As we push back from our gate at Heathrow Airport we light the Boeing 747’s engines in pairs, starting with those under the starboard wing. A sudden hush falls in the cockpit as the air flow for the air-conditioning units is diverted. It’s this, air alone, that begins to spin the enormous techno-petals of the fans, faster and faster, until fuel and fire are added, and each engine wakes with a low rumble that grows to a smooth, unmistakable roar.
We begin to taxi. In legal terms, a journey begins when “an aircraft moves under its own power for the purpose of flight.” In aircraft manuals, elaborate charts that recall da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” illustrate the angles and distances that the extremities of the plane sweep through as we maneuver on the ground. A pleasing terminology accompanies these images of the plane’s turning limbs: tail radius and steering angle and the wingtip that swings the largest arc.
A quarter of an hour later we reach the runway. I push the four thrust levers forward for an experience that repetition hasn’t dulled: the unfurling carpet of guiding lights that say here, the voice of the controller that says now; the sense, in the first seconds after the engines reach their assigned takeoff power, that this is only a curious kind of driving down an equally curious road.
But with speed comes a transition, the gathering sense that the wheels matter less and the flight controls on the wings and the tail matter more. In the cockpit we sense the airplane’s speed-born life to come in the air, we feel clearly that long before we leave the ground we are already flying along it, and as the lights of the runway start to alternate red and white to indicate its approaching end, as the four rivers of power that equal nearly a quarter of a million pounds of thrust unfurl over the runway behind us, I lift the nose.
As if we are only pulling out of a driveway, I turn right, toward Tokyo.
We are underway.
When someone I’ve just met at a dinner or a party learns that I’m a pilot, he or she often asks me about my work. Three questions come up most often, in language that hardly varies. Is flying something I have always wanted to do? Have I ever seen anything “up there” that I cannot explain? And do I remember my first flight? I like these questions. They seem to have arrived, entirely intact, from a time before flying became ordinary.
Read the rest of the essay here: In Flight - NYTimes.com