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Understanding the Sky

How one writer saw the world from a contraption that’s part bird, part motorcycle, and part miracle.

Who is this man?

He wants to fly.

Where is this man?

He is in California.

Where is he going?

He is driving to Petaluma to fly.

How will he fly?

On a two-seat open-air flying machine called an ultralight.

Has he told his wife he will do this?

He will tell her after he has done this.

Where is he now?

He has arrived in Petaluma and is looking for the airport. Here it is. Off East Washington Street. On Sky Ranch Drive.

The airport seems to want to cater to executives and such.

Yes, but it looks more like a series of self-storage units built atop an old farm.

Now what is this man doing?

He is meeting Michael, a French Canadian.

Shouldn’t that be French-Canadien?

Maybe it should.

Why is Michael the French-Canadien in this story?

He is the instructor. The pilot.

Describe this pilot’s appearance as the man drives up and gets out of his car. I assume that Michael greets him then?

Yes. Michael is in his 50s, of medium height, and he greets the man. Michael has a wide chest and is in good health. He has long blond hair and sunburned skin.

Does he look like a skier?

He does.

Does he look like a surfer?

More like a skier, but sure.

Is he wearing a yellow suede pullover, tied at the chest with suede laces, and thus looking much like one of the explorers who accompanied or emulated Lewis and Clark?

Yes. This is how Michael looks. Like a 19th-century fur trapper crossed with a 21st-century ski instructor.

What is his accent?

It is that of a French-Canadien. Wild and jagged and with a bit of the sing-song to it.

What does the man think of when he meets a French-Canadien?

He thinks of backpacking through Europe as a young man, and meeting a young woman from Québec who had come into the knowledge that she was doubly oppressed, by the Americans below her and the English-speaking Canadians all around her.

Where was this?

This was in Paris.

What did the man suggest to her?

That she stay in Paris. That she might feel more able to breathe in Paris. Among millions speaking her language.

What did she say?

She said some angry things.

And the man felt for her.

He felt for her.

Where is she now?

The man doesn’t know.

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Where is this man now?

He is in Petaluma. He is talking to Michael. Michael is asking him what clothes he is wearing or has brought. The sky will be very cold, Michael is saying, so he had instructed the man to dress as if he were going skiing. The man, being a bad skier, a skier who learned how to ski wearing jeans and skiing down meager Wisconsin hills, is wearing jeans and has brought a borrowed snowboarding jacket.

What does Michael say?

He says You will freeze. So he lends the man a jacket, heavy as a dentist’s lead bib, and snow pants and gloves and everything else.

How cold is it this day in Petaluma, California? When is this again?

This is February.

So it’s cold.

You can’t assume this. There are virtually no seasons in Petaluma, California. This day is clear and blue, and the air on the ground is about 60.

Wait. Who is that other man? The one coming now.

He is another pilot at the airport. He has a dog, some kind of poodle, but the sort of poodle a pilot would have. A handsome dog.

What is he saying?

He is telling Michael that it’s too cold to fly this open-cockpit plane this day.

But you said it is 60 degrees.

But 2,000 feet up it will feel like 30. And there will be wind.

Will the wind be cold?

Very cold.

And you say that this machine has no protection against these elements.

None at all. A small windshield for the pilot, but the passenger sits behind the pilot, and a bit above him, so he receives little to none of the windshield’s protections.

What does this plane look like?

It looks like a hang glider carrying a three-wheeled motorcycle.

One assumes it is red.

It is bright red, polished to a sheen. Everything in Michael’s hangar is red and white and spotless.

One thinks of fire engines.

Yes. There are two of these flying machines, each of them built by French people and very clean. Very clean and sturdy and instilling of trust. In this hangar there is also a performance motorcycle.

Also red?

Also red. And a motorized skateboard. And weight-lifting equipment, and gravity boots.

What are gravity boots?

You attach them to your legs, and you hang upside down from a bar, and you do sit-ups and such while suspended upside down.

You say this French-Canadien is in his 50s?

He is.

He is one of those people.

He is. He likes speed, and adventure, and machines. He is enthused about being alive. All over his hangar are posters and signs that offer encouragement. Signs that say awesome, wow, and you can do it.

What is the name of his company?

It is called Spirits Up.

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You mentioned another man before, a man with a dog, who is walking by.

He looks like Chuck Yeager, steely and lean, about 60. He walks by and says it’s too cold to go up that day, and it seems that Michael has been wondering about this, too. Michael asks his guest how long he has driven to get there, and the man says one hour. It’s as if Michael is gauging how disappointed the man will be if he cannot fly this day.

How disappointed would the man be?

Very disappointed.

Why?

Because he wants to fly this day.

Why?

Because he has wanted to fly on a machine like this for 20 years.

Why?

Because when he first saw these machines, in some photograph somewhere as a young man, he thought that here was the realization of man’s dream to fly as birds fly. The ultralight seemed to offer the liberation humans had always sought—to be able to choose when and where we flew, and to fly alone, and to be able to swoop low and bank tightly around a copse of trees, or to hug the coast, looking below for dolphins or whales. To be untethered, to be able to see all obstacles below as abstractions, as shapes flown over without the possibility of them slowing the flyer down.

Does Michael ask the man about his motivations?

He does. He asks why flying this day is important to him, and the man gives a shorter version of the answer above. Then Michael asks how old the man is, and the man tells him he is 43.

Oh, that explains it, Michael says.

Explains what? the man asks.

Most of the people who come here are a certain age. Forty, 50, 60, 70. Men and women of this certain age, Michael says. He is putting on his heavy yellow suede gloves and is satisfied that the man is in the category of his usual customers. Men who think this machine is the closest thing to the flight of the hawks that dominate the sky of this part of the world—circling high, slow, in no particular rush.

But there are hang gliders. Are those not closer to the way of birds?

But they depend on wind, a capricious thing. You have no agency. And you are always falling. You rise only if you catch an updraft. You have little control over the duration of flight. Birds do better on all these fronts.

There are helicopters.

Yes, but they are loud and ungainly and enclosed. Same with small planes. Only an ultralight combines all the things that humans have said they want from flight: a feeling of real flight, alive to the wind and sun; control over one’s course, the ability to go up and down and left and right at will; the ability to do all this alone, or with one other. This machine looks so much like all the drawings of lunatics and dreamers over the centuries, everyone who wanted to fly, that it would seem to have overtaken the world’s imagination—that by now we would all be flying this way to visit friends, go to work, to explore near and far.

But it is not this way.

How strange is that? We have wanted jet packs, and we have wanted easy and inexpensive personal aircraft, and here it is, and virtually no one knows about it. Or if they do, they have not been drawn to it. The dream of millennia has been realized, and
we ignore it.

But Michael’s clients do not ignore it. The nearness of death creates urgency.

It does.

So they are ready to fly now?

They are ready.

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The man has his lead-heavy bib, and snow pants, and suede gloves, and what else?

There is also a helmet with a visor for wind protection and a built-in microphone for in-flight communication. And sheepskin kneepads.

Sheepskin kneepads?

Because the passenger’s knees receive the brunt of the arctic wind.

And so they taxi to the runway.

They do.

The speed is minimal.

It is like driving a golf cart.

And then what?

They wait at a bend in the runway.

Waiting for what?

Waiting for something. It’s unclear. Maybe for clearance from the air traffic control tower.

Is there an air traffic control tower at this airstrip?

Not that the man can see.

But soon they are taxiing down the runway.

They are.

It is very fast?

It is not. As far as you can tell, you reach about 20 or 30 miles an hour, and then, as you are settling in for a much longer takeoff, suddenly you are in the air. You are flying.

Will you describe the takeoff?

It is almost vertical.

How can it be almost vertical?

There is the airstrip. It is about 1,200 yards long. Michael positions the machine and begins taxiing. After about 100 yards, just as the plane is picking up speed, you are aloft.

When?

After a few hundred yards!

Just like that?

The liftoff is almost vertical. This is what we’ve been trying to communicate.

And then they are in the air. The man is in the air.

As if plucked upward by a passing cloud. As if pulled suddenly heavenward, like a yo-yo on a string.

The man is breathless.

Yes.

The man is scared.

No.

The man is surprised at the sudden elevation.

Very. It makes other planes feel conservative, lumbering.

This machine, though, is a bit like a kite. That would explain the sudden taking of wind.

Yes. The wing is made of Dacron and Mylar, and takes the wind like a kite would. There is a feeling of divine intervention, of being lifted. But the machinery of the plane is very real, and heavy, and there is a propeller spinning furiously behind you. There is a peculiar combination of the steady progress of the machine and the delicate harnessing of the wind.

Like a sailboat.

Much like a sailboat.

But in the sky.

Yes.

Is it loud?

It’s hard to tell. The man and the pilot are wearing helmets, and they hear nothing but the music Michael is piping through.

What music is this?

The first song is by John Denver.

The men are flying and listening to John Denver?

Yes. It seems that Michael wants to provide an immersive experience, and has chosen to fill the man’s helmet with music of his choosing.

And his choice is John Denver.

It seems so.

But did not John Denver die in a plane crash?

Yes, he did. But this song Michael has chosen seems to speak of the sweep of the land below you, green farms, and collapsed barns, and crisp shapes of cows, black and white, and now horses.

And?

And now you fly over a school, and can see dozens of kids in the courtyard, eating their lunch, a flock of hungry birds circling above, hoping for crumbs from careless children.

And?

A goalpost looking like a twisted paper clip. Sheep like mouse droppings. Neighborhoods like playing cards just dealt, neatly arranged in a semicircle.

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You had said it was cold in the sky.

It feels like it’s 10 degrees.

But you are warm.

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All the places of the man’s body that Michael covered are warm. Michael has done a fine job. Michael doesn’t want the man to be cold.

And the sheepskin kneepads?

They are miraculous. But there is one part of the man’s body, his chin, that is exposed to the wind, and his chin feels flayed. It feels like it’s being pressed onto cold steel with great force.

But it is not so uncomfortable. It is bearable.

It is bearable.

Because of the beauty.

The beauty is extreme. There are rolling hills, and there is a copse of trees guarding a group of small homes, and there is a junkyard, all of the broken cars arranged in neat rows. There is a pair of farmers talking over an old gray wooden fence. They are swooping over them.

How high up are they as they swoop over the farmers?

They are perhaps 200 feet.

Do the farmers look up, startled?

No.

Do they hear the flying machine?

They don’t seem to hear it. They fly low over them, no more than a hundred feet above, and they don’t look up.

The machine is quiet.

The machine seems to be quiet, at least insofar as what those on the land can hear.

The animals, do they move or look up?

No one and nothing looks up. The men on the machine seem to be invisible. They are flying where they want to fly, as high as 3,000 feet and as low as 200, and no one seems to see them or hear them. They are ghosts, and they have fuel, and they have free will.

So where are they going?

They are going west, to the coast.

How far is the coast from Petaluma and its farms and homes and buildings?

It is 20 miles as the crow flies.

The men are flying as the crow flies.

They are flying as the crow flies, so they see the Pacific in no time.

Does it spread so wide the man can see, at the horizon’s ends, the bend of the earth?

It does, and he does.

What is its color?

It is a bleached blue. The sun is strong.

What about the waves?

They come at the shore like waifs in white linen.

Do they see surfers?

They are not close enough yet. Wait. Now they are. And there they are. Two surfers, sitting on the surface, waiting like sentries.

Are the men flying over the ocean now?

No, the man asks Michael about that, but Michael says it’s impossible to land on water in this machine, and if the engine stops working, he needs somewhere to land.

Is this the first time Michael has mentioned the engine failing?

Come to think of it, it is.

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And now?

They turn away from the coast, a high, slow, banking turn, a planetary turn, magisterial, and they face inland again. And now there is a beeping sound, followed by a woman’s recorded voice informing the pilot and his guest that there is an aircraft somewhere nearby, that the pilot needs to beware of this craft in his airspace.

What exactly does the warning say?

“Traffic nearby.”

That’s it?

That’s it.

But what does the radar say?

There is no radar.

What do the instruments say?

There are no instruments on this machine that track other aircraft.

So what can you do to avoid this aircraft?

You can look around and see if you see other aircraft.

You just look with your eyes?

Yes. The pilot begins to look left and right. And he encourages the man to look around, too.

And he sees anything?

They see nothing. But it seems possible that some rogue aircraft could come screaming into their airspace at any second.

Like a missile.

A missile is the corollary that comes to mind. And they are flying at a relatively slow speed, far slower than a jet or real airplane would fly. It feels a bit like being in a hot air balloon.

Has the man been in a hot air balloon?

No. But now the warning is coming again, the beep, the eerily calm recorded voice.”Traffic nearby.” They are looking around again.

They see nothing?

They see nothing. They see the foothills ahead, they see the white and pink and gray of Petaluma’s downtown, they see the rays of sun, they see the lime-green trees and parks below, the Sierra far to the east, they see the bay beyond, some tankers holding steady, they see the blue dome of the sky streaked by white clouds, but they see no one else up here at all.

Strange.

The warning comes a third time. “Traffic nearby.” Michael is perplexed. He has no answers for why this warning comes repeatedly without any other aircraft visible.

It is nerve-wracking?

You know, it’s actually exhilarating. The danger does not seem grave, even if another aircraft is nearby in the sky. There is so much of it, the sky, that they can avoid the pilot and his guest.

It is the same with water.

How do you mean?

There is so much ocean, so much river, so much bay, so much sea, and there is virtually
no one there.

No one on the water.

No one on any water.

Right. Just like there is no one in this sky. Wait, now the warning is going off again, about others in the sky, but there is no one in the sky. They’re all on land.

Everyone is on land.

Everyone says they want to be in the sky or in the sea but they’re actually all on land. Humans are land creatures, like the cows and the sheep, and we rarely do anything we say we want to do. We say we want to fly the way a bird flies, but there are these machines that fly much like birds fly, and no one cares.

But they are there.

They are. Wait. Now they’re heading back to the land.

The flight is over.

They’re almost home. Approaching the airstrip. It’s been an hour or so, and they are descending. All the things on the ground are getting bigger. The shoebox hangars are
growing. They can see golfers looking down at their golf balls.

How long was the flight?

An hour. Maybe less.

Was an hour enough?

It was enough for now. It was enough to know that this is available. That Michael is there, that the coast is not far, that the farmers won’t mind, the animals won’t mind, that the machine is quiet and safe and will work next time, that this kind of cold liberation is close at hand.

So the man leaves and goes home?

He does. But before he does, Michael will tell him to read a book called Understanding the Sky. Some kind of manual for flight.

And?

It will be incomprehensible.

Dave Eggers is the author of nine books, including The Circle, A Hologram for the King, Zeitoun, and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. He is also the founder of McSweeney’s, a San Francisco–based independent publishing company.

Photos by Ryan Carr (top), Ferrous Büller (2nd), Olgierd Rudak (3rd), Ken Hodge (4th), James (5th), Tory (6th), Randen Pederson (bottom).

This appeared in the June/July 2015 issue.