As I’m typing this, my little red airplane is in the hos-pital for a 100-hour inspec-tion that is going to cost nearly 1⁄5 of what the air-plane is valued new. Every time the phone rings, it’s another one of those $1,000 calls. Yesterday, I was in a funk when I figured out that I would have to fly it another 100 hours just to pay for that inspection and then it would be time for yet another inspection.
I was miffed because it was totally rebuilt only last November, and they should have caught all that stuff. No, wait…it was the November before that. Yeah, that’s right…no…it was the November before that. I had to sit down when I realized that 21⁄2 years have zipped past since it taxied around the hangar and I got my first glimpse of my nearly new, just rebuilt, old (1974) airplane. Let me see, 21⁄2 years, that’s—my mind knew the number, but it didn’t want to calculate it—close to 900 hours in the pattern! No wonder stuff was breaking. My little red darling was wearing out. What does that say about me?
This problem of not being able to figure out how long ago something actually happened is becoming just a bit terrifying, and I’ll bet money that I’m not alone in that. In my mind, for instance, I moved to Arizona a year or two ago. That has to be the case because I clearly remember turning final to the wonderfully smooth grass runway at Andover, N.J., on a regular basis just…how many years ago? Oh, yeah, another of those mental time warps—it was over 13 years ago.
How can so much time pass by without my realizing it? I have only to look at my grandkid’s father to know that time is absolutely whizzing past. Scott is 32 and Jennifer is 28. That makes me…never mind. But it’s worth noting that one of the few staples of my life that predates my kids is my little airplane. Okay, not this particular airplane, but the exact same model has lived with me since September 1971.
Actually, 1971 doesn’t seem that long ago either. I clearly remember climbing into my brand-new bird after it was ferried to its new home from Wyoming where it was born. Thirty-four years later, I’m still looking at exactly the same panel and bare tubing, and I’m still slipping around the corner from downwind in search of that elusive perfect landing. I haven’t found it yet, but once in a while, one of my students does. And that’s just as good.
No one tells us when we’re young at that time. It’s like gasoline in an airplane that’s consumed in what appears to be an exponential manner. The first 1⁄4 tank goes by fairly slowly. In fact, you barely notice when the needle leaves the full mark and works its way down to that first big hash mark. As with life, there’s so much left in the tank that you basically ignore the fuel burn.
You’re trundling along, paying close attention to your navigation and making absolutely certain that you hit all of life’s checkpoints so you wind up where you’re supposed to be at the time your trusty E6-B says you should. Part of this “blasting past the roses” approach to life is the result of wanting a career, and that becomes a destination in itself. Destinations, unfortunately, carry self-imposed estimated times of arrival, so most of us don’t sightsee as much as we should on the way.
At some point, we notice that the needle is on the half-full mark. No biggie. We’re making good headway. We’re on course and all of that. Then we blink our eyes, and the needle is racing past the quarter-full mark. When did that happen? We start fiddling with the mixture, exercising and watching our own fuel burn, trying to stretch out the range. Suddenly, the time at which we arrive isn’t as important as the simple act of arriving. We just want to stay aloft long enough to know that we’ll get there. But “there” loses its definition and becomes a foggy “something” way out in the distance. The destination loses all importance, and only the journey counts.
It’s at that point when we realize fuel is sucking through our personal engine so much faster than it did while under the 1⁄2 mark that we begin looking for some place to land. But, on this particular journey, there are no alternates. There are no handy rest stops with gas pumps that can run that fuel needle back down toward the 3⁄4 mark. We would actually settle for just making it stand still for a little while.
While my airplane is in rehab, I’m flying a brand-new, much more powerful version that literally takes your breath away with its ability to claw into the air. It’s tight, light and quick, and so disgustingly young. It’s as young as the professional pilot in the other seat who is totally intimidated by the experience because it’s so far outside his comfort zone. I’m not enamored with it either. Not because it isn’t a nearly perfect, awe-inspiring airplane, but because it’s not my slightly weary old bird that fits me like a 30-year-old pair of boots.
Regardless of what it costs, I can hardly wait to get my little airplane back. I don’t have to explain myself to her because she has been with me for most of the journey. In truth, my airplane is probably at the 3⁄4 mark on her journey, too. With any luck, however, when I’m gone, she’ll still be here. I only hope that whoever straps in next is gentle with her in a firm sort of way. She knows a lot, and she has taught a lot. And, if the new owner listens, she’ll make him or her as happy as she has made me throughout the journey. So maybe I really don’t mind spending the money fixing her ailments. No one ever said that old age is cheap.
Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII & A, aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center. Check out his Website at www.airbum.com.