Eyes turned skyward

A US Airways jet approaches DCA in FAA-choreographed precision. Taken from the Arlington Memorial Bridge, April 2013

A US Airways jet approaches DCA in FAA-choreographed precision.
Taken from the Arlington Memorial Bridge, April 2013

“When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”
Leonardo da Vinci

I’ve written here before about having grown up in an airline family, surrounded by relatives and friends who were pilots, and hearing endless talk of flight from my earliest memory.  In those days, few of my friends had flown (except for the many who, like me, grew up with airline employees in their families, of which there were plenty in Atlanta).  But I can remember flying before the days of jet engines, when even the major airlines flew propeller planes.  In just my lifetime, aviation has changed tremendously, and not all of the changes have been for the better.

I don’t know how Leonardo da Vinci nailed it so well without having tasted flight himself, but he’s right.  My experiences growing up with airplanes, and later my years working for US Airways, have meant that I pretty much walk with my eyes turned skyward, figuratively if not literally.

If you had told me when I was a child that there would come a day when flying was almost as common as riding a bus, and people would talk of it with contempt and even disgust,  I would never have believed you.  When airline deregulation passed, my father predicted just such a scenario, but even then I could not imagine it.  And still, when I’m flying on a sunny day and happen to be near enough to a window to glimpse the brightly-lit clouds below, all the magic comes back.  I just don’t understand how we came to take such a phenomenal experience for granted.

On a recent trip into DC, I decided to get off at the Arlington Cemetery metro stop and walk into the city across the Arlington Memorial Bridge.  There were several sights I planned to take in, but my timing was such that when I crossed the bridge it was a very busy time for air traffic, and I ended up spending much of my time there with eyes literally turned skyward.  I watched in fascination, snapping away with my camera as plane after plane shot staggered approaches into Reagan National Airport, just seconds apart.  The risk and precision of it amazed me, although it was nothing I had not heard of hundreds of times before.

A few weeks later my brother, a retired Northwest Airlines pilot, accompanied us into DC for Matt’s arm surgery.  As we came into the city, he remarked that he couldn’t cross those bridges over the Potomac without feeling an anxiety-related adrenaline rush conditioned by years of shooting harrowing approaches to the short runways of DCA.  Again I thought of how much we take for granted about flying, and how ungrateful we usually are for the relative safety and convenience of modern air travel.

I stay so busy that I don’t have much time to miss my years at USAir and the wonderful flying privileges I grew up with and later enjoyed as an airline employee.  But just as Leonardo said, there I have been, and there some part of me  will always long to return.

Do you like to fly?  Or has the negative press related to delays and fare increases, scary (though relatively rare) fatalities, and hassles of security searches ruined it for you?  Notwithstanding all of the aforementioned drawbacks, can you at least enjoy the occasional glimpse out the window that shows you a different view of our world, one Leonardo would have given so much to experience even one time?


  1. I could not see the photo of the US Air A-320 without thinking of “the hero of the Hudson”. Say what you will about the press — what they said about Captain Sully was right!

    • I will always remember that day in early 2009, when the year had started on quite a gloomy note, for me personally and the country at large (following the economic disasters of 2008). The “Miracle on the Hudson” filled me with joy and hope. More than one person wrote me to mention how much like Daddy they thought Captain Sully looked. I later read Sully’s book and listened (more than once) to the “black box” cockpit recordings that were published online. These details, along with talking to Daddy about the technical aeronautical challenges the USAir pilots faced in landing, only underscored my conviction that this magnificent triumph was a combination of divine grace and YEARS of experience that would have been unmatched in a younger captain. BTW, those who did not read Sully’s book may be unaware that he landed in the Hudson primarily because he knew he would not be able to make it back to LGA, and wanted to avoid loss of life on the ground in the crowded neighborhoods that surround the airport. Also because he knew that the life-saving marine patrols would be able to reach any survivors more quickly on the Hudson than on land. The tower instructed him twice to return to LGA – he answered with a terse “UNABLE” and prepared to land in the Hudson, a complex and calculated decision that took place in his flight-brain within a couple of seconds. Truly heroic!

      • singleseatfighterpilot

        You “got it right” too.

        • Thanks for the affirmation, spoken by one who ought to know!

          • Sully added experience flying engineless gliders to his fighter pilot skills. He was perhaps uniquely prepared “for just such a time as this” (I am alluding to words from the book of Esther.)

            • Yes, so much so that it’s hard to see his presence on that flight as coincidental. Especially since that heroic event has given him the chance to go on serving in so many ways even after retirement. I have listened to some of his congressional testimony and other talks he has made, and he has very helpful things to say. We need more such citizens.

  2. merry

    Julia, good morning. I enjoy flying and always have. I always want by a window to be able to view the amazing Earth below. I didn’t grow up in an air line family but I still love flying…

    • I’m so glad! I always like to see people looking out the windows of airplanes. It really does give us some perspective, doesn’t it, to look down on the ground from above! Some things look tinier than I imagined them, others larger.

  3. Raynard

    My first time flying when I joined the army. I told the stewardess that I was going to be sick. She believed me after she was wearing it.36 more times I would fly commercial and military the next to last to Iraq then to Arizona. I remember when people dressed up and smoked on planes I tell the younger generation.thanks for the memories . I hope now they give you a full cup of soda. Lol

    • Raynard, when we used to fly “non rev” (on free passes) we HAD to dress up, I guess since we theoretically represented the airline. I always loved getting dressed up to fly, and you’re right, almost everyone did in those days…and you would get off the plane smelling like tobacco smoke! I worked for what used to be Piedmont Airlines (later bought by USAir) and they were all about customer service, which is why they succeeded wildly and became an acquisition target. One of the little things Piedmont did was to pour the “mini-sip” into the cup full of ice, and then just give the passengers the full can of soda to refill as they drank. I’ve not seen any airline do that since, but you wouldn’t believe all the compliments we got for that one seemingly little thing. When USAir bought us they told us to quit spending so much time with the passengers and just rush them through (at the ticket counter and gate). That seemed like a very short-sighted thing to do, and the financial troubles of USAir after they bought the “cash cow” of Piedmont and then proceeded to kill the goose that laid the golden egg (if I may mix my metaphors) seemed to validate my idea that USAir should have left Piedmont’s friendly southern service just as it was. The genteel Carolina folks who made that airline a success were NOT amused with the abrupt change in policies and procedures.

  4. I also grew up in a family of pilots. Even my dog had more flying miles than most people! A plane accident when I was 17 left me terrified to fly for many years. The headache of TSA and why we have them gives me a knot in my stomach, but I’m doing much better recently.

    • It’s amazing, isn’t it, how a single bad experience can leave such an indelible impression? In 1987, Jeff, our babies and I were on a HORRIBLE flight with bad thunderstorms all the way from Tampa to Charlotte to Dayton — the kind of flight where the passengers were screaming and the flight attendants had to stay strapped in pretty much the whole flight. When we stopped in Charlotte I BEGGED Jeff to rent a car and drive to Ohio from there. He thought I was crazy. After a lifetime of never being afraid to fly (even in an old two-seater with my Daddy doing aerobatic stunts) I was terrified to ever get on a plane again. The following year, when my Daddy retired from Eastern Airlines, somebody made a video of the landing of his last flight, taken from the cockpit. Something about watching that from the front windshield and hearing the interaction between the tower and pilots put my mind at ease somewhat, but from that time on, I do get a bit jumpy on takeoffs and landings. Still grateful to fly though, and way more terrified of highway traffic.

      • Once we learn how vulnerable we really are, it’s hard to be so trusting again.
        Unless someone has been through something like that, they might think us silly. We know better.

        • Yes, after our horrible experience, I began to sense — really feel, for the first time — how fast we are hurdling through the sky in these machines. It’s easy to forget (thank goodness) but once you’ve been rudely awakened, you never quite go back to that blissful ignorance. The car accident that almost took the lives of my mother and siblings when I was 8 years old left me with similar fears about the dangers of car travel. I guess I’m sort of an all-purpose neurotic! 🙂

  5. Nancy

    Oh, what memories this evokes, Julia! First time I flew was so magical. It was my freshman year at Lipscomb and I was going home for Christmas. I was not quite 18. It was night and the twinkling of the lights down below on earth is something I’ve never forgotten. I always thought your dad was so special for many reasons but especially because of his amazing ability to fly such an incredible, complicated machine. They still amaze me! So, do their pilots!!

    • Nancy, I have happy memories (and somewhere, photos) of you flying with us in Daddy’s little Aeronca at the South Fulton skyport. I loved those days on the little airstrip. I also seem to remember that when Eric first started flying for Southern (which later became Republic Airlines and then Northwest) you said “that’s my airline!” I think you used to fly Southern home, is that right? What town was the airport in? Bristol, I would guess. I also have so many happy memories of my college days in Nashville while I was flying everywhere on passes, and the Nashville airport was so small. You used to always take me to the airport and pick me up there, and you would pull up and park at that bank on one end of the terminal building (with all the signs that said PATRON PARKING ONLY – TOWING ENFORCED) and you never, ever got towed. It used to crack me up how you would just pull up and park there like you owned the place. Obviously, many of my flying memories are associated with you, in one way or another!

      • Nancy

        Yes, Southern served Bristol. I fretted so over leaving you but you seemed to always manage to get on a flight. Captain’s daughter, I suppose!

        • Yes, it was easier to non-rev in those days. The flights weren’t nearly as crowded and I seldom got stranded. By the time I quit working for USAir in 1990, things had changed considerably.

  6. Sheila

    Julia, having grown up in the Winson Salem area, home to Piedmont Airlines, many Sunday afternoons were spent, driving over to Smith Reynolds Airport to watch the planes land and depart. Such simpler times for sure! Just last Sunday Bill stepped outside having heard an unusual plane engine approaching. He identified it (as he often does) as he looked skyward. He worked on aircraft in the Navy aboard several carriers. I enjoyed your blog and the comments so much today. You remain in my prayers.

    • Thanks so much for the prayers, Sheila. I remember how relatives visiting from out of town used to enjoy going to the Atlanta airport just to see all the airplanes. Way back a long time ago, there weren’t that many major airports, but Atlanta was always a busy one. The old joke used to be that when you died, whether you went to heaven or hell, you would have to change planes in Atlanta! Did you know, in the entire time I worked for Piedmont, I don’t remember ever going to Winston Salem, which was their corporate headquarters? I’m sure I must have, at one time or another, but have forgotten it now. Times were simpler then, for sure. Remember how pretty much anyone could go to the gates to meet people? That wasn’t so long ago. Hope you are having a nice week.

  7. I long to love it, the experience of flying, but I don’t think it’s in the cards for me. Basically, it’s the only way to get there fast, so I ‘subject’ myself to the fear and hope for the best. So far so good, LOL. But I NEVER look out the window if I can help it and I don’t get up either.

    The travel days of a holiday are misery. Long line ups, hot and crowded airports take away any cache there used to be. I look at old photo’s from the days when public air travel was in it’s infancy and marvel. People dressed nicely and there was lots of room at your seat. They all look like they’re have a great time. Now they just herd a lot of cranky, often delayed travellers into an over crowded plane and starve you for hours. Jim just got back from NY. Flight delayed over 1 hour (no pilot), 4 hour flight had nothing served ($$ you had to buy it) and unfortunately, a very unhappy little one crying. He was exhausting when we arrived home.

    On my last flight, I was near the last to board and they warned us that travellers with rolling carry-ons would now have to check them as ALL the overhead was now full. While, it didn’t affect me, I only had a reusable shopping bag, I found the groans amusing. I do wonder why they let so many board with their giant luggage that they then cram overhead because they don’t want to pay for checking a bag. It’s so inconsiderate. I’d like them to just charge more for your ticket and skip the checked luggage fee. Then all those inconsiderate numbskulls would pay the same amount as the considerate people do. It’s frustrating.

    I’m sure when your dad started flying there was far more romance to it. It used to be a luxury but what can you expect at such cheap fares? I’d pay more to get back some of the cache. It’s like a bus with wings. Sorry this is so long, LOL….ranting is my forte when it comes to flying.

    • Actually, many years ago when deregulation passed, my father said the exact same thing…”soon it will be no different from riding a bus.” Which means, cheaper fares, less service, no glamor, no fun. BUT – still way faster and safer than the bus, which I guess counts for a lot. I agree that the bag check fee seems to be creating way more trouble than it’s worth money-wise, since they get fined if they end up being delayed while passengers wrestle with bags. Also, they don’t seem to enforce the carry-on size limitations. I’ve seen 24″ bags and even larger duffel bags (as a gate agent I learned to size them by sight). As you point out, this makes it totally a hassle on those passengers who play by the rules…BUT then they can try to sell you early boarding priority at $10 a head, so you don’t have to worry about the overhead bin…hmmm, maybe it’s all part of the plan. 😦

      • Hey, no ones ever mentioned ‘Early Boarding Priority’….I will watch for that. Might work out if they leave on time 😀 Thanks for that tip.

        • Don’t worry, you can hardly check in online without their trying to sell you that, along with other stuff… 🙂

  8. Carlyle

    ” — and done a hundred things you’ve never dreamed of” John Gillespie Magee in “HIGH FLIGHT”

    • I practically have that poem memorized after years of seeing it hanging in my parents’ bedroom. On a lighter note, I also remember how you would sometimes tell us, when leaving for a flight, “I’ll see you later, I have to go slip the surly bonds.” 🙂 Recently I took this photo of a granite marker inscribed with Magee’s poem. It stands at the entrance to the Monument to a Century of Flight in Kitty Hawk, near Kill Devil Hills where the Wright Brothers first took flight. I still wish/hope you and Mama could come see us so we could take you there. It’s well worth visiting and only about 3 hours’ drive from our York home. We enjoyed it even more on the second visit.

  9. My brother-in-law was a Navy pilot who flew extremely dangerous missions and then a United pilot. He retired but still misses flying. As for myself, I loved flying until 9/11 when my sister-in-law, working at the Pentagon, nearly died with her employees when the plane hit that day. She had decided to move the meeting she conducted but they ran down the corridor with smoke and debris rushing after them…Yet she has continued to travel all over the world even since being retired. Yes, the sky and its beautiful changes, the earth below, the amazement that I am high in the sky–what a wonder! Good post! I am sure you have some great stories about your work!

    • Thanks for your comment, Cynthia – I have never met anyone who had a loved one so close to the tragedies of 9/11. It changed the world for almost every American I know, even if the change was mostly in our outlook. I cannot imagine what your sister-in-law must have experienced. I have never met a retired pilot who did not miss flying. My Daddy might claim he does not, but if he did say that, I would not believe him :-). I appreciate your visiting my blog!

  10. I don’t mind flying. I spent 15 months flying to and from Edinburgh virtually every week back in 2005/6. And I love looking out of the window at the clouds, particularly as the sun is setting or rising. Or flying low over the landscape, or coming into Heathrow at night and flying down the Thames over London. But I have two outstanding memories: a huge lightening storm in the distance over East Africa, and seeing Halley’s Comet over Russia.
    Sadly my husband has a phobia and won’t fly.

    • Wow, those really are some outstanding experiences. I can’t think of anyone I know who has actually seen Halley’s Comet, let alone seeing it from the air. When you talk of flying over the Thames in London, it makes me think of the “Peter Pan” ride at Disney. I never tire of the beginning where the little pirate ship we’re riding in “flies over London” and you see it all lit up and sparkly below. I’ve never flown into any London airport after dark, but I hope I will have the chance to do that some day. I’m guessing that LGW or STN do not offer the views that can be seen flying into LHR! I hope to see Scotland one day also. I would imagine it’s beautiful looking down from the sky there.

  11. Please tell us some of the things Matt has said about traveling by air.

    • I can’t think of anything he has said about it, off the top of my head. He has been flying since way before he could remember (I worked for Piedmont/USAir while I was pregnant with him and for 5 years afterward) so I think he just takes it for granted. I always give him the window seat, though. 🙂


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