The iron dragonfly was at rest ten meters away. Up close, I was fascinated by the size of it and how solid everything looked. This gunmetal baby was probably older than me. How much airtime had it had and could it still remember where it's been? How much valiant blood had it soaked up on its floor now covered by a wooden panel?
I watched with continued fascination as our pilot nimbly clambered up the roof to unlock the propeller. I could almost taste the heli's anticipation. "I'm going to take to the skies," it seemed to say.
The gunner sergeant signaled me an okay to board. I half-expected cupped hands for stirrup. The deck seemed a bit of a way up. For a moment there, I seemed to have forgotten that I was going along for the ride. I had two students with me. Teacher supervision was a must. Okay then. I like flying.
It was the first ride for my students. I came prepared with barf bags. One never knows how one would take the heights. I was kidding my students at lunch to encourage them to pack it away so they'll have something to throw up later. Maybe that's a flyboy's rule of thumb: Never fly on an empty stomach. Or, more ominously: This may very well be your last meal. Whatever. We ate the healthy repast so thoughtfully provided.
We did not know how long this was going to take us. Before lunch, we'd spent an hour poring over 1:50,000 topographical maps with our navigators. Our destination did not show up on those maps. We were reduced to tracing rivers and other landmarks just to get the general vicinity. Yes, it did look like an aerial survey was a necessary evil.
Flyboy asks what office I am from. That's a tough one to answer, as I have many offices. Taking the path of the least said, I replied that I taught psychology at the Ateneo. He said he did not like psychological tests, but that he had to take those every year. Okay, I said, you can like me enough not to dump me overboard later. I'm not testing you today. But, I was curious about the neuropsychological protocols for flyers and pumped him for information. Based on what he told me, I was satisfied that they gave me a pilot who was mentally sound and alert and not about to start seeing anytime soon visions of burning crosses up there among the clouds. Snappy, too.
The world exploded in an infernal cacophony of ear-shaking vibrations as the dragonfly came to life. Jess texts me from the next seat: "I am acrophobic!" Too late, groundhog. I smiled back reassuringly. He knows his breathing exercises.
I caught Jess searching the roof for the ejection chute. The thought of ejecting through the roof and straight to the rotor blades almost had me laughing. Nevertheless, my eyes searched the cabin for the parachute packs.
Cut grass came flying off the ground, whirling and swirling as if caught up in a miniature cyclone, to land lightly on the rooftops well away from the wash of the rotor blades. The sheep summarily ignored us as they munched happily on the grass. My best friend Happy Mapua's smiling face swims to focus in my mind. Strange. Happy and I never went flying together. Oh, right – she made me date flyboys. Happy's real name is Angela. So there's an angel smiling in my mind. That bodes well for this flight.
We rattled in our canvas seats that looked deceptively frail. I think I fell in love with the seat harness. It was so sturdy and the links were manufactured iron clasps, worn with constant use. They looked like they belonged in Torquemada's arsenal of torture devices. This, I thought, is how to make things last. Damn thing proved it. It's still working after all these years. No shiny, sleek synthetic belts for me with automatic clasps that jam. I think I need the reassurance of having to manually operate stuff to see that things are done properly.
Come to think of it, I'd rather fly on this gunmetal baby than be on an Airbus where they make you turn off your cell phone. When they do, that means it's the machine flying itself and your cell phone signal might adversely affect its autopilot computers. You like that?
Flyboys, I think, are a better bet. They never leave anything to chance. True enough, it was the smoothest ride of my life. The lift-offs and touchdowns were like a lover's kiss. Barely there, but there it was. The dragonfly skimmed the mountains, lazily circling higher and higher and higher still, until we found what we were looking for.
So okay, we did an emergency landing some time later at the Calinan National High School grounds for some minor repairs. For a while there, I thought, "Here's where I get off to take a jeep home." But we had an impromptu audience of so many kids curious about something or someone in our escort chopper. I wouldn't want to wade through a sea of excited kids. I belatedly remembered I'd left my ID at the guardhouse of the airbase. I sat patiently knowing they'd soon fix what needed fixing so I could claim my ID before heading for class.
The sergeants packed away the toolkits and took post at port arms, and soon we left ground again. The dragonfly did a short run at reverse to give us space to clear the trees, and then we were off again for the brief uneventful hop back to the baby's home. Our baby kissed the runway and slowly headed for its pad, making a neat 180 degree before gently touching down again. Smooth operator. Real smooth. One has to experience it to appreciate how, despite its deafening bluster, the metal muscles of this dragonfly handle so very gently.
Something ought to be said for the military precision. It's great to witness experts doing what they're good at. All in a day's work for our flyboys, but it had me in awe of the seeming telepathy between man and machine.
Thanks, guys. My professional opinion is you'll survive this year's neuropsycho exam. May your iron dragonfly live forever.