As a child, every time a plane went over our house on base, I looked up to determine what kind of plane it was. I could tell each one by shape, undercarriage and the sound of the engines. I studied World War II posters and books on the history of flight. I was in love and dedicated to the pursuit--from the ground--of my aerial obsession. I suppose that is why I joined Civil Air Patrol at fourteen, so I would be closer to planes, closer to the skies. I wanted to fly.
I did not get much of a chance to fly, spent most of the time drilling and learning about the history of the Air Force and flight. More books. More posters. More planes I could identify from the ground, but I wanted to get into the plane and fly. I finally got a chance.
Our group joined with groups from all over Ohio in a Search and Rescue exercise, a SAR test. I spent most of the time doing paperwork, ground control and chauffeuring other CAP cadets from Toledo around town. I didn't get to fly the first two days of the weekend long exercise. Then Sunday arrived and one of the civilian pilots chose me to ride as spotter in a Cessna single engine. I was in heaven, or at least as close as I was going to get without wings of my own.
The engine thrummed as we taxied to the runway and then we stopped, the engine still humming as the pilot, Mr. Bowers, communicated with the tower. We finally got clearance and the engine whined, the power palpable, held in tight restraint as the prop spun faster and faster. I felt like a missile in a sling about to launch into the wind and carried up into the gray, cloud spattered sky. And then we raced down the runway toward the horizon, the wings catching the wind and suddenly we were airborn and my heart fluttered and soared. I was flying or, rather, we were flying. I was just along for the ride.
Still rising, we broke through the dirty charcoal smudged clouds and into an impossibly blue sky where the sun bathed the backs of the clouds in gold and headed for the far shores beyond the storm-tossed cotton sea below us. I could not stop smiling even when I kept my eyes on the ground, peering through the thinning herd of cumulus streaming by below to find the target that was the whole point of the SAR test. Mr. Bowers and I sighted the objective, but he seemed to be able to read my mind--or my heart--and asked if I'd like to take a little trip. Unable to speak, I nodded and he banked the plane and flew north.
We touched down at a small airfield southeast of Cleveland. Planes of all ages and sizes and colors dotted the grassy field on either side of the runway. A small tower with a red wind sock stood guard over the parked planes and loomed over a small wooden building that turned out to be a restaurant. There weren't many selections--burgers, fries, hot dogs, French fries, chips, sandwiches and cole slaw--but it was intoxicating to sit among pilots who talked of nothing but air speed, ceilings and the various pros and cons of their planes. Sensing I was a novice, the gentlemen pilots offered to show me their babies: tail draggers, single and twin engine Pipers and Cessnas, biplanes and stunt planes. I was with the in crowd and had a back stage pass to climb aboard and touch the fleet flyers I had only seen from the ground as a child.
The afternoon ended far too soon, but Mr. Bowers wanted to make sure I got back to headquarters on time. We got back on time and it wasn't until the end of summer I met Mr. Bowers again--in biology claess. He was my new teacher. He was a tough teacher, but he was also fair, and we had something in common: flying.
When Mr. Bowers asked me to stay after class, I was sure I had flunked an exam or my project was not up to snuff. I was wrong. He had a proposition for me, a class A week-long, class A encampment in Phoenix, Arizona during the summer sponsored by CAP. He asked if I'd like to go and explained I would need a senior advisor's recommendation. He offered the recommendation and it took less than a heartbeat to say yes. My only obstacle was my mother. She did not think girls should be away from their families for so long, not at sixteen. Mr. Bowers must have been convincing and persuasive because when June came around I was on my way to Phoenix.
Just like the class A encampment I had attended the month before at Wright Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio, I spent a lot of time marching, drilling, classes and taking my turn at KP (kitchen patrol). Something was up. I could feel it. I didn't know what it was until the commander of our barracks pulled me aside Thursday night just before taps. I was scheduled for KP at 0600 hours and I was not to attend. I would get to sleep late because I was going to the glider field. I thought it was to watch and found out to my sheer delight I was going to go up in a glider, first with an instructor and then alone. It was the moment I had waited for since I first read the story of Icarus. I was going to fly, but I was smarter than Icarus; I knew better than to fly too close to the sun.
Nervous until the moment I stepped up into the cockpit, my hands stopped shaking and my heart sped up. My smile was a permanent fixture. I listened to the instructor and followed her directions to the letter. The plane towed us to the runway, waited for clearance and then shot up into the hazy blue towing the glider behind him. We kept the rudder straight and followed with a jerk that put us airborn and headed for the red and white cliffs in the desert where the thermals would keep us flying when the cable was released.
The instructor released the cable and we were free. The nose dipped and the instructor brought it back up, leveling the wings and explaining how to judge the warm air rising from the desert floor and how to feel the buoyant lift. I was an eagle, wings spread to catch the thermals, gliding, dipping and soaring high above the ground. Patches of green and deep slashes into the sandy ground slipped past with barely a glance. My eyes were on the sun and the horizon as I worked the currents and then headed back to the airfield.
The cockpit was silent except for the whoosh of winds whispering past. The instructor coached me on the landing. The wheels bounced once and then raced across the macadam slower and slower until we stopped. I didn't want lunch when I climbed out of the cockpit, I wanted to go back up, to fly the desert alone among the eagles and falcons, wings outstretched to catch the winds and hear the silence in the perfect afternoon sky.
I soloed that afternoon, landing while connected to the tower, reluctant to give up the freedom and joy. I finally understood why Icarus flew into the sun. He was drunk on the exhilaration of being beyond gravity's reach, the joy of weightlessness and the pure freedom of the silence and peace found above the earth where the soul reaches toward the stars, to the brig ht golden star at the center of the heavens. It was hard to land the glider, not because I didn't know how, but because I didn't want to come back to earth. To be earthbound after such freedom is difficult. No wonder birds make their nests in trees and among the tall crags of mountains. They want, as I did, to be closer to the skies where a short leap and a strong thermal draft buoys the wings as they reach for the sun.