One of the gloomy realities that came with my retirement was the economic necessity to give up my beloved little red airplane. Most people knew her (Like ships, all airplanes are of the feminine persuasion) as an AA1A Grumman Trainer - Not me. Once I got to know her and understood her personality I always thought of her as “Little Red.” Although my intellect knew she was the work of human hands with no God-give soul my heart saw her as a beautiful creation that was in many ways a part of me. She was a companion with whom I had enjoyed many cherished moments.
But can a man truly love a “thing” that has no soul? The logician would scoff and say “Absolutely not.” The idealist, with eyes that see beyond logic, would respond “Of course.” To satisfy the logicians, those realists who demand cold, hard, facts I must admit that if such love were dissected on a lexicographic autopsy table we would probably find it is not the creation we love so much as it is what that creation means to us. Whatever the case, the feelings I had for that little red airplane were so strong that when it came time to sell her I asked my pilot son “Nate” to give the prospective buyer the “tryout ride” and handle all the paperwork. It would have broken my heart to see her fly off under the hands of another pilot - never to be seen by me again.
Frank Sinatra in one of his later songs insisted that “Love is lovelier the second time around.” That may have been true for “Ol’ Blue Eyes,” with his history of serial marriages but my love for “Little Red” was only different, not lovelier, than the love I had for “The Blue Feather,” my first airplane. Parents of more than one child will understand how that works. But I would never have willingly agreed to pay what “Little Red” cost in anguish, stress, and worry.
She came into my life as a consequence of a nightmare-become-reality. It began as many nightmares do as a nice dream instigated when our youngest son Nathan decided to major in Aviation Technology. He would be required to spend hundreds of hours refining his skills as a pilot. We could either throw thousands of dollars down a rent-rat-hole to use the university’s airplanes or buy an airplane for him to take to college. By this time both of us were passionate pilots; owning an airplane seemed more reasonable. Nate and I had read all sorts of books about flying. Among those was one by Richard Bach called “Nothing By Chance.” As the title suggests Bach argues that nothing in life happens by chance, that we “call” what comes to us by the ideas we hold and the actions we take.
Bach tells of a time when a blue feather came to a young man as a result of his envisioning a blue feather for some length of time. It is a rather “New-Age-y,” kind of philosophy which I do not buy into. But some time later a strange coincidence (or was it?) happened. Nathan met a young man who wanted to sell his airplane but had not yet advertised the fact anywhere. Nate expressed his interest. When the young man opened the hangar door to show his airplane and Nate saw it - “It was all over.” There in front of his eyes sat a sexy little airplane; resplendent, enticing, wearing a striking blue coat of paint and begging to be flown. It was love at first sight and when Nate brought me to look at her I also fell immediately under her thrall. We would buy her. We had been holding the idea of an airplane in our mind for several weeks and she had come to us. This was our “Blue Feather.”
That immediately became her name. She was the plane Nate would take to college and the plane we would share for many years after he completed college. She was a temptress with a look reminiscent of a WWII fighter airplane. In the sky she would “coo in our ear” one moment and in the next bare her teeth, snarl, and make us wish we hadn’t suggested that she do something she wasn’t cut out to do. But all the while she seemed to dare us to push her limits. In short she was a femme fatale; a mysterious and seductive temptress whose charms ensnared us; often leading us into compromising, dangerous, and potentially deadly situations.
The Blue Feather – a 1971 AA1 American Yankee
Ironically it was that very quality that led to her ruin and to the nightmare that began for Nate, his Mother and I in December, 1993.
At that time Nate was a pilot for Skywest Airlines and lived in Palm Springs CA. As a grand adventure for myself I had flown the “Blue Feather” from St. Louis to Palm Springs earlier that fall. In the spirit of being “a good dad” I left her with him to “play with” over the winter. I would return for her after the cold Midwestern winter had passed.
Nate was 20 years old; full of youthful invincibility and derring-do. Those qualities when mixed with those of our “Blue Feather” waited only for the right opportunity for catastrophe to strike. It came one afternoon in late December, 1993 when Nate and a fellow young pilot decided to go play “Star Wars” with the “Blue Feather.” Dropping down into the canyons of the Santa Rosa Mountains near Palm Springs and seeing their walls hurtling alongside them was great fun - until they found themselves in a situation with canyon walls on both sides and a rapidly rising mountain slope in front of them and no way to avoid either. The end was inevitable.
Fortunately both Nate and his friend survived the crash. The friend was minimally injured but Nate suffered a crushed vertebra that left him paraplegic. While his friend hiked back to civilization for help Nate lay alone on the mountainside throughout the night unable to move from the waist down. After a year-long convalescence he, by the grace of God, two talented and dedicated physical therapists, and gut-grinding hard work on his part, one year to the day after his accident Nate stepped into the cockpit of a SkyWest airplane and resumed his job. A doctor had told him he would never walk again.
“The Blue Feather,” however, would never again tempt another pilot; would never again taste the sky.
The Blue Feather’s Final Resting Place – Martinez Canyon CA
Many weeks later, after Nate’s returning to work and my receiving an insurance settlement, I was surfing the Internet when I discovered a brilliantly bright red airplane for sale in the State of NY. It was similar, but not identical to “The Blue Feather.” The American Aviation Co. of Cleveland, Ohio had built the “Blue Feather” and her sisters to be airplanes for teaching people how to fly. For various reasons they turned out to be more “challenging” airplanes than most instructor’s wanted. Some flight instructors said they were downright dangerous to fly. The company’s business lagged. To survive they made an esoteric modification to the airplane's wing which took most of the “snarl” out of her. In an attempt to shake the stigma that lay upon them they gave their “new” plane a different name. Instead of calling it an “AA1 American Yankee” they dubbed it an “AA1A Trainer.”
AA1A Grumman/American Trainer
The New York pilot and I negotiated. We settled on a price based upon his delivering her to Missouri where a “neutral” mechanic, one known to neither of us would thoroughly inspect her. The inspection did not go well. The mechanic found a critical problem with the engine’s camshaft. As an FAA certified mechanic he had no choice but to declare the airplane “Unairworthy.” It could not legally be flown in its present condition.
Part of me felt sorry for the seller – another part saw a Machiavellian opportunity. We re-negotiated a price that would subsidize a complete engine overhaul for her. But I wanted “Larry,” my mechanic, to do the overhaul. His shop, however, was 90 miles south of where “my new girl’ now sat legally unflyable. I was faced with an appalling dilemma. Either use a mechanic whose work I knew nothing about or. . . take a terrible chance and fly her to my mechanic.
If the engine quit during that flight I would be liable for whatever damages were caused. My insurance would not cover an illegal flight so I would lose my entire investment and the FAA would in all probability revoke my license. Despite the illegality and risk of what I was doing I decided to take her to “Larry.” I believed then and still do that it wasn’t quite as risky as it sounds. After all she had flown from New York to St. Louis with no problems I rationalized. So - feeling rather breathless and after whispering a prayer for mercy I took her into the sky. About 45 minutes later I took my first full breath upon seeing my home airport within landing distance.
Following the overhaul she was in pristine condition. Because I had loved “The Blue Feather” so dearly I changed “Little Red’s” FAA registration number to “36LY.” (The Blue Feather’s number had been 6236L (6236 Lima) and her manufacturer had called her a “Yankee.”) Now every time I gave my radio call sign “36 Lima Yankee,” I was memorializing my first love.
After I retired, “Little Red” and I shared the clouds and the skies over Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas for a few wonderful years. Although not as beguilingly “witchy” as the “Yankee” had been, she was still a delight to fly - much more responsive, alive, and fun to fly than her Cessna/Piper counterparts. When it became painfully obvious that my income was too meager to maintain a “mistress,” as my wife called her, I hung a “For Sale” sign on her propeller. So attractive a “lass” was she that within a month a suitor was courting her with cash in hand. Nate mercifully took over the sale while I put a large band-aid on my heart, closed a chapter in my life, and let her go.
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Another spell binder, Don. It must be something about the thin air above the clouds that coats your lungs with poetry and passion. When Delta Airlines ?? once advertised, "We love to fly, and it shows", you knew exactly what they were talking about. Another very enjoyable story!
Thanks for sharing my experience, Dick. During my recent 80th birthday bash when Nate was taking family members up for "rides" one of them was our grandson's fiancee'. Her first time in a small airplane. She came up to me after they landed saying, "I can see why you love it." Not all, but a significant number of pilots succumb to the "cloud dust." Very few will write about it and even fewer will even talk about it. It's an intensely personal passion. Most pilots who do write about their love can't do so without becoming poetic.
Geez Don. Do you sleep at night? Your dreams must be really something. Great story. Makes me want to fly again!
Thanks for sharing with me, Tom. I loved flying SO passionately. I don't think there is any human endeavor that gives a person more opportunity for developing self-confidence combined with appropriate humility and appreciation for the goodness of God than piloting an airplane. I miss those days every day. I wish I COULD dream about them at night but I never do. So re-live them by sharing them with my writing. I love it when people grasp some of the emotions I felt while piloting.