Staff writer Tokyo’s nighttime neon casts a flickering rainbow through Masaharu Satoh’s taxi — a poor substitute for his former life, but it will do for now. Putting on his sunglasses and cap, with a tug of the steering wheel, Satoh takes off into the clouds, the hustle and bustle and high-rises reduced to mere dots on the landscape below. “I’d like to go back,” the 44-year-old taxi driver said. “I want to see the colors again.” The crude honking of a truck horn brings him back down to Earth, but his memories are intact. He was there. He saw the aurora australis. A decade ago, Satoh spent 18 months navigating somewhat less congested scenery, working as both pilot and official photographer on a government expedition to research melting ice caps in Antarctica. “It was magical. No photo could do it justice,” Satoh said of the aurora, whose fantastic shapes and hues are a dominant subject of the 450 rolls of film he used up during the trip. Satoh is used to long, hard journeys. It took him almost 14 years and 15 million yen to realize his childhood dream of becoming a pilot. Instructor’s fees — 40,000 yen per lesson — were covered by working part-time as a taxi driver. A learning disability and bullying marred Satoh’s early school years and at 18 he joined the Air Self-Defense Force in the hope he could eventually train to become an ASDF pilot. When that dream was shattered by illness, he quit the ASDF and decided to go it alone. “To have time and money to go to aviation school, it seemed taxi driving, with its one-day on, one-day off system, was the best solution,” Satoh said. Over the next 13 years, Satoh accumulated the flying hours required to obtain a private pilot’s license, and immediately made an impact when in 1987 he became the first Japanese to make a trans-Pacific crossing in a single-engine plane. For the next year, he worked for a small airline, where he transported magazine and newspaper photographers to various locations nationwide to take aerial shots. The experience gained during this stint made him eligible to apply for the annual expeditions to Antarctica, which he had heard about through a fellow pilot. The government annually sends an observation team to the Antarctic on a variety of projects, such as wildlife observation, Satoh said. “There are just 360 freelance pilots in Japan,” he said. “Every year, two are hired to go on the expedition.” Satoh was accepted for the 31st expedition, during which the 18-member research team collected data on Antarctica’s melting ice.Part of the work involved entering the stratosphere to take air samples. “In Antarctica, the stratosphere is very low, around 7,200 meters, and the temperature is around minus 55 degrees. I’ll never forget the cold — I could hardly feel my legs,” Satoh said. Although the sunless, “black days” of late June and flying through blizzards in September were other unforgettable moments, nothing compared with the sight of the aurora, he said. Today, Satoh is back to square one. Many of the small airlines that used to hire him for photo shoots or to transport tourists to the Izu Islands have been forced out of business by the recession. Yet Satoh has found a creative outlet for the nostalgia he feels for his Antarctica experience. In addition to creating an Internet site devoted to the trip, he has also produced CD-ROMs and videos. “I want to give people the opportunity to see Antarctica as I saw it from above — to get young people, especially those who bully and fight, to see the bigger picture.” Satoh said he has not been able to secure piloting work for more than two years, but is hoping to take part in next year’s Antarctic expedition. “Sometimes when I’ve finished work, I pull over and watch planes fly by and think ‘I wish that was me up there,'” he said. “Other times I stop where there are illuminations: It’s not the same, but it will do for now.”
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