It was my first solo cross country flight. The little red and white Cessna was washed and shiny. As I was working at the local airport as a young teen in exchange for discounted lessons, I made sure she sparkled. The weather was good, all the "what if's" gone over with my Instructor.
It would be an easy trip, just head south, down a deep valley with mountains on both sides and lots of room to turn around, land, get my log book signed by someone at the airport to confirm my landing, and come on home after lunch and a pit stop. I had soloed quickly and was doing well with my studies. This was going to be a piece of cake, I told myself.
I plotted out the course with the E6B. flight calculator. Short of the Star Trek episode that actually saw Spock use one to calculate warp drive trajectory or something, I've not seen one in years and don't know if they even make them any more. The only flying I've done in the last few years is the occasional local flight in a small aerobatic plane, just enough for currency, and given the cost, I'll probably leave the 'G' forces to the youngsters and just go putt around in a Cub. But on that day, I was ready.
Scanning for traffic, I got a really good luck at the mountains under which Dad's home was perched, a view so different than from below. It was winter, and although clear underneath the high overcast, I could see ice down below on the lakes, pushing up from the current, upended into minor dislocations and faults, tiny recreations of the mountains around, themselves formed through the chaos of earth and the finger of God. I think of the poem High Flight, which any young pilot worth his or her salt can recite, the words "touched the face of God".
I can see how that airmen felt that, so long ago, when the skies erupted in war. Looking at the light and shadow of cloud and earth, the ice that shimmers beneath the blue of the sky, the prop slicing into it as dawn cuts the darkness, I can see the places where hovers the God of light and darkness and creation. I imagine He was there on that very first flight, watching his creation take to the skies as birds, testing the limits of self and of machine, that self that is always our defining point.
I wasn't quite sure how I ended up here I'd always been fascinated by trains and cars, anything machined that moved. I took that first lesson on a whim, daring myself to dare, and I was hooked. When I got the job at the airport, I heard my Dad say "she won't last a week" the work as physical as anything I'd ever done, driving a big gas truck, hauling out the hoses to the plane, climbing ladders up and fueling. We won't mention to OSHA that float plane I fueled with a ladder on top of a picnic table to reach. But I lasted a week, and then some, sitting in my room at night with my books and my study guides saying "I'm going to be a pilot" as a mantra to parents that love but don't always believe.
Just two more cities and it would be my destination There's one little city, looking a whole lot smaller, than I expected. The light dusting of snow made everything look pure and clear, and also exactly the same.
I checked my map, checked my time. I should be at my destination but what I'm seeing is just a expanse of open ground. I hear my instructor say, don't just use pilotage, use the VOR, an instrument that tunes into a ground based station and lets you track to or from it. There we are, I'd passed it, but only by a couple of miles. Well this is embarrassing, I hope the folks on the ground weren't watching me fly right overhead, then turn around.
Oh, the dreams of the naive and young.
Coming up over the numbers on the end of the runway, I reduced the power, flaps out at full, carb heat applied, waiting for the soft and gentle birdlike "chirp chirp" of the wheels on the pavement as from the terminal, people made small polite golf tournament clapping.
No, it wasn't Canadian geese flying over head but the sound of my wheels impacting, let's just say "firmly," at which the airplane bounced Yes. Bounced. Not bouncing so high, I need to abort the landing, but bouncing like a baby Kangaroo on crack. All I could do was make sure the nose was up, and on the centerline, using power to gently ease it on down, not once, but twice (maybe three, I'm pleading the Fifth). The little training Cessna's are built for the occasional kangaroo landing, doesn't make it any prettier.
I taxi gingerly up to the fuel pumps. If this airplane could put it's head down in shame, it would. I knew the bounce was neither high nor hard enough to do any damage to anything other than my ego, but still.
I get out and two young, good looking guys are standing out by the fuel island. It just keeps getting better. One of them says "Student pilot! Here I'll sign your logbook".
Gee, how did they know?
My previously swelling ego seriously bruised, I realized what my instructor told me time and again "it's when you think you're getting good, that you're going to kill yourself, that' when you have to be the most vigilant". He was probably fifty years old, ancient in my eyes, and had likely been at that crossroads of destiny and free will more than once, that junction that can easily be permanent, but like most teens, I didn't listen half of the time.
I thought to my other job, there at the funeral home, one that my friends teased me about, but less than when I did career day with the forensic pathologists. I just did simple office things, tidied up and made coffee for the families, but the environment was not either scary or depressing for me. I was young and full of life, and everyone that was brought in here, was, you know, OLD.
Besides the business was successful, a brand new facility, and they paid more than minimum wage. Then one day they brought in two bodies, making sure I was in the office, as although I would sometimes fetch things for them as they prepared someone's family member, as such sights did not bother me, they said this one was one I did NOT want to see, and locked the door. It was two brothers, high school students, not classmates of mine, but of another school, killed in a head on collision on a late night. Alcohol was not involved, simply youth, bad timing and poor choices. On that day, I realized, that there are some lines, that if you cross, you can never come back.
I didn't, know, that as we left it behind us in the rearview mirror, that I'd think of this flight, thankful for a God that watched out for a young airman, one who had some serious lessons to learn.
"Acme Airport. Unicom, N714 Golf Juliet on the forty-five to downwind"
From below, a sound of a voice that had suffered much, and learned as well, a voice I'd best listen to a little closer in the future.
"N714 Golf Juliet, no reported traffic, welcome back B."