Flying Lessons: Precious Cargo


Being an aunt is not the same thing as being a parent. Aside from some obvious differences, including the level of exhaustion involved, the two roles create very different instincts and perspectives. When my sister Gail's kids were toddlers, she was constantly saying things like: "Watch that corner. Tyler might hit his head on it." I'd look at the perceived threat with a skeptical eye, noting that it would take a nearly impossible combination of missteps and tumbles for Tyler's head and that corner to connect. And then, of course, my nephew would proceed to perform precisely that combination of maneuvers and smack his head within two minutes of Gail exiting the room.

"How do you know this stuff?" I'd ask her.

She'd give me a tired smile.

"Experience," she'd answer.

That same experience is why parents are also more immune to baby-mammal manipulative pleas, pouts and tantrums, and why they tend to keep their cool a little better with the everyday scrapes, breaks and bleeding-cut injuries that come screaming through the kitchen door. Over time, I think they also get more used to the responsibility of having beloved young and trusting lives completely in their hands.

I, on the other hand, don't live with that sense of protective responsibility every day. So it's always a jolt when I step back into the caretaking role. And my awareness of exactly how precious my cargo is, and how great my responsibility for keeping it safe is, never mellows into something casual or rote.

The kids, of course, see things very differently. If my niece Kinana had had her way, we'd have been doing snap rolls in my airplane, 20 feet off the ground, from the time she was 5. Such is the way of the world.

But the truth is, while I've taken all three of my siblings' kids -- Kern, Tyler and Kinana -- flying in my plane, I haven't done it very often. Part of the reason is simple logistics. But my family also suffers from too much information when it comes to flying. They know about every single one of the airplane crashes my friends have been involved in. And because I work in the industry and have spent a lot of time around high-risk pilots, there have been a lot of those accidents over the years. They also know that there is risk in flying even lower-risk small airplanes, statistically more akin to riding a motorcycle than driving a car. Why? Because I've written about it. Hoisted by my own petard, as it were.

But you can't keep kids in a padded cell their whole childhood. And when Kinana and Tyler (now 14 and 15) came out to see me over spring break this year, Kinana said the absolute top thing she wanted to do was to go flying -- that and sea kayaking, to see the otters and seals in Monterey Bay. A short parental conference ensued.

"OK, Harry and I have decided you can take them flying," my sister said with a sigh. "But please not over places where you can't land safely. And," the pause spoke volumes, "be really careful."

Fortunately, California offers lots of pretty safe and easy options when it comes to flying -- especially in the Central Valley. The scenery might not be quite as dramatic there, but the air traffic is light and the landing options are plentiful. No stress.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature saw fit to deliver a very uncharacteristic spell of cold, rainy and windy weather the week the kids were here. It wasn't until their last day that the wind died down and the skies cleared. But that left us only one day for both sea kayaking and flying.

Keep in mind that I live in Palo Alto, which is about halfway between Livermore, where my airplane lives, and Santa Cruz, where the sea otters live. It was a daunting challenge until I realized that we could drive to Livermore, then fly to Watsonville (the closest airport to Santa Cruz), go kayaking, then fly home to Livermore, and still make it to their cousin Kern's jazz-band event that night. It didn't make complete practical sense to do it that way. But sometimes, as they say, the shortest distance between two points isn't a straight line.

Of course, flying to Watsonville would require flying over mountain ridges and the eastern edge of San Jose. Not quite the bunny-slope, low-traffic airspace I had had in mind. And on the first sunny Friday in two weeks, the airspace was more crowded than usual. Kinana was in the co-pilot's seat on the way down, but the radio chatter was nonstop -- as were the traffic warning alerts. The southern approach into San Jose can be like Pinball Alley sometimes, and this was one of those times. I knew Kinana wanted to fly the airplane herself, but there wasn't enough breathing room to teach her while dodging traffic, changing frequencies and watching airspace incursions.

We landed at Watsonville, and I stopped a passing car to ask where Hertz was. The rental car was going to cost me more than $50 for the three or four hours I needed it, but there didn't seem to be a better option.

"Where are you headed?" the driver asked.

When I told him, he said: "Well, heck. I'm the harbormaster at Santa Cruz. I'm headed there now. I'd be happy to take you, if you'd like."

In many parts of the world, I'd hesitate, or simply refuse, to take a ride with a stranger, especially with my niece and nephew involved. But as I've written before, the rules are different within the confines of an airport. The Family of Aviation rules apply, with a level of trust, both ways, that we don't necessarily hold with the rest of the world.

I considered the difficulty of navigating and parking in Santa Cruz on a warm, sunny Friday afternoon (a challenge with which I have more than a little familiarity) and decided to accept the ride. I did, however, explain the Family of Aviation rules to Tyler and Kinana and cautioned them against repeating this move at home.

It turns out that Watsonville, while the closest airport to Santa Cruz, is still 24 miles away. So even as we drove toward the beach, I realized we might have a little more adventure trying to get back than we'd planned. Well, the kids would discover what an adventure was like. If worse came to worst, I'd just suck it up and pay for a taxi. As we made our way into the city, I wondered if this was another one of those "lack of parental instinct" moments. "Would a parent do this?" I asked myself, a little guiltily.

But truth to tell, it worked out beautifully. We were dropped right at the kayak-rental place on the pier, and we had a spectacular three hours of kayaking. We saw otters, seals and sea lions galore -- some even swam right up to our kayaks to check us out. The kids were in heaven and so was I. Three hours later, we made our way back under the pier, through a colony of starfish so big that they looked like creatures from an animated Disney movie.

Back on dry land, I discovered there was a municipal bus that went right past the airport, and the next one was leaving in an hour -- just enough time to get the kids fed and to the bus station, which was walking distance from the pier. True, the bus made about 100 stops between the pier and Watsonville. But it cost us a total of $4.50. Such a deal. Sometimes unplanned adventure can turn out pretty well.

I was feeling rather pleased with myself until we got back to the airport and discovered one tiny but important glitch in my planning. The bus dropped us off within sight of my airplane … but on the wrong side of a not-so-small fence. It was past 6 p.m. on a Friday evening, and all the businesses and FBOs were closed. There were walk-through gates, but I hadn't gotten the code for them, because we'd been chauffeured straight from the flight line. I went door to door and gate to gate with no luck. Time was ticking away, and the sun was dropping lower in the sky. I was contemplating scaling one of the big gates when we discovered that while the tiny walk-through gates were all securely locked, that big drive-through gate was only latched shut. And for the record, I'm completely OK with whatever breach in small-town airport security that represents.

The delay, however, had cost us precious daylight. I was in high-focus gear, getting off the ground and headed back to Livermore. I didn't want to have to explain to my sister how we'd ended up descending through dark ridgelines and landing at night. But as we headed back up the valley toward San Jose, I heard Kinana pipe up from the back seat.

"Wow, look at that sunset!" she said. "That is so cool!" I turned around and saw her snapping pictures of what was truly a stunning explosion of color over the San Francisco Peninsula and Bay.

I guess that's another thing parents (and aunts) struggle with. Squeezed by the demands of protective responsibility and schedules, sometimes we have to be reminded that it's equally important to be in, and appreciate, the moments in between. I took a deep breath and smiled.

"Yeah, it is, isn't it? I answered. "It's one of the things I love best about flying: the sunsets you get to see."

I took her camera and snapped a self-portrait of the three of us in the golden evening light. The radio was quiet. I turned and looked at Tyler.

"Hey, Tyler," I said. "How'd you like to fly for a while?"

Children are precious. Our responsibility to them is great. But part of that responsibility is to give them the confidence to go out into the world and live fully, with a joyful sense of adventure. Which means that, tough as it is, we sometimes need to let go of the instinct to protect them from everything and show them instead what it's like to touch the sky.


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