James Lipton

James Lipton talks high-flyin in Alaska.

on Jan 28, 2008

I'd taken the controls for most of the flight, with Bob confining himself to take-offs and landings, for which the plane's unfamiliar skis disqualified me. The pass was one of the challenges I'd looked forward to, and as we entered it, Bob, bravely or foolishly, said the hallowed words, "Your airplane," and settled back with his arms folded over his ample paunch, and his feet on the floor, off the rudder pedals. White-knuckled but in a state of indescribable elation, I steered the pitching plane through the maze, mile after unforgettable mile. And then, half an hour into the pass, the engine coughed and quit cold.

In the stunning silence, I glanced at the Eagle, who hadn't stirred. His eerie calm told me either that he was an utterly resigned fatalist, or knew something about his plane that I didn't know. I fervently hoped it was the latter.

After a few moments, as the powerless plane began settling slowly into the frigid abyss, the Eagle leaned forward and peered at a yellowed plastic tube that emerged from the Aeronca's high wing and entered the engine through a hole in the cowling. In the air, I'd encountered one more "by-the-way": the plane contained no gas gauge. Instead, the Eagle kept an eye on that plastic line as we switched back and forth from the tank in one wing to the tank in the other to keep the plane in balance. We'd recently switched from the finally depleted right tank to the left one, which in theory, contained enough gas to take us to our destination. But the left gas line was conspicuously empty.

"Right aileron," the Eagle said, more casually than was, in my view, appropriate. I twisted the yoke, putting us into a right bank that headed us toward the jagged right cliff-face. Assuming that the Eagle knew what he was doing (what choice did I have?), I held the bank as the canyon wall loomed.

"Left rudder," the Eagle suggested in the ominous quiet.

I pressed my foot into the left rudder pedal, balancing the forces of the right aileron. That realigned the plane's axis with the center of the pass, on course, but left us in a slip, flying forward at a rakish thirty-degree angle, one wing down, the other up. One of the consequences of any slip is a rapid loss of altitude, which was the last thing I wanted to do in this instance, but the Eagle's glacial calm was somehow contagious: he was, after all, in his element. We waited, my eyes following his to the empty gas line, which hovered above us with the left wing, as the plane, gliding on its right side like a sidestroking swimmer with one arm stuck inexplicably up in the air, sank relentlessly toward the narrowing gorge below.

"Steepen it," the Eagle said.

I looked at him. He was expressionless, his eyes on the unresponsive gas line. With what was now a pure act of faith, I steepened the bank to forty-five degrees from vertical. Needing no prompting, I jammed the rudder hard-left to maintain course. Obedient to the laws of aerodynamics, the plane glided forward -- and sank faster.

My faith in the Eagle -- and his in the Aeronca -- turned out to be justified. After a few moments, gravity overcame whatever was blocking the gas line, blue avgas burbled down it into the engine, which ignited, cleared its throat and burst into full-throated roar. No airplane engine has ever sounded louder -- or more beautiful.

If it hadn't, I wouldn't be writing these words now, or have had the profound pleasure of being involved for the past fourteen years with the Actors Studio Drama School, Inside the Actors Studio, Inside Inside and you.