Richard Bach, an avid aviator and writer, once wrote of fear. He had halfway completed flying a loop when his plane for some inexplicable reason instead of completing the maneuver, began falling from the sky. He described the fear that welled up and bubbled forth in the question, “What am I doing here?” Any pilot who is honest with himself has known such a moment. It arrives as an insidious fog that swallows reason and belches forth ravenous monsters.
I had been flying only a few hours when I first encountered that fearsome fog. I had flown alone in an airplane only three or four hours since making my first solo flight when my Flight Instructor, “Bob O’Haver”, said “Next week you’re going to make your first Cross Country flight.” Upon hearing those words Joy and Fear unsheathed their swords in my mind and began fighting for control.
When learning to fly the first several hours are spent flying close to the airport. However, airplanes are made to go from one place to another not aimlessly buzz around their home airport, but until one solves the mystery of flying above the face of the earth where there are no highways or signs your airplane is no more than a toy on the end of a string. Breaking free from that string requires skills which can be acquired only by entering the cave of a dragon and snatching it away. And now it was my turn to enter that cave.
“My cave” was a 70-mile flight across Northwestern Ohio from my home airport to an airport in Van Wert, Ohio. I would have to find my way there and back using only an ancient navigational method called “pilotage.” I would draw a straight line from “airport A to airport B” on an aviation map called a “Sectional” and then find landmarks on the ground that I would be able to recognize while 2,500 above the ground traveling at 110 mph. I carefully and with heavy pencil circled those landmarks on the straight line I had drawn and wrote in bold strokes an estimate of how many minutes it should take me to fly from one to another.
No more than twenty minutes into my flight I learned that those landmarks that looked so clear on the map bore no resemblance to what I was seeing as I looked down from my ever changing vantage point 2,500 feet above them. The fog of fear began seeping up from the floorboards of the cockpit. “Am I lost?” “Is that the river that seemed so prominent on the chart?” “What happens if I don’t find Van Wert?” “I’m going to run out of fuel soon and crash in one of those fields.” The thoughts of sailors in Columbus’ time were now mine; an irrational feeling that I could just “fall off the face of the earth.” And like fog on a damp night, it grew. Five or ten minutes after missing a check point fear demanded action.
Then I saw it! Through my propeller a tiny Ohio town loomed ahead. Most small towns have water towers that have the town’s name painted on them, I thought. My small town upbringing had taught me that. Into the sea of my anxiety fate had thrown me a life preserver. And there it was - standing practically in the middle of town on four legs – the towns water tower. In violation of the regulation that a pilot should never fly lower than 1,000 feet above an inhabited area I swooped down, drew close to that beacon of hope and began circling it. “WHAT?? NO NAME?? Where is this town’s pride!” I circled it again to be sure, but it was true; a town with no name on its water tower.
Now in the seat where my trusted Flight Instructor had taught me to fly, Fear settled in and cinched her seatbelt tightly. I drew the nose up and once again pointed it in the direction my planning had said would take me to Van Wert. Many thousands of shallow breaths and rapid beats of my heart later another small town rose up from the horizon dead ahead. Salvation! It was Van Wert, and there on its westerly edge was a long strip of asphalt with familiar looking buildings lined up alongside it. I had done it! I had completed the outward bound leg of my first solo cross country flight.
I knew now that the return trip would be only a matter of following my flight plan. I landed, tied my plane down in front of the FBO’s (Fixed Base Operator) office and swaggered in with my nose held high. I, by God, was a cross country qualified pilot. But my only audience was a bored-looking desk pilot so I guzzled down a “Coke” and a candy bar and walked back to my airplane much taller and lighter on my feet than I had been when I approached it only an hour or so earlier.
I didn’t know and probably wouldn’t have cared that awaiting me over the next decade were dozens of times when fear would try to win the battle for possession of my mind. Perhaps the time would come when it would win, but that wouldn’t be today. Today . . . I was a pilot.
Don this is one of your best ever stories! Not only was I riveted to the story but equally amazed that you could remember the details so vividly after so many decades. Fantastic!!
As ever, Tom, your nice remarks inspire me. "Memory?" It is true that in one's old age one's short term memory is abominable. ("What did I come into the kitchen for?" "What am I looking into the refrigerator for?"), but memory of long ago things is deeply rooted. I can't always summon it on command but every once in a while it rears up and plays like a movie and I write. Of course in that flying was the greatest passion of my life I have a carload of memories of the 2,000+ hours I spent piloting my airplane.
God has given me many gifts - it appears that a good memory and story telling are two of them. And He also gave me a huge repository of life experiences upon which I can draw. I've soared high above the clouds at the controls of my airplane where, as a long-ago pilot wrote, I "reached out and touched the face of God," and I have descended into the depths of alcoholism where I "reached out and touched the face of Satan." Now in my dotage I view both as gifts from God. The first showed me a glimpse of paradise, the second showed me the power of God's redemptive love. If I had a coat of arms I would have inscribed on it "Ad Deus Per Aspera." Freely translated, "To God, through difficulties."
As always, Dick, your comments uplift and inspire me. Thank you.