The only thing better than a pilot's license is surely a friend with a pilot's license. And in 2016, such a friend with a big heart, and an empty seat in his Cessna, offered to take me on a ride I'll never forget.
Matt was flying Cessnas for a small company in Uganda. "Take me along some day if you've got space for me," I joked one day. But it was half-hearted and a joke. So imagine when one day he called me up and offered me a ride in exchange for some help loading up a guy who had broken his leg in the rural bush of northern Uganda. I could scarcely meet him at the aerodrome fast enough.
I killed time in the company office while he filed his flight plan. Then we went out to the airplane where it sat, gleaming at the edge of the airstrip. Airstrip, not runway, because it was packed earth as I remember it, and clean but very simple. "It's even rougher where we're going" he laughed. If flight is magical, so is being a pilot: checking various gauges, mechanical structures, bits of engine. Suddenly we were ready – I couldn't discern how – and it was time to go.
We taxied down one end of the broad, African field, Matt pressed the throttle forward and we were hurtling forward. With a rush of air, our wheels left earth and we were airborne. We raced over Kampala's red steel rooftops, banked around counterclockwise, ever upward toward the gossamer sky, and were gone. It occurred to me that to pilots, it's the sky that beckons; to me the beauty was below us: neighborhoods I recognized, roadways I'd driven, landscapes I struggled to identify because they are undiscernable from overhead.
We lurched northward, over a landscape that browned with distance from Lake Victoria. Uganda has always been a respite from the hot, Kenyan and Tanzanian lowlands, but Uganda has a low, dry corner of its own. We threaded through a blue sky pocked with white clouds, dense with resplendant sunlight, endless, like a swim through the thin waters between reef and shore, watching shadows on the hillsides below. Then we descended.
Matt circled twice, looking for the trace of a strip he knew to be a proper airstrip. I saw nothing, but why interrupt the experts? We dropped; the earth swooned up to meet us and then suddenly our wheels were on the dry dirt again. The speed – so recently invisible – rushed from our spinning wheels and we slowed to where a crowd had gathered to meet us.
We gathered up the injured gentlemen while a crew of rural Ugandans watched. A scrawny mutt tottered along behind the boys, looking for something to eat. I realized how ridiculous we were: joined at the same coordinates on earth but separated by a universe of culture and technology and knowledge. But we'd come from the same primordial soup, and at death we'd be joined there again. In the meantime, Matt and I may have just dropped in from outer space. Time to depart.
The trip back to Kampala was rife with meaning as the sun lowered over the horizon and we punctured a squall that sent us jumping through space. I gradually got accustomed to that moment when, having steered straight toward a wall of white cloud, you punctured it and were briefly enveloped by total blindness, only to emerge unscathed on the other side.
Then we landed, and I drove slowly through the hideous Kampala traffic to our home in Bukassa. My next flight would take me farther still.
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