The Music of Dreams, Wings and Flight

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The graceful, curving point of Half Moon Bay is moving closer in the windscreen, and the airport runway there is now clearly visible. "I can take the controls back, if you want, to get us around the airport," I offer to my friend Dan, in the right seat. He answers without taking his eyes off the horizon in front of him.

"Actually, I'd like to keep flying, if that's okay."

I shoot a look in his direction. Dan's a man of few words, and sometimes it's a challenge to figure out what's really going on behind the scenes, there. But while he's certainly concentrating on the task at hand, and keeping our altitude and course as it should be, he's got a smile on his face and a spark of light in his eyes that speak volumes.

"Absolutely," I answer with a grin. "Just angle out to the west, over the ocean, so we're clear of their traffic pattern." Dan and I have known each other since we were 13 years old. Our lives have intersected and separated several times over the years, with big gaps in between. But as well as I might know him, I'm seeing - or perhaps just understanding - a new piece of him here, 1,000 feet above the California coastline. Dan had told me, more than once, that he'd originally set out to be a pilot and astronaut in life. After high school, he'd been accepted into West Point, where he majored in engineering, made top grades and was planning on becoming a military pilot, on track to a spot in NASA's astronaut corps. And, from everything I know about his mind, abilities and nature, I have no doubt that he would have been successful. But then a different kind of nature intervened. By the time he graduated from West Point, Dan had shot up to a towering 6 feet 5 inches tall - one inch taller than the cut-off for military pilots or astronauts. So much for all those dreams.

Grounded by height, he joined the Army Corps of Engineers and went on to excel in the Special Forces before finally leaving the Army, getting an MBA and entering the sometimes equally-challenging world of large-scale development and construction management in New York City. Life goes on. But in all those years, from the time we'd left White Plains High School together, he'd never been in a small airplane. Oh, he'd rappelled down helicopter ropes and jumped out of C-130s-but his dreams of flight had been left in the past, along with his hopes of being an astronaut and whatever other notions we all had when we were young and naïve, and life and the world lay ahead for our taking.

I knew all that, even before he came out to California and we finally, after the passage of more years than I really want to count, got the opportunity to go flying together. But it was only after seeing the expression on his face and his reluctance to surrender the controls as he flew my plane down the coast, around the Santa Cruz Pier and back up to the Golden Gate Bridge, that I began to understand something his words had failed to convey about the part of him that had once had those dreams, as well as what the cost of giving them up might have been. Nothing dramatic, you understand … just a glimmer. But I suddenly found myself wishing I had a different airplane for him to fly.

A Grumman Cheetah, after all, is a compromise, practical airplane, good for flying, as a friend of mine says, "from Point A to Point B on short trips." But it's not the kind of plane that sets fire to a pilot's soul or leaves anyone breathless in its wake. If that momentous summer evening flight I took all those years ago had been in a Grumman Cheetah instead of a 1929 Arrow Sport biplane, I doubt very much I would have been inspired enough to pursue my pilot's license.

Indeed, to lump all airplane experiences in the single category of "flight" is a little like lumping all the different sounds and rhythms of Brazilian sambas, British punk rock, Southern gospel, Caribbean reggae, New Orleans jazz, West African talking drums and John Philip Sousa marches under the single heading of "music." A technically correct statement, perhaps, but completely inadequate in terms of defining or conveying the vastly different listening experiences contained in that list.

So what airplane would I have liked to have had, instead? Well, as coincidence would have it, a few days later, a NASA manager I know was up in the Bay Area and offered to take me flying along that same stretch of coastline with his Decathlon taildragger.

The first thing I noted as I climbed in the back seat of Bob's tandem-seat Decathlon was its relatively spacious layout and room for long legs on either side of the front seat. Dan would have actually FIT in this airplane, far better than in my limited-seat-travel Cheetah, which left him with his knees bent halfway to his chest.

Bob and I took off from Palo Alto, crossed over the ridgeline to Watsonville, and then followed the coast up past Santa Cruz to Half Moon Bay. I couldn't see the gauges from the back seat, so I kept asking Bob for an altitude check, because I couldn't believe we were really flying at the same 1,000-foot altitude Dan and I had maintained in the Cheetah. The ocean and coast looked so much closer from the Decathlon. Could a high-wing design really make such a perceptive difference in height and view? Maybe.

But it wasn't just the distance or perspective. The Cheetah's low wing also tends to make one look out and up. In the Decathlon, the unfettered view is down. And that change in focus alters what pops out of any given landscape.

We'd just passed the Santa Cruz Pier when Bob called out excitedly, "Look! A whale!" Sure enough, a huge white torpedo shape was clearly visible underneath the water just to our right, making its way north. As we watched, the whale climbed toward the surface, breached, spouted a plume of moisture into the air, arched its fluke and dove back underneath the waves. Wow. How lucky were we, to be in the right place at the right time to catch a moment of natural wonder like that? And I couldn't help wondering … if we'd been in the Cheetah, with its wing blocking most of the downward view, would we even have seen it? The depressing but likely answer to that question emerged as Bob and I made our way up the coast. I'd told Dan about the dramatic sea caves that existed along the California ocean cliffs, but we hadn't actually seen any on our flight. Looking down from Bob's Decathlon, however, I wondered if Dan and I were perhaps blinded by the sun. For there they were … dozens and dozens of arched cave entrances, along the very same stretch of coastline I'd flown in the Cheetah just a few days before.

A little further north, Bob and I flew over a little rocky island, adorned with the ruins of either a lighthouse keeper's house or a research station, that I remembered pointing out to Dan as we flew past. I think we even may have circled it. But now, looking down on the sandy rock around the ruins, I saw dozens and dozens of sea lions stretched out in the afternoon sun. How had Dan and I missed them? I suddenly felt bad, as if I'd unintentionally cheated my passenger out of some of the best parts of the ride.

But the main reason I wished I could have shown Dan the sky from this kind of airplane was the quality of the ride itself. On some basic level, flying a Cheetah is like driving a car. You turn the yoke right or left and the vehicle responds, like any four-seat, four-wheeled sedan. A sporty sedan, perhaps, with light, responsive controls and a cool bubble canopy. But, still.

A tandem taildragger with stick controls, on the other hand, is more like a motorcycle. You don't just sit in a plane like this-you wear it. The sky presses close on all sides, and the Decathlon's fabric fuselage and wraparound windscreen, windows and top skylight make the machine all but disappear, bringing you into far more intimate contact with the world outside. Even the movement of the stick itself is more intuitive, and so becomes more invisible as a means of control.

Turning in the Decathlon is almost a matter of leaning right or left, and letting the natural impulses of your arm and foot put the necessary pressure on the controls to get the airplane to follow. As a result, banking left and right along California's curving coastline feels very much like riding a motorcycle along the Pacific Coast Highway that snakes its way along those same coastal cliffs … with way more freedom, and a far better view. I remember Dan's tales of riding his motorcycle through Germany and know, instinctively, that flying a plane like this would resonate with him in a way the Cheetah, for all its fine qualities, never could.

It's the old "fun" versus "practical" trade-off that seems to exist in so many parts of life. A thoroughbred horse gives a far more exciting ride, but it's a much higher maintenance animal and less useful for hauling loads of hay back to the barn. Sports cars aren't great family vehicles. Motorcycles are terrific fun if you can pack light … until it starts to rain. The Cheetah is a better and more comfortable cross-country airplane than the Decathlon … or a 1929 Arrow Sport biplane, for that matter. It's just not as fun or inspirational.

With most people I've taken flying for the first time, however, the type of airplane hasn't seemed so important. The mere fact of being in the air has been enough to wow them. And in some cases, the stable sedan-qualities of the Cheetah have been a good thing, in terms of making them feel safe and secure. So why was it different with my friend Dan? Because, from what I saw in the airplane, I think he really might have gotten it. And so, like a musician who suddenly finds an audience with a real appreciation for the nuances of the art, I wished for a better instrument with which to share some of the extraordinary music I've found in the grace, beauty and freedom of the sky.

But even if I would have liked to have had something more along the lines of a Stradivarius at my disposal, my trusty little Cheetah was able to give Dan at least a taste of aerial music, which is more than he'd ever gotten to experience before. And, who knows? Maybe someday I'll still get him a ride in a Decathlon, or a Husky, or a Super Cub with the door and windows open on a perfect summer evening, a few hundred feet above a breathtakingly vivid landscape. In the meantime, there's one very selfish reason that I'm actually glad I took Dan flying in the Cheetah. For if he'd been sitting behind me, in the back seat of a Decathlon, Husky or Super Cub, I wouldn't have been able to see the smile on his face and the spark in his eyes as he tried out this thing called flying for the very first time.

And I wouldn't trade that sight, or that memory, for anything in the world.