I didn’t think it was such a crazy idea.
My boyfriend’s 17-year-old son, Connor, had been expressing an interest in flying for the past couple of years. I’d promised him I’d take him up one day so he could get a better idea of what it was like, but Connor and his dad lived in New England, and I lived in California, so logistics had been a problem. I’d even gone so far as to check out the rental planes at an airport near where they lived, but I’d been so appalled at the condition of the scant available aircraft there that I’d told Connor we’d figure out a way to get him to California to fly in my plane instead. But between his school and my own travel schedule, the timing never seemed to work.
Finally, feeling a bit guilty about unfulfilled promises, I suggested to Ed (Connor’s dad) that maybe I could take Connor somewhere in the Cheetah during his summer vacation this year — somewhere cool, so he could have a bit of an adventure in the bargain. We floated a couple of ideas before The Big Idea came to me. Why not bring Connor to California on a one-way ticket and fly back via Cheetah? Fly across the continent. It was a goal that made sense, was easy to explain in a single sentence and was big enough to hold appeal for a 17-year-old.
Yet, while flying across the continent was unquestionably a big undertaking in a plane as slow, underpowered and basically equipped as the Cheetah (without an autopilot and in VFR conditions only), I didn’t think it was a crazy idea. After all, I’d done four similar trips in the Cheetah before. I just hadn’t done one recently, because there hadn’t been a reason. Connor provided a reason. We just had to allow six to 12 days and take it one leg at a time. (I set the six-day minimum after discovering, on my previous crossings, that I started to make stupid mistakes if I tried to fly more than two legs, or six hours, a day, since I have to hand-fly every minute. At an average flight-plan speed of 105 knots, that means 3,000 miles equates to at least five days of flying. Since something inevitably goes awry on a trip that long, I count on at least one day of delays.)
It wasn’t until Connor and I were doing our last preflight planning in the Livermore airport terminal, the morning of our departure, that we got our first inkling that others might have another take on our little adventure. As I traced our first two legs for Connor on sectional charts, one of several pilots hanging out in the terminal called over to us.
“I saw you guys loading up out there,” he said, “and I just have to ask: Where are you headed?”
“Well, Oregon today,” I answered, “but eventually Boston.”
“Boston!” he exclaimed, as he and his colleagues dropped their collective jaws. A jabbering of responses followed.
“Wow, wish I could do something like that!”
“In that plane?”
This, mind you, was from a bunch of pilots – people who, in theory, have more freedom to travel far and wide than their wingless brethren on the highways below. It was a reaction we would encounter at many of our stops across the country.
“Boston? In that thing? Whew!”
It wasn’t like we were attempting the trip in something truly insane, like an ultralight trike, or even a light and fragile Piper Cub. A Cheetah may be a bit underpowered, but it is designed to go places. Yet, one of the truths that emerged for the two of us as we made our way across the country was that Americans, as a whole, remain remarkably close to home. The United States may be a huge country, just like Manhattan is a huge city, but even in massive territories or populations, it seems that people tend to live and circulate in smaller and more manageable-size neighborhoods. Including pilots.
It makes sense, of course — for many reasons. The same reasons that accounted for the nine-year lapse in between my own transcontinental adventures. I just hadn’t really considered before that pilots, too, are primarily local and regional travelers. It gave me a new perspective on the makeup of the national pilot community and the usage of the national airspace system.
We may talk about the country, or even the community of pilots, as one big melting-pot family. But I think we’re more like a collection of local bubbles bumping up against each other … or individual villages that are officially part of a bigger and more expansive tribe but that rarely interact with each other beyond the village level. Even in today’s supposedly “global” world.
Connor and I weren’t so much traveling across one big country as we were taking an aerial tour of some of the many different villages within its common borders. We just didn’t realize that at the start.
We collected our flight-planning gear and headed out to the plane. We were not traveling light. Connor, of course, had fit his two changes of clothing into a small day pack. I had a larger and heavier duffel bag with clothes to get me through not only the trip east but a couple of weeks on the East Coast as well. Then there was the tote bag full of sectionals and the three Flight Guides we would be using on our way across the country. The second tote bag was filled with all the cords, antennas, mounts and other equipment for the Garmin 496 and 696 GPS units we were trying out on the trip. There was also a camera bag, my computer bag/briefcase, the box of spare Exxon Elite oil because it’s sometimes hard to find on the road, the tool kit, the airplane care and cleaning supplies, the first aid kit, the airplane cover and my flight bag with headsets, paperwork and other assorted supplies, plus water bottles and snacks.
“This is ri-dic-ulous!” Connor exclaimed as he surveyed the pile of stuff waiting to be loaded into the plane.
It was a phrase I would hear often during the next 10 days. Nevertheless, he gamely helped me find “homes” for all the items in the plane. Once we found a combination that worked, we didn’t mess with it. Each item went in its appointed place, in its appointed order, every time we packed the plane. It just made life easier.
In addition to all that gear, however, there was also Connor himself.
Most of my flying, and all but one of my transcontinental crossings, have been done solo. I didn’t plan it that way; it’s just the way life turned out. Even when I’d flown with friends, we were two adults traveling together. I’d taken my niece and nephews flying a couple of times over the years, but on easy day flights. This was the first time I’d embarked on a major adventure as the adult in a responsible or guardian role. And it was the first time I’d ever attempted to teach anyone else along the way, instead of just immersing myself in my own learning and experience. As the implications of all that began to sink in, I realized that I was … a little late to the party, perhaps … experiencing a rather profound life transition.
You see, I never had children. One of the many consequences of that circumstance was that I never had to grow up in quite the same way that parents do. I remained free to do what I wanted, when I wanted, and to consider my own desires and needs pretty much above all else. One friend once called me “the most unencumbered 40-year-old” he knew. Not that the life I’ve led has been all sunshine and roses, but in a significant sense, I think it kept my perspective young, because I could remain the center of my adventures, choices, experiences and world.
All of us start out with that perspective, as young adults, but most of us move out of it once we get spouses, mortgages and children. Somehow, I’d skipped that stage. But as I got Connor strapped into the plane, I felt something shift inside of me. This trip wasn’t about my experience. It was about our experience together. This teenager, after all, was very likely to be in my life for a long time to come. And I realized that my focus was far more on making the trip a good one for Connor and keeping him safe than it was on any reward, worry or pleasure for myself.
Most “coming of age” or “rite of passage” stories are about teenagers becoming adults. Perhaps this trip would be that kind of journey for Connor. But it would also be something of a rite of passage for me. Just a different age and a different passage: from carefree singlehood to the role of responsible adult and family member.
The route I was following, at least as far as South Dakota, was one I’d flown before. But the landscape this time would be different. Exactly how, I couldn’t know. I still had my fingers crossed that Connor and I could get along for six to 12 days in a row. But even with all the added responsibility, I found myself more excited than concerned about the change. Everything, after all, is a trade-off. And flying solo can get old … in the air, or on the ground. Whatever challenges Connor and I might encounter over the next 3,000 miles, I had the feeling that I was going to have a lot more fun, with him along, than I ever would have on my own.
I started the Cheetah, and we made our way to the end of the runway.
“Ready?” I asked Connor as I did my final checks.
“Ready!” he responded with a grin.
We lifted off … after a longer-than-normal takeoff run … and I turned the Cheetah north. The adventure had begun.