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  Field Notes From
The Future of Flying

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The Future of Flying On AssignmentArrows

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From Author

Michael Klesius

The Future of Flying On Assignment

View Field Notes
From Photographer

Joe McNally

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Brian Strauss (top) and Joe McNally


The Future of Flying

Field Notes From Author
Michael Klesius

Best Worst Quirkiest
    Without a doubt, the best part of the assignment was the chance to experience the risks and rewards of flying high-performance fighter aircraft. Training weeks before the flight in an altitude chamber at Virginia's Langley Air Force Base familiarized me with the effects of hypoxia, or low oxygen. And the preflight briefing on the big day entailed an hour's worth of worst-case scenarios: an engine fire, an aborted takeoff, and a bird strike that shatters the canopy and incapacitates the pilot, leaving me with the responsibility of ejecting us and ditching a 50-million-dollar airplane.
    I'm not claustrophobic, but being fully strapped into an ejection seat with a helmet tight on my head and an oxygen mask clamped over my face, my body further constricted by the G-suit, took getting used to.
    Why does all this qualify as a best experience? Quite simply, it was a total blast to go hurtling up the Owens Valley in California, blazing across terrain that I've laboriously driven and hiked at a snail's pace at other points in my life. Someone once said that experience is about perspective, and this was the most extreme change in perspective I've ever known.

    I boarded a Boeing 777 from Frankfurt to Washington and settled into an aisle seat I had requested weeks in advance. This was Economy Plus, the slightly larger coach seats near the front of the Economy cabin. The plane was full.
    As we waited to leave, a flight attendant marched up from behind and halted at my elbow. I thought, Surely she won't ask me to move, with all my papers out and laptop still open. Her hand came to rest on my shoulder. "Excuse me, sir. Would you mind trading your seat with a woman in the back? She has a toddler. She needs more room."
    What would you have said before your own conscience and the eyes of fellow passengers? I collected my belongings, took down my carry-on, and headed back to steerage, the true Economy. My seat was barely visible across the cabin, against a window in the next to last row. I shoehorned myself across a large man guarding his aisle seat. The wall of the aircraft scooped down against my leg, arranging my feet like a duck's for the next nine and a half hours. The flight was a vivid reminder of the state of modern air travel: torturous.

    At NASA's Ames Research Center in California, I climbed behind the controls of a space shuttle simulator. The windows inside the darkened cabin presented me with a virtual horizon of the Florida marshes, zippered by the landing strip at Kennedy Space Center several thousand feet below. My heart pounded as I maneuvered to stay on the centerline and keep the shuttle from stalling. I was getting the hang of it after seven or eight landings when my hosts took me to a simulator of a Boeing 747-400, the reigning jumbo jet.
    After takeoff from a virtual scene of San Francisco International Airport, I flew the monster wide-body out over the Pacific and leveled off at a couple hundred feet (60 meters), then turned back and made a low-level run right under the Golden Gate Bridge at 400 miles (640 kilometers) an hour.
    Finally they put me into a Boeing 757 but with a trick up their sleeve. With NASA's database of Mars orbiters fed into the computer, the windows turned crimson, and
in a moment I was piloting the airplane above a faithfully reproduced landscape of the red planet. Talk about out of this world!


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