Late September, 1998


Perhaps it is because I am older now, or perhaps it is just the lumps on my head, but I was chosen as a confessor the other day. A friend came to me in a repentant demeanor and admitted to me that he had committed aviation. He said that for no particular reason at all, he had jumped into his airplane, gone flying, and had fun. This he acknowledged, broke Rule 91.

Rule 91 could be regarded as the "look but don't touch" rule, and says among other things, that airplanes must stay away from clouds, and not fly close to the ground. My friend acknowledged the wisdom of these rules, but said that he was overcome by the retreating remnants of a deck of low clouds which had made the entire day dull and gray.

With no premeditated intention of having fun, my friend climbed away from the airport and noticed the low clouds that he was approaching. He had been climbing only a minute or two, but already he was at their height. He drifted over to them, as innocently as a boy in his Sunday best might walk over to a frog pond.

He had gauged the height of the deck as he approached, and stopped his climb at an altitude where his wheels would seem to roll through the cloud tops like a car through fresh snow. He felt giddy to watch what a hundred miles an hour looked like, as the clouds zipped by in the evening sun. There were irregular hummocks of cloud projecting up from the deck, and he flew tight circles around them.

All of this had been in horizontal flight, but quickly the cloud structure became a roller coaster that he could steer at his whim. Up the side of a cloud, over the top, and down the other side. Skim over the cloudy flats and make steep yet graceful turns. Drop down into a hole and circle its perimeter... There was no limit to the places he could go and the things he could do.

It was an unearthly roller- coaster, and an equally unearthly view. He described how in the far distance there was a line of tall clouds, the retreating weather- makers, that stood like distant mountains at the end of the broad plain. The sky above was a crystal blue with a few wispy white clouds, still brightly lit by the sun. The clouds below were different shades of white, pink, and gray depending upon their thickness and their position relative to the setting sun.

His ride gave him a lifetime memory, but lasted maybe ten minutes. He might have stayed longer but for Rule 91. If airplanes could land on the clouds though, he might still be sitting on top of one of the hummocks, quietly savoring another sunset. He left the land of clouds and flew to one of the little airports to find someone to tell of his adventure. That is where I saw him, and heard his confession. His eyes were alive with passion, and it was clear to me that he was punishing himself by verbalizing all the details of his crime.

He had been playing with the clouds, and that's against the rules. He was low though, low enough that he would be below anybody who was just passing through, and he was in crystal clear air. The only other airplane that would have come near him was another fool such as himself. It should be remembered, though, that like lightning bolts, fools tend to cluster at predictable locations.

Luckily for my friend, there are plenty of places for people to spend their spare time, from golf to TV. Given a fairly sparse local population of active pilots, there is not much competition for the seat that he had for those few minutes.

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