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Flight

1917


To begin at the end, I will say that the "landing" surprised me by a
slight and very characteristically "dead" sort of shock.

I may fairly call myself an amphibious creature. A good half of my
active existence has been passed in familiar contact with salt water, and
I was aware, theoretically, that water is not an elastic body: but it was
only then that I acquired the absolute conviction of the fact. I
remember distinctly the thought flashing through my head: "By Jove! it
isn't elastic!" Such is the illuminating force of a particular
experience.

This landing (on the water of the North Sea) was effected in a Short
biplane after one hour and twenty minutes in the air. I reckon every
minute like a miser counting his hoard, for, if what I've got is mine, I
am not likely now to increase the tale. That feeling is the effect of
age. It strikes me as I write that, when next time I leave the surface
of this globe, it won't be to soar bodily above it in the air. Quite the
contrary. And I am not thinking of a submarine either. . . .

But let us drop this dismal strain and go back logically to the
beginning. I must confess that I started on that flight in a state--I
won't say of fury, but of a most intense irritation. I don't remember
ever feeling so annoyed in my life.

It came about in this way. Two or three days before, I had been invited
to lunch at an R.N.A.S. station, and was made to feel very much at home
by the nicest lot of quietly interesting young men it had ever been my
good fortune to meet. Then I was taken into the sheds. I walked
respectfully round and round a lot of machines of all kinds, and the more
I looked at them the more I felt somehow that for all the effect they
produced on me they might have been so many land-vehicles of an eccentric
design. So I said to Commander O., who very kindly was conducting me:
"This is all very fine, but to realise what one is looking at, one must
have been up."

He said at once: "I'll give you a flight to-morrow if you like."

I postulated that it should be none of those "ten minutes in the air"
affairs. I wanted a real business flight. Commander O. assured me that
I would get "awfully bored," but I declared that I was willing to take
that risk. "Very well," he said. "Eleven o'clock to-morrow. Don't be
late."

I am sorry to say I was about two minutes late, which was enough,
however, for Commander O. to greet me with a shout from a great distance:
"Oh! You are coming, then!"

"Of course I am coming," I yelled indignantly.

He hurried up to me. "All right. There's your machine, and here's your
pilot. Come along."

A lot of officers closed round me, rushed me into a hut: two of them
began to button me into the coat, two more were ramming a cap on my head,
others stood around with goggles, with binoculars. . . I couldn't
understand the necessity of such haste. We weren't going to chase Fritz.
There was no sign of Fritz anywhere in the blue. Those dear boys did not
seem to notice my age--fifty-eight, if a day--nor my infirmities--a gouty
subject for years. This disregard was very flattering, and I tried to
live up to it, but the pace seemed to me terrific. They galloped me
across a vast expanse of open ground to the water's edge.

The machine on its carriage seemed as big as a cottage, and much more
imposing. My young pilot went up like a bird. There was an idle, able-
bodied ladder loafing against a shed within fifteen feet of me, but as
nobody seemed to notice it, I recommended myself mentally to Heaven and
started climbing after the pilot. The close view of the real fragility
of that rigid structure startled me considerably, while Commander O.
discomposed me still more by shouting repeatedly: "Don't put your foot
there!" I didn't know where to put my foot. There was a slight crack; I
heard some swear-words below me, and then with a supreme effort I rolled
in and dropped into a basket-chair, absolutely winded. A small crowd of
mechanics and officers were looking up at me from the ground, and while I
gasped visibly I thought to myself that they would be sure to put it down
to sheer nervousness. But I hadn't breath enough in my body to stick my
head out and shout down to them:

"You know, it isn't that at all!"

Generally I try not to think of my age and infirmities. They are not a
cheerful subject. But I was never so angry and disgusted with them as
during that minute or so before the machine took the water. As to my
feelings in the air, those who will read these lines will know their own,
which are so much nearer the mind and the heart than any writings of an
unprofessional can be. At first all my faculties were absorbed and as if
neutralised by the sheer novelty of the situation. The first to emerge
was the sense of security so much more perfect than in any small boat
I've ever been in; the, as it were, material, stillness, and immobility
(though it was a bumpy day). I very soon ceased to hear the roar of the
wind and engines--unless, indeed, some cylinders missed, when I became
acutely aware of that. Within the rigid spread of the powerful planes,
so strangely motionless I had sometimes the illusion of sitting as if by
enchantment in a block of suspended marble. Even while looking over at
the aeroplane's shadow running prettily over land and sea, I had the
impression of extreme slowness. I imagine that had she suddenly nose-
dived out of control, I would have gone to the final smash without a
single additional heartbeat. I am sure I would not have known. It is
doubtless otherwise with the man in control.

But there was no dive, and I returned to earth (after an hour and twenty
minutes) without having felt "bored" for a single second. I descended
(by the ladder) thinking that I would never go flying again. No, never
any more--lest its mysterious fascination, whose invisible wing had
brushed my heart up there, should change to unavailing regret in a man
too old for its glory.

Joseph Conrad