Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Status Unknown: A Local Airplane Mystery

Admirable researchers currently are working to determine the fate of Amelia Earhart's final flight.  Meanwhile, I've got a local airplane mystery of my own to ponder.

This morning another business jet roared overhead, banking just over the treeline to the south. It made a low pass over the nearby landing strip, then arced up and circled to make another approach. Pilots often do this here, making a preliminary flyover if they have never landed on the short skinny runway before.

Around that time we were on our way to a farmers market in a town down the road, and so we took a small detour to see if we could spot the plane. Sure enough, it was taxiing down the runway as we drove past the field.

There was nobody on board except the pilot. He looked out at us blankly as he taxied by. He wore a crisp-ish looking white button-down shirt and a black cap. The plane came to a stop and powered down its engines—waiting for its passenger(s), presumably.

A quick search of the tail number N560CL revealed that it is a Cessna Citation 560, built in 2008 and owned by a corporation in Schaumburg, Illinois. Beyond that, I couldn't find out much. I don't know what I was expecting; but the way it cut in over the trees, the anticipatory emptiness of the waiting plane...there was something just weird about it.

Flight Aware records the registration details of this plane as "Status Unknown."

When I tried to track the plane's flightpath, to see where it had come from and maybe where it was bound, I was met with a message that stated: "This aircraft (N560CL) is not available for public tracking per request from the owner/operator." At the same time, I was invited to "upload photo now." I hesitated, and considered uploading one of my pictures.

A few clicks away, on the site Planes and Choppers Photos, one contributor had snapped a picture of this plane back in 2010, and beneath it commented: "Couldn't quite make out the artwork on the tail, but it is owned by International Aviation out of Schamburg, [sic] Illinois."

I saw the artwork on the tail up-close: it was a yellow pictograph of a tree and some dancing people next to it, and the words "Celebrate Life" beneath.  What sort of blandly positive imagery and language is this, on the tail of a private plane whose status is unknown?  Here again I was invited (and tempted) to "upload a picture."

I understand that this is a private plane, and that therefore public information about it is limited, or even decidedly screened. And I understand that websites like "Planes and Choppers Photos" are all about collecting images and information and making these things available. I understand that the jet I saw this morning was probably banal, an ordinary object of contemporary charter air travel.

But still I'm intrigued, maybe even a little obsessed. Perhaps it's exactly the ordinariness about it that intrigues me. The fact that for the pilot, it's just another day at work, another anonymous passenger or family to ferry to one place or another. The fact that the sudden roar of the jet engines as the plane descends is almost immediately swallowed up by the proximate woods, wind gusts, and bird sounds.

The Citation nags at me similarly to the way that Raymond Carver stages his story "Nobody Said Anything" in creepy proximity to a mundane regional airport, with indifferent planes taking off and landing while smaller tragedies play out on the ground. Here is the main character, playing hooky from school and going fishing in Birch Creek, located "below the airport":
I went up the embankment and climbed under a fence that had a KEEP OUT sign on the post. One of the airport runways started here. I stopped to look at some flowers growing in the cracks in the pavement. You could see where the tires had smacked down on the pavement and left oily skid marks all around the flowers.
It's this kind of intrigue I'm trying to track, this askance sense of something important happening nearby that is also entirely unrelated and disparate. I want to know what the seats look and feel like in that plane; how much the pilot makes per hour; the strangest trip the plane has ever taken; and also the accumulation of unremarkable flights, all the minutes and hours of being that have taken place in that small fuselage. But these details are all inaccessible to me—status unknown. That's what makes it a mystery worth pondering, local at least for an hour or so.