In the 1980’s, during the farming crisis and a time of farm auctions and tight budgets, my father did a risky thing: he decided to pursue his lifelong dream.
Right in the middle of being serious and focused on keeping the farm afloat and off the auction posters that covered the walls of local businesses in much of small-town North Dakota, he decided the time was now or never. He became a private pilot. He, along with a neighbor, eventually took an even greater leap of faith by purchasing a 1964 Cessna 172 airplane. With those two decisions, a green and silver airplane and the view of the family farm from several thousand feet above the ground became entangled with all the other memories I have growing up.
He took us flying in the summer and in the winter. He flew over his crops for a better view, and over the local threshing show to see all the action. He flew to neighboring towns, took photos of farmsteads, and even flew over Grand Forks during the flood in 1997 before a flight restriction was put in place. My memories of the farm are as much the open sky as the grass and the wheat, as much the roar of the propeller as the chugging combine. It didn’t occur to me that flight was at all rare, that other kids weren’t used to the sight of an airplane landing in the back pasture and taxiing up to the gas tank in the yard. The green plane and the blue skies were locked in a dance; there wouldn’t be one without the other.
In 2007, my father experienced some health problems that put his private pilot’s license in jeopardy, and talk of selling the airplane surfaced. This was upsetting to me; it had become embedded in the memory and photograph albums of my family and the community. The familiar green plane with the setting sun glinting off of the aluminum wings on a soft summer evening — how could I say goodbye to that?
I repeatedly explained to a friend how upsetting this was to me, not only that the plane might be gone, but that my father wouldn’t be able to go up in the air and raise a fist to gravity. At the end of my long-winded rant, my friend asked me, quite simply, “why don’t you learn to fly?”
Why not, indeed, which is how I found myself in Bismarck in May of 2008, reading about airfoils and wind shear and carburetors and weather systems. I learned how to read a sectional chart, and use an E6B flight computer, which is, despite its name, less computer and more a circular slide rule. I sat up nights, watching the ground school DVDs and preparing for the FAA written test and memorizing flight maneuvers and panicking because, as my father gently told me when I announced my plans several months prior, “it takes some work to get your private pilot’s license.”
“Yeah, yeah, dad, I got this,” I had said confidently before heading down the road with a destination in the sky.
I am not going to quit, I told myself repeatedly those four and a half months, outlining notes from my text book, diagramming airspace rules, and filling out navigation logs at the library coffee shop. I spent nearly ever moment of non-flying sitting in my car or a chair or a bench at the mall doing some “arm chair flying”, practicing steep turns and stalls and probably looking a bit silly.
Never one much for talking around people I didn’t know, my flight instructor initially found, after several mostly silent and one-word answers during the post-flying lesson debriefings, that my blog was the best source to turn to to find out exactly what I felt had happened during the day. Lessons I described as “fine” to him were revealed as something much else.
As my training went on, the cartoons and blog posts on my web site became a stopping point for several people who worked where I was receiving my flight training, though I wasn’t aware of it initially. My intention was to share it with my distant blog readers, of course, but also my father. I didn’t want him to worry about how things were going, so I tried to find humor in the challenges and self-deprecation in the successes.
On my web site, I compared my landings to a satellite falling from the sky. I illustrated my struggle to handle the sectional and E6B and timer during my first cross country flight as borderline chaos theory. I wrote about nearly taxiing the training plane to Montana from the runway because I mistook my right foot for my left. I wrote about the day I thought I might have heard God greeting me on Mandan’s common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF). This was the only way I could process the simultaneous fear and exhilaration I felt while learning to fly, knowing that I was beating gravity but that it was certainly not down for the count.
“Your blog is famous at the airport,” my instructor said jokingly, reminding me of the truth that it is easier to write when the audience who reads it is nowhere nearby.
I found this horrifying.
I thought I could keep my private humiliation within acceptable limits. As time went on, however, I was happy that someone could enjoy the humor of me bouncing down the runway and pulling three landings out of what should have been one, repeatedly banging my forehead on the ailerons during preflight, or my absolute inability to remember what the fuel vent was called.
After my first solo flight, the first person I called was my father. After I passed the FAA written test, the first person I called was my father. And, on October 31, 2008, after passing my checkride in Montana and officially becoming a licensed private pilot, the first person I called was…my father. I thought that the license itself might be the pinnacle; it was my goal, certainly, so that should have been that. Story over.
My father and his pilot friend from back home came to visit on a beautiful summer day and we decided to take the green airplane up for old time’s sake. We flew from Bismarck south along the Missouri River, up past the turbulence to a smoother piece of sky. Sitting in the left seat of that old familiar green and silver plane instead of the right — that was the moment that surpassed the checkride, the solo, the lessons, the tests, the doubts. Coming in for the return landing with my father indicating a bit more throttle to account for passenger weight in the back, perhaps, and me nodding as I pulled on the carburetor heat and put in flaps — that was what I had worked for.
The old green and silver airplane sits out on the general aviation ramp here in Bismarck during the summer, and beckons. I do feel sad knowing that I cannot keep the plane since I cannot really afford to fly. There will be a time soon when dad will sell the green plane, and I won’t ride in it again. Life is letting go, whether that is letting go of gravity, or the the machine that helps you do that.
I haven’t accumulated as many flight hours as some private pilots, but I have no regrets in learning to fly. Now, when I talk to my father on the phone, we are able to talk about flying, and I am able to understand. We talk about aviation news, airplane maintenance, and the old green plane. It is no small thing to learn to share a passion as a way to connect, to make that effort to go outside of what you are naturally inclined to do, in order to build a bridge.
As I explained to a friend, there are some who learn to fly because they naturally love flying. I learned to fly because I love my dad. Neither reason is better than the other. They are merely different. The green plane and the sky can still dance.