Friday, December 03, 2004

Ritual and Flight

I recently learned from a Discovery Home Theater documentary that hot air ballooning and champagne were invented around the same time/place 210 years ago and closely related. The first balloonists in France were worried they'd be killed by farmers when they landed, who would be convinced they were aliens/demons/Brits or something, so they insisted the king give them something to give the farmers to prove they were of earthly/human/French origin, and champagne was the agreed-on payload. To this day, as they showed in this documentary about the balloonist festival in New Mexico, they drink champagne on landing and have a long ritualistic recited toast to go with it. I though this was cool beyond words.

A bit of a google search for more details, from Yankee Magazine:
Following in the tradition of the first balloonists, French thrill-seekers who
landed in vineyards, your pilot will offer a bottle of wine to appease the
landowner. There's another bottle, shared by all. (What's not to like about a
pastime that features champagne at sunrise?) And, always, the balloonist's
toast: "The winds have welcomed you with softness. The sun has blessed you with
his warm hands. You have flown so high and so well, that God has joined you in
your laughter. And he has set you gently back again into the loving arms of
Mother Earth."

I always thought there should be more ritual to aviation. Boys playing high school football get a marching band and cheerleaders, yet my flights as a kid were rarely greeted with so much as a handshake on landing, and usually a blank stare of "Oh, do you need gas now?"

My dad's last plane sounded like and handled like a Star Wars pod racer, with the two high powered engines pulling you on either side of your fuselage like mechanical horses pulling Apollo's chariot across the sky. Speaking of Star Wars, I always loved the flag parade at the beginning of the pod race - it gave ritual to it. I often heard the music from that in my head when we pulled the twin out of the hangar, so perfectly balanced on its wheels that one person could pull it's 5000 pound mass from the hangar doors and turn it 90 degrees on the pavement outside.

On one of those flights we were over-flying a parade, but we couldn't find the rest of the formation, and frankly we had no intention of linking with them because we couldn't slow down that much. So we flew around at top speed 200 feet above their altitude along the route. According to my nephew on the ground at the parade, we flew directly over the formation in the opposite direction at double their speed, so it worked.

At Dad's funeral, we asked for the flying club to over-fly the funeral, and they did with three Cessnas. We were moved to tears by the beauty of it. Ritual and flight should really be more joined. Maybe in another hundred years.

Space and ritual? Only at funerals for astronauts, it seems. They added a verse to the Navy Hymn for space travelers, but I have yet to find it. I heard it on the C-SPAN coverage of (I believe) Alan Shepard's funeral and promptly wanted to find it. I should look again soon.

Another item - I found a used copy of the movie Dune last night. I remember seeing it the first time on television and being very struck by the scene toward the beginning where the shuttles are docking with the space station - and the station gate looks like it belongs on a cathedral. That's probably the moment when I realized flight and ritual where not as joined as they could be and should be.

Of course, if they were, maybe it would seem more a substitute for faith, so maybe it's not all bad that planes are treated like cars or more to the point, family boats with special storage requirements and so on. No, not even - boats are more ritualistic in the party sense than aircraft.

A pilot's toast? Somehow drinking and flying shouldn't mix in craft that can be flown again immediately, but there is the poem "High Flight", which many pilots know by heart. I made it a point to memorize it when I was a student pilot, and can still recite it.

High Flight
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew -
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untresspassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

- Pilot Officer Gillespie Magee
No 412 squadron, RCAF
Killed 11 December 1941 at age 19 in a training accident
More history here

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