The shadows were lengthening outside the window of the Pilot's Lounge here at the virtual airport. From the tattered old lounge chair, I could see that the activity on the ramp was spooling down into "tucking them away for the night" mode. The flight school trainers were being fueled by the line crew and moved onto tiedowns or gentled into hangars. A few of the regulars were coming back from evening flights, flaring onto the pavement as the sun began to touch the horizon. I saw Old Hack slip his Super Cruiser steeply down final toward the grass strip, then kick it straight in the midst of the round out and just tickle the tips of the clover as he three-pointed it onto the turf. In my mind's eye, I could see Hack's face, creased with concentration and the sheer joy of one more exquisite evening in the company of a little airplane. I doubt he was aware, or cared, that anyone was watching, for he is long past any need to show off his skills. He was flying for the pure love of it, and being lucky enough to look out the window at the right time to see him caress that airplane onto the runway gave me the pleasure of momentarily sharing the enjoyment experienced by my friend. Smiling to myself, I knew that I would never mention this moment to him, for he would profanely deny any emotional connection to his airplane or the landing he had just made; yet someday in the future I knew that we would be standing together as we saw someone land truly well and we would look at each other briefly and that bond between us as spirits hopelessly lost to the sky would grow even stronger.
I was just thinking that spotting an 80-something aviator exercising his skills so gracefully was a suitable way to wrap up what had been a superb day and that perhaps it was time to head home, when one of the CFIs in the flight school hammered into the Lounge, dumped his flight bag and headset onto a table, sending magazines flying, turned to me and demanded, "What are you smiling at?"
I started to comment on the nearly perfect day I'd had, but didn't get a word out before he decided that I had to hear about his day. I learned that he'd spent the day with students that couldn't hit the ground with a brick, couldn't fly both straight and level at the same time, and talked on the radio when they should have been listening. On top of that he was looking forward to doing a checkout with an excellent pilot in a high performance airplane but the airplane broke and now someone else will do the checkout on his day off. Plus, he got a letter from the FAA about a student he'd soloed some time ago who'd turned up at some other airport claiming to be a licensed pilot and something, he didn't know what, happened, and now there was an investigation; and to make matters worse, there was going to be a presidential TFR in place in two days that would mean no income to him at all that day. He then talked about fuel prices and FAA inspectors who were unreasonable and regulations that could not be met and the sad state to which aviation had sunk now that airlines were in bankruptcy and he'd hoped to get a decent flying job but that was probably hopeless, so what was I doing there, at an airport, where things were lousy, smiling?
I said it was just a reflex action, that he was right, things really were terrible, and then I departed as expeditiously as possible. I was determined that he wasn't going to spoil the day for me, because I had just had one of those little airplane days that we dream about; it hadn't cost all that much and it served to remind me why we go through all that we do in order to fly.
It had started with the alarm going off pretty early for a Saturday. Once I'd checked weather, I woke my daughter, Mia, and said we were going. Normally, getting a teenager out of bed prior to noon on a weekend requires explosives and heavy lifting equipment; yet today she was up and dressed in minutes. Things were looking good.
We drove the short distance to where the airplane we were to take, a Cessna 150, resides on one of those delightful quirks of the aviation world, a residential airport. The idea of living with one's airplane is a dream I hope to realize someday, but for this day, my daughter and I would depart from a friend's hangar. We drove in quietly; hoping not to disturb our friends, then rolled open the fabric-covered hangar door and let the morning light illuminate the little trainer. Together we did the preflight, probing the private areas of the airplane and assuring ourselves that the odds of it rising from the ground and returning safely were good before we pulled it out into the cool morning air.
Seated and strapped in, my daughter went through the checklist and started the engine at dead idle and we listened to the propeller being swished around by the modest powerplant. Mia is too young to solo an airplane, although she soloed a glider on her fourteenth birthday, and as she started to taxi out, I marveled at the wondrous good fortune that has brought me to this place with the person I love so dearly. I watched as she taxied slowly over the grass, wheel pulled all the way aft, eyes alert for potholes and made sure the wing would clear the trees beside the short taxiway.
As Mia set the throttle for 1,700 rpm for the run up, condensation appeared at the propeller tips and quickly formed a double helix of vapor that swept around us while we sat entranced by the sight. Already the day had become special.
Pre-takeoff checks completed, Mia taxied to the very end of the runway, and turned so that the wing almost overhung the fence in the process of using every bit of runway. There was only a breath of wind and with two of us in the 150, even with partial fuel, we were very near gross weight, so takeoff and climb out would be leisurely; and with trees along one side and at the departure end of the runway, she had to do things correctly on the takeoff. The throttle slid forward steadily, and we began to move. I could tell she was holding a little back pressure on the yoke, protecting the nose wheel from the uneven surface, but not raising the nose which would expose more of the airplane to the oncoming air and slow our acceleration. At 45 knots the airplane started to feel light and the leaves on the trees ahead were starting to gain definition. At 55, the airplane eased off of the ground and Mia pitched up just a bit more. The airspeed settled on 60 knots, best angle of climb for this airplane, and I looked over to see if the ball was in the center; it was, so we would climb as efficiently as possible. The trees were still far enough away that successfully clearing them was not a concern, and I relaxed a fraction and thought once again about how the young learn to fly so astonishingly fast, and often do so very well.
It is as if we are in a movie that was black and white and the director has just called for the cameras to switch to brilliant colors of every hue. A luminous vista bursts out at us as we climb over the lake just off the end of the runway. The air is so acutely clear that it is as if someone has washed the sky for us. The horizon is crisply defined, making it easy for Mia to hold the requisite pitch attitude to get the most from the little airplane as we climb. We continue upward only to 3,500 feet, for we are going but about 70 miles, and I watch as Mia sets power for cruise and leans the mixture to her satisfaction. Then I feel free to look about us and revel at what is probably the finest weather day in which I have flown in years. As we proceed north, we see that the rivers have the cotton of fog forming a perfect half cylinder from the surface to just above the tops of the trees, and I fancy that we could swoop down, grab on and it would trail along behind us like some incredibly thick airshow smoke. There is absolutely no motion of the water on the lakes over which we are passing. I am curious as to why they are not also opaqued by fog. Looking more closely, I first see a fly fisherman who has waded into the shallows, and to my amazement, from 2,500 feet above, I can see the movement of his rod as he repeatedly casts. Then I see that there are indeed tendrils of fogs over those lakes, wisps as fine as spider webs, moving slowly across the surface but unable to grow and obscure the lakes as is somehow happening with more success on the nearby rivers. I do not try to understand, I only look and wonder.
Our destination is Cadillac, Mich., where there is to be a flight breakfast on this fine August day. We fly on, over a landscape that is at its peak of life; the air is so smooth as to be a liquid, caressing our airplane while my daughter makes smooth, tiny corrections as she holds altitude and heading. Even though she and I are crowded into a space so small that it would be illegal to use it to incarcerate the most heinous criminal, I am enormously content to be here and would gladly stay forever if it were somehow possible. Gone are the aviation frustrations of the previous week; the argument over what is appropriate on a ramp check, my airline flight where I listened to the mindless repetition of the ridiculous phrase "at this time ..." and dealt with the moronic design of the regional jet that places the passenger windows at elbow, rather than eye, level. Such concerns dry up and blow away in the propwash of the little Continental engine as we drift over the high summer landscape. Glancing at my daughter and seeing her concentration as she looks about us for other airplanes, I wish I could somehow stuff this moment, this existence, into the most secure of vaults, and be allowed, on those days in the future when things are not going well, to draw of it; for it would only take a tiny bit to make things right again, so the supply would last a long, long time.
As we approach Cadillac, Mia and I discuss where we should start down so as to make our little airplane go as fast as we can for as long as we can, and get to pattern altitude about two miles away from the airport. We listen to the ASOS, set the altimeter and then reluctantly tune in Unicom frequency and gird ourselves for the noise and chatter and screeches as we aggressively look about us for other airplanes, and begin to spot them. Crossing Lake Cadillac south of the airport we are level at pattern altitude as a Cherokee passes a short distance overhead. I cannot imagine he saw us, because to pass us as he did was extremely foolish; it is not only in violation of regulations on the subject, but far worse, he lost sight of us for much of the time that we were very close together. To my surprise, the Cherokee continues downward, well below pattern altitude; and as it turns onto downwind I hear the pilot announce that he is turning downwind just in front of a "low and slow Cessna."
Band of brothers, indeed.
I am amused by a fellow pilot who is so oblivious to the wonder of this morning that he must make disparaging remarks about a type of airplane he is not flying rather than being deeply thankful that he is aloft at all, no matter what the name of the maker on the side of his machine. As we follow him in the pattern, he flies well over a mile past the runway before turning base, and I toy with the idea of turning inside of him and landing well before he can get back to the airport; but I abandon the idea as I do not want to frighten and confuse him by suddenly appearing in front of him when he eventually turns final. His inability to hold altitude or fly a reasonably sized pattern has broadcast to all nearby his level of skill quite effectively. His gigantic pattern gives Mia time to practice in the slow speed realm of the 150 as we set up for landing. Ahead of us, the Cherokee uses up 2/3 of the 5,000-foot runway getting stopped, while Mia lands on the numbers and turns off about 500 feet from the threshold with only moderate braking. I smile as I reflect that the loudest pilots are so often the poorest fliers.
We taxi in amongst a variegated flock of airplanes. The place is packed. EAA Chapter 678, Northern Lights, has put on this flight breakfast for years and has long endured the vicissitudes of Michigan weather, but they have never, ever seen a day as glorious as this. I later learn that they are experiencing their largest turnout ever and will serve well over 400 breakfasts. We are marshaled to parking by men and women who are briskly competent and obviously have done this sort of thing before, because there is no delay in getting us to a parking spot.
Once shut down, Mia and I step out into the slightly crisp morning air and turn to look at the traffic pattern full of airplanes and the ones that have landed. There are already several dozen parked on the pavement and the grass by the ramp, and we treat ourselves to viewing the assortment of production and homebuilt airplanes that have come to visit as we happily saunter toward a large hangar where we can see a short line of people waiting for food. The day gets even better as we spot friends before we even get to the hangar. We chat briefly and get in the line for the scrambled eggs, sausage and pancakes being prepared at a frantic pace. As we go through, we talk with the EAA volunteers who have run this event for so many years. To a person, the volunteers are ecstatic over the weather and the turnout. Despite the pace imposed on them by the turnout, they talk eagerly of the apparent success of this year's event as compared with the driving rain and fog that was present a year ago.
We find a spot to sit with friends, but Mia suddenly spots Dixon, an airplane-mad schoolmate who has come; says she'd like to sit with him, and heads for another table. Ah, well, I had her to myself for a couple hours and she can't go home by herself. The food proves to be exceptionally good and the conversation at the table lively. As we eat and talk, we can see the approach end of the runway in use. As is our duty, we evaluate the quality of the patterns being flown and the sureness of landings, and "Ooh" and "Aah" over some of the airplanes that arrive -- notably a couple of RV-8s, a new, four-place Robinson helicopter and a rare, vintage homebuilt side-by-side biplane probably built back in the 1960s.
Time loses meaning. All that matters is that the weather is better than in paintings, there are good friends to converse with and airplanes to watch. After eating, several of us decide to walk around and look at airplanes. I spot a friend I haven't seen in years and have the chance to meet his son, now nearly two years old, and happily observe that he and his wife are expecting their second child. A Twin Bonanza taxis in and I see Mia rush over and ask the woman emerging from the cabin if it is a T-Bone. The woman gasps in surprise, looks at the inquiring teen and blurts out, "No one knows what kind of airplane this is, how do you?" I laugh to myself as Mia explains that a friend of ours owns one.
On the ramp, groups form and reform, talking and walking to look at airplanes. An impeccable SeaRey sits to one side, seemingly ready to go splash in one of the nearby lakes. Looking at the workmanship on the RV-8s, I take the time to do a little dreaming about how nice it would be to have one of those little aerial hotrods, and then walk over to look at a well-kept, original, American Yankee and think of the fun I've had in those lively little airplanes.
Little by little, things slow down. The last stragglers go through the food line, and folks who have flown in say their goodbyes and head to their airplanes to join the line of departures taxiing to the runway and launching. Finally it is time for us to taxi over to the gas pump, add fuel to the 150 and then take to the skies again.
It is difficult to leave, to break the magic of the event and the day; yet, by our procrastination, we are one of the last remaining airplanes still on the ramp. The pattern is almost empty as we taxi out and Mia does the pre-takeoff checks. Once in the air, Mia rocks the wings to wave at Dixon, sitting over by the SeaRey where he is excitedly waiting for the ride that has been promised to him. Climbing, we go up to 5,500 feet to get out of the little bit of low-level turbulence and it becomes my turn to fly, something that I seem to do less and less as my daughter grows up. I guess it just comes with the territory.
As I fly, we talk a little about the flight itself and the need to look for other airplanes as well as keep track of what the engine is doing and other requirements for a successful journey; but we also go into a wide range of topics, something that I so value when I have time with my daughter. Often, she keeps her own counsel and it's impossible to pry a thought out of her, but sometimes in an airplane, when there are no controllers to deal with and the air is smooth, she will open up and I will learn a little more about what is going on behind those alert brown eyes. Having a teenager willing to talk is a gift; perhaps the environment of a small airplane makes it more likely to happen.
Into the pattern back at the airpark, I cannot help but wish that the flight and the day were not coming to an end. Nevertheless, it is time to concentrate. The runway is narrow and fairly short, so I expect that I may have to get on the controls at some point to help things along. As it works out, there is some talking through the approach and flare, but there is no need to touch anything as Mia puts the airplane safely onto the rolling grass runway.
With the airplane stowed and my daughter delivered home, I came out to the Lounge because I wanted the right place to reflect on the day. It's days like this, and especially the people such as those with EAA Chapter 678 -- who take the time to volunteer for such things as flight breakfasts and safety seminars and other gatherings of those who fly -- that more than make up for those aggravations we sometimes face as people who desire to fly. I had to walk out of the Lounge on that instructor who was having a bad day. I couldn't make him understand right then that there are days in the sky -- such as the one I was just lucky enough to have -- that make all the aggravations seem petty, the bureaucrats insignificant, and the nay-sayers mute.
All it takes is a loved one, a little Cessna 150, a flight breakfast and a brief spell of nice weather. And no, it's not too much to ask.
See you next month.
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