European pilots have it bad, I know. They’ve got sky-high fuel prices, landing fees, and a nanny-state mentality to flying around in what we think of in the States as our airspace. No wonder so many European pilots come here to go flying. It’s what God intended flying to be.
That all said, at some point in my life, I knew I just had to make the opposite-direction commute and go to Europe to fly—and this is really specific, I know—in the Alps. Why the Alps? Apart from them being incredibly gorgeous—have you ever seen them?—they are historically significant, too. I trace my fascination back to something from my youth, and, no, it wasn’t “The Sound Of Music.” It was a book called “Third Man On The Mountain” by James Ramsey Ullman, which later became a Walt Disney movie. The original title of the book was “Banner In The Sky,” but Disney was better at writing titles than Ullman was, apparently, and the version that my seventh-grade class read had been retitled. It’s the one positive thing I remember about English class that year at Hawley Junior High, well, besides Molly Unsworth, the girl three rows back I had a big crush on. I don’t remember the teacher’s name. PTSD, I’m guessing. She had a ruler and wasn’t afraid to use it!
“Third Man on the Mountain” was about a kid around our age who sets out to climb the Matterhorn in honor of the father he never knew, who was killed while trying the same feat. There were ropes breaking, treacherous competitors, a terrible storm and one scary climbing scene after the other. We were supposed to read one chapter every few days. I read the whole book the first night we got it. Then I read it again. And again. Three times. That was it. I haven’t read it since, but I was hooked—not on the book but on the Alps! I became a rock climber in my 20s but never really cared about the Matterhorn. What I loved and still do is flying. I figured I needed to merge those two somehow, some way.
My chance to see those Alps came when I took the opportunity to visit Vienna, Austria, on a work trip one early summer. I pulled a few strings and arranged a flight with the folks at the Diamond factory in Wiener Neustadt, south of Vienna at the foot of the majestic Alps. Toward the end of WWII, the Nazis built Messerschmitts in factories carved out of solid rock. By that point, it was the only way they could build airplanes without being bombed by B-17s.
Even though there are battle scars everywhere still, the war is long over, and that little Austrian city is today an Alpine paradise.
Our ride that day was the company’s still fairly new DA40 Diamond Star, a four-seater with a long slender wing like the sail planes we’d surely see on our flight, and visibility that was so good it sometimes felt as though you weren’t in a plane at all.
I’d say that it was a perfect day, but that wouldn’t do it justice. It was spectacular. There was still some snow on the peaks, and we could see forever. As we flew into the huge valleys between the peaks, I realized that this was a new kind of flying for me. We weren’t flying over the mountains but among them. We were low, far below the peaks around us, and on the trails below, serious hikers were making slow progress up. They’d wave, and I’d rock the wings. You could see the lederhosen!
Our flight lasted about 45 minutes before we had to get the plane back home. But in that time, I had the chance to see those mountains in a way that a very small percentage of humans ever will. It was an amazing experience. If it was a book, I’d read it again and again, probably way more than three times, too.
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