Photo Essay

RATDROP: An Exploration of Altitude, Liberty and the Inevitable Heaviness of Being

It's a constitutional right to own a jet that exceeds the sound barrier, burns a fantastic amount of fuel for what can only be short range flights, has no significant space for luggage, and can be fitted for weapons of mass destruction.

By Mark Fenton
Published November 26, 2008

I say to the boys of my class, "At last, I have a real secret."

"What is it - what is it?"

"I can fly."

And when they do not believe me, I flap my arms and slowly leave the ground only a few inches at first, then gaining air until I fly waving my cap level with the upper windows of the school...

--Dylan Thomas

In November of 2005, I attended a National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) conference in Orlando Florida. It was sparsely attended and felt somewhat cobbled together, having been transported to Orlando at the last minute. The city that was to have hosted it was unusable, having been destroyed that August by a hurricane.

My most vivid memory of the conference (which I left after a day, having gotten all my work done and finding my hotel next to the interstate less than compelling) was a display by the Aviation Technology Group (ATG) of their new jet, the Javelin. Complete with a Javelin on site, which, if not airworthy, was actual size.

What's unique about the Javelin is that it's a high-speed fighter jet designed for the personal jet market. Wikipedia, in a rare moment of comic understatement, describes this as "an unusual concept for civilian jets." It's easy to be lulled by presentation. NBAA is solely a CIVILIAN aviation event.

At the Javelin booth, the dress and body language of the sales representative, as well as the typically glossy literature he handed me on his product, assured me that it was entirely fitting and proper that the successful entrepreneur with $3,000,000 to dispose of would want this machine. (Don't even ask me for a breakdown of what the infrastructure around a private jet will cost you.)

Just as it's a constitutional right to fill the bedroom closet with automatic weapons and to own a faux-military motor vehicle that's impossible to park, it's a constitutional right to own a jet that exceeds the sound barrier, burns a fantastic amount of fuel for what can only be short range flights, has no significant space for luggage, and can be fitted for weapons of mass destruction.

Javelin. First flight takeoff, September 30, 2005
Javelin. First flight takeoff, September 30, 2005

The Javelin display included a Javelin flight simulator. A hefty young man was just finishing up on it, and getting out of the chair he turned briefly to face me. I wouldn't describe his face as "hard" so much as it looked like it had been through a good deal, the way the face of a boxer quickly can. Our company had no intention of purchasing a Javelin so I didn't stay.

The Javelin is a reminder that private aviation isn't just about getting you from place to place more quickly and comfortably than is possible on commercial airlines, with their schedules and security checks and cramped seating. Personal aviation satisfies a need to move rapidly above the world.

A pilot once told me that the difference between a pilot and a non-pilot is that a pilot needs to find being in the air endlessly satisfying, since the work itself - at least at the level of flying passenger jets - is largely routine and automated.

A helicopter pilot I worked with (who was having personal challenges that I suggested he discuss with a professional who wasn't me, despite the fact that my then-title of Aviation Analyst suggested I was a career-appropriate therapist) confessed to me during a brief drought of flying that these times without flying were hard for him.

It wasn't simply about not being able to practice his craft. It was the fact that he NEEDED to be above the world in order to be happy and liberated. That when he was airborne all the problems of everyday life remained at ground level.

Like the Trapeze Artist in Kafka's "First Sorrow."

A trapeze artist - this art, practiced high in the vaulted domes of the great variety theaters, is admittedly one of the most difficult humanity can achieve - had so arranged his life that, as long as he kept working in the same building, he never came down from his trapeze by night or day, at first only from a desire to perfect his skill, but later because custom was too strong for him.

All his needs, very modest needs at that, were supplied by relays of attendants who watched from below and sent up and hauled down again in specially constructed containers whatever he required.

On the rare occasions the trapeze artist has to take the train from one venue to another, he elevates himself as best he can in the luggage rack in terror of the crushing ground-level anxieties he is normally above (literally).

For the purposes of understanding the emotional freedom of altitude, and a host of other curiosities about flight, I recently accepted an invitation to be the only passenger on a corporate jet during a RAT drop. Contrary to what I imagined when I first heard about it, this is not a high altitude purge of the unwanted vermin that plague private aircraft.

This procedure tests the Ram Air Turbine. Imagine that your pilots have requested insufficient fuel for the trip and haven't been checking the gauges and run out of fuel in mid-air. Or similarly imagine that all the fuel and battery driven generators spontaneously and simultaneously jam up.

In the case of these unlikely events, fear not. One of the pilots can push a manual lever, so that a windmill drops from the nose and generates enough energy to operate aircraft systems at some extremely low level (the tests that V., our maintenance engineer, had to perform include making sure the RAT generates enough energy to power the hydraulics and thus drop the landing gear, a potential of the RAT that I find jaw-droppingly amazing).

Having just experienced it, I can tell you that the sound of RAT deployment is unmistakable and unignorable. Should you, during a flight, suddenly hear what sounds like the undulating whirr of that machine the dental hygienist uses to polish your teeth, you can assume that the crew have just dropped the RAT and are having what my pilot coworkers refer to as "a bad day in the air." Comfort yourself with the thought that these are the most environmentally friendly operations an airborne jet is likely to have.

Here's how the RAT looks in relation to the aircraft.

I took this just after we landed and V. warned me not to get any closer as it can "start up again at any time," something I don't altogether understand the physics of, since I thought it was solely wind-powered and would need a jet-like forward movement to twirl at any dangerous speed.

During the RAT drop I sat briefly in every seat of the jet, including the divan. If, in a world where a large percentage of our species lives on a handful of rice per day, you don't believe you understand what it is to be over-privileged and would like to, I recommend you accept your next invitation to be the sole passenger on a business jet.

Speaking for myself, I learned that I don't entirely know how to maximize idle luxury.

It just made me sad. Even the view from the window seemed lonelier than usual, as though the ceiling the pilots were finding a hole through

was a place I might vaporize into if my sense of self became as indistinct as I felt it rapidly becoming. I thought it would be more fun to go as close to the cockpit as possible where V. was seated in the jumpseat, between the pilots, performing his tests

looking, in the gleaming symmetry of the galley walls, as though he were about to travel the technology-enabled vistas of eternity that David Bowman experiences in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I was disconcerted though, by the grinding sound of the RAT, and the fact that, during low level flights, I'm always jittery at the prospect of bird strikes. In fact, earlier that week I had been emailed photos of a Challenger 604 that had just barely survived a multi-strike

penetrating clean through the dash.

I couldn't tell you if it was a wake of buzzards, a muster of storks, a brace of ducks, a gaggle of geese, a siege of cranes, or some completely other dissimulation of birds (am I, in addition to everything else that gets asked of me, expected to be an ornithologist?). I could show you what other members of the insert your preferred collective birdnoun here did to the turbines, but I don't revel in being needlessly gruesome.

Reopening these attachments on by Blackberry as I flew, I realized I'm not among those who gains an inherent pleasure from being in the air. That's why it's good that I'm not a pilot.

Perhaps, I thought, I might find pleasures of altitude by being above the ground in an organic way, more like Kafka's trapeze artist. To explore this, I took lunch the next day in the parking lot behind the Mountain arena on Upper James and Hester.

This is one of my favourite places to go, mainly because just North of the arena is a collection of majestic weeping willows (or weeping somethings; am I, in addition to everything else that gets asked of me, expected to be a dendrologist?) planted, in, like, a private parking lot behind some Hammer walk-ups, but until someone throws me out of there for being suspicious and creepy, I intend to just keep going there and enjoying them.

They are not just beautiful; they are ideal for climbing. I put down my things and did just that.

I am a bit out of practice. I had to relearn - after perhaps - gasp! - more than a decade - the proper hand-grip for bark, how to maintain balance within odd-angled crannies, and how to assess what size of branch can bear me, now that I'm large. But like bike-riding, tree-climbing comes back quickly, and I was soon aloft and moving hither and thither through the upper branches

as though I were a primate.

I only regretted that the weeping trees were so few and far between that I was prevented leaping from one to the other, believing for an hour that I might never come down.

Before bed that night I wanted to enjoy a few more pages of Italo Calvino's novel, The Baron in the Trees. After looking everywhere for the book, I had a sudden flash of memory and knew exactly where I had left it. It was what I had put down to climb the tree.

I had been so overcome with aerial bliss that I had forgotten to collect it when I left. What was worse - for me - is that my memory could see the sawed stump on which I had placed it. I could see it more vividly in my mind than in this photo I took of the stump.

It was raining that night and I could barely stop thinking about it there, or about the place where it HAD been, if it had been taken, or blown off or been ruined. I hoped that someone in the warm dry apartments beside the tree had found it and that she was at this moment curled up with it in bed, taking sips from a piping hot beverage on the bedside table while she read.

DIGRESSION ON HOW I AM OFTEN HAUNTED BY THINGS I FIND AND DISPLACE

Often I will move things from one place to another. Usually it's fine that I do so, but sometimes, and always at night, I will think of these things and the place they are in, far from other people or any kind of observation. And it horrifies me.

I don't quite understand why it horrifies me, but it does. Here's an example. Once, at noon, I was walking through an industrial zone taking photos with the intention of later using them for a photo essay which I never wrote because the half of them I really needed I hadn't backed up and I lost them in a system crash. Anyway, during my walk I found these two different sized washers, one larger that the other,

as though the larger, rusted one had spawned the young shiny one. They were irresistibly tactile and naturally I picked them up and just as naturally, when I returned to our offices, I dropped them carelessly in my mailbox.

All of which is fine and normal. But that night I couldn't stop thinking of them, in the dark, exposed, staring into the void like eyeless sockets.

(See what I mean!) The worst time was about two hours before the dawn when it was all I could do to keep myself from jumping in the car, driving to work, throwing on every light in the building and moving them somewhere they'd be so concealed that I couldn't picture them.

I now have them locked away in a bottom drawer under a bunch of old insurance policies I'm not sure I still need but don't want to throw out in case I do. Someone, ANYONE, PLEASE let me know if you experience something similar.

END OF DIGRESSION ON A MILD PSYCHOPATHOLOGY

It was particularly maddening to have lost The Baron in the Trees, because I had just reached the moment where Cosimo, the hero, is about to consummate his relations with Viola, the young woman from an neighbouring estate whom he has loved since they were children, and if I didn't get the book back they would remain up in the branches, almost touching, yet forever frozen in time, like the lovers in Keats' "Ode on A Grecian Urn."

OVERVIEW of The Baron in the Trees WHICH I'M DISCOVERING YOU NEED TO HAVE IN ORDER TO ENJOY THIS ESSAY

One day Cosimo, an Italian nobleman whose dates span the period from the Enlightenment to the Napoleonic wars and who at this point is still a child, quarrels with his parents and runs outside onto their property and up into a tree threatening to never again come down as long as he lives.

He fulfills this promise, living his life in trees, meeting exiles and prisoners who also live in trees, corresponding with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, enjoying a colourful romantic life, even having swordfights with pirates - throughout the book he sort of swoops down for food and combat and all sorts of other things the ground offers, while still technically being in a tree.

(Already I know you people are picturing Johnny Depp in the movie version.) In Calvino's late 18th century universe a well-defined subculture spends portions of their days and even lives in trees, moving up into and within them as effortlessly as people in a Chinese action movie.

Cosimo's ability to span countries is surprisingly unrestricted (and incidentally way more fuel efficient than a private jet) due to the vast stretch of trees in the Mediterranean at that time. Here's a quote by the narrator, who happens to be Cosimo's brother:

I don't know if it's true, the story they tell in books, that in ancient days a monkey could have left Rome and skipped from tree to tree till it reached Spain, without ever touching earth.

It's not quite as extensive a navigational path in Cosimo's day, but he can still get from Italy to France without any terribly frustrating rerouting, which is way more distance than I managed to get in the parking lot behind Mountain Arena.

On the way to work the next day I was trembling as I pulled up to my tree,

To my amazement the book was lying right where I'd left it, undamaged by the rain.

Perhaps my ideal reader had stayed up all night to finish it, and after washing her cup and putting it back in the cupboard had gotten dressed and on her way to work placed the book back where she'd found it. Or perhaps trees just provide better shelter than I'd imagined. (Cosimo never complains about being wet.) I was now able to finish the book.

I was able to read of how Cosimo could never really have the exclusive relations he wanted with Viola, as she was sleeping with pretty much everyone in southern Europe when she wasn't up in the trees with him, and how this finally drives Cosimo insane with jealousy.

He confronts her. She leaves him, petulantly and forever. Cosimo grows old, and finally dies, still up in the trees. I'm glad not to have missed that.

I wanted to do something to commemorate losing the book and then finding it again. The early morning stillness was punctuated by a few commuters leaving the buildings and eyeing me with hurried indifference. Nearby I heard and then saw a small trickle of water emptying out of a drainpipe onto the ground.

Although I can't remember which of my parents read it to me, one of my vivid memories of childhood is a single passage from The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle.

While ostensibly a journey by a little girl named Lucie to reclaim some lost linen from an anthropomorphic hedgehog, the book is really a devastating metaphysical journey of self-discovery, religious awakening and the blossoming of adult sexuality. (I am tempted to note that the book bears a striking similarity to The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Basho the great 17th Century Japanese poet and travel writer, but in addition to restricting my synopsis to what is self-evident I've been advised by a readership tenuous enough that I don't want to diminish it further that I should keep these essays to a modest length, which is more than I've been able to do with this sentence.)

The part that's always stayed with (from TTOMTW if you've lost the train) and which still has the force of a myth is this page,

(This is the whole page! I know. It's easy to forget how low a wordcount TTOFTW has, given the book's archetypal power!) The facing illustration is, indeed worth 63 words.

perhaps because water has so many primal associations with cleansing, regeneration and fertility, I wanted to create a similar situation to commemorate finding my book. Water nurtures trees and this fit nicely with The Baron. There was no shortage of littered Tim Horton's coffee cups around. I pulled the plastic lid off of one and was startled momentarily by the odd creeping things within.

I used it as is. Why should I bother to upset them? The little creatures would either crawl away or be amphibious and therefore not care that they were becoming engulfed. Compared to the pestilence of humans they leave a light footprint even on our garbage.

I placed the cup under the drainpipe in homage to Beatrix Potter. Let this also be a memorial to the dead birds who had no good reason to imagine humans would take to the air in metal machines traveling 300 nautical miles per hour.

I never finished my story about the young man who was trying out the flight simulator for the Javelin. I didn't speak to him myself, but S. the pilot I attended the conference with did and the young pilot's story provides some explanation of why his face is slightly off kilter.

Turns out he is a USAF pilot. He had been training over Arizona one day, flying front seat at a low altitude. His co-pilot, in the rear-seat - as they are arranged in two-seater fighter-planes - heard a deafening explosion and saw the front of the canopy smashed, broken glass and blood everywhere, the front-seat pilot slumped and the jet going into a dive.

I've never flown fighter planes but S. has and tells me that in a critical situation like this one a pilot has 10ths of seconds to assess the situation and choose to eject or not. Given the information and time to process it S. says he might have done the same thing.

A bird had gone through the canopy. Miraculously, after the rear-seat pilot bailed, the front-seat pilot regained consciousness, managed to land the plane and was rushed to hospital where his face was put back together (an impressive job I'd say, under the circumstances.)

He continues to enjoy flying fighter planes, as indicated by his enthusiasm even for the recreation-targeted Javelin. We're all different. Even if I win the lottery you won't find my name on the waitlist for a Javelin.

But wave if you see a grown man in a bomber jacket high up in the trees behind Mountain Arena. He'll wave back.

The advent of wireless communications has made it possible for Mark to hold down a day job while spending quantity time out beyond the limits of something approaching a general consensus about what's important in post-industrial society. In addition to working as a product demonstrator at Sobeys, Mark has worked as an ID photographer for a community college, a Kelly Girl, a Legal and Consumer Counsellor for an Auto Club, a Hall Director for a Southern Ontario University Residence, and an Aviation Analyst. He is the co-author of a television pilot called Bad Hall Director, which is unproduced but was once (and for all he knows may still be) seriously considered by serious producers, and he is the sole author of the e-novel of the same title on which it is based, and which must still exist on a CD at the bottom of a bottom drawer of his desk. He makes his home in Hamilton, Ontario.

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By Happy Thetan (anonymous) | Posted November 27, 2008 at 14:00:07

Mark, a true work of performance art! Thanks to Jeff for the lead to it. Glen

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By Serendipitous Visitor (anonymous) | Posted November 28, 2008 at 13:13:47

Wow. Just - wow. There's not really anything else like this on the Internet or in print. Thank your for sharing your deranged, genius vision!

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By curly wurly (anonymous) | Posted November 28, 2008 at 15:12:41

Brilliant as usual.

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By Baloney (anonymous) | Posted December 02, 2008 at 14:58:39

Good day Mr Fenton. Well deserved nod from the Spectator's Jeff Mahoney on a truely head-spinning essay. I look forward to reading your archives as well.

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