My dad told me there would be no views on this hike. On the way down the west side of Owl’s Head in New Hampshire, I found a meager outcropping of rock that had the best vista I could find. I hunkered down, opened the square Tupperware container, grabbed my sandwich, and dangled my feet off a small ledge. Wind was hissing through the trees that were blocking my view. But I thought I heard more; like a distant roar. I cocked my head to listen closer and caught a glint in the corner of my eye. Straight up into the blue, two tiny gray flecks danced circles around each other. I watched those specks duel like angry black flies. They finally flew away side by side in a straight line until the trees swallowed them up. Only then did I realize that my neck was sore and my mouth was still full of peanut butter and jelly.
Nine years from that day, I would be enclosed in the bubble canopy of my own F-16. But, in the following two decades, I’ve never seen another dogfight from the ground. It was a unique view, and on a day when there weren’t supposed to be any at all.
* * *
I was a lucky kid. I was born in Littleton, New Hampshire to a forester and a dietitian, pretty fertile ground for a young boy. We moved to Minnesota in 1974. We bounced around the Great Lakes for the next seven years. My Pop’s career in the US Forest Service led us to three different small towns during that time.
While we cross-country skied and canoed “out west”, I got the feeling that my Pop was missing a close friend. Once in a while, I’d run across his ice axe and his mountaineering boots in the basement. His eyes would flash and he would tell me about taking part in search-and-rescues in the gales and snow of Mount Washington. He told me about the wind that was so great that above 70 knots, you had to have “three limbs on the ground” at any one time for fear of being blown into oblivion. I started to realize that his old friend was the high country of New England. In 1981, my folks told the family we’d be moving back to New Hampshire. I could only dimly remember the mountains. I wore out my father’s Appalachian Mountain Club White Mountain Guide on the drive back east.
My Pop and I immediately teamed up to play in the hills. We climbed all over the White Mountains. The mountains were always changing. Walk for 15 minutes, look back, and it was a new world. We hiked often. North Twin. Bond. Carrigain. Garfield. Guyot. Osceola. Carter. Wildcat. Tecumseh. Tripyramid. My eyes were thirsty. I was addicted to finding new perspectives.
In the early spring of 1982, my dad and I were “post holing” our way up the side of Mt. Moosilauke in knee-deep snow when the world of hiking and the world of flying first met in my heart. I remember sweating like a plow horse as my Pop and I took a break from slogging up through the wet, white cement. I was looking uphill; hoping for a look at the summit, when there was the flash of a shadow, like the sun blinked. Then a great swoosh of air as a glider flew directly over our heads, like a great white pterodactyl, soaring on the updrafts. All I could think about was what the mountains must look like from that cockpit.
I found myself looking up into the air more and more through my high school years. I wanted to see mountain peaks AND airplanes. The Yankee sky rewarded me. I worked on a Christmas tree farm. One day, I leaned back to stretch my aching spine, sore from planting trees. I was looking right at the profile of a KC-135 Stratotanker air refueling an FB-111 fighter-bomber, another sight I’d never seen from the ground, before or since. One winter, we had the New Hampshire state high school cross-country ski championships up on an unplowed forest road above Waterville Valley. We were all milling around before the race and a 2-ship of A-10’s came by, turbofans whining. I still remember they were so low that I could see one of the pilot’s helmets.
It was fitting that I had my epiphany while hiking with my Pop. We were on the last steep pitch to the top of Mt. Hancock when I told him that I wanted to design airplanes. I didn’t know what I meant when I said that, but I knew my life would involve getting up into the air, and not just on foot. I picked a future that would be full of new perspectives. There weren’t many views that day either.
Six years later, I was an F-16 fighter pilot who liked to hike in his spare time. I flew in the night skies of Alaska and felt like I was swimming in the northern lights. I climbed mountains north of the Arctic Circle in the Brooks Range of Alaska and got to see a grizzly up close in the August snow. Flying in Korea made me realize there were incredible mountains there. I stood on the side of Mt. Sorak on the backbone of that land and watched the fishing fleet leave port for the Sea of Japan. The fall foliage in the hills there reminded me of my New England birthplace. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers flowed below me while I patrolled the skies of Iraq. I was awestruck at the incredible expanse of beige sand that is Saudi Arabia. My wife and I strode through acres of bluebells on the side of Mt. Raymond in Utah‘s Wasatch Mountains. The Donner Party and their wagons would have probably envied my 500 mile per hour speed across the vast, white Great Salt Lake Desert. What took them days to cross only took me a few minutes in my fighter plane. My climbing and flying life fed on each other more than my teenage mind could’ve understood while tramping up the green side of Mt. Hancock.
In the fall of 1997, my squadron of F-16’s flew from Hill Air Force Base in Utah with the intention of getting all the way to Morón Air Base in Spain. We were on our way to Saudi Arabia to enforce the no-fly zone in southern Iraq. Bad weather kept us from going across the North Atlantic and we had to divert to Burlington, Vermont. As we retreated from the Atlantic coast, I looked down and suddenly realized I was over the White Mountains. I could see Owl’s Head. The summit dome of Mount Washington. There they were…my old friends. The rising sun shone its orange light on the peaks and they cast long shadows of blue and green. Fourteen years before, I’d sat on a little rock and looked up at fighters in this very sky. And there I was looking down.
A few years ago, I came across a quote from the French author René Daumal. I suspect it is fairly well known in climbing circles, but I’ve found that it is eerily applicable to a life spent in airplanes:
“You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again…so why bother in the first place? Just this: what is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.”
My life is better because of the mountains and the air. I met my wife while we were both Air Force officers and stationed in Korea. We have a six year old son and three year old daughter now. We hope their eyes get filled with good views. Our family moved to Minnesota after 9/11, but my life took off in New Hampshire. The White Mountains were a giant hand that launched me into the sky. These days, when I peer out of the cockpit, the earth seems to roll by like the passage of time. I marvel at the endlessly changing view.
(This piece first appeared in Minnesota Flyer in January 2007)