What does it take to become a pilot? It takes numbers. A lot of numbers. It takes patience and focus, and confidence. But more than anything, it takes love. If you love flying, if you’ve dreamed about it since you were little, you’re halfway there. Oh, and learning early on to tap your head while rubbing your belly helps, too.
Bianca’s talks were always well attended. She had no illusions that all the girls – and boys, too – who filled the classrooms and listened to her and asked questions would join the pilot ranks but she enjoyed these talks nevertheless. She had no children of her own but she liked kids in general. “I see the future in them,” she’d told her ex-husband one night in bed. “I just don’t want to bear any responsibility for this future.”
Michael had joked about an airline captain shunning responsibility but she’d given him what he called The Dictator Look and he’d shut up. Michael had quit after he got his private pilot licence. Bianca had pressed on. They’d divorced two years after she got her job with Skyhigh, the low-budget airline she was still flying today, three years later.
Bianca drove the short distance from the school to her studio in southern Cardiff with plans to do nothing until Saturday morning. She was scheduled to fly London-Rome in the early afternoon, so she had to get up at five to make the three-hour drive and have a comfortable amount of extra time before the pre-flight preparations began.
She walked the three blocks to the gym, spent an hour there, sweating, pushing her muscles as near the extreme as was safe, then took a shower and went home where she read a couple of dozen pages from “We, The Drowned” and fell asleep on her couch, which happened every other night when Bianca was too tired or too lazy to make the twenty feet from the couch to the single bed. The alarm on her phone rang at ten to five.
“Well, that was boring,” James Markey, her first officer, said when they arrived in Rome. The flight was short and bland like the tomato soup Bianca’s mother used to make at least twice a week with the argument it was good for her.
“Was I that obvious?”
“No, but I know you,” Markey said with a grin. “You make this face when you’re bored, like you’re really focused on something but you’re actually dying of boredom.”
“I’ll take boring over exciting any day if I’m flying a plane.” She was smiling but the look she gave James shrunk his grin. He cleared his throat the way people do when they’ve shared something way more personal than their audience had expected. The pale skin over his neatly trimmed black beard flushed.
“We all prefer boring. Sorry if I was being improper.”
Bianca shook her head and stood.
“It’s okay, Jim. It’s me. Not used to people observing me.”
She clapped him on the shoulder before she left the cockpit to examine the engines. They were flying back in an hour and she wanted to check as much of the plane as she could herself. Delegating responsibility was still problematic despite the years of training and what was effectively conditioning for working with other people and trusting them with your life.
Bianca was eating a cheese sandwich in the Ciampino cafeteria when her phone rang. She had regretted buying it two bites in – there was too little cheese and too much bred – but had pressed on. Flying a plane required concentration and concentration required energy. Food generated energy. Bianca had shared her simple concept of energy with a friend from the gym and she had laughed for a long time. Bianca had asked her why. “You’re the first person I’ve met who thinks about food as a source of energy.”
“Hey, Bianca, Alison here.” Alison was an operations manager at Skyhigh. “I’m afraid I have a favour to ask. You’re free to refuse but I’d really like you to say yes.”
“Captain Rogers who was supposed to fly Ciampino to Copenhagen is apparently sick. Stomach bug or something like that. Would you mind taking over? I know you’re not a reserve but I’d trust you over any reserve and besides I’d rather delay the flight back to London than the one to Copenhagen. That one’s full. Well, what do you say? It’s scheduled for four-fifteen Rome time.”
Bianca looked at her watch. It was three thirty-five local time. She was scheduled to take off for London in forty-five minutes.
“Did Rogers do a flight plan before he felt ill?”
“Yes, it’s all done. You’ll just need to review the docs and off you go.”
“Who’s first officer?”
“Michael Dahl. Have you flown together?”
“Not exactly,” Bianca said and pushed the plate with the half-eaten sandwich away.
“So?” Alison prompted and Bianca started. Several seconds had passed in silence. “Will you please take this flight? I’ll find someone else to fly to London, we’ve got a couple of reserves in Rome.”
“Okay,” Bianca said. “No problem.”
By the time she got to the plane “No problem” had turned from hope to fact. When she approached the 737 a black-uniformed figure that was looking at the flaps turned.
“The flaps on this side are good,” the figure said.
“Thank you.” Bianca joined him under the wing and looked up. The wind blew a loose strand of hair that had escaped from the tight bun into her face. “Is the documentation in order?”
“I believe so but you can check for yourself.” Michael stepped aside to make way for her. Bianca moved on to the tail. Everything seemed to be in order here, too. On her way to the other wing Bianca tripped. Michael kept his distance and made no attempt to help her. She steadied herself and continued to the wing, teeth clenched.
“I have to ask this before we continue,” Bianca said when they got into the cockpit. She faced Michael and stifled a wince at how little he had changed over the last two years. A few white hairs in the dark curls while she had to dye her hair an artificial chestnut shade because there was so much white now. A few wrinkles around the eyes and he certainly wasn’t using a beauty regimen. Bianca was, out of habit.
“Okay,” Michael said, relaxing into his seat that looked so small under his body. Bianca’s fit like a glove.
“Will it be a problem for you that I’m the captain?”
Michael laughed out loud and shook his head. Another memory: when he laughed his nose looked even bigger and his eyes looked smaller.
“I’m glad I can still make you laugh but this is a serious question.”
“I’m sorry,” the first officer and ex-husband said. “That was uncalled for. No, I don’t have a problem with you, captain. You’ve been the captain for as long as I’ve known you.”
Bianca nodded and turned back to her instruments.
“Good,” she said. The smile she had stifled seeped into the word.
“The passengers are boarding, captain,” the head of the cabin crew, Samantha, said, peeking through the open door to the cockpit.
“Thank you,” Bianca said with a smile. They were due to take off in twenty minutes.
“Everything is good in my half,” Michael said. “All in working order.”
“I’m sure it is,” Bianca said before she could stop herself. A light fog of awkwardness descended on the small space but quickly dissipated when Michael laughed again.
“I can see this flight will be fun, then.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me.” All Bianca could see were the instruments in front of her. The yoke. Everything was indeed in perfect working order and the unwelcome memory of an exciting night she and Michael had spent in the hotel pool during their two-day honeymoon had no place on board. “So, you gave up private piloting?”
Michael was slow in answering. He gazed at the tarmac for a few seconds before he spoke.
“Yeah,” he said. “I guess I wanted to put more people’s life in danger.”
The flush was instant and scorching. Bianca’s uniform was suddenly three sizes too small but she took a laboured breath and turned to the right.
“I said I was sorry about that. I still am..”
“This was a joke, Bianca. I’m over it. You didn’t mean it, I grew up, everything’s fine. And it’s been years since then. I don’t dwell on things, you know that.”
Bianca kept her eyes on his, studying his face, looking for telltale signs of mental instability.
“Would you like to see the results from my last medical?” he offered after a while.
“All passengers are on board, captain Griffiths,” another of the crew, a male new hire, said.
“I want you to know it will be a pleasure to fly with you,” Michael said, settling into his seat and putting his belt on. “Stop worrying, Bianca.”
“I wasn’t worried.” She strapped herself in. They had two hours and forty-five minutes ahead of them in this cockpit. And she had no reason to worry. The plane was in perfect shape, the sky would be clear for most of the way and the wind was moderate. Bianca started the engines.
“It just takes a little getting used to, having someone I know so well as a first officer.” The even purr of the 737’s engines filled Bianca’s ears like a favourite song.
“I understand. Same here.” Michael said, eyes on the dials in front of him. “I’ll try to be as professional as I can.”
“That’s not what I meant, Michael.” She shook her head. “Ciampino ground, this is Skyhigh flight 311, we’re ready to depart.”
“Skyhigh 311, taxi to runway 2.”
The plane started moving, slowly and graciously. Whenever Bianca’s confidence that she had made all the right decisions in life was shaken for whatever reason – a kid-rich family at the supermarket or an early couple holding hands on the street – she reached out in her memory for these moments, when she was about to leave the ground. Pilots could have families, it wasn’t impossible and it wasn’t even particularly hard. They were also perfectly capable of being in committed relationships. It just hadn’t worked out this way for Bianca. But flying had worked out. It kept working out every time she had these doubts.
The tyres of the landing gear creaked on the tarmac towards runway 2. The plane vibrated slightly. The ground was never smooth enough.
“Skyhigh, you’re cleared for departure. Have a safe flight.”
“Thank you, Ciampino. Have a nice day.”
The plane stopped. The sound of the engines first quietened and then began getting louder and louder. Bianca put the engines into full thrust and the plane rushed forward like a cat lunging at its prey. In a few seconds gravitation made its presence a lot more palpable than usual. Bianca’s grip on the yoke didn’t waver. A second later the nose was up and the plane left the ground.
“Why are you looking at me?” Bianca asked without taking her eyes off the dashboard. The skin on her right side had been crawling since she’s led the plane to the runway. The feeling wasn’t particularly unpleasant but it made her warm and warm was not her preferred state of being.
“You have this face,” Michael said and paused. “Like you’re doing something extremely pleasurable.”
Bianca laughed. She shot Michael a sideways glance. He was still watching her.
“You sound like you’re not telling me everything.”
Michael hesitated. He sighed.
“I’ve just never seen you look like this before.”
“We’ve never flown together before.”
“Is that all?”
“You look like you’re about to make love to the plane. Better?”
“Right, of course.” The warmth had gone from her right side and not just because Michael had turned away. “I should’ve guessed. If it’s pleasure it has to do with sex.”
The plane was climbing higher and the sky was becoming bluer all around them. There was not a single cloud in sight.
“I’m not getting into an argument,” Bianca said. The knuckles on her hands on the yoke had gone white. She relaxed her grip a little. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Michael shake his shaggy head.
“I didn’t mean to start an argument. Let’s change the topic.”
“Or we could stop talking,” she suggested.
“That’s always an option.”
The option was deployed and lasted until the plane reached its cruising height and leveled off, when Samantha came in to ask them if they wanted anything.
“I’ll have a cup of tea, thank you,” Bianca said. She had handed things over to the autopilot and had leaned back to enjoy the scenery. The air was still crystal clear and they were flying over the Alps. Bright blue above and around, dark grey peaks below, some with snow caps, and a few deeper blue lakes scattered among the peaks here and there.
“Could I have a coffee, please,” Michael said, as friendly as always, as if they hadn’t been drowning in awkward silence for the past fifteen minutes.
“Coming right up” Samantha said and left.
When the door closed the silence slunk back, thickening the air. Bianca tensed every time Michael moved, however slightly, anticipating the start of another conversation. But he kept his mouth shut and watched the scenery like her.
“Look, this is—” she started.
With a soft pop the blue sky and the rugged grey Alpine peaks along with the lakes disappeared in a flash of blinding white light. Besides the pop there was no sound, no crash, no pain, only light of the sort that makes eyes shut and eyelids squeeze without deliberate, rational thought. After several seconds the light went out the way it had come, except there was no pop this time. What replaced the light instantly had Michael screaming his head off while Bianca just stared in stunned silence.