When Flying Was Fun

Lane reminisces about some wild flights of fantasy and fancy that, darn it, underscored the real importance of flying: the fun.

FL0604_FlyingLessons_lane

FL0604_FlyingLessons_lane

I don't remember where the two men came from. I don't even really remember what they looked like. But I remember the question.

The three of us were sitting on barstools at a Key West, Florida, watering hole, making our way through a couple of requisite local margaritas and telling tales of flying and adventure. I'd just finished relating the story of my flight across southern Texas a few days earlier. The air had been cool, the sun had been sparkling, and summer had spilled full-volume across the rolling countryside, making every field a landing spot and every winding river an invitation to explore. And somehow, the combination of all that had drawn me so completely into the moment that I'd managed to let go of the idea of getting somewhere long enough to immerse myself in the journey.

I'd stayed low over the farmland, following rivers, practicing turns about a cow, and meandering only in some vague and general way toward my next intended fuel stop. The result was a glorious morning of play and laughter that still stands among my memories as one of those rare moments of captured perfection that casts its light forward on all the other days that follow.

My companions had flown across Texas, as well, but at much higher altitudes in a twin-engine airplane decked out with autopilot, Garmin moving maps, and all sorts of other whistles and bells. They had, no doubt, had an easier time in their journey. But as they listened to my bubbling tale of curves and circles and hedgerows seen close enough to count, one of them turned to the other and asked in a wistful, nostalgic voice, "Remember that, Bob? Remember when flying was fun?"

Somewhere in their accumulation of speed, performance, avionics and practical transport, these two highly experienced pilots had apparently lost touch with the spark that had drawn them to the sky in the first place. My heart ached, watching their wistful eyes and hearing their remembered tales of the laughter and passion that had once infused their flights and lives. And yet, their tale is far from rare. There have even been times when I've suffered from a touch of the malady myself.

Few of us learn to fly in order to get anywhere. It's the act itself that inspires; the ability to leave earth and know, for a few precious moments, that intoxicating mixture of movement, freedom, wind and sky. But not long after tucking that hard-won freedom carefully into our wallets, the temptations of speed, maps, gizmos and utility begin to whisper in our ears. If we don't have those thoughts ourselves, others soon urge them upon us. If only we had more speed. Another rating. Another engine. Another instrument. How much safer and more practical our flying could be! How many more places we could go!

The voices mean well. And yet, if we give in to them, we may wake up one day and find that we've traded fun for accomplished satisfaction, and spend so much time focused on getting there that we've forgotten how delightful the ride used to be.

I've had more than my share of fun in the sky. But when I think back on the times and memories I cherish most, few of them were in airplanes-or on flight plans-that would qualify as either practical or efficient.

There was, for example, a memorable trip home from Oshkosh in my old Cessna 120 one year. My friend Jim and I forsook the better winds up high and flew across the broad fields of Wisconsin at 80 miles an hour, only a few hundred feet above the ground. If the engine had quit, we simply would've landed in a field straight ahead. But I now don't need to fly with Aladdin. For I know what a magic carpet ride would feel like-perched just above the earth, sailing effortlessly past hills and trees and fields of green and gold. It took us a lot longer to get home that way, throttled back and flying low. But when we finally arrived, it had still ended too soon, and I found myself wishing we could go back and do it all over again.

Or there was the time that my friend Kimberly and I flew down the coast of California in her Luscombe-an immaculate piece of artwork that she and her husband had restored to a gleaming, polished shine. It was the sort of plane one wiped one's feet before entering, and cleaned the bugs off carefully after each and every flight. It flew ridiculously slowly, of course, so we thought we'd bring lunch along with us rather than making another stop for food along the way.

As we meandered our way past the stunning cliffs of Big Sur, munching happily on deli sandwiches and Frito corn chips, Kimberly decided she wanted to take a picture. I took the stick, mouth full of turkey sandwich and Frito bag still in my left hand, as she opened the window and leaned her elbow out into the slipstream, creating an interesting lesson in aerodynamics that neither one of us will ever forget. I could figure out the specifics if I really wanted to, but the bottom line was that the window and elbow combination somehow changed the airflow through the cockpit into a whirlwind of sharply reduced pressure. I know this, you see, because every single last Frito corn chip suddenly departed the bag in my hand, swirling around the air above the bag in stunning cyclonic form. Mouth full of sandwich and hands full of bag and control stick, I could only watch, half laughing, half mortified, as the chips danced all around the cockpit air.

I finally nudged Kimberly hard enough that she pulled her arm and head back in the cockpit-just in time to watch the chips, released from the whirlwind, fall helplessly into pieces all around us. And I do mean ALL around us. Kimberly's husband was cleaning corn chip pieces out from corners and under the varnished flooring of his pride and joy for a year. But as we made our way down the coast of California, hunting down stray corn chips all the way, Kimberly and I simply giggled, snickered and laughed about it all until we cried.

I've had snacks and sandwiches in many a faster plane since then, from Bonanzas and Barons to private business jets. Those meals all were much neater and easier, and certainly less fraught with aerodynamic surprises. But none were quite as memorable or fun.

Which is not to say a plane has to be slow to be fun. Right up there at the top of my all-time favorite fun flights is a ride I got in a plane nobody would ever accuse of being slow or pokey-a twin-engine Lockheed P-38J "Lightning" fighter from World War II. Of course, nobody would ever accuse a P-38 of being practical, either. But that's my point. And yes, I know. Life's rough. But sometimes, it's just a matter of being in the right place, with the right height, at the right time. I was at The Air Museum "Planes of Fame" in Chino, California, where I used to spend a little bit of time, as Jimmy Buffett would say, and I had to get to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Coincidentally, the museum was about to ferry its P-38 along that same route. If I was willing and able to fit in the space behind the pilot, he said he'd take me along.

The P-38 doesn't actually have a back seat, but the museum had attached a military-style seat belt to the top of the wing, which cut through the cockpit about waist-height, just behind the pilot's seat. I'm only 5'4", and it was cramped even for me. But for the chance to fly halfway across the country in a P-38, a little discomfort seemed like an okay trade. Besides, my seat gave me an unrestricted view of the world above the wings.

We overnighted in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and then had to divert well into Texas to avoid lines of summer thunderstorms stretching north to south across the country. Even so, there were still scattered build-ups of cumulus clouds between us and our destination as we turned north. But a P-38 maneuvers with almost effortless grace and power, and we were able to thread our way easily, at something over 250 knots, around the white, puffy columns that still towered above us, even at 12,500 feet. And as we flew through a valley of clouds and banked sharply toward the next open spot of blue, the combination of our graceful movement and the beauty of this unearthly world brought my heart rushing out of me in unrestrained glee. Laughing, I clicked the intercom button.

"WHEEEEE!!!!" I squealed into the ears of the pilot. He turned, grinning in surprise at my response.

"Haven't you ever done this before?" he asked.

"NOT LIKE THIS!!" I shouted back in delight.

The pilot nodded, still grinning, and began banking the airplane more sharply around the different cloud formations. For 15 minutes we cut and turned through this Monument Valley of the sky-free, powerful, graceful and alive. I shrieked, whooped, laughed and thought my heart would stop from the overwhelming beauty and power of the movement and the moment. We came out into clear blue sky and he rolled the airplane wing over wing, my world turning blue to green to blue again in smooth and fluid motion. I thought I'd break with intensity of sensation if we went on any longer, and yet I didn't ever want the feeling to end.

"If I die right now," I remember thinking, "at least I will have known what it is to be alive."

We landed two hours later, but I was high for a week. In truth, I'm not sure I ever really came all the way back down to earth again.

There's nothing practical about a P-38, a Luscombe, a Cessna 120, or even a lowly little Grumman Cheetah turning circles over a summer Texas landscape. If you want practical, get an instrument rating and a Baron. But sometimes, when I find myself wondering if I should get a faster airplane, or even find myself spending too much time flying GPS direct at 7,500 feet to catch the best winds and give myself the safest, most practical options, I think back to that night in Key West. And I ask myself when I last had one of those flights that spilled over with fun, laughter, and joy.

If it's been too long, I know I need to go out and fly low to nowhere for a while, or drag Kimberly out in the Luscombe again, or find a friend willing to take me along in a biplane, trike or Piper Cub. Just to make sure I never lose sight of why it really is that I put up with the insurance, maintenance, weather concerns and all the other burdensome hassles that come with owning and flying a small airplane. And because I never want to have to look at a friend and ask wistfully if she remembers those long-lost, impractical, good old days … back when flying was fun.