As the F-16 crossed my flight path in a steep bank, I sensed the deadly honesty of its design, each angle and curve built for one purpose. This was a hunter. It seemed like a joke that such a machine could bear the same name—airplane—as the machine I was piloting: a 70-year-old Luscombe cruising at 95 miles per hour. Not only did these two machines share a name, in that haze and early morning sunshine, they also shared the sky, a remarkably tranquil and empty sky for a sunny Friday in August. I shook my head, marveling at this singular privilege of being a pilot.
And yet, it did seem a little weird to be so close to the jet. I was flying to the northeast of Allentown, Pennsylvania, not really a hotbed of military activity. Interesting. Moments later, a thought emerged with all the suddenness and clarity of a rung bell. The previous night, while obsessively checking the weather forecasts on my route from Maryland to Cape Cod, I heard one of the late-night TV hosts discussing President Donald Trump’s visit to his resort in Bedminster, New Jersey. My mouth went dry; the muscles in my back grew taut. I switched the frequency of my single comm to 121.5 and heard a young but authoritative voice. “Aircraft at three-thousand five hundred feet…say intentions.”
I was being intercepted!
Yes. I was that guy. That airborne yahoo blithely violating the protective ring around the leader of the free world. I was that pilot who gives GA its bad name, who reinforces the perception that all private pilots are unsafe amateurs, accidents waiting to happen.
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Maybe there was still hope. Perhaps another plane at my same altitude was being hailed by a military jet deceptively similar to the one I had encountered. I keyed the mic. “Are you talking to me?” I asked, voice cracking.
His quick response put all such delusions to rest. “Say intentions.”
The intention was to spend the weekend in Cape Cod for a mini-reunion with some high school friends I had drifted apart from over the last 20-plus years. The trip was my chance to redefine myself for these friends, who at one point had meant everything to me. And the plane was a necessary part of that mission. It was the lodestone of the transformation that I had experienced over the past few years—the most obvious of which was that I had quit drinking and become a father and a pilot.
But that little taildragger also symbolized a deep transformation in my identity as a pilot. When I bought the plane, I was an instrument-rated pilot and had a few hundred hours in a 172. Within the first hour of flight training in the Luscombe, my CFI, Joe Gauvreau, told me, “Stop being so digital, John.” And so I spent the next 30 hours in that tiny cockpit with Joe going analog, learning to fly all over again by sight picture and the sound of the engine. Flying a Luscombe is a master class in energy management, and every landing is a negotiation with the wind.
You could always tell your progress with Joe by whether he brought his cup of coffee into the plane for your flight lesson. One day, he decided to just drink his coffee with a Pall Mall at the FBO and let me fly the pattern by myself. It was my second first-solo, and by that time, I was twice the pilot I had been just a few months before.
I spent the next 300 hours taking off at dawn, flying with the window open, landing on short runways, following sun-dappled rivers, avoiding towered fields—pushing the boundaries of my flying skills and courage. I have no doubt that I’ll look back on that period as one of the most meaningful times of my life. I wasn’t just a pilot anymore; now I had a little bit of swagger.
What came next was a predictable, obvious story, a pilot cliché. Over this time, I had grown arrogant and complacent. I had become that guy who preflights, looks at the weather and then blasts off without checking for NOTAMs or TFRs. A very specific chain of mistakes led me to fly into that presidential TFR, but my humbling was all but guaranteed. It was just a matter of time.
What surprised me was how nice everyone was. The controllers who directed me to land at Blairstown Airport were quite sympathetic. When I apologized to one of them, he merely responded, “Hey, stuff happens.”
The Secret Service agents from the Newark field office called me from the road and stressed that we were just going to have a “conversation” to ensure that I wasn’t a threat to the president. This had nothing to do with my pilot’s license; the FAA would deal with that sometime in the future. They told me to take a deep breath, get a cup of coffee, stay by my plane and relax.
Riiiight. Relax. I paced in the grass, spiraling in self-recriminations. Why hadn’t I just flown commercial or driven my car? Now my pilot’s license was in jeopardy, and for what? So I could impress a few guys I had known when we were teenagers? But more frightening was what the violation said about my safety and competence. A few months before, I had grazed a transient plane with my wingtip while taxiing to my tiedown. There had been only minor damage, but now the incident took on a greater significance. Not only was I an idiot, I was careless, which can be a death sentence for a pilot. If someone had come along in that moment and cut my certificate into shreds, I would have accepted their judgment.
As pilots, we often talk about flying in terms of destinations. But the places I had gone in my short pilot career—first in a paraglider, then in a 172 and now in my Luscombe—would never be found on a chart. It was an inner journey through the ever-unfurling terrain of my consciousness and a journey to self-knowledge. Some might argue that’s the ultimate pilot destination.
A Luscombe may have two seats, but there’s no room in the cockpit for a self-critic and a pilot. And I still had to be a pilot, which meant the pity party had to end. After all, there was New York airspace to navigate. Possible afternoon thunderstorms on the Cape. Countless decisions had to be made en route. Everything else was just a distraction. I felt the comforting sensation of the world resolving itself to a series of manageable steps. First: Convince Secret Service that I wasn’t up to no good. Second: Determine how to get the hell out of this TFR. Third: Refuel and preflight.
I was weeks away from learning the fate of my license. But for now, I still had a plane and a mission, a family. I never would have guessed it, but my main emotion was an overwhelming sense of gratitude. It seemed like a better place to be right then and right now.