Updated: Sep 28
Admit it. No one likes the middle seat on an airplane. You can’t easily look to your left or right without wondering if the person next to you thinks you’re looking at them or trying to watch their movie. So, there you sit, staring at the back of the seat in front you. In fact, one of the main reasons I became a pilot was to avoid the middle seat. The aisle seat is a much better option.
On the aisle you have easy access to the lavatory, you can stand up and stretch your legs without stumbling over someone’s tray table, and you are guaranteed to have at least one armrest to yourself. One downside to having that armrest - odds are that your aisle-side elbow becomes a speed bump for the beverage cart. Another downside to the aisle seat is the lack of real scenic sights; except for the uncomfortable waist level view of folks lining up for the lavatory after dinner.
But for my money, other than the spectacular views from the cockpit, I prefer the window seat. Getting out of your seat in flight is a bit more difficult from the window seat, but the views more than make up for the inconvenience. Looking down from 36,000 feet you can see broken clouds forming vast shadows across the desert, or the small, visible wake of a boat racing across a lake on a perfect day. However, and this might be the aerospace engineer talking, my favorite view is looking down the surface of the wing itself on a misty day as we approach the runway to land. On those days, you can see the water vapor in the air as it flows over the wing and curls into a vortex at the wingtip. On the one hand, I recall my years struggling through engineering lectures on laminar flow, fluid dynamics and bound layer effects. On the other, I am captured by the simple elegance of air dancing around the wing, keeping tons of metal, cargo and humanity aloft. In those moments, I am reminded that science is not just the sum of complex equations or the practical application of materials to serve a useful purpose, but a way of exploring what is inherently beautiful and magnificent in the created order of our world.
You see, to create lift and keep the wing outside my window suspended above the earth, small particles are separated as they meet the leading edge of the wing. Those molecules were simply minding their own business, hanging out on a Saturday evening, several miles above the earth when suddenly they are separated by an unexpected, aluminum intruder. Now, their lives are upended and they find themselves detached, parted, and distanced.
One molecule is racing above the metal surface of the wing, while another slugs its way below. Once they leave the leading edge and are trapped in the boundary layer, they really have no idea what is going to happen or how long they will be separated. Will this pass quickly, like passing over the wing of a Cessna 172, or will it take a while, like traversing the airfoil of a Boeing 747 with flaps extended? Regardless of the timing and relative uncertainty, aerodynamic theory reminds us that those particles must rejoin each other, side-by-side, at the trailing edge for the wing to function and lift to be generated. However, if those same particles spin out of control, if they become permanently separated, the wing “stalls.” Then, nearly all lift is lost and gravity exerts its invisible and deadly will.
During times of uncertainty and change, we might feel like we are air particles folding around a wing that has arrived unexpectedly in our space. We might feel more separated than together. Some of us are racing above, some slugging it out below. But, unless we decide to spin out of control, we know that in time, we will meet together on the other side and continue moving forward.
So, what can cause us to spin out of control? Like a pilot in unstable or unexpected conditions, we can over-correct or over-control for the situation we are facing. We can let fear and panic decide our direction. We can forget the lessons that we have been taught by those who have faced similar situations, or fail to trust in their guidance and wisdom. We can selfishly consider only our journey and ignore that others need us as much as we need them. We can ignore the truth that lift and hope is only created by working together, trusting each other, and having the courage to face the next moment confidently and expectantly.
Today, we find ourselves somewhere between the leading and trailing edges. For some, these days are moving quickly. For others, time is thick with pressure and uncertainty. Yet, regardless of how separated and distanced we seem, we are, in fact, together. We have to be.
I know it feels easier to say than do, but for a moment stop and look past the wing, the science, the questions, the news, and social media. Look out your window and take in the view around you. Pay attention to the morning sun breaking through the trees, the wildlife which thrives at a local park or in your backyard, or the stars whose light is just now arriving after traveling across the galaxy. And then, share your view with those who might be stuck in the middle seat.