An Airplane Bearing Gifts
A personal airplane can be many things to its pilot, all at the same time. This time of year, it can be a very special vehicle, simultaneously taking us forward to our future and back to our roots. Even as we contemplate gathering with family and friends, we can marvel in our ability to go places and do things as few others. During these holidays, many of us will be using our airplanes to go home, whether
Ialways had enjoyed waking to find snow falling, although it had been a long time since I'd had the experience. Maybe this morning's snow was prophetic, as a white blanket was never guaranteed in these parts this time of year. It made me feel particularly good in spite of the fact it would take while to clean off the airplane before flying.
Looking out of the small opening in the sleeping bag I saw the conquest by snowflake was complete. Everything was covered to a depth of two or three inches. Another decision made for me. Right now I needed all of those I could get. I would put the skis on the airplane here and not have to worry about it later.
Okay, then, on with things. There isn't too much snow on the sleeping bag, the fuselage of the airplane protected me pretty well, all I'd have to do is shake it off and shove it into the stuff sack. Stashing it in the back of the baggage compartment means it won't get warm enough to melt the remaining snow anyway. The flannel shirt, wool sweater and cords I wore for sleeping will do just fine for the day's fashion wear; besides, I hadn't brought much — there isn't a lot of room in a Super Cub after you load the Christmas presents.
Cleaning up, a little breakfast and the call to check weather didn't take long. The sky was still pretty gray with the snow continuing to fall as I started the process of pulling the wheels off and installing skis. The airport operator stopped by to offer help. He, Newt, was a pleasant man. His wife had offered to let me stay in their house last night, and couldn't understand why I preferred to sleep under the airplane. I know Newt did. As they and I had talked I learned he shared my love for flying and the special feeling one gets just being around airplanes.
Now, as I jacked up a wheel, I sensed his presence. "Really going to try to go on to Michigan today?" he asked.
"Sure, the visibility is good even with the snow squalls, and they end before I get to Wisconsin. The weather guessers claim most of the north half of Iowa has snow coverage so it's time for the skis."
He looked over the airplane a bit before speaking again. "Where are you going to put the wheels?"
I explained, "I designed a rack on a stringer to hold them up out of the way so they can't get loose and cause trouble."
"What about weight and balance with those things that far aft?" he wondered aloud.
"I worked it out and there isn't enough weight to cause a problem."
He was persistent, "How'd you do that without drawings for the airplane structure, you an aeronautical engineer?"
"Yes. Even got an STC for it."
"Oh, sorry. Someday I'll learn not to pry. Can I help with that other side?" he asked, a bit chagrined.
"Sure, thank you. It should go on pretty easily. Once we get things loosened up the wheel slides off, the ski slides on, we tighten everything up and attach the bungee cords," I explained.
Together, we had it done in virtually no time at all. I put the equipment away and walked with Newt to the small airport office where I paid the bill for the fuel I had added last night.
As I turned to go he looked up with a thoughtful expression, "Remember what we talked about last night. They are going to be very glad to see you."
Up to that moment, I had been doing fine. Suddenly the waves of worry and uncertainty I had fought for so long flowed over me and all I could do was croak out a brief, "I hope so." Then, I turned and walked to the airplane. I knew it would help steady me, it always did.
I looked it over one more time. Everything was as it should be. Inside, I went through the comforting startup ritual. The little engine fired right away, even in the cold. Now I could submerge myself in the demands of taxiing on skis and flying the airplane. Maybe I could force myself to think of only those matters. The snow squeaked under the skis and the airplane moved in the odd, distinctive manner of skis on snow that I had nearly forgotten.
The takeoff was exhilarating: the cold, crisp air causing the airplane to accelerate rapidly, the sounds of the skis sliding across and through the new powder and the sensation I will always love, of again leaving the ground behind. Over to the side, Newt and his wife were standing beside the office, waving. I waggled the wings and turned on course through the lightly falling snow.
Looking over the gently rolling countryside that is Iowa, I discovered that the flight was not going to involve much work. The air was smooth, the snow light enough that it didn't hurt visibility much, the navigation simple, and the scenery absolutely lovely. Unfortunately, that gave me time to think. Would they let me come home? The engine seemed to mockingly repeat the question as it pulled me along. I thought back to the parting, now nearly five years ago.
They had given up and accepted the fact that I was hooked on airplanes and paid for me to go to college for an aeronautical engineering degree. That much had been relatively easy. Even the trips home where I was chided for going into an area not appropriate for me were not bad. They put up with me taking the year off to get my A&P rating. But then, after school was over, I was hired to fly airplanes for a living. They could not seem to understand why I would fly freight around, at odd hours, for lousy pay, in airplanes they considered so small as to be toys. It wasn't bad enough that they considered it not to be woman's work, but that it was also a waste of education was repeatedly thrown in my face. They did not understand that I had to follow the drives within me. The sky pulled me so hard at times I felt I didn't even need an airplane to fly. The end was not pleasant. There were harsh words on both sides and, at least for me, some very hard feelings. I had not been back since shortly after college.
Later, I met a man I thought understood my feelings. He, too, was drawn to flight. He and I moved south, and for several years lived as gypsies; flying at airshows, doing aerobatics in close formation, cutting ribbons held between poles a few feet off the ground and servicing our airplanes ourselves. As time went by, I began to realize that I was arranging for all the bookings, keeping track of the money, and more and more, doing his work on his airplane.
Our disagreements became more vehement; we even got to the point of arguing about money and, of all things, flying. I did not mind a laid-back lifestyle, but I had been well educated about the sky. I knew it could be as treacherous as it was inviting. It was unforgiving of errors and inattention to detail. I finally got to the point where I was screaming at him to try to get him to maintain his airplane. But he didn't seem to care. So, I tried to work on his as well as mine. That was a big mistake; I didn't have time to do anything well. I had nearly lost it at an airshow in Georgia when I was so tired I misjudged the pull-up at the end of an inverted pass in front of the crowd and flew through the top of a tree.
After that, I decided to leave. My old company wanted me back. It had expanded to the point it was operating large jets. The pay was pretty good. That was a shock. Suddenly I could make decent money doing what I loved. I did not want to pass it up.
When I broke it to him he did not take it well. He accused me of running out on him, of being unfaithful, of not carrying enough about us.
I was speechless at his response. I had cared for him for years, but in my desire to fly, above all else, I had never really seen him for what he was. He had never bothered to really learn about his airplane, nor had he bothered putting in his half of the effort to our flying.
It took a while for all that to sink in. So, I gave in, telling myself I would stay for a while. The summer was nearly over, and I would leave after the airshow schedule wound down. But, I quit doing his work for him. He had an A&P ticket, too. He was capable of taking care of his airplane. Besides, the constant high-performance flying had caused some serious wear on my engine and I had my hands full keeping it in shape for the last series of performances. I did ask him about his engine. He laughed and claimed I was just too rough on my airplane.
In late October, in a small town in Texas, we were in formation, just reaching the vertical in the pull-up to a loop on takeoff. We were flying the airplanes on sheer power, absolutely relying on our screaming engines. His crankshaft shattered. The investigators later said it was due to poor maintenance. All I saw was that his airplane rapidly dropped behind me. Without enough altitude or airspeed to establish a glide to a landing, he was effectively dead when the engine failed. I watched him try to get the nose down, to get control. The voice I heard screaming at him turned out to be mine. It didn't help; he needed another 200 feet of altitude.
And so I attended his funeral. I sold my airshow airplane but kept the Super Cub because I only knew I had to have some money and that, eventually, I would have to fly again. I was not ready for the guilt I laid on myself, nor for the nearly total inability to make a decision as to what to do with my life, or even what to do from moment to moment.
Back To The Future
The snow is letting up even more. The day has gotten brighter. I have always loved flying over this part of Iowa. The Mississippi River is near, the land is hilly, and the snow makes it look like a Currier and Ives print. How can there be strife or turmoil on an earth that is so beautiful? Is this why I fly, to escape the realities and difficulties of the ground? No, that cannot be, for there is a full set of intense difficulties and hazards up here. Yet, I relish this, perhaps because there is a definite edge here. It is very black and white, very clean. Here life is defined clearly.
The little field near LaCrosse lies ahead. I let down into the river valley and pick out the airport and the snow-covered, grass runway. Landing on snow can be quite a challenge. Usually it is a very sensuous way to end a flight. Sometimes, however, the snow cover just hides something waiting patiently to snatch the airplane and reduce it to expensive junk. But this is an airport, with a maintained runway, not a frozen lake in the middle of nowhere. I can concentrate on enjoying the landing while making sure I can still land on skis.
Touchdown is with the tail slightly low. The skis chatter over the snow that has been packed, evidently by a roller. To slow down, I simply allow the tailwheel to start rolling, for at idle power the airplane will eventually stop on its own. The skis track well, which pleases me, so there is no problem maneuvering in toward the gas pump. Since there are no brakes on skis, I judge my remaining speed and cut the engine while still a long ways short of the pumps. On the packed snow the airplane sighs to a stop just where I want it.
Something near elation surges through me. It is only a small flourish, but I still have it! I have not lost my touch; I can still sense the airplane and respond correctly. I haven't felt this good since before ... before he died.
What's this? I can think about it a little and it doesn't hurt quite so much.
A line boy appears by the wing tip. I open the door and ask him to top the tanks. He pulls a ladder over and begins to fuel the airplane. I note the fuel price is reasonable, then look the airplane over and check the oil. It isn't burning any. For an airplane several years older than I, it is in great shape. Probably better than I am, I think wryly.
The lineboy puts away the hose and says, "That'll be thirty-four-fifty for the fuel. Do you need any oil?"
"No, it's fine."
"Where you headed?" he asks as we walk to the building and I fish for my cash. "Home for the holidays?"
"Yeah, the Upper Peninsula."
He pauses, "I saw all the presents in the cabin. Should be quite a time opening them tomorrow."
"I hope so," I reply, and fervently mean it.
"How much longer do you think it will take you?" He asks.
"Just about three more hours, I think. The winds are cooperating."
After glancing off into the distance, he makes change for me deliberately, and murmurs, "There has to be something special about flying home on Christmas Eve."
"You don't know how right you are." I comment and walk back to the airplane where I double check the fuel caps and the quantity, crawl in and start up. I taxi a little more slowly than usual. I can back out here easily. Just head east. I can go nonstop to Willow Run; forget the exposure, the possibility of being thrown out at home. The bad possibility of more hurt. It would be much easier.
Takeoff is nearly automatic. As I climb I think: Turn around. Forget the whole stupid idea. They won't want to see you, not after all the words and accusations. I look at the brightly-wrapped gifts overflowing the seat behind me and realize they are just a prop. I have to make the attempt. Even without them I must go. I hold northeast toward the Upper Peninsula and home.
The countryside flows slowly under the airplane. A groundspeed check indicates I will arrive shortly before dark. Up here the winter days seem so short. I should have eaten something at the last stop. No, I don't think my stomach would have handled it very well. Who? Me? Nervous? You bet I am.
I spent nearly two months living in a motel in a town I christened Resume Speed, Texas. It was the nameless, dusty small town near where he had crashed. I felt anonymous, something that I needed.
As part of the deal, the guy who bought my airshow airplane had ferried my old Super Cub in when he picked up his purchase. It was strangely good to know the Super Cub was at the airport, although I did not go see it. I had bought it in pretty bad shape while I was in college and rebuilt it while getting my A&P certificate. I'd used the money I made towing gliders and giving flight instruction to pay for it. I'd told my folks it made it easier to get home for visits. It was true. It beat the eight-hour drive all hollow.
But, I had just let the Super Cub sit. I didn't know if I wanted to fly it, or see it or even what I would do if I did see it. I watched a lot of TV, ate only when I had to and tried, unsuccessfully, to deal with my feelings.
Had I simply refused to grow up? Was flying just running away from reality, from what was expected of me? But, by whom? Again and again I heard the voices of my folks criticizing me for flying. And still I felt the demanding pull of the sky. I could not seem to do anything. It was actually frightening. I was not in control of things for the first time, ever. I was buffeted by forces I could not handle, nor even understand.
About the first of December I awoke early one morning. The nightmare of the flaming crash had replayed itself for what seemed the thousandth time. I was sweaty, short of breath and disoriented. After sitting in the dark a while, I realized I had to begin somewhere and try to start life again. If this kept up, I figured I would end up like the bag ladies I had seen in the cities. A bag lady in a town of 400? Suddenly the image I had was so ludicrous that I laughed for several minutes.
That morning I had called up my old boss at Willow Run airport outside Detroit. He had said they could still use me. They were short of Learjet pilots. I could fly as co-pilot for a while to get my hand in and probably soon get typed and become a captain. I would even get my seniority back. The freight business was booming.
As I hung up I had thought, "Jets." I'd flown some of the big old piston-engined freighters, but jets? Could I handle it? I didn't have much experience in them at all. Sure, all the pilots I knew said they were much easier to fly than the piston pounders and I knew I'd be trained, but I wasn't sure I could handle it. That wasn't like me at all. I'd never doubted my ability to fly anything before. "It's an airplane, huh? Lead me to it and I'll fly it" had been my credo.
So, I had worried another week. Slowly I remembered the first time I had flown some very high-performance airplanes, and had had no problem. I had taken delight especially in the looks of surprise on the faces of some of the older pilots who had assumed I wouldn't be able to fly a particular airplane.
And at the end of the week I had almost convinced myself I could do the job again. So I packed up most everything and shipped it to Detroit, care of the company, hold for arrival, with a note saying I'd arrive the first part of January.
Then I went out buying Christmas presents. I didn't have a definite plan. I couldn't make any more definite plans after that one decision. I thought maybe I'd fly home for Christmas and see the family. Maybe. It was a part of setting up life again, I figured. I didn't really know, I couldn't think that deeply into it. Were the presents a bribe or an excuse? I could always mail them.
Once the presents were purchased and wrapped, I stared at them in the motel room for nearly three days before I had checked out and caught a ride to the airport.
I was pleased to see the Super Cub. It was in good shape. It took a while to pack everything. I was glad to see no one had disturbed the skis and that they were still safely stowed in their fuselage rack. After a careful inspection I decided the airplane was ready to go. Was I? I hoped so.
I had taken my time going north. Bad weather had caused me to fly west of the direct route. I had longer to think that way. It also caused me to be finishing the flight on Christmas Eve rather than earlier. As I looked back, the longer flight allowed me to get some of my confidence back. I was flying again and the sky had given me back the knowledge I could handle an airplane, and do it well. That was good. I felt as if I were coming back to life in a small way.
But now, decision time is near. The town is on the horizon and evening is coming. There. Near the edge of town is their house. The snow is much deeper here; it is piled along the driveway and sidewalk. The lights are on and smoke is curling out of the chimney.
I fly over the house at about 500 feet, roll into a steep turn, and circle. I'd done this so many times in college and after. Someone would always come out, then get the car and pick me up at the little airport just down the road.
Turning, I wonder what will happen. They will hear me. That, I know. But will they come out? If they do, will they pick me up?
If they don't, I can fly the short distance to Marquette, sleep under the wing or, better yet, just buy fuel and fly on through the night to Willow Run. That would be some Christmas Eve, but I knew the risks when I started this journey. No, I realize, I very much want to see them and have them accept me. I am still their daughter and I love them.
What's this? Someone, no, two ... now three people are outside the front door. They are pointing at me and gesturing. Oh, no, one is going back inside.
Automatically, I roll out of the turn and, not daring to hope, set up for landing at the airport. I will land, wait a while and see if they come.
I slap the skis onto the snow and taxi to the parking area, hardly aware of what I am doing. I leave the engine running at idle, vaguely thinking that I can just add power and get out of here.
A car comes into the parking lot, a little too fast. It skids slightly as it stops. I don't recognize it. The doors open and, my mom, dad and one brother get out.
My God, my folks look old. Dad is trying to help Mom as they both hurry toward me, a little unsteady on the snow.
Suddenly, everything is a little blurred. They are getting close now and I can see them better. They are smiling.
I reach up and shut off the engine.