Sad Sights and Happy Sightings

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The sight was breathtakingly sad. A middle-aged woman wearing a bright red blazer scurried across the tarmac to her waiting NetJets Cessna Encore. I sat on a bench just outside the entrance to our FBO, transfixed, wondering why she was hurrying. I had seen her before.

A few minutes earlier I had watched as she maneuvered a BMW 750Li to the front door of the elegantly appointed building, complete with its attractive ladies behind the counter, fresh baked cookies and Starbucks coffee brewing machine. On the tarmac, I had seen a thin, fit looking, gray-haired man swinging his newspaper, still in its delivery bag, around in an idle way. He radiated impatience. As this woman of a certain age and a certain weight scuttled to her jet, I walked into the linemen's office and said to nobody in particular, "I thought the whole idea of having a private jet at your disposal was that you never had to rush to a plane."

Bruce said, "He was yelling at her." He didn't say that the man was yelling at her to hurry, or that she was dawdling in the ladies room. He let his economy of words carry the load. This woman was terrorized and frightened. Whereas a private jet might seem to you or me to be the height of luxurious extravagance, could it be that to her it was a tubular prison? Rather than a liberating tool of sublime transport, could the confines of the jet be keeping her hostage with no way out?

Disagreements in airplanes aren't unheard of, regardless of the huge impropriety that such behavior represents. I've always thought that the process of jet flight was so remarkable that one should dress for and celebrate the occasion with attractive clothes and good manners. No doubt that separations and reunions are cause for anxiety that might infringe on polite discourse, but there seemed to be nothing but a private jet flight in the cards for the two people I saw get into the beautiful jet.

The worst example of this I've ever witnessed came many years ago. My wife, Cathy, and I had cashed in an enormous number of mileage points and secured a flight on the Concorde from Paris to JFK. This was the trip of a lifetime for us. Each bit of the experience was magnificent. We were herded into a small waiting area where every type of alcoholic beverage imaginable was at our command. Too bad it was 9 a.m. Newspapers and fancy magazines abounded. Our fellow travelers were a subdued and serious looking lot. This was not a fantasy trip for most of them. They rustled their papers with a practiced and bored air.

We were shepherded onto this unexpectedly small airplane. My request to see the cockpit was met with a curt "Non." The seats were comfortable but not opulent. Not that it mattered; we wouldn't be in them for long. We sat down and were offered a pretakeoff glass of champagne. Only my wife and I and a few others took the bait. We were jolted backwards and soon taxiing out. We looked around. A very serious looking man sat just in front of us, reading scientific papers. I later figured out that he was one of the two world famous scientists racing to characterize the AIDS virus. Across the aisle and up one row sat an obviously wealthy couple. The woman, about 60, small, demure and attractive, sat by the window. The massive husband, wearing a very expensive sport coat, loafers with no socks and an enormous gold Rolex, slouched in the aisle seat, muttering.

We took off with a lengthy seat-shaking roar about 10 after nine. We would arrive in New York well before 8:00 the same day. The food was good, not great. The airplane was hot. Those speeds make for a lot of friction. While the scientist read, the rich couple fumed. "You told me to go to Hermès and buy something," she whined. "I didn't tell you to spend that much," he quietly hissed through clenched teeth.

From the coast of France to Long Island they bickered, pushed food around on their plates and seethed. All I could think was, "You guys are fighting at Mach 2. Can't you put a cork in it until you're home in your mansion?" It was ugly and it was unnerving. I just couldn't take my eyes off this pair.

The guilt-huddled lady and the woman hurrying to her Encore made me think of a much more common airport sight: The unrestrained exuberance often seen around airplanes. Not just the excited chatter of a couple on the airlines going off for a weekend vacation, the reunions of friends, family and lovers, the quiet relaxation seen on the face of the homeward-bound businessman after the big presentation is over, but all the happiness I see around general aviation airplanes.

I thought of a recent experience where I dropped into Three Rivers, Michigan, attracted only by the sound of the airport manager's voice and his price for jet-A. It had been a long time since I had the fun of an unassigned night and the chance to let whim dictate my surroundings. Ray Galovich had been friendly on the phone and when I landed at this uncontrolled airport late one summer evening, he was there amidst a pile of construction debris and material. With no reason to hurry and nobody there to meet me, I savored the scene. There were a few hangars, a set of fuel pumps and the airport office, where at least two learning pilots were being briefed or debriefed by patient, earnest looking fight instructors.

I strolled over to a hangar that had several tables set up in it. The tables were decorated with white tablecloths. A bright blue ribbon stretched down the middle of each, like a designer centerline runway stripe. I spied an able-bodied young man carrying a large piece of plywood, which he soon centered on two sawhorses. It seemed that more guests were anticipated than had been originally thought and extra seating was being hastily arranged. I asked an attractive woman about the event. "I'm getting married tomorrow," she said. "We're getting married in the hangar. He was supposed to be helping, but he's still up flying." There was amusement and forgiveness in her voice. She said that, though she had been married before, the groom hadn't, and she thought the evening flight would be good for him. I wished her well, then turned back to the office to thank Ray and pick up a rental car. With no planning, anticipation or design, I'd just swooped down to witness this happy airport scene.

Two weeks later I experienced the best of antidotes for the Concorde and red-jacket blues. My wife and I met John and Martha King at the Torrance, California, airport, ostensibly to hitch a ride in their Falcon 10 to San Diego. The Kings were commuting to Torrance (about 85 nautical miles from their home base) in order to get checked out as trike pilots. Jon Thornburgh and Matt Liknaitsky had spent the week getting the Kings up to speed in these hang gliders cum engines. Though we were supposed to depart Torrance at 11:00 a.m., the exuberance surrounding the newly certified pilots and their teachers was so hard to resist that I was soon watching Cathy don a flight suit and helmet.

After being briefed by Matt, they took off in what looked to be a large kite with a motor and propeller on the back. Large kite indeed; the wingspan was over 30 feet.

A half an hour later, one foolishly grinning reluctant flier was delivered back to earth after having ascended to 3,000 feet and toured the Pacific Coast with the wind on her face. Within a few minutes we were strapped into the Falcon; one machine cruises at 30 knots, the other at 490. The juxtaposition of the two types of aircraft was almost impossible to contemplate without disbelief and a smile.

The Kings went through their practiced and professional preparations as I watched from a sideways facing seat that gave an excellent view of the cockpit. Seconds later we were engaged in a noise abatement takeoff that featured a deck angle of almost 30 degrees nose up and a ferocious sense of speed. We shot up to 11,000 feet, momentarily appreciated the 450-plus knot ground speed and landed 22 minutes after leaving the earth.

As we parted, the irrepressible John said, "Say, would you guys like a ride in our helicopter tomorrow?" We said we would.

A first ride in a helicopter deserves its own separate attention, but suffice it to say that it was exhilarating, exhausting, trying, nonintuitive and beautiful. After Cathy and Martha toured the homes of the wealthy and the Pacific coastline from a thousand feet up, John and I got ourselves situated in the Robinson R22.

We hovered, accelerated and shot off towards the Pacific Ocean. Almost immediately John offered me the controls and seconds after that we were descending at an alarming rate towards a large swimming pool. I could see several bathers very clearly. John snatched the controls back and we agreed that further experimentation would take place over the ocean where my chances of killing several people at once were diminished.

We were soon over the Pacific and I was barely getting the hang of things. John would point out landmarks and sights, but I was too busy trying to stay upright to notice anything but, well, pitch attitude. I do remember the urge to yell some kind of yippee, but I think all I could manage was a lot of "whew."

Later that night, I thought back to the sad sights and the happy ones. I just wish I could put that frightened lady and the arguing couple into the King's helicopter and Matt's trike; or stick them into our airplane and take off, with nothing but weather and whim by which to set our course.