What you’ll need: a cool hat, steady hands

Songlist: Fly by Sugar Ray, Leaving on a Jet Plane by John Denver

Further reading: Alive by Piers Paul Read

On Friday, I mentioned that I’d be getting on a plane to New York shortly after posting. I got to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, read some trashy magazines for a while (will Brad and Angelina wed or won’t they?), and hung out at my gate eating overpriced airport food. And then, ten minutes after we were supposed to board the plane, they announced that my flight to JFK had been canceled. Bad weather in New York. Delta offered me a cocktail of out-of-the-way flights (Minneapolis-St. Louis-Atlanta-New York) that still wouldn’t guarantee my safe arrival Friday night. I opted to fly out Saturday early morning instead.

I was pretty disappointed but, as I was standing in line to get my rebooking, I saw a pilot dash in behind the desk looking quite anxious. Distraught passengers tried to ask him for assistance and he waved them off, saying that he, too, was just trying to figure out how to get to work–he didn’t have any special information to share with us. I began to think how difficult it would be to have a job that is so often affected by rain or snow or volcanic eruptions.

The runway at Virgin Gorda: not big enough for a six-seater plane

But being a pilot is also pretty darn cool. Once, when my family was visiting my grandparents in the Caribbean, we took a day trip over to Virgin Gorda, one of the British Virgin Islands. We had to take a four-seater airplane over, as the airport at Virgin Gorda is nothing more than a dirt strip on the side of a cliff that drops down into the ocean. Somehow I got the lucky seat of sitting next to our pilot. He took off into the clear, blue day and once we reached our cruising altitude, he asked if I’d like to take the controls. I knew that keeping a plane flying straight in perfect weather is not necessarily difficult, but at the same time I knew that if I pushed or pulled that yoke too quickly I could send us into a tailspin. So I gripped the steering yoke white-knuckled, not daring to breathe too much, as the pilot leaned back to fill out some paperwork.

After several minutes the pilot took control once again, and I was able to exhale. Though flying has become commonplace, the physics that keep a tiny aircraft aloft still boggle my mind. It’s terrifying to realize how vulnerable you are many thousands of feet above land, but also exhilarating. I almost asked to steer again, but it was just about time for the descent and landing, and there was no way I wanted anything to do with that. Our pilot expertly guided the tiny plane down to that sandy runway, and we passed through the one-room airport with our passports (immigration control seems a little foolish when your airport is a wooden shack).

The day at Virgin Gorda was beautiful, but I remember being excited for the flight back just to feel, once again, that fine balance between security and vulnerability.