The Cloud Train

• Issue #2, Dispatch #5 •
It was my first flight in the co-pilot seat of an ultralight.

One day, when the planet can no longer sustain the multitudes of people living on it, perhaps we will end up living in the sky, I mused as we pulled into the parking lot of a nearby airfield. My friend Stephanie, her sister, and I were in Pampanga, a few hours’ drive away from Manila, Philippines. We had an interesting and delicious lunch of crickets at the culinary capital of the country, and now, well-fed, we were here to each be a passenger in an ultralight plane—a ride that will take me to the skies and away from the suffocation I was feeling in the city.

It was a beautiful day.
It was a beautiful day.

It was 2012. I had returned to my home country to stay for six months, which was the longest I had stayed in years. I have a lot of unhappy memories in my hometown, and it was a very traumatic time. I was immensely grateful when I met my friend who introduced me to aviation. This experience was supposed to be a small step for me getting hooked on planes, as well as a way to end my stay on a positive note before I moved to Seoul for an art residency.

Beyond great food, I almost forgot that aviation was an option, since the nearby Clark Field, a former US airbase, was in the same province. Even though I have been traveling for years, this was the first non-commercial flight I was going to take. As an artist, I sometimes look to clouds for inspiration, and now I was going to end up face to face with one.

Behold (if this word exists, which it does not) an aerobaticist.
Behold (if this word exists, which it probably does not, but should) an aerobaticist.

Before our individual flights, my friends and I were lucky to witness a beautiful sunflower-colored biplane whose pilot was doing nausea-inducing aerobatic stunts. The plane rose, spun, and barrel-rolled against a perfect blue sky.

After the aerobatic show with its unintentional audience, I marched over to the pilot who was kind enough to indulge my request to take us on a tour of his plane and the inside of the hangar. I will later learn that, serendipitously, he was the father of a friend of a friend of a friend.

Planes need mittens and socks, too.
Planes need mittens and socks, too.

Inside the hangar, there were several small two-seater planes, some Cessna and a couple of ultralights. Two of them were wrapped in what I imagine are airplane socks—fabric that was custom made to fit in each part of the plane.

A wing skeleton.
A wing skeleton.

These small planes are as beautiful within as without. I love the surgical precision of how these puppies are made. Each part is meticulously crafted and has its own paperwork so that it can be traced should anything go wrong.

Outside, my friends and I went in line for what we paid for: 20 minutes of flight with a co-pilot. When it was my turn, I put on my goggles and hopped in what looked like a go-cart with wings. It was more modest than the sunflower biplane, though perhaps it made me relieved to know it was not made to do the aerobatic stunts I saw earlier. A few seconds later, the plane soared through the air. Ultralight planes don’t enclose the passengers, and I could feel the gush of the winds and my hair flying in all directions and knotting itself. We encircled the perimeter of the field and then explored the nearby airspace.

Away we go! (Photo by Stephanie Tan)
Away we go! (Photo by Stephanie Tan)

How can one describe the undescribability of being hundreds of feet in the air? The clouds disappeared below like a carpet misting away. The surrounding farmlands looked like a chessboard in different shades of camel and lime. The smallness of the hangar was replaced by the vastness of the horizon. The clouds from a distance were long ones stuck together like a vaporous train. There were fields, mountains, and houses in each direction; I no longer knew which was north and south. The high I felt in victorious moments in my life—whether professional, such as giving the speech during my high school graduation class, receiving awards and grants, finishing an exhibition well; or personal, such as making a new friend, doing something fun with my mother, unlocking an achievement in a hobby, getting my black belt. These could not be replicated in an activity I paid for, but it mirrored the emotional signatures of these events. For this first time anyway.

The world below.
The world below.

Flying is, I suppose, an escape from the claustrophobia of living, especially when one lives in a congested city overflowing with people. When one cannot find peace of mind in the lateral direction, one must go up or down. What a difference a few hundred or thousand feet make. Being up in the sky, one’s problems and negative emotions decrease in intensity in the same way as the houses and fields are reduced in size as one goes up in the air. None of them could touch me. I only wished I had a better hair conditioner.

The fields look nothing more than camel colored hopscotch boards.
The fields look nothing more than camel colored hopscotch boards.

I don’t have a pilot license (yet), but the captain allowed me to take the controls for a few moments. Steering left, right, and then up (and frighteningly, down), I understood the various metaphors that literature and songs use that related to navigational activities such as flying a plane, steering a ship, driving a motorcycle on a road in the countryside, etc.—“I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul”, “Come fly with me”, “I believe I can fly”, etc. I also understood why people, whose tribe I now count myself a part of, would wish to do something as potentially deadly and hideously expensive for a hobby.

Before landing.
Before landing.

I was disappointed when time was up and we started to descend. The little Monopoly pieces below eventually loomed large, and, as the sun was behind us, I saw the shadow of our little plane on the grass getting bigger as well. The air felt a bit warmer, and then—bump!—back we were, coasting along the field for a few seconds before we went on full stop.

I have read how flight has helped people cope. My favorite Antoine de Saint-Exupéry book, apart from The Little Prince, is Wind, Sand, and Stars, an autobiographical account of his days flying in Africa and South America for a French airmail carrier. I often turn to quotes from this book, especially in those terrible moments of despair when I feel like I need to see a bigger perspective:

“Behind all seen things lies something vaster; everything is but a path, a portal or a window opening on something other than itself. ”
— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Wind, Sand, and Stars, 1939

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