I determined never to fly again after my first ride with my Pop in the old Tri-Pacer he had rented. He was a crackerjack pilot. I was just six years old and petrified of there being nothing but air for a thousand feet between us and the ground below. After a few almost takeoffs I screwed up the courage, mostly out of humiliation, to go up and around the pattern. I held on for dear life but managed to survive the experience.
That was the genesis of countless hours and years of flying to follow. From single engine craft to the twin engine Aztec, which we came to love so much. Lined up on the runway waiting for clearance, running up the engines, wings buffeting with prop wash, and off we went. The immense rush of power intoxicated as those red-tipped throttles plunged forward pinning us back into the leather seats as the airplane lunged forward, gobbling up asphalt as the center runway lines morphed from broken to solid, nose lifting off in eager anticipation. We tucked away the landing gear when there was no longer enough runway to abort takeoff. Absent now of all outside sound but for the melodic synchronized drone of the twin Lycomings as they pull us skyward to serenity, air whooshing by in a sea of majestic calm as the ground falls away into panoramic landscape. But for the occasional squawk and vectoring from the radios, peace abounds. The travails of life are in the past, out of reach as we quickly slip beyond their grasp. Weather and traffic are our focus now as we head toward destination unknown in random pleasure and abandon.
Leveling off below ten thousand feet, relaxing the throttles and leaning the engines as the prop pitches are adjusted and the trim is set for appropriate cruise at 200 knots. The sky is a brilliant heavenly blue, visibility is unlimited; winds are calm. This is God’s country; a glorious unrestricted vista where topside atmosphere abounds. There is nothing but us in the cabin, surrounded by gauges and instruments measuring our every movement and attitude indicating our flight path. Time has stopped as we traverse outward beauty beyond description. Fuel tanks are topped so our range is substantial. Five hours and one thousand miles are ours to spend any way we choose. This is the ultimate escape. We’ll wind up wherever, as it isn’t the destination that matters, but the journey. Getting there is better than being there.
My father who was my greatest friend and mentor began flying when he was fifteen. He was drawn to the skies above and to the metal birds who could take him there. That love of flight he excitedly shared with us as we were growing up. The airplane was his first love after his family. We all became weekend warriors regularly flying back and forth from Philadelphia to Bader Field in Atlantic City and often took longer legged trips. The flights were sometimes short and at other times hours long, depending upon moods, schedules and weather. When business dictated, up we flew to an airfield where commercial aviation couldn’t get in because of the short runways. No tickets, no lines, no waiting for passengers to embark, just a flight plan, procedural checklist and off we went with clearance from the tower.
The lure of the skies is sensual, like the Sirens of Titan whose beckoning was beyond mortal refusal. Once bitten by the flying bug, there is no turning back. The kicking over of the engines and their melodious drone as they sing in unison, the smell of the hot metal, the thrill of the takeoff, the spectacular perspective from above and the ever present challenge of the perfect landing, are all ingredients for a recipe of exquisite pleasure. The elements of sun, wind, rain, ice and thunderstorms as fronts approach all test the mettle and though predictable with today’s degree of forecasting, always demand the utmost of respect. When traversing the skies we are at odds with the unknown which can confront us with nasty surprises at any given moment. Safety first, then pleasure, never otherwise. Pilot error is the greatest threat to a successful flight. Mechanical failures do occur rarely and that is when the true test of competence is critical. That is also the reason for redundant systems which have saved many a life.
Yes, flying is a unique experience which invades your soul with a grip that is relentless. There is a level of solitude, an air of freedom and a timeless degree of exhilaration that is constant. Even when I am on the ground, the very sound of propellers slicing through the air above chills me with excitement and intrudes with a delightful distraction. As the reverberation of their pitch ranges from high to low as the airplane fades into the distance, the draw of nostalgia grows stronger. Whether pilot, copilot or passenger, the years of flying are embedded in my psyche but the trips are now painfully solo without my Dad. In 1974 I had the daunting decision of keeping or selling our beloved Aztec (6897 Yankee) after Pop passed very suddenly and unexpectedly, far too young in his years. Either way was painful but the choice was obvious. To keep her would have been tantamount to flying solo and that empty seat was just too much to bear. Just the thought drew tears as I thought of all our flights together and now it was decidedly over. I opted out and found a good home for her through one of Pop’s flying buddies who assured me that she’d get the same degree of love and care. I did however take her up one last time with Pop’s last flight instructor for a short but bittersweet final hop around before letting her go. I bade farewell with a gentle rub on her wing and a silent tearful “I Love You” as I left her in front of the hangar at Atlantic Aviation for the line crew to back her in.
Walking away was the right choice but it left a gaping hole in my soul as a large chunk of my life went along with that beautiful red and white bird. What my father and I shared over those brief but fiery years was precious and very rare. I had been so blessed. The bond of our flying was merely a symbol of the deep love we shared and would now be locked away securely in my conscious, subconscious and unconscious for me to recall on those ever frequent occasions of yearning.
Author of “Bader Field”