Note: This is a piece I wrote on March 26, 2013. It's an oldie but one that means a lot to me. I hope you enjoy it.
I grew up around airplanes. As a kid I thought the coolest thing ever was that my dad was a pilot and some of my earliest memories are set in Chino, CA at the Chino airport, inside of my dad's hangar. He flew for his uncle's hotel business but the planes felt like our own since he also cared for them and maintained them. I would often go to work with him and the smell of jet fuel (and the occasional scent of cows from the nearby dairy farms) worked its way into that pool of scents that trigger vivid emotional memory in me. And I like it that way.
When I was younger he would let me "fly the plane" — he would let me sit in the co-pilot's seat and hold onto the yoke while he gently pulled back or pushed forward to keep the plane level and on course. The huge and heavy headset smelled like warm leather and had a hard time staying on my small head. But my dad's voice would crackle through the cups as he spoke with air traffic control, reciting our vessel's identifiers and stating our current altitude and direction.
I once read a book about the history of commercial flight in America called Flying Across America. This story lauded the grandeur and nobility of those first aviators. And when we think about those early symbols used to advertise travel by air we recognize the created persona of a square-jawed man in a suit and cap, ready to face the wild blue yonder and protect his precious human cargo, bringing them safely to their final destination. That gravitas may have lost a good bit of its worth in American culture today, but I've known that wonder and pride in the aviator I grew up with. If ever I thought of my dad as a hero it would certainly be in this form.
Tonight I am on American Airlines flight 2211 flying from DFW to PDX. The S80 we're in feels tired but not rickety like some Airbusses I've ridden in. It's about one in the morning Central time and many of the passengers are asleep, including my wife who is sitting in the window seat next to me. We've passed bright cities with thousands of orange and yellow dots glowing up from the surface, piles of snow on mountaintops, and thick layers of cloud below us. It's fairly peaceful for a change, and perhaps it's just because we're flying at night for the first time in a long time, but the four hours of flight time isn't driving me completely stir crazy.
I've always loathed commercial flight. My dad flew smaller prop and turboprop airplanes and we would often tag along on work trips, taking family vacations while he was transporting his uncle or going to pick someone up in Branson, Sacramento, Moses Lake... we didn't have to worry about security screenings, just how much baggage we stowed. No lines, either. Just climbing aboard the Commander or the Merlin, and settling in for a gentle flight.
People always talk about how they hate small planes. I love them. I don't understand those averse feelings — a larger plane is a lot more weight to fall out of the sky. They're not more or less safe than flying in a small plane. I only recollect one scary instance in a small plane. I must've been eight years old, or maybe ten. And I believe my dad and I were in the Cardinal, a small six-seater plane (including pilot and copilot). I don't remember if anyone else was in the plane, but I was sitting right-seat next to my dad when we hit a pocket of air. It had been a windy afternoon anyway but in this instance I remember seeing the ground out of the front windscreen and a massive bump. But that's it. A lackluster description? Perhaps. But it's been pushed out by so many great memories of flying with my dad.
One of the best parts about regional airports and flying on smaller planes are those great diners that the old flight guys gather at on Saturday mornings. You'll no doubt find an ex-Air Force pilot or two in there, recalling flights they had as younger men. Weathered and kind old men who love seeing a young'n light up when they tell their stories. Over greasy eggs and bacon and bad coffee the young pilots mix with the old, accepting the legacy from the wizened fly boys' stories, and passing them on to their kids. Those places always have the best onion rings, too.
When you step back and think about it, travel by flight is a pretty big deal. We've lived with it for so long and it's become so commonplace that nearly everyone has flown at least once in their lives. And because so many of us don't give it a second thought, I wonder if the excitement and weight that I felt as a child still exists for those who are taking their first voyage aboard a jetliner. I hope so.
Because really, human flight is amazing. For centuries people dreamed of making it happen. da Vinci even tried his hand at a flying machine. It took thousands upon thousands of hours of human thought to finally get it right, to finally create something that would allow men to take to the air and escape their troubles on the ground. And when we think of it that way, it becomes more than just a train ride through the air like the early airlines tried to sell it as. Indeed, it becomes a kind of hope held out to those who need it. It becomes a symbol of overcoming all obstacles. It becomes a penultimate achievement of ingenuity and will. We push off from the unforgiving soil we've lived on for so long, and find new escape, a new adventure, and new courage in the air.
I've flown a lot in my life. I've flown in small planes all over this country. I've taken larger planes to England, to Hungary, to Portugal, and as a small child, to Indonesia. And though I've experienced it so many times, that initial rise of the craft, the kick of the landing gear going up, and the whoosh of our ascent always reminds me of my dad, of a great childhood, of exploring the airport and seeing the project planes with their owners working on them, of airshows and diners...It reminds me of how blessed I am. And it reminds me that I am a traveler at heart.