Six years ago today, I flew an airplane for the first time. It was a SportStar – EV182 to be exact. It was exhilarating! The SportStar, designed by Milan Bristella, was a workhorse of the light sport class of aircraft. Two-seater with low wings and a clear canopy, I imagined myself a modern-day Pappy Boyington, in my Corsair, defending the Pacific from the Japanese invaders. Actually, any comparison to a WW2 fighter stops at the low-wing design. Light sport aircraft are slow, relatively simple aircraft, ideally suited to introduce students to the skies. (Some of them even have their own parachutes!)
Flying an airplane is something I’d always wanted to do but just never got around to. I came close, once. In the Army, I was accepted into a Warrant Officer program for helicopter pilots – and even got to fly a chopper around Fort Leonard Wood (though the actual pilot’s hand never let go of the cyclic, I’m sure). As a military journalist, I volunteered for every assignment that had a chance to get my feet off the ground, even if it simply meant riding along with some general or other on an aerial inspection of the post.
One of my all-time best memories is of the time I got to co-pilot the Goodyear Blimp. It’s a long story, and “co-pilot” is a strong term for sitting in the co-pilot’s seat with my hand on the wheel. Honestly, I was paying more attention to the St. Louis Cardinals baseball game below.
While helicopters and blimps were hardly two years apart, it would be decades later before I finally decided on flight school. I don’t know why. I never stopped wanting to fly. I suppose the opportunity simply didn’t present itself.
It was an opportunity I took advantage of, though. For three years and change, I found a way to fly at least once a week. For an entire summer, we even extended the privilege of flying lessons to our employees, offering Thanks God It’s Fly Day. (I’ll never understand why some preferred to keep their feet on the ground.)
When Milan Bristella’s career-crowning design, dubbed the Bristell, was introduced, I was fortunate to become one of the first pilots in the United States to fly one. My first flight in the new airplane was a cross-country run from Lancaster, PA, to central Florida. As a student pilot with about 18 hours at the time, it was a spectacular two days, including nighttime and bad-weather flying (not to mention crossing the Chesapeake Bay). On that same trip, I got to meet Milan, as Laura and I spent a week demonstrating the airplane and lining up potential buyers.
It’s now been three years and change since I’ve piloted an aircraft. In August, my certificate actually expired.
Technically, I was never medically grounded. There is nothing legally stopping me from getting into the sky tomorrow morning (weather permitting). And now, with the new Pilot’s Bill of Rights the law of the land, I can move past light sport and attain my full private pilot’s license – something the diabetic in me never imagined. But I’m not going to do it. I may never do it again.
Doctors still don’t know precisely what’s wrong with me, or why I can go from walking around the neighborhood for hours to barely standing upright without a wall for support. Nobody can tell me why my body occasionally spasms, or when to expect it. As long as that’s the case, piloting an airplane is a really dumb thing to consider.
I tell people I don’t miss it. Truth is, I don’t really think much about it. I don’t have to. I have a spectacular memory – I can recall virtually every moment I spent in the sky. I can picture my first instructor, John, walking me through my first stall and recovery (I was so enthusiastic I took us from a stall to a dive!). I still remember the look on my second (and regular) instructor Neal’s face when I landed the airplane for the first time unassisted – because his pedals broke in-flight and I had to. I remember the day Neal and I flew over to Capital City Airport so I could get my certificate. I remember my first solo – a simple lap around the airport and a perfect touchdown (a short landing I never could reproduce). I remember Neal and I flying to Cape May to meet Laura for lunch, an interruption of her family vacation, but a really good excuse to take the plane out for a few hours.
And I remember last year’s birthday present from Laura – a Top Gun flight school over the Nevada desert. Her attempt to get me back into the sky that wasn’t meant to be. I spoke with my doctor about it, and while he didn’t say the words “you’re grounded,” he made it clear that it was, in his professional opinion, a really, really bad idea.
OK, I do miss flying. Every day I drive past the little airfield a couple miles from my house, and I imagine, if things had gone according to plan, my own plane sitting there, waiting for me.
Missing it is OK. I miss Yellowstone, too. But I’m not too worked up about that, either. Because I can find it on a map, and I know it’ll be there when I’m ready to go back.