From Dream to Reality: A Girl, a Plane and a Space Suit

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When I was three years old, I wanted to be an astronaut. Mostly because my older sister Gail wanted to be one, I think. But, still. Never mind that girls weren't allowed to be astronauts back then. Obstacles, even seemingly insurmountable ones, never stopped anyone from dreaming -- especially at age three. My father, enlightened soul that he is, even bought my sister and me astronaut outfits (plastic astronaut helmets that went on top of fuzzy sleeper pajama/space suits) as encouragement. The outfits were, by far, our favorite Christmas presents that year.

Time passed, and life moved on. I got more interested in drama, arts and writing, and the dream of space travel faded. And yet, my fascination with space endured. I still remember when my Uncle Ned brought a telescope on a family camping trip and showed me the Andromeda Galaxy -- a destination that would require light years and some unknown future technology to reach.

But someone else was going to explore it. That just wasn't the way my life was headed. I did, finally, learn to fly airplanes, which was at least off the planet by a little bit. And truly -- as anyone who's read any of my columns can attest -- that simple gift of wings has made my life far richer, and taught me more about myself, life and living, than any other single activity I've ever undertaken.

I have no regrets.

And yet ... I never forgot that plastic space helmet, or the dream that went with it. So, okay. I wasn't ever going to be an astronaut. But just once, I thought ... just once ... wouldn't it be cool to go far enough off the planet to have to wear a space suit? And far enough to see the curvature of the Earth? That would be enough. More than enough.

** My sister Gail and me in the 1960s; fast-forward to 2008.**

I knew it was a pie-in-the-sky kind of dream, like having dinner with George Clooney or winning an Academy Award. But odds against never stopped anyone from dreaming. I even tried once, back in the mid-1990s, to make my long-shot dream come true. I was working on a book for NASA about the Dryden Flight Research Center -- a place where the Space Shuttle still landed, and the SR-71 was used for research flights.

I suggested to the Center management that to really write a good story about the work they did, I needed to experience their world. A Space Shuttle flight, perhaps? When the Center Director stopped laughing, he showed me a list of journalists who wanted a Space Shuttle flight. It was, as the saying goes, both long and distinguished.

I reconsidered. An SR-71 flight, then? More tolerant smiles ensued. There is apparently a reason the SR-71 has two crewmembers. Nobody gets to just ride along.

Well, it was worth a shot. I figured that was that and went back to doing what I love and do best. Which, among other things, includes flying old airplanes and writing stories about it.

Ten years passed.

And then one day, I got a note from a pilot at Ranchaero Airport in northeast California. They were having a little fly-in barbecue and, based on my writing, the pilot thought it might be the kind of thing I'd enjoy. Ranchaero was an easy day trip in the Cheetah. And after hearing about all the Stearmans, Wacos, Cubs and other classic old tailwheels that either lived there or were expected to show up, I decided I'd go.

I was standing next to several pilots at the barbecue when three yellow Cubs came in from the south and landed.

"See that guy in the lead Cub? He's a U-2 pilot," one of the pilots said as the Cubs taxied in. I watched a slight, goggled pilot unfold himself from the back seat of the Cub. He didn't strike me as a high-flying jet jockey. And an Air Force Space God flying a CUB? Not likely.

"Sure he is," I replied. "And I'm Queen Elizabeth."

The pilot laughed. "No, really," he said. "Hey, Cabi!" he called to the approaching Cub pilot. "Come here!"

The pilot walked over and, when told I didn't believe that he flew U-2s, pulled out his cell phone and started flipping through photos. He then turned the phone toward me. And there, clear as day, was a close-up, self-portrait photo of him, in a space suit, somewhere very high above the Earth.

"Oh, my God!" I said, laughing. "You're for real!"

And so it began. Maj. John "Cabi" Cabigas, U-2 instructor pilot and passionate Piper Cub owner, and I spent quite some time talking about U-2s, space suits, and the quirks and joys of tailwheel airplane flying. And before he left, Cabi said he'd look into my doing a story on a flight in a U-2.

We tried very hard to make that story happen. I even flew up to the Beale AFB airshow, in the hopes of convincing the brass I was worth their effort. But budgets were tight. There was a war going on in the Middle East. And after more than a year of effort, we gave up.

Another year passed. I was at the EAA AirVenture airshow in Oshkosh last summer when I got a call on my cell phone from Cabi.

"Hey, Lane!" he said excitedly. "We have a new commander here, and I'm flying into Oshkosh with him tomorrow. If you can meet us at the plane, I can introduce you, and maybe we can give this U-2 article idea another go!"

They arranged for me to ride along in the landing "chase" car when the U-2 arrived. So I was right there when Cabi and the new commander, Lt. Col. Mike Glaccum, climbed out of the plane. Cabi turned to introduce me. Glaccum's eyes got wide.

** "High above the Earth, I was alone with my thoughts... and aware of how lonely the sky would be if we didn't have anyone waiting for us back home again."**

"Wow! Lane Wallace of Flying?!" he asked. "I'm such a fan of your magazine!" Cabi and I just looked at each other. "Hey!" Glaccum continued. "Have you ever flown in a U-2? You'd love this airplane! Cabi, we should work on getting her a flight!"

Cabi and I exchanged another glance. Sometimes, all it takes to change the world is to just get out of the way. "Yes, sir," Cabi managed.

Even then, it wasn't an easy road. But the stars began to line up. On my second story assignment in my aviation writing career, I'd gone to interview Pat Halloran, the owner/pilot of a Loving's Love Goodyear racer at Flabob Airport in Southern California. As I asked him about his plane, I noticed some SR-71 photos in his hangar. Turns out he used to fly them. Cub reporter that I was, I assumed he must have been, well ... maybe not a lowly Air Force lieutenant, but perhaps a captain. He smiled. "Well, at ONE point in my career," he said graciously. I slowly and embarrassingly worked my way up the rank ladder, making a very serious note to self that I would never interview someone again without doing some homework on them, first.

In the end, it turned out that Pat Halloran was a two-star general, in charge of all the U-2 and SR-71 planes. He was also a legend in the reconnaissance aircraft community. And despite my embarrassing performance in that interview, Gen. Halloran still remembered me, almost 20 years later, and still felt an affinity for a fellow lover of old tailwheel flying machines. So when I asked him if he might be willing to write a note in support of my flight request, he replied, "I'll do better than that. I'll be there tomorrow. I'll go talk to them in person!"

Who ever would have guessed?

In the end, the reason I found myself in the Cheetah one November day, en route to Beale AFB to actually fly a U-2, space suit and all, wasn't because of anything I did directly to make that dream happen. It was because somehow, in the course of simply doing what I love most, I'd connected with some distant but kindred spirits out there. Kindred spirits who just happened to fly an airplane that required space suits and flew high enough to see the curvature of the Earth.

Lt. Col. Gary "Kuma" Macleod, a squadron pilot I'd only met once, went to argue my case when it bogged down, late in the process. Cabi arranged for permission for me to land at Beale, itself. Luke "Loco" Locowich, the U-2 pilot who'd driven the chase car with me at Oshkosh, arranged for the Cheetah to have its own hangar while it was there. Luke also gave me a welcome packet, consisting of a handmade leather chart bag for my plane, and a piece of paper with several poetic quotes about flight, and high flight in particular. At the bottom of the page was a handwritten note that said, simply, "Please let us know how we can be of assistance. We're so glad you're here."

It's one of the things that never ceases to amaze me about flying. In the most unexpected moments and corners of the world, you land your airplane, thinking you're very far from home. And then you talk to a fellow pilot there, get a welcome note, or recognize a kindred spirit in the face of a stranger, and you realize that you're not so far from home, after all.

On the night before my flight, a group of us drove up to nearby Grass Valley for dinner at Villa Venezia -- a favorite squadron restaurant. The owner, Dennis Roberts, is not a U-2 pilot. But he owns a Cessna 170 and understands the joys and challenges of an old taildragger. And when our wine arrived at the table, its label featured a U-2 pilot, in a space suit, with the silhouette of a U-2 in the background. Here, too, the extended family endured.

In all my years of dreaming about seeing the curve of the Earth and wearing a space suit, it was a solitary vision; a thing I wanted for myself, alone. But as I trained for my U-2 flight, absorbing an embarrassing amount of attention from professionals determined to make sure I got through the experience in one piece and finding myself welcomed as a member of the family by the U-2 pilots, the last thing I felt was alone.

To be sure, there were moments and challenges I had to master by myself. Cabi could not have saved me, had we been forced to eject. And high above the Earth, I was alone with my thoughts, my senses, my writing board, and my tubes of water and gushy apple pie. But I've never felt so acutely aware of my reliance on others as I did in that space suit, gazing at the top edges of the atmosphere. As well as how lonely the sky would be if we didn't have anyone waiting to welcome us back home again.

Fortunately, I had nothing to worry about, on that front. When Cabi and I landed and pulled up in front of base headquarters, I looked out to see a dozen or more squadron pilots waiting to welcome me back with champagne (cork-shooting skill required) and cheers of goodwill. I look at the photos they took of me, in those precious moments of return, and I see the same kind of unrestrained joy as another camera captured, one long ago Christmas morning.

It really happened. That's amazing, in and of itself. But the joy on my face isn't just about the space suit, or even about seeing the curvature of the Earth. It's about the family that made it happen, and who were waiting to welcome me home at the end of the adventure.

Was it all that I ever dreamed it would be? Oh, yeah. All that and so very, very much more.

Also read these related stories:

Dragon Hearts

So You Want to Fly a U-2?

Dragon Hawks: The U-2's Future