Monday, September 10, 2012

Round-trip ticket, front cockpit

I had waited for the day since I can’t remember when – looking longingly each year for decades at rows and rows of multi-colored Stearman biplanes on a sea of grass against a late-summer Midwestern prairie sky,  wishing I knew what it was like to ride in one of the World War II-era planes. 

A year ago, after a morning spent, my brand-new bright yellow Stearman Restorers Association flight line pass stuck to my shirt, walking amidst planes at the 40th Annual Stearman Fly-in and an afternoon watching an airshow which included a spunky woman wing-walker who could hang, suspended upside down by her feet from a soaring biplane as skillfully as she could sing the “Star-Spangled Banner,” my longing seemed only to intensify. 

That fly-in passed, back in the real world, I stumbled across a photo of the wing-walker, the red and yellow biplane, and the pilot who earned her trust for such daring maneuvers. It was a much better image than the one I’d tried to capture with my point-and-shoot camera. (The daring woman was but a blurred dash in mine.) 

An admirer of those who can make a camera capture a moment in time as if it were spread across a canvas, telling a tale as beautifully as a best-selling author, I felt, as I often do, compelled to congratulate the artist, the photographer who captured that image. 

I also shared my seems-like-forever admiration of those magnificent flying machines and let slip my long-time desire, not yet come-to-be, to ride in one of the winged wonders. 

To my surprise, I soon had an invitation from the pilot who had wielded the camera, for a “round-trip ticket – Galesburg to Galesburg” – at this year’s fly-in. 

To no one’s surprise, I accepted the offer.

Last Thursday morning, I used that ticket – and, thanks to the kindness of another pilot, my dad, who trained in Stearman biplanes during World War II, flew in formation in another Stearman. I captured that story in earlier post. In this one, I’ll share what it was like to fly, open-cockpit, wind in my face. 

Dad and I joined our pilot friends as the sun was nearing its peak. Our feet nearly off the ground, we hurried down row four of the field where the planes are parked north and northeast of the hangars at the Galesburg, Illinois airport, and approached our pilots and their planes.

Stearman biplanes have two seats, one per cockpit – one in front of the other. Pilots fly from the rear cockpit. Co-pilots or guests occupy the front cockpit. 

One of my fears through the years has always been, “Oh, yeah, klutz that I am, I’ll probably step in the wrong place when I try to get in the plane.” Fortunately, that didn’t happen. The wing was clearly marked “No Step” beyond the area where pilots and passengers can safely climb. Amazingly, I kept my feet where they belonged.

Getting up on the wing and into the cockpit was a piece of cake. I’m a boater, so I’ve thrown my leg up and over the side of a boat many a time. This wasn’t much different, except that, instead of grabbing ahold of the black wrought iron uprights on the dock, I was placing my hand  in a handle on the wing to brace myself. 

I slid down into the cockpit, careful not to hit the stick, over which was draped the “Snoopy and the Red Baron”-style helmet I’d get to wear. 

My pilot friend gave me a quick course on how the seat belt works, “Do this, then this, grab the strap that’s hanging down in the middle, put it here, snap this over,” and so on. Bottom straps in place, we started again with the top ones. I fumbled. 

“Don’t be nervous. You’ll get it,” the pilot said. 

Nervous? Was I nervous? 

Was I nervous about the flight or again feeling my klutziness taking over? I really didn’t think I was the least bit worried about the flight. 

I put my helmet on and felt a little like Snoopy about to go on a mission atop his doghouse-turned-fighter plane.

“Okay,” my pilot friend said. “Be sure you keep your legs clear of the stick. That’s how I steer. And you won’t want to put your feet on the rudders.” 

The two sturdy-looking metal pedals – one on each side -- looked so far away to me, that I felt the same as I did when I was a kid riding the tractor with my dad. 

“I couldn’t drive (in this case, fly) this thing if I wanted to. The pedals are a million miles away,” I thought.  

But, were they really, or is that just how it seemed to me? 

Looking back, I can’t with certainty remember. 

The pilot said something, I think, about how we’d go down the aisle between planes, across the grass, to the runway. He told me that one of the things about planes like this one was that we couldn’t see in front of us. I answered, “That’s what I’ve heard,” or some such thing.

“Prop clear,” he called. 

“Wow,” I thought. Just like Richard Bach says in all of his aviation books. They really do that!

The engine started, that same sound I’d heard so often from the ground, from my former home a mile from the airport, but louder – the purr of the plane more like a roar so close up.

But, oh how I love that sound, even amplified as it seemed that day.

As we started down the runway, my pilot told me how we’d use an S-motion so we could see the runway. I answered, “Yes, dad told me about that.” 

Then as we approached a turn, he said something about the yellow lines, solid and broken, and what they meant. But even with my headset, I didn’t clearly hear what he said over the sound of the engine.

I nodded as if I did, but if my life had depended on knowing what he said, I’d hope I would have asked him to tell me again. 

It’s amazing how calm I felt as we taxied north on the runway – nothing like the nervousness I’d felt before, riding in a four-seat private aircraft when I was about twenty or a commuter plane a few years later. 

It just felt right – as if I were meant to ride in one of these planes or had in some other dimension. We left the ground so gently I barely knew we were airborne, and the feeling as we passed over my former home was more incredible than I’d imagined. 

Oh, I thought, it looks so little – the neighborhood, the houses. All those years I waved at Stearman pilots, they couldn’t see me. I must have been as a flyspeck on a window, barely visible at all. And as quickly as we were over the neighborhood, we were over the farms my neighbors and I and our children once passed on our bikes, then further we went over trees and fields – corn and beans and pastures, over ponds and creeks, highways and blacktops, gravel roads and dirt lanes. 

I looked down; I looked to the left and the right. I looked back in the mirror at my pilot, trying to capture for posterity the look on his face as he flew – that combination of “this is serious, I have to pay attention,” and “this is so much fun, lucky guy I am” that must cross the face of all who fly these birds. 

I felt the breeze lapping gently against my face.

I watched my dad and his pilot, first at five o’clock, then at seven. I listened to the pilots call out their positions as we flew in formation. I heard the words of other pilots talking over the radio, too. 

I looked down again and thought, “Richard Bach is right, those words he penned in his books. The houses, the cars, the trees -- they do all look like toys.” 

As the planes in formation banked a bit side to side, I may have held a little tighter to the side and I may have checked the strap to make sure I didn’t lose my helmet, but I did not, at any time, think, “Oh no, what if we crash? Eek, what if I fall out?”

What I did feel up there was a feeling of peace, of tranquility, of trust in my pilot and his Stearman, of joy in the experience – and more than a little happiness for people like my pilot friend who’ve made the choices in their lives that led them to this adventure. 

As we descended to 300 feet and circled the airport for our landing, I think I had another feeling too – a twinge of it, at least – perhaps just a bit of regret that my choices hadn’t led me to a similar fate. 

Remember those blocks they made for tricycles when we Baby Boomers were kids – the ones that made the too-far-away pedals closer so you could reach them? 

Do you think they still make them? If I’m going to fly one of those things, I need to reach the rudders, you know. 

At this stage in the game, I don’t think my legs are going to grow any longer. 

© Ann Tracy Mueller 2012  

(Image via)

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