Flying: It isn’t always easy.

The 90°F June sun is beating down on me, and beads of sweat are running down the sides of my face as I strain to pull my Cheetah back up the taxiway. What was I thinking, buying an airplane that was so flippin' heavy? I stop for a break, wiping the sweat out of my eyes and scanning the 500 feet of tarmac remaining to my tie-down. Maybe if I pull the plane behind me. I turn around, grasp the handle of the tow bar with both hands behind my back, and bend to the task.

"You are so lucky I like you," I mutter to the plane as I resume my plodding up the taxiway, hair askew and sweat dripping onto the tarmac.

It is not one of our better or more romantic moments. But then, long-term relationships are never just about romance and fun. They are, as Joseph Campbell once said, the ordeal and grace of participating in another's life. And that principle applies, even when it comes to airplanes.

I have heard any number of pilots describe their airplanes as mistresses. But the purchase of an airplane has always seemed to me more akin to an awkward, arranged marriage than a simple and straightforward love affair. We look at an ad in the paper, compare it against our list of priorities and desires, and then, after only the briefest of how-do-you-dos and inspections, sign a heart-stoppingly expensive contract binding us to what is still a virtually unknown entity. I still remember bringing the Cheetah home, seven years ago, and then standing there, staring at this stranger in my hangar and feeling my blood go hot and cold all at the same time, wondering what on earth I'd just done.

That was a lot of hours ago. And it was only through the course of those hours that I slowly began to acquire an understanding of all the unique strengths, flaws, quirks and characteristics that make up the particular personality of the airplane I promised to love, fly, maintain and cherish when I signed on the dotted line, all those years ago.

Seven years isn't forever, of course. But even in that moderate span of time, my relationship with the Cheetah has seen all kinds of seasons and phases. There was the honeymoon phase, right after I bought her, when I flew her every other day with a mix of excitement and trepidation, knowing how little I knew her, but buoyed by the exuberance of the new worlds of experience and days of adventure that I now had the opportunity to explore. She was the center of my attention then, the thing around which the rest of my life had to revolve. I even moved up to northern California to give us a better place to play than the crowded, smoggy, and overly-developed landscape of Los Angeles.

The rest of my life was also a pretty rocky and uncertain landscape back then, and there were any number of lonely times when the Cheetah offered my best or only solace. She'd take me to a place where the troubles of the ground dropped away beneath us and I'd remember again the beauty of life and the possibilities and wonder that dawned with every new day.

I often think, in fact, that my attachment to the Cheetah is stronger because so many of my hours with her have been by myself. We didn't have the distraction of a whole family in the airplane with us. So my thoughts on many of those long flights were shared silently, and only with her. And the wonders she showed me were for my eyes alone.

If I could have painted the landscape of my life according to my best desires, I would have drawn it differently. But there are gifts to be found on any path, if you look hard enough or with an open enough heart. And the truth is, the intimacy I have with my airplane would probably be different if all those flights and adventures had taken place with other people on board.

Over the course of those hours, the Cheetah and I also accumulated a whole heap of varied experiences and moments that still fill the air whenever I walk up to her on an airport ramp. There's the morning we flew low over a perfect summer countryside in south Texas, the chilly preflight before departing New York after 9/11, a magical flight at 300 feet down the Florida Keys, a terrifying loss of horizon over the North Carolina mountains, the burritos and tumbleweeds in Pecos, Texas, the whales in the Sea of Cortez, the quaint island of Mackinac, Michigan, the intimidating stretches of the Great Canadian Shield, bopping over to a friend's private runway for a perfect springtime barbecue, struggling to trouble-shoot a stuck engine valve in the midst of the Rocky Mountains … hundreds of memories, too many to list or count.

Some of those times were magical, some were nerve-wracking, and others were simply there-droning along on hot, hazy afternoons, watching waypoints and cloud shadows pass by underneath the wings. And yet, looked at together, they construct the sum of our relationship, in all its layers and complexity and accumulation of moments known and shared.

But if life teaches anything, it's the eternal principle of change. No relationship stays constant, unless it or its participants are nine-tenths stagnant or dead.

The good news is, I now have more friends around to fly with, and many more opportunities in my life, both in the air and on the ground. I'm happier, but I'm busier, and I often spend more time on the road than I do at home.

The bottom line, I suppose, is that everything is a trade-off. Balance, no matter what your job or life situation, is always a challenging goal to achieve. And it's rarely something that happens without some level of concerted effort.

Which brings us back to the Cheetah and the taxiway. Because I wasn't even supposed to be flying the Cheetah that weekend. I was supposed to be flying in a beautiful biplane to the National Biplane Association fly-in in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, a trip squeezed in between two other travel commitments already on the calendar. I love biplanes, and there was a big piece of me really looking forward to the event. But there was another big piece of me that was feeling the strain of a schedule tilting way out of balance. I'd been on the road for the previous five weekends in a row, and I hadn't seen my best friend since February, even though she lives a simple one hour's flight away. And while I'd recently flown five Cubs, two Cessna 172s, and a Vickers Vimy biplane, at locations ranging from Tahiti to Alaska, my own little Cheetah had been sitting at the airport, neglected and forlorn, for altogether too long a stretch of time.

It might sound crazy to give up the chance to fly an award-winning biplane for a scruffy 1977 Grumman Cheetah with chipped and fading paint, but there comes a point when even the softest, five-star hotel feather bed can't compete with the comfort of your very own sheets and pillow. As I started to make the arrangements to fly to Oklahoma, I realized that I didn't want to go fly off somewhere else to fly someone else's airplane. Imperfect and limited as she might be, I wanted to fly my own.

So I cancelled the biplane trip and headed out instead to go spend some time with two old and valued friends … the one with wings, and the one who lived at the end of a simple hour's flight.

As I drove up to the Cheetah on the ramp, I could tell it had been too long. The tires were low, and there were cobwebs on the prop. How awful. I got fuel and found someone with an air tank to help me fill the tires. Like getting back in sync with a lover or spouse after days or weeks apart, it took a bit of time. But by the time I'd finished my preflight, taken off, and gotten halfway to Sacramento, the Cheetah felt familiar again.

The flight wasn't particularly magical or thrilling, but it was satisfying to be back in the air with her. After all the hours we've spent together, I have a comfort with the Cheetah that no other plane can give me, no matter how special, fun or beautiful it might be. For comfort, like trust or intimacy, is something built slowly and quietly in the course of life and time.

Everything was fine until I did the engine run-up before the flight home. The brakes held, but the left brake was decidedly soft. I made a note to have it looked at as soon as I got back. The flight was uneventful, but as I applied brakes to slow down after landing, I discovered that my "soft" brake was now non-existent. Fortunately, the runway was long, and the turn-off at the end was to the right. But the Cheetah doesn't have nosewheel steering. So without a left brake, I had no way to control the plane on the ground. I cleared the runway, told the tower I'd lost a brake and was shutting down, and waited for help to arrive. After a few minutes, when help didn't seem to be forthcoming, I got out the tow bar and started the long pull home.

Lugging a 2,200-pound piece of machinery a quarter mile up a taxiway might not seem the pinnacle of aviation romance. But I would argue differently. For I've always believed that true love or friendship begins when convenience ends. It's easy to love an airplane when she's beautiful and graceful and taking you on a magical flight to the skies. Far harder to love a plane that's expensive, flawed, and straining every muscle in your arms, back and legs as you try to get her back to where she should have taken you in the first place.

One of my most cherished friends once told me he loved me especially when I was at my worst, because that's when I needed it the most. Even a hundred thousand long-stemmed roses couldn't possibly say more than that. And so it is with my Cheetah. I love her even when I don't spend nearly enough time with her, and even when she's giving me mechanical fits, because that's what a worthy long-term relationship is all about. The magic of my relationship with the Cheetah isn't about first-date excitement or the heated, full-court press of a love affair. After seven years and hundreds of hours, it's about the simple fact that we are … connected. For better or worse, in good times and bad. No matter how life may have changed. Oh yeah. And because every now and then, she still takes me on a magical flight to the skies, where I remember all the reasons I bought her instead of a Santa Monica condo in the first place. Even after all these years, and all the challenges, I have not a single, solitary regret.


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