Flying Lessons

ColumnArt_Web Lane Wallace

The week was not going well. My landlord had accidentally cut down my flowering plum tree. Huge roadblocks had sprung up in three separate work projects. I'd had to shell out $550 to get my car fixed. And I'd been inundated by a swarm of termites coming through my bathroom walls. So it was with a sense of weariness, edged with a touch of dread, that I got my morning coffee and sat down at my computer to see what new disasters or character-building challenges had arrived in my inbox overnight.

But shockingly enough, no disasters awaited me. There was only a short message from one of the pilots I'd met at the Ranchaero, California, airport, almost exactly a year ago. "Remember the Stearman Gary was building last year? Well, he flew it on its maiden flight yesterday!" the message announced gleefully. "AWESOME!"

I opened the photo attached to the message, and suddenly, my computer screen was filled with a glorious splash of bright red fuselage and vanilla-colored wings behind shiny silver cylinders and whirring propeller blades. And in the cockpit, large as life, was a very proud-looking Gary Thompson, with a baseball cap on backwards and a broad, mustache-topped smile stretching across his face.

It was a brilliant and joyful image, so vividly close that I could almost hear the distinctive staccato of the engine cylinders firing. Clearly, whoever had taken the photo either had a very good telephoto lens or a seriously questionable regard for his or her personal safety. But gazing at all that color, life and joy, thoughts of roadblocks, termites and life frustrations suddenly vanished from my mind. I found myself smiling. Happy. And remembering all over again how wonderful and fun this thing called life really is.

Even Gary might be surprised to know he'd had such an effect on my day from such a distance. But he wouldn't be surprised at all by the idea of a biplane having a profound effect on a person. For Gary - who once spent several years barnstorming around the country in an old N3N - isn't just a builder or pilot of old airplanes. He's one of those rare and gentle souls who not only understand the particular magic that resides in an open-cockpit airplane, but who also get their greatest joy out of sharing all that artistry and mystery with people who've never heard the wind or touched the sky.

Like all the other barnstormers and biplane ride-givers I know, Gary is a very capable and practical mechanic. You have to be, to maintain and care for a biplane. And he's also a well-trained and disciplined pilot. But mixed in with all those practical characteristics is the heart of a romantic, the eye of an artist and an intuitive understanding of magic - not illusion, mind you, but true magic. For Gary, like other biplane barnstormer pilots, possesses the ability to transport his passengers not only through space, but through time, as well ... to a place they've almost forgotten, or perhaps never even knew; where all things known give way to things remembered, imagined and dreamed, and where science gives way, once again, to wonder.

It's a process that involves a very special kind of magic. And to pull it off - especially time after time after time - requires a very special kind of magician.

My old friend and Cessna 120 partner Jim used to spend almost every summer weekend, sometimes 10 or 12 hours a day, giving rides in two Stearman biplanes owned and operated by the museum he worked for in Minnesota. I used to watch him, his smile and talk with each new customer undimmed by the passing of the hours, and wonder what gave him the stamina to keep going, hour after hour, day after day. Surely even the world as seen from a biplane - the same, close-to-the-airport stretch of world, mind you - must get old by the 25th or 200th passenger and circuit. But if it did, you couldn't tell from looking at him.

Jim rarely shared his thoughts or feelings about flying. But one day, he finally attempted to explain why he gave all those rides.

"These planes are like time machine transporters," he told me. "Like, take this old man I flew this afternoon. I thought I'd better take it easy on him - you know, like 2 Gs might give him a heart attack. But I took him down low along the river, where the leaves are changing. It was gorgeous. I circled down there, and then did one steep bank turn. As soon as that wing went up, I could see in the mirror this huge grin come across his face, and he gave me a big 'thumbs-up' sign. So I went over the lake and did a couple of wingovers, and another big grin. The steeper the bank, the bigger the grin."

Jim had given a dozen rides that afternoon and, as if floodgates somewhere inside had opened after far too long, the stories of the others started to tumble out, one on top of the other. Every passenger, it seemed, had a story of one kind or another - and Jim had learned them all.

"One guy I flew today learned to fly in World War II in a PT-19, but hadn't been in an open cockpit airplane in 45 years," he continued. "There was another guy who was thinking about getting back into flying. So I let him have the controls for a little bit and fly it around. 'Oh, you'd better not let me do this,' he said. 'I'll get all excited about flying again.' "

Jim laughed, remembering, and then fell silent for several long minutes. I could see his mind going back over the multitude of people he'd given biplane rides to, over the years. "That's why I do it," he finally said, quietly. "It's the people. It's a way of ... giving something back to people ... ." His voice broke, and there were suddenly tears running down the face of my usually stoic friend. He was embarrassed, quickly brushing his fingers across his cheeks in a brusque attempt to wipe the evidence away. But he wanted to finish the thought.

"Some of the younger ones," he said, "... you're giving them something they've never seen or experienced before. The older ones ... you're taking them back to a time earlier in their life, when they felt really alive. It's like the machine is a constant, and no matter how much they've changed or lost in their lives, being in the machine again brings it all back. For some of these people, like the old man I flew today, it's like you're giving them life. How many times in that man's life today do you think he gets that excited, or feels that alive?"

Indeed. How many times do any of us get to feel that alive? Let alone have the satisfaction of knowing that we made it possible for someone else to feel that way? Oh, I've given my share of rides. We all have. But I've never had someone break into tears upon landing, like my old friend Vearl Root did when he took an old Waco pilot flying again in his biplane, after the man had gone more than 20 years without knowing the feel of a control stick in his hand. Or had a family tell me that a 42-year-old relative, dying of cancer, had come back to life for an entire day, as if he were completely healthy again, just by seeing me do a few graceful wingovers outside the hospital window. Or had someone ask to be buried in a memento from their flight with me.

That last tale came from a Stearman pilot I met a few years ago, who told me about a ride he'd given to a very frail and withdrawn old man one day. "His family never dreamed he'd go flying," the pilot said."But I found out he'd been an instructor pilot in World War II, so I said, 'Hey, I'm a bit rusty. How'd you like to give me a little dual?' And just like that, the guy brightened up and came to life. Big smile. So we went flying. I'd bought some leather flying caps for passengers to wear, and I told the guy to just keep his. And you know what? A few weeks later, the family wrote to thank me for taking him for the ride. They said he'd just died, and they'd buried him in that flying cap.

"But, you know, it's not just about that," the pilot continued. "There was also this young kid I gave a ride to years ago. I'd forgotten all about it, but not long ago, this guy came up to me - a first officer for American Airlines. It was that same kid. And he said thanks for the ride ... for giving him the dream." The pilot shook his head. "You just never know the impact you have on people, you know?"

It's true. All of us impact other people every day of our lives, for better and for worse. We touch and move on, blissfully ignorant about the imprint or ripples we've left behind. But pilots who give biplane rides get the satisfaction of knowing that, far more often than not, the impact they're having is good. And sometimes, they even get to see that impact as it happens. That's a pretty powerful gift. Worth, perhaps, even all those hours on a bumpy cockpit cushion.

But what is the power that these particular airplanes seem to have, that makes young hearts beat faster and grown men cry? How do their magician-pilots manage to bend time and space enough to take someone back to a time when they felt alive, transport a young person forward into a limitless future, or bring some essence of life back to a weary or wounded soul?

Ironically, the fact that I don't have an easy or sufficient answer for those questions is, perhaps, the answer. Because the allure and power of these classic birds may simply be that, for all their scientific and engineering components, they draw us out of our scientific world into the far less definable realm of mystery, where we find ourselves moved without quite being able to explain or figure out why.

After all, as Albert Einstein said: "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed."

In the end, perhaps the magic of biplanes, and the artist/poet/mechanic/magicians who fly them, lies in how they allow us to experience the world. They take us to a place so flooded in sensation and outside of linear time that we, like Einstein, find ourselves pausing, in wonder and in awe, aware only of how indescribably beautiful the mysteries of the world really are. And in that moment, we are rescued from the eyes-closed fate of becoming "as good as dead." We are transformed. For we are, once again ... alive.


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