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Prairie Sky

A Pilot's Reflections on Flying and the Grace of Altitude

W. Scott Olsen

Publication Year: 2013

“It’s almost like ballet. Preflight. Starting. Warm-up. The voices from the control tower—the instructions. Taxiing. The rush down the runway. Airborne. There are names for every move. The run-up. Position and hold. Every move needs to be learned, practiced, made so familiar you feel the patterns in every other thing you do. It’s technical, yes. But there is a grace to getting metal and bone into the sky.”

Prairie Sky is a celebration of curiosity and a book for explorers. In this collection of contemplative essays, Scott Olsen invites readers to view the world from a pilot’s seat, demonstrating how, with just a little bit of altitude, the world changes, new relationships become visible, and new questions seem to rise up from the ground.

Whether searching for the still-evident shores of ancient lakes, the dustbowl-era shelterbelt supposed to run the length of the country, or the even more elusive understandings of physics and theology, Olsen shares the unique perspective and insight allowed to pilots.

Prairie Sky explores the reality as well as the metaphor of flight: notions of ceaseless time and boundless space, personal interior and exterior vision, social history, meteorology, and geology. Olsen takes readers along as he chases a new way of looking at the physical world and wonders aloud about how the whole planet moves in interconnected ways not visible from the ground. While the northern prairie may call to mind images of golden harvests and summer twilight such images do not define the region. The land bears marks left by gut-shaking thunderstorms, hard-frozen rivers, sweeping floods, and hurricane-size storms. Olsen takes to the midwestern sky to confront the ordinary world and reveals the magic--the wondrous and unique sights visible from the pilot’s seat of a Cessna.

Like Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s classic work Wind, Sand and Stars, Olsen’s Prairie Sky reveals the heart of what it means to fly. In the grand romantic tradition of the travel essay, it opens the dramatic paradoxes of self and collective, linear and circular, the heart and the border.

Published by: University of Missouri Press

Cover

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p. 1-1

Praise, Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-9

Contents

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pp. vii-11

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Prologue: Walking Chaucer

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pp. ix-xv

Imagine, for just a moment, the leap of their arrival. In the moment before, they are ethereal, weightless, timeless and light, the moral sparks of eternity. In the moment after, they have atomic weight. They have mass. They have capillaries and tympanum and knees. They have synapses that do and do not fire....

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River Flying: The Sheyenne River

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pp. 1-10

Now imagine a small airplane low in the sky, white wings in a steep bank to the left over the intersection of two frozen rivers. Riparian trees, mostly oak and elm, outline the river course, every brown limb and branch defined against the snow and ice like a fine pencil sketch on a planetary scale. Where...

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Short-Hop Notebook: Dakota Sky

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pp. 11-12

How different North Dakota felt! I had spent a week flying in the canyons of Idaho—a mountainside off each wing tip, a wild river below—with the thought of engine failure strictly repressed, of course: no use thinking about it where you simply can’t afford one! I had flown down into North Dakota through night, a...

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A Wall of Old Trees

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pp. 13-25

I put the airplane, a little Cessna 172, tail number One Two Whiskey, into a hard right turn, following his hand pointing out the window, and lower the nose toward the earth of the Red River Valley. For just a moment, we are both a bit lighter in our seats. I am aiming for a stand of trees, five or six rows deep, what looks like oak and evergreens bordering a gravel county road. The airspeed...

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Short-Hop Notebook: Math Class

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pp. 26-47

There is something beautiful about a formula. It doesn’t matter if the formula is on our E6B, the inner workings of a G1000, or in the head of Stephen Hawking; there is a clarity in math about the way the universe works that is both elegant and profound. Sometimes it’s simply fun....

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River Flying: The Red River

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pp. 27-36

High noon at the Fargo Jet Center, and my friend Jonathan sits in the right seat, camera at the ready. We are going up to see the river today. The Red River of the North. Just to look, to get a glimpse of the size of the thing. We’ve had deep, hard snow this past winter, and the snow is melting fast. It’s a beautiful...

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Short-Hop Notebook: Fame

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pp. 37-58

Fargo survived a late surge by Bradford supporters to win the crown, receiving about 54 percent of the more than 55,000 votes cast, Weather Channel meteorologist Jonathan Erdman said just before 7 a.m....

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Afternoon at the Atomic Café

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pp. 38-45

It leaves our ordinary sun, and for a little bit more than eight minutes, an eternity at the atomic level, it soars through outer space. It could be visible light. It could be an X-ray, a gamma ray, an ultraviolet packet. It doesn’t matter. It has the properties of a particle. It has the properties of a wave. It is, according to...

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Ground Reference

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pp. 46-51

I’ve seen those hills a thousand times from the ground. Driving up and down Interstate 29, I’ve seen those hills rise on the western horizon, a pretty break on the flatland prairie, and I know just enough about geology to have wondered—why are those hills there? Today I have a partial answer, and so I...

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Short-Hop Notebook: Stats

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pp. 52-73

Counties in the Red River Valley average more than one blizzard each year with the annual probability of such a storm occurring at least 63 percent of the time. Fargo, N.D., has the highest probability rate at 76 percent with Grand Forks, N.D., at 71 percent and Minneapolis at 54 percent....

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Storm Flying

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pp. 53-57

On the prairie, it is possible to lie on your back under the summertime sky and believe the only thing between you and a beautiful truth are some cottonball clouds. Killdeer and red-wing blackbirds sound near a pond. A mourning dove calls from a rooftop. Swallows wheel overhead, while robins search...

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Short-Hop Notebook: Jazz

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pp. 58-79

Imagine a funky drum and a syncopated bass, slap bass, a horn section in the background. Think of a sax playing way down low, a throaty sound with a hum put in—what a sax player would call a growl. And imagine the crescendo toward that one impossible note way up high. Then the release, a move into...

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Tag

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pp. 59-69

Game on, I think. We are cleared for takeoff, and as I move the throttle forward, I can feel the familiar, wonderful press of a seat against my back. We are rolling, pointed west, heading down Runway Two-Seven. The airspeed indicator moves past 60 knots, I pull back on the wheel, and somewhere in my...

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Short-Hop Notebook: The Swoop

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pp. 70-71

It’s almost like a benediction. The flight is over, nearly. You’re home, or at least near an airport. You are landing. You are looking to bring the airplane to the earth and, if you are any good, kiss the pavement so gently with your tires that it’s hard to know when you’re down. If you fly like me, there’s often...

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That Thing Up Front

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pp. 72-76

Here is a truth about my flying history. My first flight lesson never happened. The instructor, a man way too tall to fit into the ancient and glorious 152 we were about to use, walked me out to the airplane and began to talk about the preflight inspection. I checked the fuel and the oil. I checked the ailerons...

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A Very Deep Low

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pp. 77-85

It seems to be a law of nature. Leave the country, go to someplace known for its very bad weather—hell, go there because of the bad weather—and your days there will be sunny and fine, while back home the sky will rent and tear and the winds will blow and all sorts of trouble will come unglued....

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Monster Sky

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pp. 86-94

But this is the middle of March, and the colors have changed. River ice, no longer hard and perfect white, morphs into yellow and gray, the snow and ice starting to merge with the water below. Field snow melts and then refreezes as ice, reflecting blue sky less brilliantly, more like a mirror. Trees and buildings...

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Thin Places and Thick Time: A Duet for Two Worlds

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pp. 95-106

The throttle goes forward, and the airplane begins to run down the centerline. It’s a beautiful day for flying. Clear sky and bright sun. A gentle breeze from the north. Huge distances between the very small clouds. The type of day where chasing an idea with an airplane seems perfectly logical and sane....

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Deep SWE

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pp. 107-121

Standing in a hangar at the Fargo Jet Center, two NOAA pilots, Johann Gebauer and Paul Hemmick, WDAY television meteorologist Daryl Ritchison and his photographer, and I are all staring at an airplane wing. We are supposed to be in the sky already. It’s midmorning in early February, eastern...

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Collecting the Horizon

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pp. 122-130

You hear it down the hall, part of a conversation that does not include you, and you lean to follow the sounds as they round a corner. Or you remember the lyric to a song you knew when you were young and feel your imagination swell with the weight of a dream on the edge of being gone too long. Or you...

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The Beautiful Line

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pp. 131-141

We hear a story, or a question, or a challenge, someone else’s adventure— someone we know or someone so deep in a history even Marco Polo would find ancient—and that story lingers. It settles in and finds a home. It abides in us. In the deepest and most gut-true sense, it simply won’t go away. We want...

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Acknowledgments

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pp. 143-144

This book benefits from the knowledge, patience, goodwill, great humor, and support of many people and organizations. Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, where I teach, has been extraordinary with their support. The Minnesota States Arts Board and the North Dakota Institute for Regional...

Illustration Credits

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pp. 145-167

About the Author

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pp. 147-168


E-ISBN-13: 9780826273048
E-ISBN-10: 0826273041
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826220073
Print-ISBN-10: 082622007X

Page Count: 167
Illustrations: 25 illus
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: 1
Series Editor Byline: John Smith, Will Wordsworth

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Subject Headings

  • Olsen, W. Scott, 1958- -- Travel -- Great Plains.
  • Air pilots -- United States -- Biography -- Anecdotes.
  • Air planes -- Piloting -- Anecdotes.
  • Great Plains -- Description and travel.
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