THE GHOSTS OF FLIGHTS PAST. Never forget the lessons you learned along your aviation journey and the flights you experienced. (Photo by James Lawrence)
Every 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.
I had many such visitations on my first solo cross-country in years, to fulfill the sport pilot license requirement.
The solo XC is modest enough at 75 miles, but sufficient to call upon flight-planning skills, situational awareness, piloting abilities and decision making throughout the variety of situations that may arise along the way.
The first leg out from my home training field, Hartford-Brainard Airport, Conn., was to Groton-New London, which I had been to exactly once—two hours earlier on my dual XC. I’ve lived “out East” for seven years, but Southern California’s desert tans, gray mountains and ocean blues are my birth imprint for how a landscape oughta look.
Flying over New England’s deciduous checkerboard mottle of trees, farmland, villages and waterways, therefore, is accompanied by mild stress. At times, to my Southern California–bred eyes, every direction looks like every other direction. What passes for “mountains” out East are mere bumps out West. At 2,500 feet, landmarks are subtle—if you can find them at all through the Plexiglass.
Nonetheless, my trusted instructor, John Lampson, has decreed me sufficiently competent to fling my eager craft through footless halls of air and seek exotic new landing strips. So here I cruise at altitude, a tad anxious that maybe, just maybe, I’m not as sharp as he thinks I am.
It’s 1976: Torrance Airport, near the coast of greater Los Angeles. I taxi to the tiedown area; my instructor gets out and says, “Okay, take her around the patch.”
Gulp. Today? Right now? Don’t I need another hour or two?
Seeing my expression, he says, “Don’t worry; you’re ready.”
He gives last-minute instructions; I taxi out, do the run-up drill, get clearance and lift off. My heart is pounding like a herd of mustangs. Okay, I think, if the engine quits, I can land there...there...and there...600 feet—good, more emergency options now.
Crosswind, then downwind in the pattern, feeling okay...
something ahead! Whew! Just a kid’s red party balloon that flashes by not 10 feet from the cockpit. Nearly jumped out of my skin on that one.
Onto base and final to find a sudden and strong left crosswind. I fly in a crab to stay lined up, kicking left rudder just before touchdown, and we’re down.
Only one thing as my instructor critiques me: I used an entirely different technique than he had taught me for the crosswind landing! In my nervousness, I had reverted to the crab technique I had learned flying hang gliders.
Oops. Well, I got through it at least.
I’ve always gotten through it, in fact. I will here, too, because I’ve practiced, I’m thinking ahead, and I know what I’m doing. (I repeat this mantra excessively, à la Al Franken’s “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”)
The day is spectacular. Afternoon sunlight, kissing the distant ocean expanse off southern Connecticut’s coast, renders the water into a blinding, hard jewel. There’s not a cloud, nor, inexplicably, another airplane to be seen. The sky is all mine, and I’m not complaining.
Up ahead lurks an immensely tall radio tower. It makes an exclamation point on the rolling countryside that I can ignore only at my peril. Peering into the distance, I remember a different flight with a similar task.
1963. I’m an idealistic Air Force Academy cadet riding tandem in a Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star. Crammed into the cockpit, dressed to the jet-flight nines in AF flight gear—G-belt, oxygen mask, helmet and black leather gloves—I jump when my instructor’s voice crackles over the earphones.
“What say we buzz a Titan missile silo, mistuh?” comes his southern drawl.
I peer through the sleek Plexiglass canopy, expecting a phalanx of towering cranes and pencil-thin nuclear missiles pointing at the sky, ready to defend our freedoms.
“Watch thuh airspeed needle,” he instructs.
We’ve been cruising east of the Rockies, southeast of Denver. I’m enjoying the view when, suddenly, over goes the nose and here comes the red earth! My weight, and stomach, quickly lighten. At 300-plus knots, even subtle attitude changes hit with the suddenness of an invisible bull sitting on you...or, as now, pulling me skyward against the straps.
“Down we dive, spouting our flame from under,” as the Air Force song says. I seek out the airspeed indicator: 500 knots! The ground rushes up and past faster than my brain can process, then we’re climbing the backside of a mile-high inverted parabola, arcing for Colorado blue. My face pulls down, my arms and legs are cement weights.
“Did you see it, cadet?”
“Uh, umm...great, sir!”
I hadn’t seen a damn thing except a flash-by of circles and low angular concrete blocks in the red earth of the eastern plain. That, as my instructor told me later, was the silo complex.
Staying ahead of the airplane: That’s a concept I’ve learned to value and apply throughout my sport pilot training. The thin red pencil of the immense radio tower eases by 1,000 feet below. Long before, I had spotted it on my sectional, then on my GPS and, now, visually.
Then, turning final for landing at Groton, I cuss myself out. Too high—again! Misjudging approaches is becoming my favorite outdoor sport.
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.