Wednesday, June 23, 2010
No Fear of Flying
By Judy Staber
I had never been up in a small plane before. Sure, I’d often flown on commercial airliners to and from Europe and the West Coast. But I’d never been up in a small plane, just a few hundred feet above the ground. I’d never sat right up front where you could see everything and feel every little gust.
But he had asked me to go with him and he was someone I dearly wanted to get to know better. Someone I wanted to learn to trust, perhaps even, fall in love with.
“It’s going to be a gorgeous day,” he said, “and the trees will be in full fall color. Come with me.”
And so I said, “Yes.”
Secretly I was terrified. I’d always been afraid of heights -- of roller coasters, of speed -- of dying.
We drove out to the little airfield. It was just a long grass strip. Wooden buildings lined the runway: open hangars sheltering brightly-colored, flimsy-looking aircraft, their propellers stilled, their wings spread, spindly legs apart, looking like large still dragonflies.
At the top of a little rise stood four closed hangars. He drove up and parked. Getting out he unlocked the padlock on the hangar’s sliding doors. I watched as he pushed the big doors open.
There it stood. A little snub-nosed plane, not like any other plane I had ever seen. Oh, it did have two wings, and wheels for landing, and a high tail, but there was no propeller on the front, just one up on top behind a large metal box-like thing. It was white with turquoise and maroon stripes. Painted on each side in black was the number N279B.
“This is Two Seven Nine Bravo,” he told me proudly. “She’s a Colonial Skimmer, an early Lake Amphibian. She was built in 1959, the thirty-ninth one ever made. She’s a great little plane.”
“Why is the propeller on the top at the back?” I asked.
“Well, the engine’s on top, and the propeller is attached to the engine so it can land on the water as well as the land.”
He leaned under the plane and pointed at the three-wheeled landing gear, one under each wing and one under the nose.
“These retract in flight, and see how the bottom is shaped like a boat’s hull? It’s very safe, I’ve been flying these planes for years,” he added, as if sensing my uncertainty.
“Oh, I’m not worried,” I smiled, crossing my fingers behind my back.
“Want to help me push her out?” he asked. “Kick that chock away from the right wing wheel. That’s right. Now move in as close as you can to the body and when I pull, push.”
He kicked away the chock in front of the left side wheel. Grabbing the little plane by the nose, he pulled it with ease out onto the pad into the sunshine. He climbed up onto the wing and sitting astride the cabin roof, unsnapped the engine cover to check the oil and the plugs. Closing the cowling, he took a long dowel and measured the amount of gas in the tank. Satisfied, he climbed down.
“Ready?” he grinned.
“Sure,” I said, thinking, “ready as I’ll ever be.”
Unlatching the cockpit door on the right side, he swung it open. “Put your foot on the little step there. That’s it. I’ll help you up.”
I put my foot on the step and, placing a firm hand on my bottom, he boosted me into the plane. I sat down suddenly in the bucket seat and found myself looking at rows of dials and a funny-looking steering wheel. He went around the other side, climbed into the plane and sat down. Reaching across, his arm gently brushing against me, he secured the latch on the door.
“Buckle up,” he smiled, “Don’t worry about those pedals on the floor. Just get comfortable and relax.”
Butterflies began dancing in my stomach as he turned the key and the engine jumped to life. He put his arm up in the air, pulled a lever, and began muttering, touching the dials and reciting what sounded like a mantra — or a prayer. I watched him.
He finished and said, “Not to worry, just running my checklist.”
“Oh,” I said, “I just wondered.”
“If I was nuts?” he grinned. “No, I’m not nuts. Sit back now, we’re going to taxi down to the runway. Take off might be a bit bumpy, it’s just a grass field, but I’ll try to make it smooth because it’s your first time.”
The propeller sprang to life and the little plane moved forward around the hangars and out onto the grassy slope. We moved slowly down the field to the very end, almost to the road. Turning the plane with his foot pedals, he eased her into position, and revved the engine. The butterflies danced a little quicker.
The little plane throbbed to life and moved forward up the runway, faster and faster. He pulled back on his stick and slowly the nose lifted into the air and with a little jump we were up. The butterflies were doing the tango now and I realized that my hands were clenched into fists in my lap, my nails cutting into my palms. He reached over and patted my hand, saying something that I couldn’t hear above the roar of the engine.
“Look down,” he yelled.
I looked out the window and down below saw the treetops and fields receding as we climbed into the sky. I began to feel slightly nauseous. Swallowing hard, and hoping he hadn’t noticed, I looked at him. With a small smile he was concentrating on the dials, moving his feet gently on the pedals. He pointed straight ahead. “The Hudson River’s over there,” he shouted.
Straight ahead was a thin band of low cloud, just above the ground. Looking straight down I saw tiny cars moving along a dark gray ribbon that was a road. Over to the left was a toy farm with white fences surrounding green fields dotted with tiny black and white cows. The woodlands were all oranges, browns, golds and dark green; great swatches of color, like a huge hand-hooked rug.
I touched his arm, “What’s that over there?” I asked, pointing to a castle like building on a hill.
“That’s Olana.” he replied, “and over there, those are the Catskills.”
“It’s unbelievably beautiful.”
“Great isn’t it.”
We flew on in silence, the noise of the little plane’s engine reassuring. The butterflies had flown and I realized I was breathing normally. As we flew over Olana, the plane suddenly bounced for no apparent reason. The butterflies came fluttering back and I looked at him in terror.
“It’s just updraft from the hill down there. Not to worry. Let’s try a water landing on the Hudson. The river looks nice and smooth.”
Conquering queasiness, I just nodded.
Turning the plane towards the south, he slowly flew above the river, gradually descending. Soon, what had looked like a silvery mass now became clearly a body of water with little waves, and along the banks I could see boats tied to jetties, houses, people. As we got lower I could see the people waving. “Gear’s up. Flap’s down,” he said, looking out past me at the wing.
Lower and lower we flew until I could see, over the boat’s nose, all the way down river. All of a sudden, smooth as an iron gliding on silk, the bottom of the plane hit the water with a gentle woosh and I felt a lightness fill my body. Gradually the plane slowed down until we were floating on the river, bobbing up and down.
“God, that was wonderful,” I said.
He shut the engine down and smiled. “Glad you liked it. You haven’t really lived until you’ve experienced a water landing.” We floated around on the river for a while, waving to passing boats, whose passengers were craning their necks at this curious craft.
“Can we do it again?” I asked.
“Sure. We Lake pilots like to say that there are three great things in life: sex, food and water landings — not necessarily in that order.” He smiled slyly at me. I grinned shyly back.
We shot several take offs and landings on the river that day, and then flew back to the little grass strip. The butterflies had gone for good...perhaps they’d left for Mexico a little early. As we gently bumped onto the ground and taxied up to the hangar he patted my knee and asked, “Hungry?”
“Yes, ” I answered.
“Well, let’s get this old girl to bed and go eat.”
Together we pushed Two Seven Nine Bravo into the hangar. He patted the plane on the side and said, as he was to say every time thereafter when I flew with him, “Good Girl.”
As we pulled the hangar doors closed that evening, I looked at the little plane with its black nose and cockpit windows that looked like eyes, and I thought I saw the little plane wink.
I married my pilot nineteen years ago and since then I’ve been around and up in a lot of Lake Amphibians. We have made many wonderful friends all over the world who, like us, are Lake aficionados through the Lake Amphibian Flyers Club. John has been flying and instructing in Lakes since 1965, owning 16 different models over the years, including Skimmer Number Twelve, but he hadn’t owned one for some years. Two Seven Nine Bravo belonged to a friend.
Together we bought a small ranch house with a rather high and wide garage, which turned out to be serendipitous. In 1999, John learned the whereabouts of Skimmer Number One – the very first, the prototype of the Lake Amphibian fleet. A pilot friend had heard she was in many pieces in a grungy warehouse in Ohio. As the unofficial historian of the fleet, John had a good idea where all the early Skimmers were and he was pretty sure that this had to be Number Five or Number One. It was Number One.
To make a long story short, John brought the sad remains home from Cleveland and over the past eleven years, while I was writing my memoir and other stories, in that large garage he put her back together, almost single handedly, and she is now the most beautiful little amphibious airplane you ever saw: Skimmer Number One. Newly painted bright red, creamy white and aqua blue by John and me and some dear friends, she flew again this past May for the first time in more than 20 years. With John in the pilot’s seat and me beside him, we made her first water landing one Sunday morning.
The only butterflies I have now are in our flower garden every summer, and soon, together in Six Five Nine Five Kilo, my pilot and I will be soaring over Columbia County, landing every now and then on a lake or nearby river.
When I’m asked, “Aren’t you afraid to fly?” I say, “Never, not anymore. Well, maybe on a commercial flight.”
“But,” they say, “what about when John flies alone? Don’t you worry?”
“Flying is John’s passion. It’s what he loves and I love him, so if he’s happy, I’m happy. And if we fly together, then we’re happy together.”
Writer Judy Staber lives in Columbia County, New York.