There is nothing
quite as absorbing and completely detached from all other reality as learning
to fly. Hours of flight mingled into feelings rather than facts—times of
excitement, exasperation, sudden perceptions of peace, awareness of the winds
and the sea, the islands, the clouds and the sun. Not only does the physical
operation of the plane—for a beginner—require complete coordination and
constant attention, to the exclusion of all other thoughts, but there is
something in the first experiences of stretching far into that new realm of
flight at the controls of a small plane that relegates all else to
unimportance. I flew at times with my mouth hanging open—altitude, manifold
pressure and rpm figures whirling in my befuddled mind; then, as I made
progress, I took to scowling and muttering to myself when I came in too close
to the trees and wires or dropped with a bang onto the runway from too high. I
was constantly impressed with the amount of rock 'n' roll that Tri-Pacer would
put up with, and also my instructor. Steve is unquestionably the most patient
man I have ever met. He'd sit there without saying a word, a technique he must
have mastered during the war, when he trained and flight-tested almost 3,000
cadets and instructors.
I spent most of
my time between lessons surf-swimming or relaxing on the outside terrace of the
Harborside Inn. Edgartown, without the taint of restoration, is the prettiest
town I have ever seen. On Main Street the old whaling homes with the widow's
walks are each set at an angle, facing the mouth of the harbor, so that the
fishermen's wives of long ago could watch for the ships to return. The roads
are narrow, the sidewalks brick. Everything is white. Window boxes are filled
with flowers, picket fences are rose-laden and scrubbed cleaner than the marble
stoops of Baltimore.
however, more and more became brief interludes between flights. Flying consumed
all my other desires, and as soon as I unstrapped the safety belt I filled the
plane with gas and waited until we could go up again. Even menial tasks, like
wiping grease off the wing or tightening a loose exhaust pipe, seemed
important. To me, this $10,000 flying machine (whose engine no longer roared at
me) had become a very personal thing. My radiotelephone operator's license came
through from Boston, and I found it far more entertaining to communicate with
5overflying pilots, giving weather and wind to incoming flights, than to get
involved in idle cocktail-time chatter among nonflying people. Private pilots,
anxious to encourage students, provided fine companionship, especially since
they seem to be able to retain a reassuring sense of humor about their own
quirks and mistakes.
I never did know
exactly why it was that I thought I ought to fly (and people always ask), but
it was something more than just wanting to. Somehow I had always felt I
belonged in the sky, and I never questioned my decision to try it out until my
fourth day up, when squalls and thunderstorms scrambled over the island. The
air was rough, the wind blew hard and I couldn't do anything right. Until that
moment, I had been constantly amazed at how much I had learned in so short a
time. But this was awful. Finally, as I headed out over the State Forest in the
rain, far off course, Steve did get mad and took over the controls, mumbling
something about no emergency landing field in reach. Later he gave me a chance
to recoup my confidence, but things only grew worse. I came into the field too
low over the water, and so slow and wobbly that in that wind the churning murky
ocean looked as if it were just waiting for me to drop in.
By night I had
blisters on my hands and ached all over from hauling the airplane around. I was
miserable, because I knew what to do and how to do it, and just couldn't.
Suddenly, between theory and fact there loomed a wide abyss, forcing me to face
the possibility that I might once and for all be wrecking that wonderful dream
of mine about flying.
This, too, Steve
later said, is "normal reaction," although it probably wouldn't have
helped any to know it then, and I woke up in the middle of the night from a
nightmare in which I had landed alone, in a blizzard, coming in under all the
wires. Steve was standing there, waiting to take the plane away for good.
Abruptly I realized I was within one or two hours from the time when I should
be making my first solo flight. I put on the light, picked up the Modern
Pilot's Handbook from the nightstand and read two chapters on approaches before
going back to sleep.
happily, vanished with the sunshine next morning and, what's more, I even found
the ground—landing unassisted, as smoothly and simply as if I'd known how to do
it right along. And runways have remained right there where they ought to be
ever since. I was sure Steve had done something, but there he sat, with his
arms folded, sticking both feet up in the air. He often used such antics to
prove a point, and his sense of humor, when not in the British vein, was
startling, since it erupted boisterously at the most unexpected moments. I had
seen him fall flat on his face on the ground when one of his students took off,
and one day when I asked what to do about a radar patrol plane circling the
island, he grabbed the controls, shoved in the throttle and chased it.
got the word," Steve scrawled in the log, and from then on, day by day,
flying became increasingly more fun, and I didn't need any more
"rescuing." For the first time I felt relaxed. I was reaching for those
buttons, knobs and cranks without even looking. And then one day we took off
from the county airport after a coffee break and headed home. It was a
beautiful day, and I was happy. I could see a fleet of fishing boats working
far offshore. There were dozens of other small planes in the sky, and I decided
to follow the beach back instead of the highway I was accustomed to trailing. I
went over a group of picturesque old cottages nestled in the pines.
"Funny," I said to Steve, "I never even noticed those before."
He didn't answer, and I decided he must be in a bad mood today in spite of my
monumental progress. There ahead was a railed bridge over a scallop bay, a big
cathedral—and I had been missing all this, fighting the controls. Next I went
over a large brick school with the flag up out front—oh, oh—there shouldn't be
a town on the beach between the two airports. Certainly not a school!
looks right, does it?" Steve was noncommittal and offered no advice.
I began to circle
around. I had probably overshot the field while I was daydreaming about the
scenery. It was probably right under me. Or right behind me. But it wasn't.