Obscured by the thick cloud cover that rolls in from the Coastal states, the sun has disappeared into detention, penalized by being so bright on such an otherwise cold day. Rain stops, falls, starts, the air holding in moisture like a towel, draping over everything, softening sharp edges of the landscape, a cold compress on what was to be a day of flying.
There is a reason all the big flight schools are in California, Arizona, and Florida. Learning to fly in the mountains of the upper West was a challenge. Being a flight instructor there without starving to death was even more of a challenge.
It's the 80's. I was a college student. I was a flight instructor.
For some, flight instructing was about the only way one could build the flight time necessary to get a job flying something bigger, a right of passage that many pilots, in their turn, go through. For me, it was a way to make $13.00 an hour to pay for tuition when the minimum wage was little more than $3.00. So what if people tried to kill me on a daily basis, I could eat meat once in a while, and still stay in the University.
The downside? That $13.00 was when you were in the air or billing someone for formal ground training. You could spend 8 hours waiting, writing lesson plans, answering the phone, but if you had no students you made zip. On bad weather days, the instructors with wealthier parents didn't even come out. So on that rainy day, just two of us worked. And waited. Waited while we listened to our hair grow. Waited for that knock, nervous and peremptory on the door of the flight school. It wasn't likely to happen. Pilots are always in tune with the weather. We watch the weather channel even if staying home all day. We listen to it. Even sheltered inside, away from it, we can tell the smell and taste and strength of the wind, and today the sky tasted of ramen noodles for dinner again.
That school I taught in was little more than a cabin, out at a small country airport, where we had two two-seat Piper Tomahawks, a tailwheel Taylorcraft and a Cessna 172 to teach in. The runway was built during World War II and was long and wide enough for even the most bumbling of future sky kings. We got a surprisingly large number of students from the local logging communities. My most active students were the diesel truck mechanics that wandered over and fell in love with the airplanes, then the airplanes home.
I learned to fly at such a school. A Mom and Pop type place in my hometown. I was only 16, I was already in college. Money for lessons, even at the bargain price back in those 39 cents a gallon days, was hard to come by, so I took a job at the airport in exchange for lessons. I pumped fuel, and washed airplanes. They could range from a small business jet to an occasional float plane on wheels that would stop on the way to Seattle. I would have to climb on a ladder on top of the picnic table while dragging the big heavy hose all the way up there. OSHA poster material. It was often hard, cold, dirty work, not something I'm afraid of, but I longed for the day I could fly them, not fuel them.
After my work day was done I'd sit alone in the small building, the owners living upstairs, and study for my lessons. Computers weren't on every desk in that day and age, and the teaching aids were primitive compared to what there is now. The Cessna course consisted of these flip card books with diagrams, with a cassette tape to play along with it. When the tape beeped you would flip to the next chart. I would sit there until the wee hours, "beep", drinking cup after cup of "beep" horrible black airport coffee, trying to get just one more page, before I had to go home and do all my other homework. It honed two things, my ability to concentrate and my appreciation for really good coffee.
I had two different instructors, basically, whichever of them was available as I was sort of a "charity" student, since I worked with them. One was a carpenter by trade. This was his way to relax and earn a little money the wife would let him keep. He had seven boys and basically, nothing I could do in the airplane would scare him. The other was young and hopeful, just building his hours to move on.
I soloed after 13 hours of lessons. The sky was still in the last vestiges of daylight when the traffic pattern would be light with aircraft, the only sound a cricket prematurely erupting into song and the faint whoosh of traffic from the Interstate. After a few practice times around the pattern, N,, of the 7 boys, crawled out of the airplane, gave me a little pat on the shoulder and said. "She's all yours". There I was, alone in an airplane that to me looked as vast and empty as a Boeing 747 cockpit. But it was time, and I gingerly taxied out to the runway to do my three takeoffs and landings by myself. We'd covered all the basics. landings and takeoffs, turns, stalls, an engine failure and deadsticking it in if there was engine trouble close to home, flying into a cloud by accident, and turning it around on instruments, and communications. I was ready. And with the throttle pushed all the way in, my airplane and I hurtled down the runway into our future. The little Cessna leaped into the air with untamed triumph and the defiance of gravity, the prop singing a song of farewell, hoping in its heart the flight would be endless, not just three bounces and go's.
A quick turn, back into the pattern, with a glance over at that seat which was so, so empty, I just forged on, flaps, trim, carb heat, taking note of the wind direction, that wind that washed out of my head and my blood all that I feared I could never do. It was one of the most liberating moments in my life, my destiny in my hands, nothing more than guts, aviation fuel and utter faith in the buoyant and untried wings of shiny metal bring me back to roost.
One soft chirp on the pavement, carb heat in, flaps coming up, throttle advance, pull back the yoke and I was back, aloft again, and this time I had a little more confidence and looked down to see Ned giving me a cheery wave like I was one of his own kids. By the third takeoff, I could wave back.
The third and final landing, I was done. The sky was nearly dark as we made our way inside after tying her down and buttoning her up for the night, with a friendly pat on the nose, like a horse being put into its stall. N. got out the scissors, for the ritual cutting of the shirttail of the newly soloed. To hang on the wall, with my name and date, like a banner of freedom, a signal to the next generation of students that there are no limits, in the living and fluid world of the air. There are no young, or old, or rich or poor, there are just eyes raised to the heavens and a firm hand on the yoke.
Now just 3 years later, I'm teaching myself, trying to pass on what I know, each student, each hour, propelling me further up. Blue sky days were few and far between, but with instrument students, there was just enough coming in to keep a roof over my head and pay for tuition.
So we sit on that sodden day, the sky the color of a washed out dishcloth, a flock of seagulls hunkered down underneath the hangar eves, seeking shelter, white birds, lumped up like used tissue paper, sodden and unwelcome. I'd go chase them away so they don't poop on the airplanes, but it's just too cold. So we wait, like dogs waiting for their master - jumping, tail wagging with the sound of someone at the door. Could it be. . a student? Oh boy. Oh boy. Some rich banker wanting to write out a check for $2000 to get his license!? But, it's simply the Fed Ex guy, and we circle and circle, getting back comfortable again as we settle back down to wait in disappointment, tails between our legs.
But they will come, the students. The ones eager with the joy of what awaits, on their very young or very old faces, my best students often being someone that's decided to take that step in middle age. They were the best. Then there were the sons of wealthy pilots and businessmen (I'd say daughters but a female student in that day and age was beyond rare). A few were gifted, but mostly doing it out of the sense that they were expected to, and carrying in their expensive flight kit a degree of entitlement. They were never pleasant to teach, their correct, inherited, irritating position of being always right was not helpful when you were inverted, having run out of airspeed and ideas at the same time, their pigheadedness unchanged by drama or g-forces. As hungry as I was, that rainy day, if one of those students came in, I'd give them to the other instructor.
Sure, there was the satisfaction of teaching someone the nuts and bolts of being a pilot even if they were unpleasant. Of letting them go just far enough to learn, and to learn with the right amount of fear, but not bend the airplane. Watching them solo, watching them develop. But to me, the teaching was a gift. Not simply something I did to build time or earn a pittance of a paycheck, but a way of showing the way forward to those eager to make the journey. For there was something else, more satisfying for me, which is why I would turn down an unmotivated flyer with a trust fund for a 16 year old taking lessons paid with after-school jobs, or a retired engineer fulfilling that dream. There was something magical in watching them discover that flying is nothing at all like riding in a car, even considering adding in another dimension to it.
Flying with one of those fledgling airmen was like those evenings when as a kid you would lay with a friend out in the backyard, on your back looking upwards, trying to name the stars, watching for satellites that moved through the clouds in a slow steady line. The deep relaxed breath of no worries and a quick glance of understanding between each other, that's what flight would be like with them. For they understand in their heart and they feel it in something that's always been inside of them. It's as if they just know, and are just waiting for you to show them how, that to frolic in the presence of the clouds, far enough above the earth is to get a sense of what it is to be blessed.
It is said that when Christ needed to center himself he did forty days in the wilderness. I think I get a taste of that when I get days in the air. It's a divine communion with the heavens, it's not about travel, it's about absolution. Absolution for past fears and mistakes and all the trappings and stress of life and society that is laid out on our step each morning, like an unwanted soggy newspaper. It's laying open the book of your humanity, as tears of your defenses fall to its pages, gathering into quiet spots of yourself for a few short minutes. It's grabbing a little transcendence from the clouded, salty waters of that earthbound life. It's falling in love again when you thought that was all behind you.
And so, on that day so many years ago, as the rain drips from the eaves, I wait. Because soon the cold front will pass, the sun will break free and through that door will come, someone, with whom I can share. And when I hear the oft-told tale, that "I've always wanted to do this -but was afraid it would take time and things away from my loved ones". I tell them what I've learned. It's the same as this, what I tell people now, 30 some years later.
For I still teach, but it's interns in my field, waiting breathlessly to pursue something that drives them, hanging on my words for some piece of sage advice in a world gone mad. And I tell them now, what I told those flight students all those years ago. That love does not exist just in one place and in one instant and in one body out of all the time you have, all the bright light and streaming sky of your life, it is there, waiting for you, with no price tag but your happiness.
It's all around you if you just look up.