A Pilot's Reflections on Flying and the Grace of Altitude
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
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Praise, Title Page, Copyright, Dedication
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Prologue: Walking Chaucer
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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 cap-illaries and tympanum and knees. They have synapses that do and do not fire. What must that moment be like, I wonder. To come suddenly into a body, ...
River Flying: The Sheyenne River
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Imagine winter on the northern prairie. January cold. Deep hard snow. Blizzard one day—winds that can freeze your breath before it leaves your 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 ...
Short-Hop Notebook: Dakota Sky
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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 black night, with nothing visible but the beacons along the airway; and again the ...
A Wall of Old Trees
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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 air-...
Short-Hop Notebook: Math Class
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There is something beautiful about a formula. It doesn’t matter if the for-mula 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 Perhaps not strangely, mathematics can answer a more poetic question. The math is pretty simple. D = 112.88 km v (h). Or, distance equals 112.88 ...
River Flying: The Red River
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The list could go on. Ho-ly Cow. Look at that. A trinity of breath in the face “Fargo ground,” I say, “Cessna Six Zero Six Five Mike is at the north ramp, ready to go. Information X-Ray. I’d like to depart to the south and do some river photography, at or below two thousand five hundred feet.”“Cessna Six Zero Six Five Mike,” comes the reply, “Fargo ground. Runway ...
Short-Hop Notebook: Fame
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FARGO—It’s official, at least in the eyes of online voters: Fargo is “America’s The Weather Channel announced this morning that Fargo beat Bradford, Pa., Fargo survived a late surge by Bradford supporters to win the crown, receiv-ing about 54 percent of the more than 55,000 votes cast, Weather Channel me-“The combination of the city’s infamous blizzards, extreme cold and spring ...
Afternoon at the Atomic Café
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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 mat-ter. It has the properties of a particle. It has the properties of a wave. It is, ac-cording to the textbooks, an elementary particle that is its own antiparticle, a ...
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Last night, like so many nights before, I drew a line on a sectional chart. Fargo, North Dakota, to the Coteau des Prairies, a range of hills just over the border in South Dakota. Seventy-three nautical miles on a heading of 190 de-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 ...
Short-Hop Notebook: Stats
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...“The continental U.S. averages about 11 blizzards a year with the worst oc-curring in the upper plains,” he said. “The Red River Valley in eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota has the most recorded blizzards in the last four 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 ...
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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 cotton-ball clouds. Killdeer and red-wing blackbirds sound near a pond. A mourn-ing dove calls from a rooftop. Swallows wheel overhead, while robins search for worms. There is a small breeze in the tops of the ash and maple trees, and ...
Short-Hop Notebook: Jazz
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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 Now imagine an airplane, call sign One Two Whiskey, one thousand five ...
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Your hand on someone’s arm or back or shoulder or head changes every-Game on, I think. We are cleared for takeoff, and as I move the throttle for-ward, 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 indi-cator moves past 60 knots, I pull back on the wheel, and somewhere in my ...
Short-Hop Notebook: The Swoop
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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 At airports without a control tower, you “self-announce” your intentions on ...
That Thing Up Front
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Here is a truth about my flying history. My first flight lesson never hap-pened. 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 ai-lerons and flaps, the air pressure in the tires, and the amount of travel in the ...
A Very Deep Low
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One of the strongest storms in the history of the central U.S. affected the re-gion on October 26-27, 2010, producing wind gusts over 50 mph across much of the Midwest, severe thunderstorms and tornadoes from southeast Wiscon-sin and northeast Illinois to northern Alabama, and a blizzard over northern Minnesota and North Dakota. As the storm reached peak intensity late during ...
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White snow on every field. White snow to every horizon. Dark, mean-dering ribbons of riparian trees intersect beige lines of gravel roads, section roads, as straight as an assayer’s dream. Ice on every river, every lake, every 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 ...
Thin Places and Thick Time: A Duet for Two Worlds
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Roy Hammerling, a religion professor at the college, sits in the right seat as The throttle goes forward, and the airplane begins to run down the center-line. 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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Standing in a hangar at the Fargo Jet Center, two NOAA pilots, Johann Gebauer and Paul Hemmick, WDAY television meteorologist Daryl Ritchi-son 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 North Dakota. We are supposed to be in the sky, measuring the amount of ...
Collecting the Horizon
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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 read something, and, much later, you wonder why one detail stays with you. ...
The Beautiful Line
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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 that story. Someone has crossed a line on the earth or in the heart. Me too, we ...
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This book benefits from the knowledge, patience, goodwill, great humor, and support of many people and organizations. Concordia College in Moor-head, Minnesota, where I teach, has been extraordinary with their support. The Minnesota States Arts Board and the North Dakota Institute for Region-al Studies contributed significant funds that allowed me to rent an airplane ...
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... Shelterbelt maps, 1936, National Forest Service, courtesy of Joel Orth Detail, “Mountain on the Prairie,” Lewis and Clark map, courtesy of Isostatic gravity anomaly map and aeromagnetic anomaly map, courtesy of October 2010 windstorm map, surface analysis map, and satellite image of Earth, courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, ...
About the Author
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W. Scott Olsen teaches at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, where he also edits the literary magazine Ascent. He is the author of numer-ous books, including Never Land: Adventures, Wonder, and One World Re-cord in a Very Small Plane and Hard Air: Adventures from the Edge of Flying....
Page Count: 167
Illustrations: 25 illus
Publication Year: 2013
Series Editor Byline: John Smith, Will Wordsworth