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On Extended Wings by Diane Ackerman (Atheneum: $16.95; 308 pp.) : PLANE CRAZY: A Celebration of Flying by Burton Bernstein; illustrations by Edward Koren (Ticknor & Fields: $16.95; 176 pp.

October 20, 1985|Paul Sonnenburg | Sonnenburg is editor of "California Wings" (Windsor). and

Rushing from Kill Devil Hill into Kitty Hawk, N. C., on a blustery December morning in 1903, an awestruck young man hollered, "Damned if they ain't flew!" Persuasive evidence, including a great many books about flying, suggests that to pilot an airplane is a 20th-Century fantasy entertained by no few people.

Legions of men and women have turned the dream into private pilot licenses at numberless local airports around the nation in hardy little machines with names like Piper, Beech and Cessna. But few have recorded their encounters with flights so intelligently and engagingly as Diane Ackerman and Burton Bernstein.

In these books, poet and teacher Ackerman and veteran New Yorker writer Bernstein share their visceral delight in the phenomenon of piloting small planes. For each, that delight is inseparable from the rigorous discipline that informs the aviator's world. For each, flying's synthesis of physics, ethics and aesthetics generates strong metaphors to illuminate our world.

Ackerman's acute vision, occasionally startling in its clarity, shifts from easy warmth to high poetry, from poignant exchanges of clothespins with her doomed young flight instructor to a sentence like: "Scream into the sky, and leave behind the rigged austerity of clouds, fixing order on the blackness for the slimmest moment, a rival decomposition between the wakes of nothingness, as when a vivid memory fades, or in the tantrum of silence one becomes aware of the moment a fist pounding on one's door abruptly stops."

For Ackerman, although her zest for the left-hand seat is genuine enough, the trappings and ritual of flying are no end, but a felicitous focus for her poet's curiosity. Although Ackerman alludes to Antoine de St. Exupery, and her publicists did not resist invoking that literary airman's abused ghost, more cogent parallels to Diane Ackerman's compassionate vision are found in the work of Annie Dillard and Lewis Thomas.

Burton Bernstein, too, acknowledges St. Ex at the outset of his story, "of one boy-man's love affair with aviation," and it is arguably the Little Prince whose innocence suffuses Bernstein's almost bucolic narrative. Returning to stick and rudder in 1981 after some 20 years devoted to family and career, this flown-again pilot credibly poises his own unembarrassed wonder amid the hoary rituals of cockpit and control tower, student and instructor.

"Flying makes for mutually advantageous relationships," says Bernstein, proceeding to illustrate his thesis convincingly. If the prose is less lyrical than Ackerman's, its comfortable directness suits the author's material well. Here instructor and student pilot harmonize their senses, attitudes and skills with powerful forces of nature in direct, competent discourse.

"Plane Crazy" possesses considerable charm for all its honest strength, abetted considerably by Bernstein's deft profiles of people in aviation. Take, for example, 59-year-old Stanley John Segalla and his 24-year-old son, Billy, of Canaan, Conn.,--prodigiously skilled aerobatic pilots whose feats are highly esteemed by their colleagues and audiences at New England air shows. Stanley's specialty is a comic routine called the Flying Farmer Act, in which a stock Super Cub plane is deftly piloted through a series of bemusingly unlikely aerial antics. Billy, a natural pilot trained by his father from nestling years, performs world-class maneuvers aloft so dizzying that when a videotape of his flying is shown, his mother leaves the room.

In preparing the book's series of New Yorker-style vignettes of airfields Bernstein was accompanied by his friend, cartoonist Edward Koren, whose benignly squiggly drawings gracefully complement the book.

Diane Ackerman's ecstatic flights and vaulting images and Burton Bernstein's solid sketches of aeronautical Americana are rewarding additions to the literature of aviation. They will doubtless appeal to general readers too, both for their high quality and the light they cast into the always compelling mystery of flying.

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