Tuesday, July 16, 2013

There Be Dragons - Memories of an Airplane

I'll be the protector of your heart.
The front lines of your guardian angels
 - Lifetime, Steve Moakler

 Battles have been fought in the air from the first day a small dove dived down from the talons of a hawk.  Man was not far behind.

In watching a movie about the dog fights of WWI, the battle was not much different than any sporting event played on a field, the field being simply three dimensional. They would  swing and soar and dive, maneuvering their craft with the unmistakable prodigal swagger that is their testament, over shattered roads and islands of tilled earth, desolate above the destruction which they carried.

A man's death was much less about firepower than simply the consequence of being bettered in a  fair contest with someone much like themselves.  Those that survived held court, not as enemies, but as gentlemen heroes, remembering those dogfights as the best of that which was otherwise, insensible and ceaseless battalions of time

The few that came home, did so to lives that were fixed by gravity and obligation, growing thicker and quieter, raising a glass of amber liquid up in the evening, finding that being dead while still breathing was a lot less peaceful than they expected.  But most didn't survive, their legacy among the tumbled ruins of war, the movement of lips as names were read, a photograph of a pretty girl that had already begun to fade.

WWII changed the playing field.  The technological development in aviation alone, let alone the dynamics of warfare, changed the face of the skies forever. The war went beyond a threat so very far away, from individual battles over foreign farm fields. Freedom, as we knew it, was in danger, and men took to the skies in droves, to do what they could to maintain that, a generation of men who dealt with that threat, that danger, by maintaining perpetual, intimate contact with it.  Unlike the pilots of WWI, many of them came back to live and play with airplanes, the transportation industry booming in the post war economy, general aviation becoming something more than a rich man's sport.

There are few of those airmen left now, their stories sometimes chronicled, more often, lost. But  many of the machines still fly, maintained and flown by men and women who, though they may not have even flown in war time, have that preternatural capacity for achievement that many earth bound mortals lack.
My Dad was part of the 8th Air Force, barely out of his teens.  Though not a pilot, he came home with pictures and stories of those years there, metaphors of daring, chronicles of  speed, that to my mind, would always have the indisputable stamp of the heroic on them. My Uncles as well, were in the Air Force, one of them coming back to be an engineer for Boeing,  his office filled with drawings that to us, were as mythical as dragons, esoteric shining shapes from which fire roared as the heavens shook.

It was not then, unexpected, that I came home one day as a teen and said "I'm going to learn how to fly" which was met with about the same level of support as "I'm going to shave my head and join the Hare Krishnas"  I can't blame Dad, with redhead children he'd seen his share of wild ideas, most of which we abandoned before we actually blew anything up.
The fact that I only had a minimum wage job slinging submarine sandwiches didn't deter me.  I got a job at the local airport pumping gas and washing aircraft for minimum wage perhaps, but able to get my lessons at a discount, sometimes trading a wash or wax for a couple hours of instruction from the CFI/owner.  Dad said, thinking he was out of earshot,  "she won't  last the week".  After the first couple of days of driving around that big fuel truck, hauling hose and climbing ladders out in the bitter cold, I was likely to agree with him but for proving him wrong.   For such are challenges both external and internal, hot and cold, fatigue and muscle pain, the miscalculations that can cost you, not just your job, but your life.

Still, the old Cessna  I was learning in  paled against those craft of of those old stories, bearing  in my adventuresome mind, all the excitement of a draft horse. So, I'd go to air shows, finger tracing the outline of a cowl, taking in the scent of kerosene that bears with it some primordial fragrance of dinosaurs fighting to the death.   I'd not touch that which wasn't mine, I'd ask questions, and I'd simply sit and listen to those stories that fueled my dream. When a couple biplanes showed up to live on the field where I worked, the fascination grew, even as some around me said  "you're a girl, you'll never make it in that profession" or "you're going to just get yourself killed"
But I do not think of such craft by any means as being a threat to me when operated with logic and calm, any more than I think I'm limited by what I can do based on the plumbing God gave me, or anything other than my mind.  Rather, it's the measure of that which I have proven that I can do, of what I can achieve. Some of those early airplanes might have been small but what they brought to me can't be destroyed.

Earthbound we have limitations as varied as our lives. As pilots, life is simpler, as our will is freer; our lives, however different, are truer and more defined. No matter what we cherish in life, we cherish it more; home, friends, the smell of fresh tilled earth from a mile up, the heady gulp of pristine, crisp air that clears both our lungs and our heads.

For like sport shooters, hunters or other people for whom life involves the complexity of hand and will, even when we pilots aren't flying we tend to hover around the airport, like moths to a flame, just showing up to have a cup of coffee and grasp the collective knowledge of those that have gone before us, taking in the stories, the tall tales, the wisdom. The knowledge that is passed on, from veteran to youngster, from instructor to student is partly a flame, the warmth of recognition of what we recognize in each other, the pulse of blood within the hand that reaches out and offers to share the knowledge and wonder.
So it was in those early days, where in odd moments and at odd times, with no prior planning, a bunch of pilots showed up at the airfield to just sit and trade stories, waiting for the clouds to clear. I was the youngest person there, it seems that the yearning for such a plane as the Stearman grows with maturing, sprouting as you discover what is in you that means something. Like any other passion, flying biplanes is a passion often accompanied by a preference for that which surrounds its winged form, which in its absence still speaks fondly of it, in hallowed tones and animated stories. So these pilots, during those hours when they were tethered to the ground, delighted in the society of biplane pilots, sharing tall tales of landings gone awry, until the darkening earth bit into the rim of the sun, and the hangar all went to shadow.

You know how some young teens are smitten with horses, the feel of power and strength beneath them. I didn't want a horse.  I wanted a Stearman. Why would you want to ride my friend Flicka when you can ride the Yellow Peril?  It's big and it's got more horsepower than you'll know what to do with and feeling the rush of air coming back from that huge prop in your face like some silent explosion is as exhilarating as anything you will ever feel. Yet it is most defiantly a craft that speaks to you with a purposed and ponderous voice that demands that you listen to it, not so much with silence but with respect.
Many a day was spent whiling away an hour, little excursions of self discovery, edged with moments of "&*#*! you've got it!."  It's a flying that few experience any more, and myself find a rarer and rarer opportunity.  She's the toughest airplane built; aloft, you'll pass out before you break anything off, but on the ground she's as capricious as a mare who's never been broken and you quickly learn that she has to be flown until the moment she's tied down. With the help of a good instructor, I learned patience; to sense the mood of the wind before it knocked on my windshield, the curve of a farm field and the lay of a grass runway.

There's something about a biplane; you'll freeze in her, you'll sweat like a sumo wrestler in her, dodge seagulls, balloons and summer rainclouds in her. There's no glass, no electronic warning systems, no autopilot; simply a pure seat of a pants adventure that hearkens back to simpler times in far away farm fields. There's the wind in your hair, the sound of insects whirring in the fields and then a quiet night with a glass of amber liquid, not as  mourning for what is lost but as communion with what remains.
But it was time to move on, a slot far away to go learn how to fly the big and the bulky, to take up the mantle of doing something with my life that was behind the safety of a small town, a history without effort. I wasn't sure how I would do with a life of structure, rules and "I have to dress like everyone else?" but it was time to grow up and look at the horizon as more than my playground.

Before I left, I go up in the Steaman one more time. In that moment I can pretend to be a fighter pilot, dodging sunbeams and sparrows out high above a farmer's field, smiling at the feel of its power and the response to my controls, the craft, for this one perfect moment in time, an extension of both my hands and my will. As the stick comes back, the sun hits my eyes, a flash, a glare, this moment, not the steady flame of everyday existence, but that one bright flash of a struck match, that burns so much stronger than valor or fear, if only for this moment.
As the wheels chirp upon the pavement, shadows bow before a wavering sun, the chill in the air an intractable summons of fall, cast upon summer skies. This was going to be my last such flight for a long time.  I pull my leather  bomber jacket around me, but not because I am chilled.

As I leave that little hangar where I earned my wings, I look at the wall, at the photos of old pilots and old war birds from generations ago. Even as those men stand there silently, they swagger just a little, leaning against those mighty forms of man's imagination, looking not into the camera, but somewhere beyond, looking not quite of this earth, but rather like some ancient Norse gods, glimpsed for just a moment as the sun breaks through the clouds, then disappearing forever with the clap of thunder.

I give a quiet little salute and shut the hangar door to darkness.
 - Brigid