Flying Solo

Flying Solo

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Flying Solo

Today is the day of my first flying lesson. For the last month I have been putting together a model of the Spirit of St. Louis, the plane Charles Lindbergh used to fly from to New York to Paris in May of 1927, the first transatlantic flight. I love putting together models; I love the intense concentration it requires, the knot of tension that forms at the back of my neck, the dizzying smell of glue. Charles Lindbergh was not the first pilot to attempt this flight, but he was the first to attempt it alone. All those who went before him had gone with flight crews and enormous quantities of equipment, and all of them had failed or died trying. Lindbergh had no crew, no radio, no parachute, no life raft, no food, one quart of water. He told reporters, "If I make it to Paris I won't need anything more, and if I don't make it I won't need anything more either. He even cut the borders off of his map with a razor blade. It was this simplicity that enabled him to succeed. I want to find that simplicity in my own life, to pare everything down to the bare essentials. But I can’t. Small pieces, spare parts, keep turning up in corners and under furniture. I think flying will lift me up and away from all the things that clutter up a life.

When I arrive at Pulliam airport and look out over the rows of airplanes I feel so light that I might float away. I pay for the lesson with my Visa and shove the receipt into the pocket of my jeans. The waiting room is filled with orange plastic chairs. Waiting always takes on the same quality, no matter where I am or what I am waiting for. It’s the feeling of being trapped in time, removed from the rest of life. No matter what I do, like a reading a book or magazine, I can never forget that I’m waiting. I used to wait for my father every Sunday afternoon, sitting and staring out the window while time froze all around me.

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My mom would walk by and say “A watched pot never boils!”

Sometimes he came and time would begin again, rushing all around me like wind, sometimes he never came at all. But the waiting was always the same.

My flight instructor, a small, elderly man, appears in the waiting room and steps forward to introduce himself. “Name’s Bill Yoder. Come with me.” I follow him into a room at the back of the hangar and he starts drawing vectors and parabolas on the chalkboard, launching into a lecture about the concepts of lift, weight, thrust, and drag. I look around the room. It’s dusty and reeks of cigarette smoke, but its almost empty, containing nothing but a small table, two chairs, a chalkboard mounted on the wall, and a single piece of chalk.

The first piece of clutter I acquired in my life belonged to my father. One night when I was about fourteen-years-old my mother came into my room carrying a cardboard box. She dropped it heavily onto the floor and shoved it toward me with her foot. “Here are some things that belonged to your father. He didn’t want them when he left, and now I don’t want them. To be honest with you, I don’t really know what’s in there.” I stared at the box, twice discarded, twice abandoned, and felt a peculiar weight settle on my shoulders. My mother disappeared, mumbling something about getting dinner started. I knelt on the floor and struggled to remove the ancient yellow packing tape. The box was stuffed with outdated bills and a stack of crumbling National Geographic magazines. Eventually I found a photograph of my father when he was in the Airforce, looking younger than he ever could have been. He is smiling, squinting into the sun with a bottle of beer in one hand and the other hand resting lightly on the wing of a small airplane. The picture was taken after my father’s first solo flight. I know this because my father used to talk about that day with the deep reverence of regret. My father was in the service during Vietnam, but he never did anything particularly interesting or dangerous. He was a meteorologist and never went overseas. As I child I mistakenly believed that my father was a war hero. I spent hours looking at his big book of warplanes, drawing endless pictures of these planes, wearing out my silver crayon on their shiny fuselages. My mother hung them on the refrigerator with plastic, fruit-shaped magnets. I also made models of airplanes and hung them from my bedroom ceiling with pieces of twine.

I would lie in bed at night staring at those airplanes and listening to the mysterious whispers and the late night conversations that seeped underneath my door. Their urgency, and the inevitability of what was to come, made me so angry that I wanted to fly away from it all. I would stare at my wall, which was covered with pictures of famous pilots. Eddie Rickenbacker, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Chuck Yeager. My favorite was a drawing of the Red Baron sitting in the open cockpit of an airplane with a scarf tied around his neck and goggles resting up on his leather helmet. I wanted to marry the Red Baron, and Charles Lindbergh, who had a cleft in his chin. It didn’t seem to matter to me that they were long dead.

Slowly, imperceptibly, my father disappeared from the house. “Your father’s working late tonight,” my mother would say offhandedly when I asked about him. But he never showed up again during the week, only on random Sundays to cart me off and fill me with McDonald’s hamburgers and ice cream sundaes. His favorite books and clothes disappeared, but he left behind his winter coat, his photographs, his ashtrays, and his smell. He smelled of pipe tobacco, flannel shirts, and turpentine, all mixed together to create something indefinable and always out of reach. But the smell, too, vanished, and the objects couldn’t hold that part of him I missed the most.

Bill Yoder finishes his talk about the physics of flight and takes me out of the small room into the expanse of the hanger. He shows me a plane parked there in the shade and points out the propeller, the cowling, the empenage, the ailerons. I listen, mesmerized. These are the most beautiful words I have ever heard. He begins to discuss wind shear and turbulence and asks me if I have ever suffered from motion sickness.

After what seems like hours Bill takes me outside and shows me the airplane we will go up in today. It’s a two-seater Cessna, cherry and cream. I smile, and Bill nods, “She’s a beaut.” I hold out my hand and touch her tentatively. “Now,” says Bill, “grab the tow rope and pull her clear of the other planes.” I look at him incredulously, but grab the rope and pull with all of my strength. It rolls rather easily along the tarmac. It’s smaller than some cars, and to my horror, it’s much, much lighter. Bill then explains to me about the preflight check, and we spend the next ten minutes checking the fuel level and the tires and looking for loose parts or flaws along the fuselage and wings. We are now ready to go. Bill smiles and points to the pilot’s seat. “You sit there.” I hesitate until he assures me that both seats are equipped with identical controls. Looking at the hopelessly confusing mass of switches and gages and levers I realize that this is going to be nothing like driving a car.

Bill and I don large headphones and Bill begins to chat with the control tower in an unintelligible language, something about tangos and niners. My feet on the rudder pedals, I somehow manage to steer the plane to the edge of the runway. I giggle as the plane swerves slightly, missing the grass by a few inches. Bill helps me straighten out the plane, then says, “Push the throttle all the way in.” I place my hand on small knob sticking out of the the control panel and push. The plane roars to life. Bill releases the brake and the little Cessna zooms down the runway toward a clump of pine trees. I wonder if we will feel any pain when we smash into them, or if we will be killed instantly. Bill tells me to pull back on the yoke. “What?” “The control wheel,” he says, pointing. I grab hold and pull back; there’s no time to ask him why in the hell he’s letting my fly the plane during my first lesson. The plane tilts up and I laugh aloud and shout, "Up up up!"

The plane lifts, clearing the trees and climbing into the cloudless sky. At that moment I realize that I do not regret the fact that my father was not a war hero. He did not go down in a ball of flame. He survived, and I was born. From an ordinary man came this sunny afternoon, where in the air high above the pine trees I have cut myself free from the things that tether me to the earth.
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