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Prairie Sky: A Pilot's Reflections on Flying and the Grace of Altitude

Prairie Sky: A Pilot's Reflections on Flying and the Grace of Altitude

by W. Scott Olsen

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“It’s almost like ballet. Preflight. Starting. Warm-up. The voices from the control tower—the instructions. Taxiing. The rush down the runway. Airborne. There are names for every move. The run-up. Position and hold. Every move needs to be learned, practiced, made so familiar you feel the patterns in every other thing you do. It’s technical,


“It’s almost like ballet. Preflight. Starting. Warm-up. The voices from the control tower—the instructions. Taxiing. The rush down the runway. Airborne. There are names for every move. The run-up. Position and hold. Every move needs to be learned, practiced, made so familiar you feel the patterns in every other thing you do. It’s technical, yes. But there is a grace to getting metal and bone into the sky.”

Prairie Sky is a celebration of curiosity and a book for explorers. In this collection of contemplative essays, Scott Olsen invites readers to view the world from a pilot’s seat, demonstrating how, with just a little bit of altitude, the world changes, new relationships become visible, and new questions seem to rise up from the ground.

Whether searching for the still-evident shores of ancient lakes, the dustbowl-era shelterbelt supposed to run the length of the country, or the even more elusive understandings of physics and theology, Olsen shares the unique perspective and insight allowed to pilots.

Prairie Sky explores the reality as well as the metaphor of flight: notions of ceaseless time and boundless space, personal interior and exterior vision, social history, meteorology, and geology. Olsen takes readers along as he chases a new way of looking at the physical world and wonders aloud about how the whole planet moves in interconnected ways not visible from the ground. While the northern prairie may call to mind images of golden harvests and summer twilight such images do not define the region. The land bears marks left by gut-shaking thunderstorms, hard-frozen rivers, sweeping floods, and hurricane-size storms. Olsen takes to the midwestern sky to confront the ordinary world and reveals the magic—the wondrous and unique sights visible from the pilot’s seat of a Cessna.

Like Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s classic work Wind, Sand and Stars, Olsen’s Prairie Sky reveals the heart of what it means to fly. In the grand romantic tradition of the travel essay, it opens the dramatic paradoxes of self and collective, linear and circular, the heart and the border.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Scott Olsen takes the travel essay into the air in the most spectacular way—this is a collection full of grace, style, lyricism, and sharp cloud-level insight. The beauty of Olsen’s work is that he gives us a new way of seeing— he allows us to be both ‘above’ and ‘inside’ at the exact same time.” —Colum McCann, winner of the National Book Award and author of Transatlantic: A Novel

“In his very bones, Olsen is a bird. His writing soars, swoops, circles and dives just like his beloved little Cessna 172. I don’t care how many times you’ve been on a plane, you’ve not flown until you’ve read Scott Olsen.” —Mark Jenkins, field staff writer, National Geographic

Product Details

University of Missouri Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.60(d)

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Prairie Sky

A Pilot's Reflections on Flying and the Grace of Altitude

By W. Scott Olsen


Copyright © 2013 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8262-2007-3


River Flying

The Sheyenne River

Imagine winter on the northern prairie. January cold. Deep hard snow. Blizzard one day—winds that can freeze your breath before it leaves your body—bright clear sky the next.

Now imagine a small airplane low in the sky, white wings in a steep bank to the left over the intersection of two frozen rivers. Riparian trees, mostly oak and elm, outline the river course, every brown limb and branch defined against the snow and ice like a fine pencil sketch on a planetary scale. Where the wind has blown the snow away, the rivers shine as if the sun were inside the ice.

* * *

Here is a truth, perhaps a secret, about the northern prairie. Winter is the most beautiful season. Beautiful in the way hoarfrost hangs from trees. Beautiful in the way snow can fall so gently you believe, for more than just a moment, you've entered a place both sacred and deep. Beautiful in the way that cold air can kill you fast. Beautiful in the way that sun dogs in the morning can make it seem like three suns ignite the horizon. Beautiful in the hard contrasts of winter light, every shape a crisp edge. Beautiful in the way that clear sky on a midwinter night is so quiet you swear you can hear the radio voices of stars. Beautiful in the way that every story is about staying alive, and beautiful in the way that people smile when they tell them.

Earlier this morning, a full moon shaded from white to yellow and then amber as it set. Yellow last night at rising. Bright crystal white at midnight. Yellow at setting. At sunrise, the temperature was eighteen degrees below zero. The windchill was minus thirty-eight.

* * *

Two thousand feet above the ground, I level the airplane wings. This is where the Sheyenne River meets the Red River of the North, and I want to follow the Sheyenne. Upriver, I think. Always upriver. Upriver is toward what came before us, before here, before now. Upriver is history rushing at us. Downriver is water I've already seen. Not history. Just the past.

I want to match the river turns and meanders, to feel the press of every river bend in my back and chest. There is a love between the airplane and the boat or ship—the captain of one nods to the pilot of the other. Currents and tide are winds and pressure. I want to put this airplane's shadow on the river ice and go exploring.

The whole prairie is frozen. But if you live here, you learn early the lesson that snow and ice can jump and dance. Drifts can build and disappear, sometimes migrate across the landscape. A few inches of new snow can blow into a wall that's taller than a home. The frozen river roils underneath the ice. I want to see the Dakota snowfields that will melt into this river. We already know a disaster is coming. This has been a hard winter. The ground was wet and full last fall when the frosts came, and the snowfall has been consistent, full of water. We already know the rivers will flood. We've been here before: 1997, 2009. Countless other years that did not make the national evening news. Sandbag walls to protect people's homes. Diversions cut into the earth to protect the towns.

This January day, however, I want to see the frozen world. I want to fly in the fat smooth air, to see the prairie at a truer scale, to fill my eyes with the size of this place.

* * *

It's almost like ballet. Preflight. Starting. Warm-up. The voices from the control tower—the instructions. Taxiing. The rush down the runway. Airborne. There are names for every move. The run-up. Position and hold. Every move needs to be learned, practiced, made so familiar you feel the patterns in every other thing you do. It's technical, yes. But there is a grace to getting metal and bone into the sky.

This morning at the airport, the automated weather announcement gives a clue about the depth of this season. "Temperature minus two three, dew point minus two eight, altimeter three zero two five.... Notice to airmen, Runway One-Three/Three-One closed, Runway Niner/Two-Seven PAPI lights out of service, airport signs are obscured ..." We've just had that much snow.

"Fargo ground," I say, calling the control tower, "Cessna One Zero Eight Nine Seven is at the north ramp ready to go. Departing to the north, then going to turn and follow the Sheyenne River, please. At or below three thousand."

"Cessna One Zero Eight Nine Seven, Fargo ground," a pleasant female voice comes over the radio. "Taxi to Runway Three-Six at Bravo Three intersection via Charlie at Bravo, maintain at or below three thousand, departure frequency 120.4, squawk 0454."

"Zero four five four," I say, confirming the squawk code.

"Cessna Eight Nine Seven, verify your route of flight, please," she asks.

I can imagine the controllers in the tower. Fargo gets a lot of air traffic, but most airplanes here are in or out. Most flight lessons go to one of four practice areas, defined by space on the ground and altitude in the air, or practice instrument procedures along published routes. What's this guy doing? they wonder.

"I'd like to follow the Sheyenne River," I say. "So a departure to the north, then an immediate turn left, and then south, around to Lake Ashtabula via Kindred."

"Cessna Eight Niner Seven, roger."

My airplane today is a Cessna 172. A small four-seater, high wing with a single prop. It's a good airplane for flying low and slow, for looking at the ground and chasing ideas.

"Fargo ground, FAA Three Eight Nine," a man's voice in the radio now. "I'm at the north Flight School building. I'd like to proceed on foot to the One Eight PAPIs to remove some snow."

"Cessna Three Eight Nine, proceed as requested."

Cessna, I think? The lady in the tower is probably smiling now at her mistake. The poor FAA guy is probably smiling, too. Shovel in hand, he's about to trudge his way to dig out the lights that tell pilots if they are on a proper glide-slope toward the runway.

At the runway, the final checks are easy, and the engine sounds smooth. A twin-engine airplane lands and crosses in front of me, its red paint bright against the snow.

"Fargo Tower," I say. "Cessna One Zero Eight Nine Seven is at Bravo Three ready to go."

"Cessna One Zero Eight Niner Seven at Bravo Three, fly runway heading, cleared for takeoff."

"Cleared for takeoff, Eight Nine Seven, thank you," I say.

And then that most wonderful thing. The throttle goes in; the plane moves forward. You steer with your feet, a light hand on the yoke, and when the airspeed indicator gets to about 60, you pull back, just a bit, and the nose tilts up.

Suddenly, you are flying.

* * *

Here is another truth. What a pilot sees is a world revealed. The horizon races away as the airplane climbs. Railways, highways, riverbeds, forests and farmland all become part of the same one picture. The next town over, usually just a name on the weather map during the evening news, is right there in front of you, the whole thing, connected to everything else. The silver grain bins at a farmstead, the yellow school bus crawling down a snow-covered neighborhood road, the snapping flags at a shopping center are all part of one window's view. When the airplane and I get to three thousand feet above sea level, which here is two thousand one hundred feet above the ground, I can see what feels like the whole of this day in motion.

"Cessna One Zero Eight Nine Seven," the voice in my headset says, "Fargo departure. Radar contact. Turn left and proceed to the Sheyenne River."

"Do you mind if I go a bit farther north?" I ask. "So I can catch the intersection with the Red?"

"Eight Nine Seven, request approved. Advise when you start your turn to the left, please."

"Will do. Eight Nine Seven."

Oh, I say to myself, what a beautiful day up here. Bright sunshine on the snowfields. Brown trees along the meanderings and oxbows of the Red River stand in stark contrast to the white ice and snow. I can see the Sheyenne in front of me. More trees on the riverbanks. A path leading west and then turning south. Where the two rivers meet, the ice field is a bit wider. It just looks like a field. You would never know there was water moving underneath.

I call departure and let them know I am turning left. Then I turn on a voice recorder to make some notes, and without thinking I also press the airplane's microphone key.

"Hard meanders left and right," I say. "Very pretty in the sunshine where the rivers meet."

"Cessna Eight Nine Seven, roger that," departure says.

Oh, bother, I think, smiling.

The entire prairie is covered in a hard pack of snow. Only the trees give any relief or contrast. Roads are nearly invisible, light gray in the white fields. Railways make a fainter line as well, snow on the berms and dusting the tracks.

The wind is from the north at 14 knots and absolutely smooth. This is the grace of flying in winter air. Airspeed is 115 knots. Altitude is three thousand feet. I bank to the left as the river turns south. Upriver, I think.

* * *

Every river is a story.

The Sheyenne is an ancient and meandering river. The loop of one oxbow is often not twenty yards from the end of another, though the water takes a quarter mile to get there. This river was here in the Pleistocene, draining the prairie to Lake Agassiz, the largest inland sea in North America, a sea that covered most of Manitoba and reached into Saskatchewan, Ontario, the Northwest Territories, and Minnesota, larger than the Great Lakes combined. Back then, the Sheyenne would have looked like the Missouri or Mississippi River today. Huge. Glacier-cut valleys in places. Flatland wanderings everywhere else. The river is older than the last ice age. Glacial drift filled the riverbed, and the river works to clean it out. Three hundred and twenty-five miles long, it drains nearly ten thousand square miles. And there is a chance it could drain trouble. Devil's Lake, north and west of here, has no natural outlet and is rising fast, eating homes and farmsteads and roads and railways as it grows. When it overflows the natural banks, it will drain into the smaller Stump Lake and then into the Sheyenne. The Sheyenne joins the Red, which flows north, through Lake Winnipeg and finally into Hudson Bay. Canada does not want Devil's Lake water at all.

In the western distance, I can see some clouds moving in, although the clouds are high. Pinks and blues in the clouds. But no color on the ground. No reds. No greens. No browns. The whole world is one white snowscape. Glistening ice in the fields. Softer white where the snow is deep. Every building has a snowcap on the roof, as does every silo, every farmstead, every home. Blanket is exactly the right word.

I can see the West Fargo fairgrounds, but only because I know they're there. The snow erases and covers the way the ground is used.

The holes in the clouds are not the small round holes that let beams of godlight through. They are more like changes of color on a map, where the elevation of the terrain gains or loses altitude.

* * *

How much snow is there? How fast is this river moving? These are the important questions in a winter of deep snow.

So far we've had fifty-six inches of snow. The Weather Service says there are only twenty-one inches of snow on the ground today, but over time snow compresses and hardens, settles into every possible space. The water equivalent is nearly four inches. Hundreds of miles in every direction, under at least four inches of standing water. And all of that water wanting to move.

At the Baldhill Dam, 271 upriver miles from north of Fargo where the Sheyenne empties into the Red, the water is flowing at 320 cubic feet per second. Too low to come over the spillway, the water drains from pipes in the bottom of Lake Ashtabula. On this day in 1956, the water was flowing at only 2 cubic feet per second. Before today, the maximum flow on this date was 306 cubic feet per second in 2001. The maximum flow ever, no matter the date, was 6,200 cubic feet per second on April 17, 2009. In other words, the river isn't fast, but it's the fastest it's ever been in the hard freeze of winter.

Yesterday, I called the Army Corps of Engineers, the St. Paul office that oversees the dam, and talked with Richard Schueneman, who is the Corps of Engineers' North Dakota Flood Control Section supervisor. "We're drawing the lake down as far as possible," he told me. "We want to get down to 1,257 by March 1. We're anticipating a lot of water coming in this spring."

* * *

I bank to the right, wondering if I can turn as fast as the river. Even with the airplane tilted nearly sixty degrees, back pressure on the yoke to maintain altitude, I cannot match the bend. Some pilots like to get low over wide rivers, settle in as if they were speedboats with wings. It doesn't work if the river is narrow, meandering, folding back toward itself a thousand times. There would be no way to fly the actual course of the river. Too many hard loops and turns, too many bends in the path. Even the slowest airplane, with the steepest angles of turn, would overshoot these banks. If I were at river height, I'd be smashing through the trees.

I am not very far above the river, however. My altitude, measured to sea level, has been the same since I took off. But the land is rising. I am nearly five hundred feet closer to the ground than I was when I made the first turn and announced to the radio world that the frozen river mouth glittered in the daylight. Here, however, there is nothing on the river. There were snowmobile tracks in some places before, but not now. I pass expensive river homes in new neighborhoods, homes too new to know the deep history of how a river behaves, sold perhaps in autumn when the river is low and an empty canoe tied to a tree seems like a promise of forever. But then those homes disappear behind me, and all I see is the snow, the trees, the cornices on bare banks, the shape of finger drifts downwind.

A tree farm appears on the southern bank, ordered rows of small evergreens sticking out of the white.

There are days I wish I knew a lot more than I know. There are days I wish I were a meteorologist, a glaciologist, a historian, an anthropologist, and, yes, even an astronaut. Today I wish I were a geologist. Flying over the river, all I can do is wonder what makes the river find this particular course. What resistance in the soil at one spot is missing or doubled in another? What causes the yielding of erosion here? I wonder if it's all accidental. I wonder if it was cataclysmic—a flood moving through to reorder everything. This happened to the Mississippi at the New Madrid fault. This happened to the Columbia and Clark Fork when the ice dams broke. Even the Yukon used to flow south—the evidence in the rocks of valleys long dry and off-course. The cutoff oxbow lakes and ponds show where the Sheyenne used to be, but how did this river appear? One hundred million years ago, in the Cretaceous, this was all under saltwater. The Western Interior Seaway and the Hudson Seaway joined here. The water was warm, tropical, and shallow. There were sharks and giant clams. There were beasts named Mosasaur and Xiphactinus and Cretoxyrhina. And then the seaways drained. The earth changed. One hundred thousand years ago the ice moved in and stayed. The Laurentide ice sheet covered North America south to the Missouri River. Ten thousand years ago it left, and the melt-water and drainage made Lake Agassiz, the largest inland sea on the planet. I know the Sheyenne is older than the glaciers, but I don't know how.

A red barn in the snow. A row of young pine trees at another farmstead, just struggling, it seems, to make it through this winter, to keep their branches above the snow line, to find another summer to grow.

Snowball earth, I think. Seven hundred and fifteen million years ago. The whole planet frozen and still. But a tremendous pressure building under the ice.

Airspeed 112 knots. Course 198 degrees.

* * *

South of the town of Kindred, the trees grow more numerous, the shelterbelts more prominent and thick. Around the river, the line of riparian trees becomes a forest. It would be possible to lose the winter thread of the river in the trees, the snow filling in the low spots, nearly level from field through forest. Over the river and through the woods, I smile, to the next open field of ice.

According to the instruments in the airplane, the outside air temp is minus 1 degree Fahrenheit. A lot warmer up here than it is on the ground. Cold air sinks. Snow and ice reflect the sun back into space. Snow and ice compress and harden.

There are hills here. You almost can't see them because of the snow. Nothing spectacular. Ten feet. Twenty feet, maybe. The Sheyenne National Grasslands. This is where Lake Agassiz ended. This is beachfront property. This is where glaciers left moraines.

Excerpted from Prairie Sky by W. Scott Olsen. Copyright © 2013 The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

W. Scott Olsen teaches at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, where he also edits the literary magazine Ascent. He is the author of numerous books, including Never Land: Adventures, Wonder, and One World Record in a Very Small Plane and Hard Air: Adventures from the Edge of Flying.

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