Thursday, June 11, 2009

Light-Sport Chronicles: Ghost Wings

Remembrance of flights past and lessons learned

lscEvery flight has ghosts, if you’ll see them. Mine come in those times when I need a little help to get me through a tough spot, or raise my perspective above ground level to reconsider the depth and breadth of the singular, incomparable joy we call flight.
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1959. Glider intro flight. Over the whistling wind, my pilot says, “Hang on, here’s how you put a 2-33 into a postage stamp.”

The postage stamp she’s calling out (and honest to God, she could be Amelia Earhart’s sister: long, lean, athletic) is a grass field surrounded by the lush green trees of southern Ohio. Oh, by the way, there’s a power line right across the approach end.

I’m in the front seat—typical for tandem gliders like this old, fabric-covered Schweizer—so when the nose goes down but also swings right, my stomach jumps, and I grab for the side rails, wondering what in hell is going on.

The increased drag of the hard slip raises the wind noise to a gale. I tense as we drop down just over the power line, then line up and float above the mowed grass strip—there’s my father, immobile as a tin soldier at the side of the field—then the rumble of the single wheel under the seat affirms our return to the sod.

We roll out until she can’t hold wings level any longer. The right tip drops gently onto its rusty spring to kiss the grass.

“Wow!” I say in the sudden silence.

Amelia’s “sister” pulls off her aviator sunglasses and gives me a wink.

“Not bad for a girl, eh?”

Not bad at all. It was good enough for her and good enough for me. I push left stick and ease in right pedal to slip steeply down to the threshold and make a good landing.

On my final leg into Hartford, I pull a 15-mile final from tower and kick back to enjoy the rolling green patchwork of southern Connecticut. In the gathering haze up ahead, the highest buildings of Hartford poke up like gray stakes in a field. Almost home. But the sky also feels like home.

More ghosts share the long powered glide for runway 2: the ultralight flight down a dry river bed, below the tops of flanking trees; climbing in a booming Colorado thermal up to 17,999 feet in my single-surface hang glider; rocketing toward the indigo blue of 55,000 feet in an F-101 Voodoo fighter at Mach 1.6; touching down in 25-knot winds, soft as a seagull, in a powered trike.

Now, cleared to land, idling over the trees to make a smooth touchdown, I remember times of worry and transcendent peace, of sudden thrill and bald fear in my journeys through the inscrutable, always-surprising, magical bubble of air that embraces our beautiful world.

Most of all, I feel the ghost of my father, who liked to use the phrase “just fly the airplane” as a catch-all rule for a respectable life.

Fly the airplane. Right on, Dad.