John Gillespie Magee, Jr.’s sonnet “High Flight” begins “Oh I have slipped the surly bonds of earth…”.
I’ve known the poem for years, but never really understood the first line until we took off from Port Vila in the De Havilland Twin Otter, reputed to be very reliable, but the smallest plane I have ever paid to be in (I went up in a Cessna once, and saw a rainbow come down in the centre of a paddock, but that was a long time ago).
The airport in Port Vila is a large industrial shed divided in two: the domestic and international terminals. That’s the domestic departure gate on the right in the picture above.
Through the gate and on the tarmac were two very small aircraft. When it was time to board, our little group of passengers (laden with assorted luggage – bags and woven mats and cooking oil and bundles of fresh peanuts with their stalks tied together) walked out between the two. One had the reassuring words “In Emergency Cut Here” painted on the side near a dotted line. The pilots of the planes were leaning out talking to each other across the tarmac. A passenger ahead of me asked which flight was our flight number. The pilots looked blank and we milled around between the two planes until I called out, “Are you going to Tanna?” to one of the planes and the pilot laughed and said “Yes, that’s the right question!”. So we clambered up the stairs.
That’s the interior of the plane on the right. It seats 20. The stairs fold up into the plane (see the wriggly line about two thirds up the right side of that page? That’s the handrail of the stairs). There was no pressurisation. My elbow was pressed against an emergency exit door and cold air came in around the edges of the door. Cold air coming in around exit door pressed against elbow. From the back seat (where I was) we could see into cockpit. See the left-hand cockpit window? I’ve drawn the windscreen wiper there.
Twin Otters don’t need much of a run-up to take off. We leapt up and into the buffeting island winds. I could feel the plane strain and toss against the pull of the earth, and was very aware of the size of the plane and the wind whistling around the door. And then we pulled free and the engine didn’t seem to labour as loudly, and we were up above the island and the reefs and sandbanks, each circled by concentric rings of coloured sea.
“Oh I have slipped the surly bonds of earth…”. The words of “High Flight” suddenly made sense, and kept going through my mind, together with these lines from Judith Wright’s poem “The Idler”:
The islands ran like emeralds through his fingers
(Oparo, Manahiki, Tubuai)
till he turned truant, cleared the heads at dawn
and half-forgot the seasons, under that sky…
(Part 1 here).