Telling stories

As Gods of the Air

Posted by southwrite on June 30, 2014

Plane Stormy SkyYou can’t imagine how loud and cramped the cockpit of a Cessna 150 is until you’re sitting in it, engine revving. As the red and white machine taxis down the runway of the small airport in the East Georgia town of Covington, I glance at my pilot. Jack is thin and bearded with sandy hair just beginning to gray.

I’m impressed with how diligent he is in his pre-flight checks. He goes over the plane making sure everything is in order and carefully follows a printed list of checks. These prop-driven marvels haven’t changed much in design since they were first introduced back before World War II, and neither has the flight inspection that ensures all systems are working.

A few days before, Jack had called asking if I’d like to go for a ride in his new plane. “We can fly up to Tocca for lunch,’ he says. It’s a joke among pilots. To provide an excuse for the expense of going up, you plan a flight somewhere to eat. It becomes “the world’s most expensive hamburger.”

We taxi down the runway, the engine’s roar getting louder, our progress faster. Slowly, much too slowly, we start to lift off and by the time the runway expires we are aloft. The plane climbs gaining altitude.

While most people start thinking about flying as kids and many have their pilot’s license before leaving their teens, Jack didn’t do his check ride until he was 66. That was the fulfillment of a long-delayed dream that began decades before when he first took a few lessons while working in Montana during the 70s. The heavy snows of a tough Western winter cut short his training, and job demands kept him from pursuing it further – until retirement.

“I always had this fantasy about flying at the top of the trees,” he tells me over the headphone we have to wear in order to communicate in the roaring cockpit. Jack is not the kind of guy who is content with a safe, mundane life.

Being the passenger in a tiny plane is a true “living in the moment” exercise. I’ve traveled in big passenger jets and prop driven puddle jumpers often, but this is a different experience. Wedged into this cramped metal can, you become acutely aware that you are thousands of feet above the earth with only a single engine to keep you up. There is an overwhelming feeling of being aloft as the ground passes below and you look upon the horizon in a way you’re never quite seen it before.

If you’re afraid of heights – as I am – the terror will start to well up and, despite your best efforts to focus on all the things going on around you, it will be there – just below the surface. At the same time you see how different – and how beautiful – the world looks from up in the sky.

Jack wants a Diet Coke. Spotting a small airport in the distance he pilots the plane in for landing. Like just about every other small town general aviation airport, the single building is closed for the weekend. There is a drink machine outside which allows him to satisfy his need for caffeine.

As he walk back to the plane the older man stops and looks at me intently. “Let me tell you something,” he beings. “If I should have a heart attack, try to pop one of these into my mouth and maybe I’ll come back to life.” He holds up a small pill bottle. I nod as he turns away and strides back to the plane.

Jack tells me to watch for birds. Hitting one could be a “really bad thing” for the plane he says. I scan the horizon knowing that I probably won’t see the flock of geese in time to avoid a fatal collision. At least it takes my mind off the thought of what might happen if the engine suddenly stopped and we have to make an emergency landing. “I’m always looking around for open fields and highways that I can put her down on,” he explains.

Pilots are always thinking ahead to the time when their equipment doesn’t work.

If we do develop engine trouble, the plane won’t drop like a rock, but will continue to sail along losing altitude until it finally hits the earth. Using the flaps, Jack can guide its slow descent onto a good makeshift runway – I hope.

I think of my own mortality. In this plane, I’ll know I’m going to die long before I actually do. What possessed me to think that going up with this guy was a good idea?

As we near our destination, Jack offers more droll wisdom on the dangers of flight. “There are only two kinds of landings,” says Jack calmly. “Good and crash.”

The trip is the first of several we take together. Flying from the Covington airport we visit other small towns in East and South Georgia. It’s always a thrill mingled with terror. I’m drawn to it and drink it in and begin to understand the appeal of risky occupations. You’re never more fully alive until you’re deeply immersed in an experience that scares and constantly demands your full attention.

Flying is like that. It’s that odd mixture of boundless freedom mingled with the realization that it could all end in a moment. It’s life.



4 Responses to “As Gods of the Air”

  1. Your post brings back fond memories of flying in the co-pilot seat with my dad in his Cessna 175 — and, yes, once in a while we did fly to some very expensive grilled cheese!

  2. Mark Kelmachter said

    A good descriptive piece of writing. This one gets an “A.” My uncle Abe was a flight instructor in WW11. After the war he purchased a small plane. He took my mother up once and scared her out of her sense of adventure: She said she would never go up again. You bring up some of the same feelings I have had while Scuba diving. The potential for danger evokes an intense focus of your attention. It is threatening and exhilarating at the same time.

  3. paywindow7 said

    Good writing and great post, it captures the Cessna 150 experience well. Flying the 150 is Physics 101. One of the most obvious manifestations and confirmations of one of those laws is when the crosswinds are just right and the aircraft reaches rotation speed you might feel a slight bump in the yoke. I used to feel that bump often and always wondered what was causing it. I finally figured out that it was the Bernoulli Principle showing off. As the airflow over the wing attaches to that airfoil it creates work in the form of lift. I can imagine Mr. Bernoulli dancing and singing “I told you so” somewhere on high.

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