loaded, by hand, one-by-one, several hundred auto mufflers into my Convair freighter. And now look just to the right of the Mississippi; that’s Dyersburg, Tennessee, where Dad and I aborted our takeoff one day when the oil access door popped open on our Cessna 182. Just up there, to the right of Cairo and around the bend in the Kentucky, is Paducah, the western-most point of our route structure in the Air Virginia days. You can see all three places at the same time. And Chicago, a pure, crystalline structure of perfect edges and vertices reaching upward by day, will begin to rise in the west, glowing on the horizon from over Michigan farmland at night.
Over America, once New England is behind, the gridiron of Manhattan is projected west across long, straight roads that lattice the Midwest and Great Plains, broken only by the occasional meandering river, until the folded crust of the earth that is the Rockies. Over Europe, not a straight road in sight, the city streets winding, arcing and bending around worn paths of the Iron Age. Over Brazil, nothing but the flash of lightning until an oasis of lights passes underneath.
The sky is anchored to the earth in each of these places by runways. The geometry is the same, no matter the geography. Black rubber smears, white stripes and white lights, convergence to a vanishing point, shimmering in the heat, a bump, a hill, a crack, a couple of weeds with sadly misplaced hope, and a magnetic heading. It will get you pointed in a known direction. After that, you’re on your own, but if and when you finally figure out where you are, and where it is, it will still be there, pointed in the same direction as you left it, an hour from now, a year from now, a decade from now… a lifetime from now.
Things do change—airports, airplanes, procedures—and people come and go. Even the earth shifts ever so slightly. But runways remain, even in Chicago. Runway 28R used to be 27R, before the earth moved. Still, cutting across the pad in my 737, there it is, diverging off to the west from runway 22L, in the same place in the windshield, unchanged, as it had been forty years before, when taxiing out of the old North Cargo ramp in a Convair 240. From a short run, a little crook, and a slightly longer run at Post Mills, to a mile of grass at Indiantown, to almost three miles of concrete at Kennedy, they are really kind of like totem poles, each of us carving a little nick or notch, leaving a bit of our story behind to gracefully age in anonymity. Perhaps the rubber left behind at wheel spin-up creates a kind of petroglyph, pictures that tell a story that we are part of, and like petroglyphs, separated by hundreds of miles yet sharing the same characters in a slightly different interpretation of the same story. Runways are the keepers of our history.
Even grass runways have stories to tell.
No two runways are exactly alike. They really do resemble totem poles in that way; each one the same as another, each one unique. Often, they, too, retain a bit of a spiritual presence. On an early morning in June, long ago, I had packed up my tent at Kellam airfield on Cape Charles, lifting off just after dawn and heading south, down the Cape and across the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, passing Norfolk and alighting at First Flight Airport next to the Wright Brothers Memorial. It was still before the opening hour when I lined up my camera with the meticulously placed a replica of the launching rail, taking a couple of obligatory shots and then getting up off the ground to feel a gust of breeze whoosh down the rail into my face. The rail was pointed straight into the wind. Of course it was.
On the other side of the world, we used to launch our 767 from runway 26 at Tel Aviv Ben Gurion airport at around midnight local time, flying nonstop to New York. For some reason there always seemed to be an inbound El Al flight somewhere out there to the west, and the controller would put us in position but delay the takeoff clearance until the El Al flight had crossed the beach and made the turn into downwind for landing on runway 30. There would be a few minutes to look out west into the darkness and contemplate just exactly where one was in the world, and that always left me more than a little awestruck.
The runway is 13,000 feet long, and the lights just converge to a vanishing point in the darkness. Straight out there, within a minute of liftoff, we would pass just a couple of miles north of Jaffa, an ancient port from which generations of Phoenician merchants and sailors embarked, westbound like us, the port where King David brought in the Cedars of Lebanon, where Andromeda was chained by Poseidon to the still visible rocks just off the harbor mouth until Hercules arrived to rescue her. Before the wheels went down again we would cross 5,000 miles and 5,000 years of western history, leaving our Phoenician fellow travelers behind and passing over the homes of Athenians and Spartans, Romans, Visigoths, Vikings and Saxons, finally arcing just north of the track of the Mayflower before passing directly over Plymouth Rock.
And then the tower controller would clear us for takeoff, and I’d pop the brakes and push the throttles up.
Somewhere down there, just south of Saffron Walden, England, is what used to be RAF Debden. The day Paul Tibbets died, I had spent the afternoon wandering the cracked and worn runways. In a subdued, quiet salute to Peter Townsend, No. 85 Squadron and Chain Home of 1940, the Essex Control radar antenna rotated steadfastly on its turret. There was no other sound; just a distant, irrepressible hum. These were the runways of Don Blakeslee and the 4th Fighter Group. The hard stands were still there, broken building brick scattered about, the gun mounts in the pillbox slits covered with overgrown brush. It was long over, and we had won; the last these runways heard was the whine of the Meteors. The pavement was still etched with that history.
If you fly long enough, you find yourself aging with runways; they become like an old, comfortable shoe, worn and a bit cracked but always just where you left them, easy to slip on and off. And they remember with you. In my father’s collection of color slides, there is a picture of a B-47 arcing into the sky from Columbus, Ohio runway 10R, the rocket-assisted smoke billowing in its wake, demonstrating its might during an airshow of the late 1950s. In those days, we lived right off the east end of that runway, below the final approach to the opposite direction, runway 28L, and I’m sure I was in the backyard, on my little red tractor, when my friend Rob Buck and his dad passed right overhead in their Cessna 182.
The airplane is gone, but the runway it took off from is still there.
The same runway upon which I had landed dozens of times in a Metroliner, the same runway upon which Gayle Rhines had sublimely rolled our MD-80 after one of her characteristically graceful, hand-flown visual approaches, the same runway that was centered in the windshield of Doug Smith’s old Cessna 150 when I arrived carrying Dad’s ashes back to the family cemetery in Indiana. The runway had never moved; to the left side is old Air Force Plant 85, buildings that once were the property of North American Aviation, home of the T-28 Trojan and A-5 Vigilante when Dad ran the fuel lab, and it was in front of one of those buildings that the B-47 picture was taken.
I always felt a little chuckle as we rolled the jet onto final approach for Miami’s runway 13. Sometimes we are almost as far out as I was in a Cherokee Arrow one day decades ago, when the tower controller at Opa Locka cleared me to land on his runway 13 while expressing concern that he couldn’t see me yet, at about the same time I started wondering what three-engine jet would be departing Opa Locka.
And a chuckle is always in my mind taxiing around Kennedy, because I can’t help thinking about Fiorello LaGuardia’s words in his letter inviting a roll call of airline history to the final meeting on the layout of the “new airport.” In his letter, he said that “I have heard some grousing about the present layout which I know is not justified. If you have any cockeyed ideas about tangent runways that have not yet been tried out, keep them for some other time… Everyone who gets two drinks under his belt is now designing runway layouts on restaurant tables.”
Two summers ago, I found runway 32 at Greenville, Maine, exactly where I had left it as a fire patrol pilot in the summer of 1977. The year before, I had turned base leg for runway 8 at Laconia, New Hampshire, rather closer to a prominent hill than I remembered ever flying, 40 years earlier, as a flight instructor. My friend and former student Lee Avery, now the FBO manager, told me that they had added a few hundred feet to the end of the runway, so I guess it had changed, a little. But its origins hadn’t changed a bit. The old runway was still there.
A few weeks after Captain Dick Vaux had passed away, Rich Stone and I were getting set up to depart Boston. “We’re gonna be too heavy for 22R,” Rich said. “Yeah, just tell ‘em we need 22L,” I had replied. No sooner had I spoken the words than I felt a lump in my throat. There really aren’t too many ways to say we need to use runway 22L, but the ones I had chosen were nearly verbatim the words that Dick had used on so many of our Europe-bound departures from Boston; I could still hear his voice.
And so we did; we pushed back off the gate, started up, slipped the flaps to one, and then the man in the seat to my right, whom I had taught to fly 40 years before, called the ground controller and told him we needed runway 22L. We taxied around the corner, coming out of the alley at the same place as John Brown and I always did a bit after midnight in our old Convair, and then Rich and I taxied up taxiway Bravo, around the bend and a sharp right at November, across runway 15R and on up to the 22s, the same taxiways along which I had taxied a Cessna 172 with our mutual friend Tom LeBel, on the very first night I ever landed at Boston, long, long ago. There had been a Lufthansa 707 behind us that night, and his lights filled the entire rear window.
Runways serve all pilots, whether flying a 727 or a Cessna.
Well on this side of the turn of the century, on the third-to-last landing of my airline career, runway 10L at Palm Beach—which, of course, used to be 9L—stretched into the darkness toward the Atlantic, pretty much right where it was 50 years earlier, in the last century, for the long-retired Eastern pilots shooting touch and goes in an L-1011 before simulators could really simulate. Flashing REILs over in the right side of the windshield marked the beginning of the diminutive, parallel runway 10R (well, 9R), the runway from which I made my very first takeoff, and my very first takeoff alone. Over to the left, runway 14 angled in; a couple of years before, it had burst into view out of a driving rain, as Rich Stone planted the wheels of our 737 on it with professional aplomb following our diversionary race with several thunderstorms up the coast of Florida, rather more gracefully than my early attempts to land a 727 on it decades before, when it was still runway 13, while Captain Roger Wanamaker gritted his teeth in the seat to my left.
The runway was exactly where it had been, decades before that, when my father lifted off its surface on his first flight alone.
Runways are sanctuaries, safe harbors, where we can roll to a stop back on Mother Earth, rest and reflect, let our minds go free of hardened concentration, chocks in, shut ‘em down, kill the radios, and unplug the headsets, listen to the gyros wind down, listen to the silence. They anchor the vast Euclidean plane of our world, actually everyone’s world, and if you stick around long enough, you may be pleasantly surprised to find that they anchor your entire life.