Kitty Hawk, December 17, 1903 Success four flights Thursday morning all against 21 mile wind started from level with engine power alone average speed through air thirty-one miles longest 57 seconds inform press home Christmas. -Telegram from Orville Wright to his father, Bishop Milton Wright

I am looking down from 10,500 feet at Mormon Mesa, Utah-a long way from Kitty Hawk. And right now, as my head bangs wickedly against the seatback, I am wondering how the wings of this Piper Cherokee are managing to stay bolted to the fuselage-and why I ever got the notion that flying is fun.

It is a classic example of the old aviation adage: better down there wishing you were up here than up here wishing you were down there.

Twenty minutes ago I was on the airstrip at St. George, a Mormon settlement perched on a plateau in the middle of 110-degree desert country. The Federal Aviation Administration weather briefer had predicted smooth skies all the way west to Los Angeles, and I was computing temperature lapse rates in my head, calculating how much cooler it would be two miles above all the dust.

It's coller, but from out of nowhere a procession of towering gray clouds looking like Fantasia mushrooms is materializing. At first my little single-engine aircraft starts to bounce sporadically, like a car with decent shocks hitting a series of potholes: smooth and then-BANG-my head is against the rood and suddenly it is smooth again.

The sun begins to fade, and there are pops of lightning static in the headset. The rain is assaulting the windshield in thick sheets that make the 180-hp engine sound like a 747 Rolls Royce fanjet. The plane is being tossed around: up and down, left and right, diving and then climbing a thousand feet at a time. I'm all but panicked. Both hands squeeze the control stick in a stranglehold that has no effect at all. My hands are not doing what my brain is telling them to do.

I should be dying a thousand deaths, but instead i'm staring at the wingtips. They're staying level, for no reason I understand. And instead of concentrating on the yoke, I recall my first ride in an airplane, at age 8, Newark to Milwaukee in a four-engine Electra. I was staring at the wingtips then too. Couldn't figure out how the thing stayed up. Searching for a clue, looking for the cables to heaven. Obviously, God was holding the Electra in the sky.

A verbal crackle in the headset, divine intervention masquerading as an FAA flight controller.

"November Three-Eight-Seven-Five-Eight, Las Vegas Center."

"Seven-Five-Eight, Roger."

"We're painting some weather in your vicinity, suggest a heading of two-three-zero for vectors around scattered cells. Maintain one-zero thousand, five hundred, report any change."

Two-three-zero is about 40 degrees left of where I'm going. I'm trying to ignore the weather outside, seat cranked down below most of the windshield, cockpit lights up full to offset the lightning flashes, eyes glued to the attitude, vertical speed and airspeed indicators. Six months of flight training come reeling back: Godfrey Field, Leesburg, Va., 24-year-old Peter Martina with 2,000 hours of flying in his logbook repeating over and over: "The airplane wants to fly. Keep it coordinated-left turn left rudder, left aileron."

NOTHING! The stick won't move; the rudder pedals are locked. The plane won't budge. Where's Martina now? Probably on the ground having a beer. Where's Jay Kniznik, the 20-year-old kid with 2,500 hours who taught me so well how to fly this thing on instruments alone? Where's Bud Brinkman, the 62-year-old aerobatics instructor, former Navy pilot with 6,000 hours, who has put me into loops and rolls and spins and convinced me there's virtually no way a plane won't come out of any situation?

None are here. I'm flying this thing alone. The big payoff, the reason for all the training is my first coast-to-coast journey. And there's nobody helping fly 38758, except . . .

The autopilot! It's still locked on the old heading, in a wings-level postion. I dial in the new heading, and the nose rolls left.

That's what kept the attitude steady. Those heavenly cables are the linkage between the flight controls and the electronic sensors.

God is my autopilot.

On the ground in Los Angeles, an American Airlines captain says every pilot flies into one thurderstorm, and that's it. He's not al all surprised that my hands wouldn't do what I wanted, or that I was thinking about my first flight rather than panicking over my predicament. He pulls from his flight case a copy of Wind, Sand and Stars, reflections on flying by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the French flier who wrote The Little Prince and disappeared somewhere over France on a combat mission in 1944. The book is more worn and marked up than a vintage set of charts.

"Let's see," the captain says, thumbing through the blue-covered volume."Right here. Saint-Exupery is in a storm and he writes: 'What a discovery! My hands were not my own. I looked at them and decided to lift a finger. It obeyed me. I looked away and issued the same order: now I could not feel whether the finger had obeyed me or not.'

"And over here he writes, 'The reason why writers fail when they attempt to evoke horror is that horror is something invented after the fact, when one is recreating the experience over again in the memory. Horror does not manifest itself in the world of reality."

The next morning I bought a copy that book, no mean feat in Los Angeles, where homes actually exist that do not contain a single book. Saint-Exupery explained much about flying-camaraderie among pilots (What constitutes the dignity of a craft is that it creates a fellowship, that it binds men together and fashions for them a common language . . . ); the wonder a flight (The scene that strikes the passengers as commonplace is from the very moment of taking off animated with a powerful magic for the crew); and the wonderful order implicit in the plane, akin to one of Leibnitz's monads-a discrete bundle of knowledge floating effortlessly through space.

Flying, in general, seemed to us easy. When the skies are filled with black vapors, when fog and sea and sand are confounded in a brew in which they become indistinguishable, when gleaming flashes wheel treacherously in these skyey swamps, the pilot purges himself of the phantoms at a single stroke. He lights his lamps. He brings sanity into his house as into a lonely cottage on a fearsome heap. And the crew travel a sort of submarine route in a lighted chamber.

How precise is Saint-Exupery's assessment of flight. At night it is always Christmas, tiny lights flickering below in the black expanse. The air is stable and quiet, the airwaves all but abandoned, except for the occasional commercial flight, the pilot always sounding like a mellow FM disc jockey, with perfectly intonated phraseology: "Ft. Worth, United 257 leaving level three-one-zero for two-niner-zero, Memphis on three-two-point-three, good night."

My autopilot is set, the needles on the gauges all point where they're supposed to. At 9,500 feet my speed over the ground is 130 knots. A steady tailwind nudges me along. My automatic direction finder-a device designed to point to radio beacons-offers the entertainment of any AM station pumping pop culture into the mainstream of Middle America.

A pilot rarely listens. He seeks the solitude of flight, the paradoxical state of abandonment within a highly structured network of regulations and electronic devices.

The quiet is elusive on the East Coast, around Chicago and in Southern California. But in the heartland, where radar-guided traffic control coverage is spotty, flying regains what bicycle makers Orville and Wilbur Wright must have sought-the bird's-eye-view, the relief from Midwestern boredom, some spice in the life of two minister's sons.

Most probably they did not think of themselves as pioneers, pushing out into a strange world. Instead, their work was a logical progression from bicycles. It was a slow process. A new wing shape here, another vertical stabilizer ther, annual treks to the Carolina coast to test their creations, ever increasing in size, until 75 years ago today they made true a dream of centuries: powered flight.

For the Wright brother-bicycle designers by gift but sellers of their product by trade-the achievement was an economic breakthrough. "Inform press," they telegraphed their father, hoping the world would line up to buy their invention. But the press considered them silly at best, and notices of their flight were buried deep in the inner pages of the nation's newspapers.

Gradually the attention grew. "The French have simply become wild," Wilbur wrote to Orville five years later from Le Mans after a demonstration of the Wright Flyer. "Instead of doubting that we could do anything, they are ready to believe that we can do everything."

A foreshadowing of a conflict that would continue to face aviation. There is an omnipotence to flying that lies beyond the pilot himself, a feeling of potential that hovers in equilibrium somewhere between the control of the throttle and the threat of the thuderstorm. The power comes in discovering the balance.

The plane itself is simply an object, terribly awkward on the ground, where, we are told, if God had not wanted us, he would have given us wings.

We took the wings. Icarus tried to seize the limitlessness of the universe; he failed, and fell back into the sea, the ancient Greeks claimed, because he had tried to make himself into a God, because of his pride. It was not until the 1780s that the Montgolgier brothers, paper manufacturers in France, created the first hot-air balloon that freed from the restraint of gravity. Even then, King Louis XVI wanted to order criminals into the craft, thinking that "a novel way of being rid of worthless men."

Only the plea of a young aristocrat swayed the king's mind to consider that there might by some glory involved in man's first ascension. For Louis, like the ancient Greeks, believed man was not supposed to fly.

Icarus, like the Montgolfiers and the Wrights, thought differently. He died not because of divine intentions, although the pride of hubris may have entered into it. Icarus failed because he was lousy pilot. He didn't explore the give and take of his flight system.

There is a heritage to flying, an almost religious passing on of power that is given even as it is given in religion, with the laying on of hands-the instructor manipulating one set of controls, the student on the other set, sensing the various nuances of flight.

Saint-Exupery notes that these interactions are all but indescribable. "Its is the quality of the carpenter face to face with his block of wood," he wrote.

And so it was with the Wright brothers. Slowly they worked. Slowly they learned. First flight: 100 feet in distance, 12 seconds duration. Yet with that leap, pilot and aviation writer Ernest Gann noted, they "lofted the common man toward hitherto undreamed of destinations, and changed forever the daily pattern of his existence."

The Wright brothers widened our eyes and lengthened our stride. They erased the hubris of Icarus from the discipline of flight and married the mythical aspirations of the ancients to an aspirated engine. Art and technology. Gods and autopilots.

The magic of the craft has opened for me a world in which I shall confront, within two hours, the black dragons and the crowned crests of a coma of blue lightnings, and when night has fallen I, delivered, shall read my course in the stars.

Wind, Sand and Stars (TABLE) I am looking down from 6,500 feet, en route to Rapid City, Lowa. Farmers are baling hay along the Missouri River, and even at this altitude the individual workers can be seen in the field, throwing the bales onto a huge flatbed trailer pulled by a tractor. It's blue, so I know from my life on the earth's surface that it must be a Ford.(COLUMN)How wonderful, the way the mind assimilates information. A blue speck is a Ford tractor as sure as I know, without looking, that four seconds pressing on a electric toggle switch gives about 10 degrees of flaps in a Cessna 150. Or the sound that I need to hear of the wind rushing past the cockpit at about 150 knots, before I yank the nose of the Citabria up into the first part of a simple loop. No need to look at the airspeed indicator, and no worry that the increase in speed from the downward pitch will over-rev the engine. My eyes are on the wingtips, watching the angle described against the horizon, so I know which way the nose is pointing. My ears are speed indicators listening to the plane rushing through the air and the engine rpm.(COLUMN)The converse to all this is instrument flight, the gritty test of the pilot's skill-no ground cues, no depth perception, just the steadfast accuracy of electronic beacons and the act of faith made in the radar controller, issuing vectors, spacing aircraft. The comforting thought is that there are fewer midair collisions in instrument conditions than in visual flight situations. But there is strain staying glued to the cockpit instruments, trusting their visual cues, not being able to look outside for any of the information-or joy-of flying. And there is a certain uneasiness that comes from placing your life in the hands of the voice that speaks from a headset: an ethereal being, an unseen mover, a dictator of destiny.(COLUMN)Even hearing the controller's voice in the headset doesn't relieve the awesome sense of aloneness, at once frightening and fulfilling, the fear of the unknown and the satisfaction of conquering it. In The Spirit of St. Louis, Charles Lindbergh described that sensation while crossing the Atlantic:(COLUMN)Apprehension spreads over time and space until their old meanings disappear. I'm not conscious of time's direction. Figures of miles from New York and miles to Paris lose their interest. All sense of substance leaves. There's no longer weight to my body, no longer hardness to the stick. The feeling of flesh is gone. I become independent of physical laws-of food, of shelter, of life. I'm almost one with these uaporlike forms behind me, less tangible than air, universal as ether. I'm still attached to life; they, not at all; but at any moment some thin band may snap and there'll be no difference between us (END TABLE)(TABLE) In optimum flight conditions, the craft disappears conceptually. The drone of the engine recedes and the cockpit becomes a magic carpet. Down below farmers lay out fields with a precision that amazes the eye from this perspective. At dawn fog cascades over hills and down to riverbeds with the grace of a whisper in an empty forest. At night, cars move on the ground like miniature flashlights, pilot the Cherokee down part of the Grand Canyon; fly around Devil's Tower, the immense butte in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"; lift off behind a Concorde at Dulles and then circle under the Goodyear blimp; pass over Indianola, Iowa, just a 50 hot-air balloons make a mass ascension; am overtaken near Albuquerque by a Marine A6, thundering perhaps 50 yards above the deck on a practice bombing run at 380 knots. In southwestern Texas I glance at huge cuts in the earth, thinking of the power of the river that carved the gorge centuries ago. Near Denver the sun hits the plane, and sharp orange and blue hues mix on the white wings with the red beams from my rotating beacon. In the headset, a strange exchange:(COLUMN)"Denver Centre, King Air 28678, inbound to Stapleton, Sir, we'd like to declare an emergency. My wife just had a baby in the plane!"(COLUMN)"Roger, 678, does she seem to be all right?"(COLUMN)"Affirmative, sir."(COLUMN)There is clapping and laughter in the radar room. "We'll vector you right in. Like us to call you an ambulance?" "Negative. There's a ride waiting for us. We're just wondering what we'll have put on her birth certificate as a place of birth."(COLUMN)"Stand by.That would be 56 miles DME off the 020 radial of the Denver Vortac."(COLUMN)"Well, sir. I guess she'll grow up to be a pilot."(COLUMN)"Probably even worse. Probably grow up to be an air traffic controller."(COLUMN)Birth, death and eternity. At Socorro, N.M., I'm jolted on my final approach path as I notice a horribly mangled plane that's been towed off to the left side of the runway. At Gila Bend, Ariz., the wife of the airport operator seems like a character out of the film "Petrified Forest." She and her husband left the Bronx to come here 12 years ago and have since raised 2 children. Her only contacts with the outside world are the conversations she has with pilots who drop in from the skies to refuel. "Take a picture of the big cactus out back," she says, taking a candy bar from the refrigerator where it escapes melting in the desert heat. "on, I miss shopping at Macy's terribly. Sometimes I feel isolated here with nothing but my family. My world seems so tiny now."(COLUMN)A difference of perspective. Five minutes earlier the fuel gauge read almost empty, and the words GILA BEND painted across the runway were more welcome than all the goods at Macy's and Gimbel's.(COLUMN)"They think," Saint-Exupery wrote, "that their lamp shines only for that little table; but from 50 miles away, someone has felt the summons of their light, as though it were a desperate signal from some lonely island, flashed by shipwrecked men toward the sea."(COLUMN)These little airports are the waypoints of a different America. seen only from above. They serve as input and output connectors for social, political and economic change. And even so remote, even with their runways edged by 30-year-old planes still used for barnstorming, they sum up the paradox of modern America, our traditions challenged by the difficulty of keeping up with technology. Push the aircraft's microphone switch five times, and the runway below is covered with lights, strobes firing to mark the proper approach course.(COLUMN)Little did the Wright brothers dream that their invention would have so profound an impact on mankind. And yet, so monumental was the scope of their accomplishment that it is difficult to assimilate all the changes they catalyzed. They gave us wings and shrank the globe. For the pilot, their gift remains more than London in three hours and mail to Los Angeles the next day. "The airplane in the sky carries our hearts above mediocre things," the architect Le Corbusier wrote in 1935. "The airplane has given us the bird's eye view. When the eye sees clearly, the mind makes a clear decision."(COLUMN)One the final leg of my flight, I ease into Huntington, W.Va., to visit a friend serving time in the nearby federal prison at Ashland, Ky. The clank of the gates shutting is still in my ears as the prop catches. As I'm flying off over the prison yard, it has never been more lucid how clear and free the world is from this viewpoint.(COLUMN)I remember something Michael Collins wrote, words from an astronaut who circled the moon but felt more comfortable flying single-engine airplanes.(COLUMN)My eyes have already been privileged to see more than most men see in all their years. It is perhaps a pity that my eyes have seen more than my brain has been able to assimilate or evaluate, but like the Druids at Stonehenge, I have attempted to bring order out of what I have observed, even if I have not understood it fully (END TABLE)(TABLE) (END TABLE) CAPTION: (TABLE) Pictures 1 and 2, no caption, by Tom Zito; Picture 3, November three-eight-seven-five-eight sits quietly at Leesburg Airport after the author's coast-to-coast-to-coast flight. By Bill Snead (END TABLE)