My dad, a member of “the Greatest Generation,” was passionate about flying before, during, and after World War II. As a result, I spent half my life at airports wishing I had wings of my own. Mom joked that they courted at the Jackson, Mississippi Airport. He was flying in the wild blue yonder and she had her feet firmly planted on the ground.
At each of their sixty-nine anniversary celebrations, Mom told the story of their January 1932 wedding day. Unable to resist a beautiful blue sky, Dad decided to take his best man up for some “loop-de-loops” (360-degree turns). In the middle of one, his shiny unworn wedding band slipped out of his pocket and was forever lost in a dusty cotton field.
Through the years, I had taken numerous flights with Dad in one of the single or double-engine Mooneys or Cessnas his flight club owned, but I never fully understood his love affair with planes until I climbed into the open cockpit of a 1941 Stearman. The bi-wing plane with its oversized engine and taxi cab-yellow fabric skin was identical to the plane he trained in prior to being shipped overseas and I admit to succumbing to nostalgia as I awkwardly climbed aboard. But my mood turned euphoric when I plugged in the same earphones that had served Dad well through his dangerous missions over the “Hump” (Himalayas). Miraculously, the pilot’s voice came through loud and clear.
Flight of Fancy
While pilots in the cockpit of a commercial airliner have a panoramic view, Stearman pilots might as well be seated behind a concrete wall. On the ground, the nose of the plane with its oversized engine points skyward and to make things even more difficult, the pilot sits in the second seat. To ensure he’s heading down the center of the runway rather than off into the grass, he has to fishtail the plane from side to side. From the passenger’s prospective in the front seat, it’s akin to riding in a bumper cars at an amusement park with a daring five-year old driver.
The view once we leveled out in the air, the engine’s steady hum and swoosh of the wind were exhilarating, but the real adrenaline rush came when the pilot turned over the controls to me. Clutching the stick tightly, I was no longer a wannabe winged creature. I was flying! I banked to the right, then left, dropped the nose, then pulled back on the stick to send the Stearman soaring skyward. With a warm wind swirling around me, Lake Allatoona and the city of Acworth below and a sapphire sky overhead, I lived out my fantasy of slipping on wings and flying into the clouds to see my father again.
Dad’s love affair with flight never ended. Losing his pilot’s license at age 80 due to macular degeneration was devastating, but he continued to subscribe to several flying magazines until his death thirteen years later. Although my infatuation with commercial flight died with the advent of long security lines and short narrow seats, my fascination with the Stearmans has just begun. I only wish that Dad could climb aboard a yellow bird with me one last time.