On the crowded airways of modern flight, the romance of the Lindbergh age seems almost forgotten. Yet despite the prevalence of jets and rocket ships, the small plane still flies, and many men and women are rediscovering in it a dream of youth: the challenging beauty of the skies. What it is like to enter this world as a fledgling pilot is told in this chapter from a new and lyrical book ( Doubleday & Co., $3.95). The photographs were taken especially for this article by W. Eugene Smith.
In the swift and crowded world of the jet and rocket age the small airplane and the huge airliner must still perforce share one immobile fixture of the realm of flight: the airport runway. Great boulevards of concrete or macadam, they sprawl across the earth like ever-lengthening, horizontal monuments to the demands of speed and size, and yet the smallest plane that flies finds home there too. To the modern air traveler who sits encased in cushioned comfort in his 707 or DC-8, runways have little meaning; they are seldom seen and soon forgotten after departure and arrival. The pilot sees them differently: a warm and welcome glow at night, promising home, a tire-streaked haven of safety after cloud and storm, and always the end of a journey.
To the fledgling flyer in particular, as he first takes the controls of a small plane, the runway is a symbol that appears in many changing forms. This is where he leaves the earth on his first uncertain ventures into the unfamiliar air; this is where he returns to it, gratefully, after labors aloft. The experience of flight is a very concentrated one; what happens in the air happens quickly, and this is nowhere more true than in those moments of landing when the pilot, earthward bound on his invisible but usually lively channel of air, reacts with hands, feet, eyes and ears to the many different movements, sights and sounds that characterize that border area between earth and sky.
To me, at the age of 44, the runway is also symbolic of a dream long pursued and never before fulfilled. As a boy, the dream of flying filled my waking and sleeping hours. Sitting on the floor of our living room, inside two chairs which I laid on their backs to simulate a cockpit, I could think myself into the air for hours on end. Always it was the moment of coming back to earth which I savored most: I could feel the perfect three-point landing to which I soared down out of sunlit skies, moving my feet on the imaginary rudder bar, my hands guiding the sawed-off broomstick which controlled imaginary ailerons and elevator on imaginary wings and tail. The dream never lost its power, but with the years the gap between it and reality widened. I did not realize this until I started, at last, to fly. The boy would, I am sure, have found the world of air, despite all his imaginary excursions into it, as new, as strange, as exciting as I did. The man found all this—but he found, too, that the years had brought other factors to intervene between him and the dream: an inescapable sense of responsibility for wife, children, career which had to be fitted into the pros and cons, a natural sense of caution which had matured into acute awareness of risk, a feeling at times that he either should have done this a long time ago or should never have tried it at all.
The risk of flying even the smallest private planes today is minimal; aircraft and engines have been developed to so high a degree of dependability that their failure in the air is virtually unheard of. The pilot who takes proper care of his airplane need never doubt its loyalty, but he should doubt himself. Like the sea, the air is intolerant of carelessness and stupidity, and to a man approaching his middle years, accustomed to the easy exercising of the basic skills of living, his early fumblings in a strange machine and an apparently unstable element can make him feel unsure.
And thus the runway also appears to me as a symbol of doubt of my own self. Swimming around there in the broad vista before my eyes, distant focal point of my fears and my desires in the all-encompassing panorama of earth and sky, it both attracts and repels me, yet lures me always on and down.
I first flew from the runway of the airpark at Katama on Martha's Vineyard, close by the old whaling port of Edgartown. The runway here is grass, and it has been dispatching and receiving airplanes for a quarter century, since the day when a Curtis Robin first landed on it with a crew of airborne picnickers in the 1930s, flying's golden age. Long usage has given the field a worn and friendly look, like that of land which has been tilled for many generations, but its modern function is clearly shown by the runway numbers, indicating the points of the compass toward which each heads, that have been carefully cut into the springy island turf and etched out with bright white sand from the beach nearby. Katama has always been, and still is, primarily a landing field for small airplanes, but airliner-sized craft have landed and taken off there too.
The airplane was a Piper Tri-Pacer, four-place, shiny red and white, brand-new, with the No. N-9013-D painted on its sides. One-three-D for Delta will always have a very special place in my heart. As a vehicle to aspirations, which were cloudy both in the figurative and the literal sense of the word, it was perfect: if ever an airplane was built which could lure a somewhat self-doubting Thomas into the air and keep him there, the Tri-Pacer is the one. Its 160-horsepower engine has more than enough power to overcome the initial fumblings of the neophyte flyer. It has a tricycle landing gear on which it sits level on the ground, giving the student the familiar feeling of being in a car instead of the immediately strange and unsettling tipped-backward sensation of the now outmoded tailwheel gear. Its control wheel and rudder pedals are linked by springs so that the use of either one will generally steer the plane. Finally, it is completely and reassuringly comfortable, with a wide, curved windshield in front, large windows shaded by the broad wing, and seats cushioned with foam rubber, trimmed in happy colors and adjustable frontward and backward to assure maximum ease in reaching and handling the controls. The Tri-Pacer is also inherently stable, will resist efforts to get it into a tailspin and, if forced into one, will come out into a straightforward dive after one and a half turns if the pilot simply lets go of all controls and allows the plane to take care of itself.
All these things I had been told before I first stood on the runway there at Katama and looked at this winged sedan in which I was to take to the skies, but I had yet to appreciate what they would mean to me, the student pilot, when I first ventured aloft. Now, as I climbed into the plane, I looked at the world as I would henceforth see it—the earth-sky world of the flyer. One ends, the other begins, and the runway is the springboard from one to the other; and the sky is never again just the empty sky but a place of winds and clouds and currents, as mysterious and as fascinating as the sea. We ran through the little cockpit chores that are a necessary and anticipatory prelude to every flight, checking engine gauges, fuel supply, magnetos and controls. We ran the engine briefly up to 1,800 rpm and listened to its reassuring roar. Out at the end of the runway we turned in a wide circle and scanned the sky for planes that might be coming in to land. Sky and runway were clear; we trundled out and lined up for the take-off.
Sitting in the airplane that first day, looking the length of Katama's worn brown strip, I found myself at a corner of life where I stood irresolute, not yet compelled to turn. To push the throttle forward was an act like pushing forth from the safety of land for a voyage of unknown duration on uncharted seas—an act at once immensely alluring, challenging, exhilarating, yet touched with desperation too, and irrevocable for me. The engine seemed to shout into my ears; then it pulled, we moved, we rushed ahead, bumped briefly on the earth, and soared.