We're about a mile above the Western Australia outback in a Royal Flying Doctor Service bush plane, and our pilot is asleep at the wheel. The only other person seated in front of the controls doesn't know how to fly. In fact, this is his first time in a cockpit.
That person is me.
Our flight had started out normally enough. As a journalist, I'd received permission to tag along with this legendary volunteer medical corps. After ferrying a sick child and her mother from a remote ranch, or "sheep station," to the children's hospital in Perth, everyone aboard — pilot, nurse, myself — looked forward to flying home.
Although I was just an observer, I found myself strapped into the co-pilot's seat, the only available space in the tiny plane that had a seatbelt. As a vantage point it was perfect; I could see every wobble of the dials on the instrument panel and hear every report coming in over the shortwave radio.
But this privileged position also had its drawbacks: The propellers' roar was so loud that we had to yell to be heard. And I sometimes had to squeeze myself back into the seat's furthest recesses to avoid being struck by the co-pilot's steering wheel, which moved as if operated by invisible hands in unison with the slightest motion of the pilot's wheel. I found myself worrying about what would happened if I sneezed and accidentally bumped the controls: Would we go into an uncontrolled "death spiral"?
Then, a little more half-way through our 930-mile round trip, the pilot wordlessly began taping a dark curtain over his side window while we flew. Evidently, he wanted to block out the harsh desert glare. He handed me a similar curtain, motioning to cover my side. Satisfied with my efforts, he then covered every single square-inch of the remaining windshield glass, until the plane's interior was completely dark.
Still without saying anything, the pilot then settled back and closed his eyes.
After a few moments, I leaned over him: I could just make out the sound of snoring above the engine noise.
Meanwhile, we're flying blind at high speed somewhere over the Great Victoria Desert.
"He's put the auto-pilot on," shouted the nurse in response to my stricken look. "Out here, you don't have to think about air traffic," she yelled. "There's nothing to hit."
The nurse laughed, then shouted an Australian catchphrase I was to get to know well: "No worries, mate. She'll be right." A recent immigrant to this country herself, the nurse savored the chance to use this unofficial motto of the land down-under, and gleefully screamed it again: "No worries, mate!"
Welcome to Australia, I thought.
"I was fascinated by this material. . . I'm hopeful that our ties with Australia will grow larger and more complex in the near future. You're in an enviable position to provide some interpretation."
- Barry Lopez, author of "Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape"