Turning 36 is huge. It's when you cross that threshold between youth and middle age. Some may insist middle age doesn't begin until 45. Yeah, they can keep telling that to their emerging crow's feet. I have no trouble admitting I'm not young anymore. However, that doesn't mean I would now stop shopping at Forever 21, or glare (with bitter envy!) at prettier and younger peeps on the streets, or get hooked on Botox treatments and start to look like John Travolta in the O.J. show. I'm not even planning to do sensible middle-age stuff, like having children or buying a house. If anything, this transition has made me hungrier for adventures and more resentful at everyday tedium. I've lived half of my life already (well, approximately); I'd rather not spend the second half enduring boredom. So to celebrate my 36th birthday, I decided to take a flight lesson with Pacific Blue Air at Hawthorne Airport near L.A. This adventure, my friends, turned out to be not at all minuscule.
They call it a motorized glider or an air trike, which is an open aircraft for two people. It can fly either low or high, either with or without the engine. And in a moment of peril, parachutes can be released. Flying it was like riding a motorcycle in the sky. My body could sense every gust of wind through that oversized pilot suit. We flew to Manhattan beach, waved at sun-bathing sea lions and dipped down a bit to befriend some sharks. My flight instructor, Henry, was the one flying it almost throughout our 30-minute lesson. But for about 3 - 5 minutes or so, he let go of the steering bar and I got to be in charge of piloting. I was confident, totally confident. But truth be told, confidence doesn't guarantee competence. The bar was pretty heavy for me to maneuver (Yes, even for my brawny Pilates arms!). I unintentionally made a few sharp turns, flew in circles for a little while, and before we became unwilling lunch to the sharks we earlier befriended, Henry (who was probably thinking "Oh, you hopeless little woman!") took back his control and flew us to safety. The whole flight I felt safe, carefree and electrifyingly liberated......even during those few minutes of my subpar performance.
Then less than 5 minutes after our landing, while waiting for Henry to download my flight photos from his plane-mounted cameras, I heard someone yell "holy shit!" Looking up, I saw another air trike that had just taken off losing its balance and swerving down onto the ground.
Yes, one of the most amazing moments of my life was closely followed by someone else's greatest tragedy. Shortly after I celebrated my birthday, another human met her demise right before my eyes. The wreckage caught fire instantly. I wasn't close enough to the scene to smell the smoke or the burning jet fuel, but the air around me just reeked of mortality. I soon learned there was one woman in that crashed aircraft--an experienced student pilot who had flown by herself multiple times. She was in full cardiac arrest when the ambulance arrived and later pronounced dead at a hospital.
My reaction was more of shock than sadness. I left Hawthorne Airport and tried to enjoy the rest of my day, but my happiness felt vaguely inappropriate after such incident. And this is going to sound unbearably cliched, but yeah, witnessing someone die like that made me want to live more meaningfully and never postpone life. I'll finish my collection of interlinked short stories. I'll try to wriggle my way into the food writing business. I'll be more patient with my opinionated mother. I won't get annoyed next time she urges me to have children (Well, I will probably get annoyed but I'll try to respond more respectfully). I'll learn how to swim butterfly. I'll order that French dish I don't know how to pronounce. And I'll fly an air trike again.