It was about an hour after sunset at the virtual airport. I was sitting in one of the big recliners in the pilot's lounge wondering whether the cost of avgas was a great cosmic practical joke and curious as to whether it was possible to calculate just how much weight I'd have to lose to save a measurable amount of fuel on my next flight. As I was pondering the subtle issues of flight and dutifully nodding off, I was suddenly startled to wide-eyed alertness. The room was brilliantly illuminated ... glowing with an intensely powerful, otherworldly white light that irresistibly beckoned me toward it. In that moment I joyously realized that all my years at the airport were finally to be rewarded. The answers to aviation's persistent questions were about to be revealed to me. I, Betty Durden's baby boy, was the one who had been chosen to experience the timeless truths of the sky.
I can honestly assure you that when you have leapt to your feet from a sound sleep, raced to a picture window, thrown your arms wide and cried, "Teach me, Oh Great God of Aviation," it is horribly embarrassing to suddenly become aware that you are talking to the taxi and landing lights of the last of the FBO's 172s to return to the nest for the night. It gets worse when the airplane turns slightly so your eyes can focus on the cabin and you see it is your friend Barb (who thinks you are a bit odd in the first place) and her teenage daughters; and they are all laughing hysterically at you. In fact, one of them seems to have reacted so intensely that she has nearly choked herself on her shoulder harness.
I didn't go back to the airport for a week.
OK, it was two.
Naturally, as would any sane person, upon my eventual return, I parked well away from the office. I reconnoitered to make sure that Barb's car wasn't in the lot. Then I casually walked in, went into the pilot's lounge, sat down and picked up an AVweb article that someone had printed out and tossed on the stack of magazines. Of course, not five minutes later, Barb walked in, took one look at me and started laughing all over again.
"What in the world," she managed to gasp, "were you doing the other night? I nearly taxied into the Citabria after I saw you come out of that chair. You have got to stop wearing Bermuda shorts and a Hawaiian shirt when you dance in front of windows. Oh, man, before they throw a net over you, you gotta tell me what you were doing."
So I did.
And she started laughing all over again. When she had calmed down, dried her eyes and found a chair, she got a pensive look on her face and said, "You know, it's kind of a funny coincidence, but you having some oddball spiritual experience due to a landing light isn't all that far off from what happened when I went flying with my daughters that day. Wait a minute. Not exactly -- mine wasn't weird like yours, but it proved a bit spiritual, if you're into that sort of thing.
"The girls like flying and are willing to go with their mom so long as I promise to refrain from doing certain things so that I don't embarrass them; you know, like admit that I'm related to them. For years I've occasionally shown them some places that meant a lot to me when I was growing up. That day I had flown them about a hundred miles to the little airport where I'd taken flying lessons when I was in high school. I'd soloed there, but I'd run out of money and had to stop taking lessons. It was nearly 15 years before I was in a position where I could start flying again and get my certificate. That first airport always meant very much to me. People were so nice to me. I'd never been back until that day. I'd wondered what had become of the pilots I'd known. I wondered if the runway really was as narrow and hard to hit as I recalled.
"The girls agreed to go with me. I'd been told that on Saturday mornings a lot of the regulars would show up for coffee at about 9:00, so the girls and I were here about 7:30 to get there by then. Everything went incredibly well -- from the weather to my youngest saying she was enjoying the flight and actually taking the controls for a while. Some of the same people were there and they remembered me and made me feel welcome. The runway is a lot wider than it seemed back when I was a student. They still cut off shirttails when a pilot solos and pin them to the same wall. The four of us got to having so much fun talking with folks and poking around the airport that I called back here and they were able to move the guy who had the airplane in the afternoon to another 172, so we could stay longer. I used the courtesy car to take the girls to see the town where I had lived for five years when I was a teenager. We ate lunch and supper at places where I used to hang out and we walked all over town.
"Looking back at it, I guess I'd call it a pilgrimage. In a lot of ways, going back to the place where I'd been when I was so determined to learn to fly was a renewal of my interest in the flying I do now. The memories that trip triggered were very powerful. I thought about how my mom was against me flying and how some of my friends thought I was crazy for doing something that 'girls just don't do.' As I walked around that airport that morning, I suddenly recalled that I had been angry a lot of the time when I lived in that town -- except when I was at the airport. I was a teenager who wanted to step up and show that I could do something. I was angry at people who were trying to tell me how to live my life. I remembered how absolutely determined I was to prove to those people that I could do whatever I set my mind to.
"That trip opened up a closet that used to have some pretty vivid skeletons for me. Until that day, I'd been uncomfortable thinking about a lot of the aspects of that time in my life. But when I went back to that airport and saw those great people, I yanked the closet wide open and all those skeletons had dissolved into dust because I had succeeded in doing what I most wanted to do: fly. Seeing some of the people I knew when I was first learning to fly recharged me. It also caused me to remember how incredibly painful it was to have to stop taking lessons because I couldn't make enough money at the jobs that high school girls could get. It also made me so very grateful that I was so determined way back then, because that single-minded cussedness got me through college and into a job where I could afford to fly. Because of that little trip, I've savored every second I'm in the air even more than before, because I worked like hell to learn to fly and that trip reminded me of how important flying is in my life."
With that, she grinned, "Boy, I talk way too much." Then she slugged me on the shoulder, walked over to the counter where she consulted the schedule, was given the keys to one of the 172s and headed out onto the ramp.
I couldn't help but feel that Barb's comments about an aviation pilgrimage to recharge one's flying soul rang true for many of the pilots I know.
I thought of Bob, an airline captain, who fires up his Boeing biplane with that throaty 450-horse Pratt up front and points it at Galesburg, Ill., at the end of each summer. There, for several days, he communes with Boeing Stearman Kaydets, their owners and those who share his affection for the best-known of the World War II primary trainers. Incompetent airline management, bankruptcies, pay cuts, gate holds, and the myriad other joys of modern airline operations pale to insignificance as he submerges himself in pure flight for its own sake. He emerges from his pilgrimage ready to again face the world.
For so many of my friends at the virtual airport the pilgrimage to make is to Oshkosh, to the EAA's annual convention, where they overdose on the magnitude of devices that are the products of the imaginations of those who successfully dreamed of taking to the sky. It is how they re-energize their beings, by going where they can be among their own kind, those who share their passion for flight.
We are living in a time of fuel prices that approach the horrendous levels our friends in Europe have been paying for years; of governmental institutions that seem designed to prevent U.S. citizens from obtaining and exercising the privilege of flying themselves about; of proposed policies and procedures that will, if implemented, make aviation the province of only a wealthy few; of day after day of depressing news about some aspect of aviation. There is so much that -- a little at a time -- pilots are deciding that it's no longer worth the fight. On a person-by-person basis, some are making the decision to stop flying before their time. Experienced pilots are throwing in the towel and sticking their logbooks in the back of the drawer to molder and mildew.
After I spoke with Barb, I couldn't help but consider whether there are affordable pilgrimages we can take; literal or figurative journeys to revive our sense of aeronautical wonder and desire. Are there places we can go that will serve to remind us why we decided to undertake that very considerable effort that resulted in the triumph we each felt when we received our pilot certificate? Are there journeys that will encourage us to keep the logbook handy because we still want to make entries?
It took a while, but the answer came back: Yes, there are dozens of places we can visit and things we can do to push the waves of negative news so far away they become nothing more than background noise for at least a little while. Such destinations can be as close as a trip to the library. There we have to pay absolutely nothing to be allowed to check out books by such aviation wordsmiths as Ernie Gann or Antoine de Saint-Exupery or Richard Bach or Gordon Baxter. To get a copy of Fate Is the Hunter or Log of a Pasture Pilot, or maybe Wind, Sand and Stars or even Nothing By Chance; then to clutch it to our side and go someplace where we can read without being disturbed -- where we can read and every once in a while look up at the sky, because that is where we are most happy.
We can sit and read and experience Dick Bach's sheer delight as he went barnstorming across the nation's midsection, not for the money, but for the pleasure of sharing the miracle of flight in an open cockpit with others. Such a journey within a book is guaranteed to overcome the ennui we may be feeling from the latest announcement by a bureaucrat determined to make a temporary flight restriction permanent. Devouring the paragraphs as we ride with Ernie Gann in a DC-2 staggering under a hideous load of ice is to recognize that our aeronautical forbearers fought some truly monumental battles in turning the art of flight into a science, and helps bring the problems we face today into some degree of perspective. Journeys into a book such as that give us the courage to stand up and fight for our access to the sky. After all, if those guys had the guts to go out and fly passengers on a schedule in the primitive equipment of the day, surely we can stand up to some yahoo who wants to close down the county airport because he just moved in across the street and the noise is bothering his hamster.
We can make a little longer journey to an air museum. Ideally it would be one of the big ones, such as the Smithsonian or the Air Force Museum, where we can immerse ourselves in awe for scores of hours. Depending on where we live, that might not be financially practical. However, I believe there is some form of air museum in virtually every state in the union. An air museum doesn't have to be large to give us that little jolt we need. Even a small display can serve to recharge our internal aeronautical batteries. I spent a quarter hour that I had to spare between airline flights at the Minneapolis airport recently looking at the very early Waco biplane suspended from the ceiling of one of the concourses. The plaque describing it said that Northwest had used it on its first airmail routes, keeping it for the night runs when the airline had graduated to daytime passenger flights. Looking, I thought of the pilots who flew it, fighting their way through the cold and snow of a Minnesota winter, dressed in heavy wool and leather coveralls, helmeted and goggled heads peering around the windscreen, working to pick out the next landmark. It made my current frustrations with a balky radio in the partnership airplane seem pretty minor.
We can try something new. We can explore a flight in an ultralight and consider that they are every bit as capable as the earliest Taylor and Piper Cubs we covet. An ultralight flight might be just the affordable ticket to restore some of the exuberance that has leaked out of flying for some of us.
In the warmer months there are fly-in breakfasts and dinners to be attended, either by airplane or automobile. They are a chance to get to know some other pilots, to make new friends and spend some time walking among parked airplanes of various lineages and vintages.
There are organizations to be joined -- EAA chapters, 99s, and others -- to find people who share our passion and with whom we can spend time revitalizing ourselves.
We can do as Barb did, make a trip to the airport where we first took lessons. Or we can see if we can find our original flight instructor and call him or her up to say thanks for teaching us some things that have kept us alive and enjoying the sky. We can call and catch up and see how our old friend is doing. I've heard tell that those calls have caused some pilots to learn that their old instructor wasn't doing so well and hadn't flown in some time. That discovery sometimes lead to the caller taking the instructor flying and the tables being turned as the former student became the one giving the instructor the gift of the sky. I'm told that such events were of great benefit to all concerned.
The fuel-price news stinks; TFRs are more difficult to get rid of than most social diseases; Congresscritters are bore-sighting general aviation and its pilots ... the list of horribles goes on and on. But we can do as Opus the Penguin, back in the "Bloom County" comic strip days, used to do: Take some time off to lie in the weeds for a "dandelion break." It can work wonders, and even allow one to sneer back at the bad news. A little aviation pilgrimage can be our dandelion break and remind us that we truly do love to fly and that the effort involved is worth it.
See you next month.
Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.