One rainy day sixty years ago I was flying a plane that felt so real it seemed to be flying me. Up and down and back around, it would land on my bed and take off again, zoom over to buzz the sock monkey and arc away in triumph. Going straight and level wasn’t half as inspiring. The toy happened to be a warbird of course, and my child mind brooded that pilots flew in such thrilling ways only to kill or be killed. Sad, knowing no other rationale for forms of flight so fanciful.
Twenty five years later that memory came rushing back while up with a new student (they were all new to me in those days). Having flown Hueys in Viet Nam, suddenly he laughed, “God, it’s fun to fly without being shot at!”
Ain’t that the truth.
Somewhere between those distant afternoons, on the last day of seventh grade they freed us early – just in time to discover where my curiosity truly lay. Feeling tipsy at the precipice of a three-month eternity, I sank into soft spring grass to admire a rampart of ivory clouds billowing miles into the sky. Scarcely knowing what they were or why, I ached to float there among them. ‘That’s a real place,’ I thought, wondering how things would look from so high up. What gripping regret that I could never simply go there and be!
Not many months later I learned otherwise. The January, 1967 issue of National Geographic (you can still find it in garage sales for a quarter) features the definitive article about soaring that put me on this winding path. Along with enticing photographs, its centerfold is an artist’s conception of some ordinary fellow in a tiny cockpit, smiling out at the endless landscape while gliding from one kind of rising air to another. I supposed such a flight would be very dangerous – especially with no engine – but knew that to experience it even once would be worth any risk.
Then when I finally got to try it myself, EUREKA! Turns out dancing across the sky is amazingly easy when conditions are right, and safer than the highway if you know what you’re up to. Especially if I’m in the other lane!
So was safety the reason I devoted my life to soaring? Not even close.
Many times through intervening decades I re-read that article, and studied every picture. There’s one of sailplanes, hang gliders and RC models all in the same photo (1967, mind you), dodging each other on the sea breeze at Torrey Pines, CA. Another shows an athlete on a unicycle directing traffic at the National Championships, himself a storied pilot I would later meet and soar with when he was 80. The least enticing photo is of uniformed Boy Scouts helping in initial assembly of a Schweizer 2-32 at the factory in Elmira, NY.
Now remember the Huey pilot who liked not being shot at? Well even further up this winding path he bought a well-worn ’32 in need of TLC. It flew great but looked awful, and some years later we restored it. Chipping and sanding down through multiple layers of paint, at the very bottom we found the same shade of blue as in that photo with the Boy Scouts. On a hunch I dug up the old magazine again, and sure enough our N-number matched the picture. And we’d flown our beloved Juliet hundreds of hours without knowing! Small world, big sky.
When the brightest thing you can see is streaks of rain on a gray window, remember: high above us this same ancient elysium arches over all as it has in every weather, world without end. To go there is a challenge worthy of infinite effort, and living there for even snippets of time imparts a special kind of grace. After all, it’s what turned one dour little skeptic into a patient optimist who weekly proves that this bottomless sky we breathe is indeed our only limit.