Sunrise Magazine Online

First Flight

[The following written to his wife over 38 years ago by the then Captain Arthur L. Conger, might well be considered the earliest effort to express that spiritual buoyancy in flight that the authors of God is My Co-Pilot and The Wisdom of the Sands have also endeavored to share. — Ed.]

Texas City, 17 April '13

My dear M:

Picture me in leather coat and helmet climbing over the wires and taking a seat in biplane No. 6 next Mr. Milling the pilot. Overhead a few inches above my forehead is a wire I am cautioned not to touch (it kills the engine); by each hand is a handle I am cautioned not to take hold of; by my foot is a lever I am likewise reminded to keep my feet clear of. There is nothing for me to do but fold my hands, which I do, and try to relax and appear unconcerned since a half a dozen officers of the 18th, Duke, Purdon, Arnold, are all joking me about saying my prayers, then the engine starts: the propellers are behind me, begin to move — slowly at first — then with a mad rush. It yielded the same sensations as storming a redoubt, only that one must have been killed and left his body in the dust while his spirit freed from matter was rising triumphantly in the air. That first sensation, I am sure must be like the sensation of being killed where the soul after a terrific struggle tears itself loose from the body and wends its way to its own abode, at last it is over. I note (with satisfaction) that we are out over the water and approaching the dock, (somehow the water seems more natural and friendly). Soon we turn inland, however, and the earth flies by underneath. The little toy camps with tents so neatly arranged in rows look about the size of a playing card — our regimental camp. We pass down through the whole divisional encampment, beyond to a farm. The Aneroid Barometer now shows an altitude of 600 feet. I note that the farm wagon below, driving towards us directly in line with our flight seems peculiarly small, but I can see with distinctness that the driver is looking up at us. The plowed field looks ridiculously like the conventional sign on a military map. In fact the whole landscape has a strange unnatural look. With the perspective gone, the earth is no longer one's familiar abiding place but a toy land. You wonder whether the shadows cast by the afternoon sun are real or merely painted on the landscape. What infinite patience must have been necessary to make those tiny houses and trees, fences: one cannot take them seriously as being houses where human beings dwell. How clearly the roads, in fact even every trail and foot path, stand out. I can see where the pipe line of our old camp used to run and how irregularly the company streets and ditches reached from it. What a contrast to our new model camp, visible on the other side, but oh how small it is getting. A postage stamp held at arms' length would cover it now. The aneroid registers 900. We are going against the wind and very slowly, but there is no sensation of altitude. It isn't like a Washington Monument or Eiffel tower, where stone or iron structure raises you so many feet. You are the real thing. The vision passing below you is merely an illusion and not even a familiar one. It may be a map of our earth which we are looking at but it cannot be the earth itself. I try to talk to Mr. Milling sitting beside me but the wind and motor drown out my voice and I see he does not hear. He makes me hear the words however — "let me know when you want to go down." I try to ask him if he would just as soon take me higher but can't make him hear. I then point up with my finger — and we keep a climbing — 1100 — 1200 — 1300 — 1400. There is no sensation of being higher, because there is none of being high in the first place, but there is a distinct change in the size of things. The houses seem even too small for ants to live in. I see an auto — it must be an auto because it is moving — it is merely a speck on the road, — it stops; a man — a still more minute speck gets out. Wonderful, the clearness and distinctness of things.

I am not nervous but find myself sort of "bracing" as one does in an automobile and trying to help the plane along.

We have been creeping out over the country way beyond Texas City. I see Galveston and the long Galveston island stretching down beyond. It looks close at hand, probably due to the fact that I see so much ocean beyond it since I know it must be ten miles or so away.

We are still at 1400 and I feel that Mr. Milling does not really want to go up higher — also he has to take up the other officers of the 18th who have asked to go and I shall be delaying him and them if I ask him to go higher so I signal "content"; he puts the rudder down and we begin to glide. There is no feeling of dropping because there is no apparent change in the size of things but one feels the rush of air upward and now we begin the spirals and a "highland fling" as they call cutting the figure eight. As we get nearer and circle the camps we seem to be travelling faster and once more we swoop down and the earth is rushing, tumbling madly under our foolish little rubber wheels. We are on the aviation field in the midst of our friends. Has it been real or only a dream? The aviation sergeant comes up to take the records and gravely enters time of flight 15 min. — altitude 1400 ft., but he does not know anything about it because really a soul has been emancipated, not as in sleep or dreams but in full waking consciousness and has returned to earth with full memories. The time cannot be measured because it was outside of earthly time we were flying. Nor can the altitude, because all ratio between earth and plane had disappeared and there was left only the self the two souls and the great illusion, no longer with power to delude but shown in its nakedness and stripped of its seductiveness.

I wish I might tell you how it felt, but just as one could not anticipate the sensation, so one cannot describe it. The General comes over later and does not care to fly but has his photograph taken sitting in the plane. He is welcome to his photograph. I am content with the memories.

As ever, Whit


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The years have not been easy but when I measure the grain that has fallen to me from the sifting I have much to be grateful for. Friends tried and true — memories that time cannot sully and above all peace of mind. "Can we forget one friend, can we forget one face That cheered us to the end, that nerved us for the race? To God-like souls how deep our debt We would not if we could — forget!" — E. Preston