I walked to my car the other day among a swirl of leaves. Autumn has snuck up on me again and, as it always does, kicked up a storm of memory, a swirl of images bright as these first brittle leaves, borne along by unseen zephyrs. They lie still for a just a moment, then scatter again. Scatter like the faces of friends now long unseen. Scatter like the years. Scatter and are borne along by forces beyond my understanding.
There is a bright image in my mind as I pile into the car: The runway is falling away behind us, magically. I knew it would but I did not expect it to feel like this. Wonderful. Terrifying. Somewhere inside me, a suspicious organ squirms, reminds that this is not normal. It is 1978 and Bruce is giving me my first lesson in the 150. I look at him and think, Can I do this?
There have been a lot of autumns since then, a lot of faces and a lot of runways. Can I do this? I am still answering that question. Flying is more wonderful every year. No longer terrifying, but challenging, variable, vast. Perhaps, like the poet, I have been allowed this gift: “to slip the surly bonds of Earth and touch the face of God”, but I know He stoops to make it so.
And I stand on the shoulders of better men. As I write this, I feel Larry’s calloused hands banging on my shoulders in the tandem Cub, his laughter ringing through the intercom in genuine delight when (at irregular intervals) I do it right. I hear Bruce, my first instructor — well, the words are gone by now, but the cheerful and reassuring tone echoes still. I think of Bryan, who welcomed me back into flying with his patient instruction and his — now my — wonderful old V-tail. I remember Barry, moving methodically through an examination of my knowledge and skill, yet unable to suppress his love of the craft and his desire to make every pilot better. I hear the friendly and soothing voice of Richard who, after many televised hours of wisdom and humility, seems almost a friend.
Well, my car is at the airport now and soon the runway is falling away behind us again. But it is Jason’s hand on the yoke today, a bright young man with the head and the heart to carry this flame nobly. And it is my voice droning over the intercom, my voice praising and cajoling, my voice that will rattle around in his head for years after his initial training is complete. My hands are in my lap, except to slap his shoulder in celebration of good work and, on occasion, to keep him safe until the measure of his skill approaches the measure of his love.
I suppose that it is my autumn now. Or, let us say, late summer; there is yet some strength in me and, I hope, many more years of work in airplanes and out. But the trend is clear. Like the leaf which has soaked up the spring rains and summered in green vitality, I have received much and I am thankful. It is my turn to collect what I have learned from Bruce and Larry and Bryan and Richard and Barry — and a dozen other personal heroes – and find a way to package it up and give it away. For this treasure, this privilege of flight can only be preserved by passing it on.
A few weeks have passed. The warm, long evenings of late summer have been supplanted by the chill winds and early dusk of late fall. Jason will solo tonight. A few landings together and I shake his hand, tell him he’s ready and step clumsily out of the airplane. He trusts me, knows that I trust him, and so trusts himself. He taxis back toward the end and I wonder what else I should have said.
Too late now; I’m pretty much a soccer mom on the side of this small-town runway, a spectator far from the action, camera around my neck. I look over my shoulder and see that I will have action after all. Half a dozen deer are grazing near the runway, having just slipped from the woods a hundred yards off. I don’t remember the procedure specified in the Airman’s Information Manual; I just run at them like a fool, whooping and waving my clipboard over my head while Jason calmly performs his run-up.
And it strikes me that this is what I love about flying: that God allows His face to be touched by any man or woman willing to reach so far. It is a stretch, it is a risk, it is a gift almost beyond belief. In taking to the sky, we renounce the spirit that says “security first”. We entrust ourselves to our machines, to our skill, to the physics of an orderly but untamed atmosphere. We visit a world that is not our own.
Jason has finished his checklist, takes the runway and barrels ahead. I stand a quarter mile upwind; he hurtles toward me, the roar of the old 172 shifting phase as he approaches, lifts and soars overhead. Jason is a pilot.
I do not often string together three such graceful landings as the student did that night. I’m sure it had more to do with his love of the craft than the quality of his education, but I’m proud to have been there to cheer him on. Proud to have stood alongside that little runway, shivering in the fragrant autumn dusk with my head full of grateful memories, knowing that I have cherished this treasure and this privilege that others handed to me, and that I have served it, too, by handing it along to another.