Kids and Airplanes

I come from a place with one paved road.  It is short and seldom traveled, surrounded by a sea of grass, now baking in the summer sun.  Here and there a wildflower emerges and opens its hopeful face to the sky.  The wind blows over it and, after a few days, it is gone and its place remembers it no more.  It is the way of things, I know, to rise and to descend.

I know it better than most, for this sometimes lonely place is a small town airport and locked inside the faded barns are machines that long to rise.  Even now, it seems to me, they do not sleep but wait.  They wait in shuttered darkness and silence, longing to hear the squawk of an opening hangar door, to be bathed in a suddenly widening blaze of light.  They wait, with magic in their eager wings.

There is a picture in the airport office, a faded snapshot taken years ago from an airplane passing overhead.  The office was in a smaller building then, the runway shorter and unpaved, and dozens of airplanes lined wing to wing stood at ready beside it.  No one is moving, of course, but it somehow seems that the whole scene is alive, waiting for you to look away so it can resume its vibrant activity.

Most days, remembering that picture makes me sad, but not today.  The picture has come to life around me.  It is a warm Saturday morning in May, the fields of Michigan are brown and ready for seed and our airport is alive again.

The Young Eagles program, sponsored by EAA, has introduced thousands of families to the wonderful world of local airports and hundreds of thousands of children to the magic of flight.  Today, it is our turn.

Outside, the small parking lot is full and cars line both sides of the airport drive.  Inside, there is a roar of voices and faces fill every corner of the FBO.  Loving parents have come to give their kids a memory.  Excited children, anxious and maybe a little frightened, work their way through the registration line.  On the ramp, a dozen airplanes of all sizes and shapes stand ready; Jack’s Super Cub, the old V-tail, Cherokees and 172’s and an Apache.  To the side, in static display, an ambulance helicopter, a big corporate twin and a graceful Cirrus.  And people, everywhere.

The members of our airport community are spread throughout the crowd, doing the many things that must be done well to ensure safety and a great time.  A young student pilot helps stage departing aircraft.  A local pilot and school teacher spends the day firing his Bernoulli cannon and performing other aerodynamics experiments for hundreds of people who cycle through his “ground school”.  Pilots wade through the sea of children, calling out numbers and gathering their little brood for the next flight.  Other pilots and family members man the registration tables, take photographs, print certificates and welcome new friends.

It is a day I would like to store in my memory forever, every detail of this joyful crush.  I lost count of the number of times children on their first flight used the words Awesome and Amazing.  I did count the number of flights in which the phrase “look like ants” did not occur.  (One.)  In the end, I do not know who needed this day more, the kids who received this gift or we who gave it, we who know how precious this freedom is and how important it is that we pass it on to our children.

Too soon, the event was over.  The parking lot was nearly empty and the ramp was quiet.  In the blur of activity I did not think to take a picture as I passed over the field, but it would have been a beautiful scene, proving for generations to come that even in this new millennium our little airport has not yet run out of magic.

Technically, an airport launches airplanes into the sky and safely receives them again to earth, but I have seen it do much more than that.  On this day, it launched the imaginations of 150 kids; gave them a new way to see the wonder of creation and, perhaps for the first time, to recognize how small and blessed we are.  It allowed a few dozen people to introduce our neighbors to flight, to plant the little seeds that, in some, will grow up into love.  In a few years this airport will be theirs, and theirs the privilege of teaching and encouraging the next generation, as our mentors encouraged us.

Our airport is not big, not fancy or nearly so busy as it used to be.  It has just one paved road which, as anyone with a map can see, goes nowhere.  And, as kids all over town now know, it goes everywhere.

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