Discover something new.

1. Traffic Patterns

I worked hard on my pilotage the summer of 1994. Pilotage: aircraft navigation by observation of ground features and the use of charts and maps. My Manual of Flight instructed me to use good checkpoints for proper orientation, to know where I was. A grain elevator perhaps, a racetrack or stadium. Bridges make excellent checkpoints. I could see the bridges of Portland from the window of my studio apartment. I could see all of downtown and the hills beyond, the yellow Go-By-Train neon sign blinking in stages at Union Station and, closer in, the 24-hour bowling alley with its Pump Room cocktail lounge and the street lamps down Alder, lit up in winter fog.

I flew to Eugene solo, getting lost in a desolate stretch of the Willamette Valley. I found my way again with the help of a particular bend in the river. In the air, I could find my way. On the ground, I was still lost, looking out my window at the morning clouds burning off, at a carnival along the river, at unseasonal fireworks. I fooled around with Will, who had a girlfriend; I helped him cheat on my single futon mattress after too many rum and sodas at the Monte Carlo. The wind was blowing hard, stirring up all the loose debris in my messy room—my floor with its tides, clothes and papers drifting toward the walls and gathering around chairs.

Most pilots are subject to certain illusions during night flying, the manual says. My journal notes a dream I have of taking off at night, barreling down the runway and lifting into pitch darkness, no lights, only stars.

In my logbook, I record practicing my touch-and-goes: landing on the runway, then immediately gunning the throttle and taking off, back into the traffic pattern and around again, over and over until I get it right, repeating the circle but still, somehow, moving forward.


2. Cockpit Management

In 1994, I was twenty-six years old, exactly half the age I am now. My lipstick shade was deep red with brownish undertones: “Toast of New York,” Revlon 95. In the summer, I developed the habit of wearing skirts without pantyhose or underwear, usually just to the Fred Meyer supermarket (“Freddie’s”) to buy cheap red wine but occasionally out on the town and, once, bowling with Trent, whose name is never noted in my journal though the entry he’s a CAD must have been about him. It didn’t last long. Trent broke up with me by standing me up one night and that was that. Trent called me Peaches and took me on picnics to Mount Tabor Park with crackers and a spray can of Cheez Whiz. He watched me apply Revlon lipstick in the side mirror of his vintage car. We sat near the pine trees looking out at the city and I don’t remember what time of year it was or what we could see.

Portland was a city bracketed by hills—Mount Tabor on the east side, and on the west, the one that held the International Rose Test Garden with its neat lines of hybrids and my favorite, the crimson Happy Wanderer. In the distance were greater peaks, seen from the city when the clouds lifted and there was no fog: pointed Mount Hood, and Mount St. Helens to the north, its top long since blasted away. I was advised to avoid the mountains by my flight instructor, warned of their deadly updrafts and downdrafts, how easily they could suck your two-seater Cessna into their snowy, timbered sides.

I have limited sources for excavating my Portland history, only two incomplete journals—a black sketchbook and a maroon lined notebook—and my flight training logbook. All are inadequate and tell me nothing of how I felt. There are few photographs; I didn’t own a camera. I took flying lessons. Somehow I knew to aim upwards. This would be good to relearn now but the documentation is thin.

The logbook records my flight lessons: date, aircraft make and model, points of departure and arrival, remarks, procedures, maneuvers. On February 20, 1994, for example, I practiced four crosswind landings at the tiny airstrip in Mulino with a Cessna 152, N64942. There is no mention in my logbook of the fifty-foot pine trees to avoid near the runway, the skydiving activity, the power lines through the valley, or the towers blinking red far away. No mention of how small Portland looks in the distance or how the green world looks from above.

Instead of photographs, I have descriptions of images in my journals, like the perfect circle of empty Thunderbird bottles around a burnt fire, the train yard Stonehenge I saw one day while walking near Union Station. I have the lists of things seen from my apartment window, a view without humans. I wrote of clouds burning off, clouds descending. (Clouds, another flight hazard. You must dodge every cloud that appears, blowing in from nowhere. You canNOT fly through clouds. They can cause disorientation and lead to a fatal spin.)

I have the remembered image of myself, staring at the city from my fourth-floor picture window. Of my kitchenette, the size of a closet, sink filled with pots and pans. I couldn’t really cook, so I ate things made from packages—Stove Top stuffing, ramen, fake fettuccini with white sauce in a little tube. I had my dinner at the red Formica table by the window. I studied my Manual of Flight at that same table, which I sold when I left town.

My building was called The Melville. Nearby were produce warehouses, Sassy’s strip club, and a convenience store where I’d make late-night runs for 22-ouncers of Mickey’s Big Mouth. I can still see my cheap plastic telephone, peacock green and always on the floor, answering machine attached. Its buttons lit up when the receiver was lifted. I left many things behind when I moved away.


3. The First Solo

My first solo flight was on January 9, 1994; my journal doesn’t mention it. Even my logbook doesn’t describe the actual soloing, but you can see the Pilot-in-Command column filled in for the first time, with a total of 03 hours. I had been in Portland almost a year then. I’d moved on a whim, to escape a broken heart and my youthful aimlessness in Washington, D.C. But it all followed me. In D.C., I’d become fascinated by historic women aviators. These women gave me a sense of direction, a map to follow. I taped copies of their photos to my bedroom walls. There was Harriet Quimby, waving from her triumphant perch atop the shoulders of fishermen after flying the English Channel in 1912. There was Amelia Earhart shaking hands and telling startled farmers she’d just come from America after her transatlantic solo in 1932.

On the day of my solo, my flight instructor and I practiced touch-and-goes at the Aurora airstrip south of the city and then she said, “It’s all yours” or something like that and got out of the plane. That’s the way they do it; they spring the solo on you when they think you’re ready, so you won’t be too nervous in advance, and there you go, taking off alone. It was a Sunday, probably in the afternoon. It got dark so early in the winter there; too dark to fly after work and weekends were often blanketed in fog.

I made twelve landings on the day I soloed. I would have flown the legs of Aurora’s traffic pattern over and over, turning downwind to parallel the runway, turning base, then final, announcing each position to anyone tuned to the airfield’s frequency. On final, the red and white VASI lights at the side of the runway would let me know how my descent was going, if my angle of approach would work. Flight instructors teach a series of rhymes to remember how to read the lights: White over White—You’ll Fly All Night (you are too high). Red over White—You’re Alright (self-explanatory). Red over Red—You’re Dead (same).

I was dating Frank then, I think. Or was I? Frank, whose only presence in my journal is two lines: Have a good little story now about me & Frank, and a month later, The ‘story’ of me & Frank, so much for that. 

I destroyed the story by making it real, I also wrote. So why do I wish for things to happen? And why am I trying to fly? 


4. Visual Flight Rules

The sectional aeronautical charts we used for navigation were made of paper. These charts divided the country into segments, showing terrain, elevations, landmarks (stadiums, lumber mills), and airfields of all sizes. There were blue and purple lines of navigation and the outlines of airspace. The sectionals showed the shapes of towns and cities as seen from the air at night, bright yellow patterns imitating the contours of imagined electric lights gleaming from below.

My Northwest area charts—Seattle and Klamath Falls—were well-worn, held together at the seams with Scotch tape. Routes once flown and marked in pencil were still visible although I had tried to erase them. Some of the landmarks doubled as warnings, things to avoid: power lines, for example, or towers with lights that might only operate part of the time. Other hazards were not spelled out but I was aware of them. The vast stretches of land to the east with no habitation, only mountains and canyons, woods and desert. You must stay away from the desolate landscape, especially the dense pine forests where no one goes. “If you make an emergency landing there,” my flight instructor told me, “it’ll take two weeks to find you.”

I was convinced that my tiny apartment was haunted. Sometimes at night, there was a rustling and blankets moved as if being lifted. I sat upright in the dark, but no one was there.

From the air, I could see the entire city of Portland at once. On the ground, only pieces of the city, laid out in quarters, were visible to me. I crossed the Willamette River daily to go to my job at an alternative newsweekly, where I worked in the classified section selling personal ads. I went from SE to NW, then later to SW when the paper moved from seedy Burnside to nicer digs downtown. The office’s new layout meant staff and freelancers no longer passed the classified desk, stopping to chat on their way in and out. I spoke mostly to our advertisers after that.

Selling personal ads did not pay well but the rent for my studio apartment was low. I bought cheap red wine, used furniture, thrift store clothes. I dyed my own hair. I was a miser about the gas heater, rarely turning it on. There was fog, always fog. There were giant trees dripping. I had enough money for my sporadic flying lessons, which grew even more infrequent in winter’s gloom.

In my journals, there are fragments of a short story I was trying to write called “Alias Intrepid.” The plot was always changing. In its early stages, it seemed to be about a girl whose grandmother in the 1930s had fantasies of flying but those dreams went unfulfilled.


5. Communications

As my flight lessons progressed, I grew bolder. I got better at talking, at speaking out loud. At the small Aurora airfield, I would get on the radio sometimes, like when announcing my positions in the traffic pattern before landing, but after my flight instructor switched to a school at the larger X-shaped Hillsboro airport, I had to get used to talking more. You were required to tell the tower everything, timing your announcements so as not to “step on” the words of other pilots. I’d find the right moment, push the call button, and speak forcefully, something like “Hillsboro tower this is seven-five-seven-Foxtrot-Yankee ten miles out landing on runway three-zero.”

It was as if someone else were talking.

I haven’t spoken to anyone face-to-face in a week, my journal records, soon after arriving in town and unemployed. At night I’d sit alone at the bar in old school cocktail lounges with their whirring neon signs, drinking whiskey sours while Keno games spat out numbers on the TV. One night I drove into the hills west of the city to see the Perseid meteor shower, determined to witness a shooting star. There were cars pulled off to the side of the road at midnight, stargazers sitting on their hoods. I went into a cemetery where small groups had gathered with lawn chairs; I sat on the wet grass near a cross, not heading home until I’d spotted a meteor, falling fast and white through the dark sky.

The plot of my story shifted again: the protagonist was a young pilot now. The setting became the late 1930s, after everything had been done: records already set, oceans already crossed.

The heroine is fooling herself and she knows it, I wrote.


6. Cross Country Operations

In the spring of 1994, I flew solo to the Hoquiam airfield, which sat on a peninsula in Gray’s Harbor in western Washington State. As I turned onto final approach, I could see the smokestacks belching, the timber town of Aberdeen. I was heading into a strong wind. The flaps were lowered and I was going down, down, down. I could see the harbor fast approaching below. Suddenly, I realized I was landing over water, which I had never done before.

It was only my second “cross-country” solo, which meant simply that I took off from one airport and landed at others before returning to my home base at Hillsboro. I’d penciled my route onto my worn sectional; it took me north past Portland following Interstate 5. I’d land at Olympia (first of three required landings) and swing west to Hoquiam, where I’d gas up before heading back. I’d calculated the fuel consumption and checked the wind and weather forecast. My instructor approved the flight plan, then waited, a little nervously, for my return. The trip took nearly four hours, just me and my rented Cessna 152, N5494P. On my last leg, I got knocked around by gusts blowing off the green ridges below. I saw mountains and hills, the wide Columbia River, the Pacific Ocean in the distance. I saw no other planes, anywhere.

I had a recurring dream in Portland—a young woman walked into my apartment, through the living room and into the kitchen, then out again. I asked what she was doing but got no reply.


7. Weather Patterns

During the spring of 1994, I wrote in my journal that I had a sense of something stirring. I drove to the coast alone. In the air, I practiced my “turns around a point,” circling a solitary tree in the middle of a field.

In the air, I practiced recovering from stalls. A stall occurs at certain airspeeds and attitudes when the wings no longer have “lift” and the airplane suddenly drops through the sky. You have to practice recovering from them, just in case, so you and your instructor climb to a good height and force a stall. You pull back on the wheel and the aircraft’s nose rises upward, and you have to keep pulling back until the plane drops—you’re heading straight for the sun, it seems, with the stall warning alarm blaring, its high-pitched wail of imminent disaster piercing your ears as you wait for the inevitable fall.

Could I really see all of Portland from my window? In my journal, I reported seeing the HILTON sign, its letters glowing red from the hotel’s rooftop across the river. I recorded a fog that hid the bridges. I noted seeing seagulls and sandpipers in the train yard. (Birds were another hazard of flight—they could bring your plane down if you hit them just right.) I mentioned that a man slept with my letters to him under his pillow, but I didn’t say who he was.

I don’t remember now.

In “Alias Intrepid,” the heroine gets grounded in a small town due to engine trouble. A local who doesn’t want her to leave sabotages her plane.

In my dreams, I lock the door against the ghostly woman, but she gets in anyway. She is still silent, never speaking to me.


8. Pilotage

In my final months in Portland, I hatched an escape plan to head back east as I worked toward my pilot’s license, which I got two days before leaving town. I didn’t record this in my journal, but the license exists, tucked inside my logbook—a flimsy, gray rectangle of paper signed by me in youthful scrawl. That young woman, who I once was, piloted a plane sliding sideways, plummeting toward a runway for a crosswind landing. She got knocked off her seat by turbulence in the foothills of the mountains, 2,500 feet in the air.

I got a pilot’s license, then left town and hardly flew again.

My journals and logbook record the countdown to my departure from Portland: On June 8, I feared a borrowed or stolen persona, too late. On June 12, I practiced another stall series, power on and power off, falling briefly from the sky before recovering.


On July 2, I flew solo, navigating in the air.


July 4

Went flying this weekend, I wrote, both days got kicked around. Flew over burning crops, could smell the smoke. Saw Mt. St. Helens ominous through the clouds … Clouds all weekend. Firecrackers. 


July 11

Not the day it was supposed to be! The L in HILTON was shaking last night, tonight it’s gone. 


On July 22, I practiced my night pattern work, taking off into the dark sky.


On August 28, I practiced slow flight, and turned around a point, probably a solitary tree.


September 2

Portland on the wane. Went flying in big circles, some birds passed me. 


September 13 (final entry)

Damn neon blinking in the puddle again … Two more weeks! Clouds, fog. 


I left many things behind when I moved away.

Melissa Haley is an archivist at The Huntington Library. Her essays have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, The Rumpus, Raritan Quarterly, The American Scholar, Post Road, and other publications. She's the recipient of a Pushcart Prize nomination with special mention and a Best American Essays notable essay selection. Her current archival research preoccupation is women pilots in 1930s Los Angeles.

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