After our close encounter at Manly, Paul and I rode in silence.
It’s funny how a brush with disaster can make you sit back and reflect. We crossed from Louisiana into Texas over a discreet body of water labeled as the Toledo Bend Reservoir. Just like that – in a matter of seconds we effortlessly sailed across another state line.
As the PT-19 chugged along, I leisurely glanced down and watched the earth roll past like a massive, slow-moving conveyor belt.
The thought struck me then, as it always does when I fly, what a privilege it is to be able to look down on it all. This is a truly, remarkably, beautiful world we all live in.
How often do you get to sit back and appreciate it?
Our journey began in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and would end in Corpus Christi, Texas. Crossing over the Toledo Bend Reservoir was significant in two ways. First, we were well over halfway there. Second, the horrible headwind that had plagued our progress all day – and nearly brought us crashing down in Manly – had subsided. We were making much better progress, and the destination of Naval Air Station Corpus Christi was now within reach. Just one more stop along the Gulf of Mexico, and we would touch down at NASCC well before dusk.
I reflected on the past.
We had taken off that morning with the Mississippi River in sight. An unusually wet spring had caused it to swell over its banks. Much of the farmland in Southeast Missouri and Illinois was flooded. As Paul and I flew southwest into Arkansas, we witnessed amazing contour patterns in the well arranged, grid like farm fields.
We dipped down to 1,000 feet off the ground and skimmed rural Arkansas communities. We flew over the neatly arranged lagoons of fish farms just as the morning sun was reflected across the water. The lagoons gave way to logging country, with rows of trees in various stages of growth swiped across the rough terrain – like the course texture of a paintbrush. Here and there, swollen rivers cut lazy, serpentine patterns through it all.
As Paul and I transversed central Arkansas, we saw chicken farms situated discreetly amongst the trees in neatly shaved properties that stood out like patchwork quilting. Off on the horizon, a massive brushfire sent a haze of smoke across the sky. The wind caused it to disperse like a paint smear, and the smoke reached up to, but never actually blended with, the low-hanging rain clouds.
As the PT-19 chugged along, creating its own brand of rhythmic predictability, I swiveled my attention all the way from the left, to the right, soaking up more than 180 degrees of unobstructed view. The rugged, rough logging territory of southern Arkansas gave way to soft, blue-green, low-lying marshland. It was a clear indication that we were approaching the Gulf of Mexico. Above the constant aroma of hot engine oil and exhaust fumes, the dank bouquet that defines a marine ecosystem overtook the open-air cockpit – no question, we were nearing the Gulf.
We passed just to the east of the town of Jasper, Texas. A beautiful strip of sparkling asphalt marked Jasper County – Bell Field Airport. The single runway ran due north and south, almost directly inline with the wind. I lazily pondered how much nicer it would have been to land there, instead of nearly crashing at Manly, but reminded myself that I wasn’t confident we had enough fuel to make it to Jasper. It was much better to fly over the Reservoir, than to sink to the bottom of it, I mused.
One of the more interesting observations of our trip was to note how the ground elevation dropped steadily throughout the day. Cape Girardeau, Missouri is situated on land that is 342 feet above sea level. Jasper, just 213 feet above sea level. As we neared the Gulf of Mexico, ground elevation sunk to 70, and then 30 feet. There were no hills or discerning features – just an endless, low-lying, featureless expanse of marshland that was both stunning and spectacular in its own right.
Somewhere on the horizon, hiding in the midafternoon haze off the nose of the PT-19 was Galveston, Texas. Galveston lies only six feet above sea level. At Galveston, we would make a dramatic turn to the west and fly along the coast to Corpus Christi – the home stretch of the day’s journey. We were only about 45 minutes from Galveston, and each passing mile brought us closer.
On this final stretch nearing the coast, I witnessed one of the most spectacular views I have ever seen from an airplane. All day long, the sky had been obscured by a smeary overcast. As we neared the coast, the cloud layer sunk lower, just as the ground elevation tapered off to meet the sea. I descended so as not to fly amongst the clouds. The ceiling was low – only about 1,500 feet, so Paul and I cruised along at 800 feet off the ground. We were sandwiched between the endless expanses of low-lying marshland, and low-hanging rainclouds. We were threading a needle; bridging a void. We were close enough to the ground to savor the details, yet elevated enough to appreciate the expanse. Above us, the cloud layer bubbled and broiled in a variety of intensity. At times I felt as though I could reach up and touch the clouds.
Here and there, lazy and unthreatening rain showers sprung up. At random, the darker clouds would become overburdened and let loose, sending a cascade of water down to the earth. From our vantage point, the rain showers appeared as long, shimmering curtains that bridged the vacuum between the earth and the sky. The view was spectacular, and appeared like so many bridal veils across the horizon.
There were a series of thunderstorms far to the west, hitting Houston. The path Paul and I were on offered no such danger, and I idly swung the PT-19 to the left, and to the right in order to avoid any serious rainfall. As I skirted the edges, tiny droplets of water formed on the windshield, merged with other droplets, and then ran up the plexiglass, leaving quivering, short-lived water trails. The air temperature dropped pleasantly, and I savored the cooling sensation of the mist.
Such a privilege indeed!
Throughout the day, I had followed our route on my handheld GPS. Even as we were airborne, I was able to access weather and airport information. As I weaved amongst the water veils, my radar screen mirrored each downpour. It was utterly fascinating, to observe a developing rain shower on the horizon, and then veer slightly to avoid the downpour, and then follow precisely those movements on real-time radar.
I marveled at this marriage of sensations and technology as Galveston sparkled into view – our home stretch! I was experiencing the most primal sensations of all, which included the wind and rain on my face as I soared nearly a thousand feet off the ground, observing weather form and then dissipate right in front of my eyes, all of which was replicated and recorded real-time on a GPS screen that promised with confidence a safe and unobstructed journey across more than 700 miles of a variety of terrain. We would have to stop once more, and I used that GPS to pick out an obscure little airstrip, an outlying remnant of World War II, to grab some quick fuel before the final push into NASCC.
What a privilege it is, to rise above it all.