This is that intangible sixth sense which flyers call "the feel of the ground." It is a descriptive phrase and well chosen, for it is indeed the re-establishment of a relationship from one element to the other, the bridging of a gap between the earth and the sky. It cannot be studied, it cannot be taught, it can only be acquired, and the day it is acquired is a red-letter day, one that calls for celebration and song. For suddenly everything seems to come into focus, the relationship is miraculously there, the runway is no longer repelling but an invitation to excellence, and the student knows he need never really fear landings again.
It was at Katama that I experienced this feeling for the first time, and I knew, even at that very moment, that there would never be another flight like this for me, anywhere or anytime. It was a gray, cool day when Steve Gentle, my instructor, waved me out alone for that climactic flight, my solo. Three times he had ridden me around the pattern on this morning, driving me hard, scolding me vehemently for the least mistake. Now I knew why—now it was up to me to go around, all on my own.
It was an appalling, inspiring, unforgettable instant: the short-lived sense of panic, the urgent desire to be somewhere else, far, far away; the sudden determination, the irrevocable act of pushing the throttle forward and taking to the air. I can still see Steve's stocky figure, tiny on the runway, as I rushed past, climbing, soaring. I can still feel that first landing and the inexpressible sense of joy it brought me—a joy that time does not diminish, a sense of accomplishment such as I had never known.
In the months that followed, as I perfected my newfound skills at the Danbury School of Aeronautics in Connecticut's rolling hills, new problems faced me—problems of terrain and wind and air and navigation. Daily I was reaching higher, exploring the wide, wide world of sky above the pattern where clouds sail and the wind blows free. I was also learning the warmth and comradeship of the small airport, the second home of pilots and their planes. But the runway, be it at Dan-bury or at Katama or anywhere else where I may someday land, remains symbolic to me of a world in true balance, in which the moment is all-important and the individual his own king. It is the pilot alone who can bring his plane safely down, and no pilot can get by for long with less than a wholehearted effort and a sound application of the skills which he has so diligently learned. For the runway is the final goal of a pattern of true craftsmanship, of skills acquired without short cuts, without excuses and learned only one way—well.
Through the weeks and months of learning to fly, this is my greatest reward: to touch down at the end of a flight and know and understand, as my wheels kiss solid ground again, what it is like to have held my life in my own hands.