Flight Club 2007

On a warm afternoon late last summer, I stepped onto an airplane, took my seat and put my backpack on the floor in front of me. I wish I could say that the flight attendant closed the door with the satisfying, solid thud-chunk of seven inches of steel and bolts. I wish I could say that I was offered a pleasant beverage. I wish I could say that the reassuring voice of the pilot came over the intercom advising me to fasten my seatbelt. But in fact, the closing of the door, which I did myself, rather reminded me of closing a yogurt container; there was no beverage cart, nor bag of pretzels on this flight, and the pilot, sitting next to me, checking some figures on a laminated card, and quite dashing in his aviator sunglasses, turned to me and said, “Mom. Fasten your seatbelt.” As I fumbled with the clasp, I encountered an interesting thought: Ten years ago, the pilot was nine years old and enjoyed building huts for cats. The license in his jacket pocket had come in the mail about three hours before.

I don’t like to fly. I don’t like loud noises. I don’t like the smell of fuel. I don’t like small, enclosed spaces. Plus, I get motion sick and I’m afraid of heights. That said, like most people, I’ve flown all my life. It’s a heck of a lot faster – and safer, say the statistics – than driving. But getting on an airplane for me involves a complex series of private rituals that involve my boarding pass, airport carpet fibers, the emergency procedure card in the pouch on the seat in front of me, and a particular sequence of thoughts that I must think in an exact order BEFORE the plane begins to move. To reveal more about these rituals would render them powerless on future flights and since they have served me well for over four decades, I decline to do so.

Today, of course, there was no boarding pass – a serious chink in my armor of safety.

Sam put on a giant blue headset, designed to both to dull the noise of the plane and serve as a kind of walkie-talkie device for both passengers and ground control. Then he handed me a set to wear. I put it on. The earpieces fit snug around my ears which I found comforting. A tiny microphone wrapped around to my mouth, touching my lips. This reminded me that I also don’t like germs and spent the next few minutes wondering how many members of the University Flyers Club had had their mouths pressed up to our particular microphones. And what kind of diseases they might have had. And whether those diseases might impede a pilot’s mid-air decision-making. Or consciousness.

The dashboard was a sea of buttons, dials, knobs and switches. Sam pushed something and the propeller began its unimaginable whirl. I pictured the windshield somehow disintegrating and the propeller flying backwards into the cockpit. I took deep, calming breaths as Sam reviewed his checklist. Oil temperature. Oil pressure. Altimeter… Check. Check. Check.

Sam then began an incomprehensible dialogue with a friendly sounding woman who was up on the tower. This conversation involved words like “niner” and “uniform-Mike.” I listened closely and learned that we were “cleared to taxi.” Our tiny Cessna rumbled bumpily down to the eastern edge of the runway to the “run-up area.” Across a chainlink fence, people drove down State Street. In cars. Cars that looked really good. You know, low to the ground.

“OK, Mom, I’m going to run up the engine. To test it. It’s going to get loud,” he said. I nodded cheerfully, clutching my camera, stretching my mouth in what I hoped looked like a calm and cheerful mom-smile. He was right – it got loud, then louder, then almost unbearably loud. Then normal again. It was time.

“You OK,” my son asked, solicitously. “Are you nervous? Do you think you’re going to be sick?”

“I’m fine!” I said. “Really I am. I’m having fun.” And I was so, so proud of my son.

Sam had another inscrutable chat with the lady in the tower and we were cleared for take off. He deftly drove the little plane to the very end the runway which stretched away from us like a rolling river, shimmering slightly in the late afternoon sun. Sam pushed the throttle in. We were off.

I should tell you that I asked for this. Twelve years ago – even before the era of cat-hut construction – I was a single mom struggling to raise my kids on alarmingly few dollars. In order to keep a spirit of fun and adventure in my meager household, I instituted Mystery Trips, in which my blindfolded kids were driven to some unusual, free (or very cheap) destination. One spring day, Sam’s best friend, Jesse, was visiting us along with his mom (and my good friend) Marian. Dinnertime loomed, the kids were restless, and a plan was born. We threw together a picnic, tied scarves around the boys’ heads and threw them into Marian’s old, red Volvo. Then, we drove to the Ann Arbor Airport.

Oh, the mirth, the delight, when the blindfolds came off.

Our local airport is a lovely place – wide spaces and green expanses. Cute, little planes scattered like toys all over the place. If I were much bigger, a giant girl, it’s a place I’d want to play, rolling the planes in and out of the metal hangars, lining them up, then flying them into the clouds while intoning, “RRrrrrrrr!”

While we spread out our sandwiches, chips and spritzers on the grass, the boys gamboled about waving at planes as they took off and landed. Soon, they began a chant: “We want a ride! We want a ride!” Marian and I looked at each other. And a short time later, we were at the counter of Aviation Center plunking down money we needed for bills to buy a 20-minute joy ride.

Our good-natured pilot said there was only room for three, so I stayed on the ground (see reasons listed above). They flew north, searching for our houses, school, Michigan Stadium, and other familiar landmarks. They circled Whitmore Lake and headed back to town. And when Sam emerged from the plane, his future – or at least one aspect of it – was written.

For the next few years, his fascination with planes blossomed. It soon became important that he – and, if possible, every member of his family – be able to identify planes on sight. He had a plane book with which he quizzed us regularly.

“Mom. What kind of plane is this?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s a Lockheed Tristar. What kind of plane is this?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s a Boeing 757. What kind of plane is this?” You get the picture. Videogames were banned in our house, but flight simulators seemed educational and Sam spent hours navigating on the computer.

In 1998, when he was 12 years old, he had his first official lesson – it’s recorded in his logbook – and for the next seven years, Sam flew, and studied, and flew. It was expensive (he paid his first instructor by vacuuming her stairs), it was hard (there were hundreds and hundreds of rules, instrument names and procedures to memorize), and it was, it seemed, everything he wanted. But, to be frank, it scared me silly. Sometimes, frequently, in fact, a typical lesson would involve flying out to the Chelsea Proving Grounds, west of town, getting really high up in the air, and then putting the plane into such a sharp angle that it would stall – on purpose. Time after time, he would relish telling me all about it. “Mom. You want me to know what to do in an emergency, don’t you?” he’d say, in a voice both patient and just a tad challenging. “Yes,” I’d say, weakly. But why not avoid emergencies altogether? I began to question my longstanding ban on videogames.

Earlier in the summer, while our family was vacationing up north on Lake Michigan, Sam stayed in Ann Arbor to fly. His license was so close he could taste it. One night, he called to announce he’d be flying up to the Harbor Springs Airport the next day for his solo cross-country requirement. I hung up and pondered what this meant: that my tender progeny would be spending several hours several miles up in the air alongside wayward birds and unpredictable gusts of wind and potential hail and evil, obscuring, perspective-bamboozling clouds. Again, deep breathing helped. Luckily, the trip was postponed due to weather. It’s greatly comforting that amateur pilots care enough about their mothers not to fly when it’s even remotely dangerous. But then the next day rolled around, calm and cloudless across the entire Great Lakes State.

We drove from Good Hart down to the Harbor Springs Airport – kind of a ranch house with an airstrip in the backyard – and sat down on some couches to wait. On a wall, a radio burst out with garbled jabber from pilots near and far. I wandered outside and watched a well-dressed young couple load their children into a fancy-looking executive jet with a hired pilot. The toddler screamed as they strapped him into his seat. I understood. After checking the sky to the south, I went back inside and leafed through some boring airplane magazines.

Suddenly, the radio came to life. It was Sam! Saying words like “niner” and “uniform-Mike”! We ran outside, and there, in the air, was the boy – a tiny silver dot, bobbling in the gentle breezes, south of Harbor Springs. He glided in for a perfect landing and taxied over for a quick visit. It had been a nice flight, he said. Torch Lake and Elk Lake had been absolutely tropical blue. We fed him a sandwich and only a sip of water, for obvious reasons. Then he refueled and flew back home.

Now, license in hand, his first official passenger by his side, Sam pushed in the throttle.

Faster and faster we rolled, then, gently, the ground slid away from us and the bump of the asphalt eased into smooth flight. I kept my face pressed to the window (but trying not to press too hard, in case the door flew open) and watched how quickly the world, my world, got tiny. The nearby subdivisions west of the airport devolved into a series of geometric shapes: the brown blocks of the houses, the serpentine curves of the roads, and bright rectangles of swimming pools. Looking out further, to the south and beyond, I could see old houses, barns, and long straight dirt roads, reminding me once again that not too long ago, this was farm country.

Sam banked to the right (“Whoaaa!” I yelled, laughing) and we headed north so we could get a good look at downtown, the new Ann Arbor Y, our house, the field where we run our dog. How strange and wonderful to see it all from above. In the distance, the Huron River flashed reflections of the high clouds that in turn reflected the setting sun. We turned west into that sun and followed I-94.

I’ve learned some interesting tidbits about aviation and air traffic control over the course of Sam’s education. I’ve learned that as pilots fly across the country, they move from airspace to airspace, checking in with local air traffic controllers who find them on their radar and keep track of them as they pass through. And as we left Ann Arbor, Sam radioed in to Detroit Metropolitan Airport to let them know who he was, where he was coming from and where he was headed. The guy at Metro welcomed him and confirmed his information. I continued looking out the window, happy that no one could hear the depth and rapidity of my breathing over the roar of the plane. Strangely, I felt most calm looking down, busying my brain by trying to locate landmarks. Every time I looked at the boy to my left, flying this plane, I had to remind myself, “He’s ready for this. They wouldn’t have given him his license if he weren’t ready. He’s studied so long for this and I trust him.” And I did trust him. I had to.

The sun was setting as we made our final approach to the Jackson airport. We passed the field, then turned a sharp 180 degrees to approach it from the west. In a clearing, just before the runway began, a flock of deer stood. Moving as one, they raised their heads and looked up at us. Sam’s landing was perfect.

The Jackson Airport is a study in sixties modernism. There’s a little restaurant there that appears to be unchanged from the day it opened. We got a table by the window and Sam ordered a burger and fries. I didn’t order anything; my mind was on weighty matters. Getting to Jackson was one thing; now we had to fly back. In the dark.

But by this time, I began to notice a strange, new feeling draped over my shoulders like a slowly warming cloak: a blend of acceptance and confidence. Sam was a licensed pilot. He had flown me to Jackson on this beautiful, gentle night. Now, he would fly me home.

It was great up there. The lights of the Chelsea Fair lay like flung jewels on the dark land. The sky was a deep turquoise giving in to black but the headlights of the cars and trucks on 94 far below us pointed the way. From time to time, the voice of a friendly man in Lansing would tell us of air traffic in our area. And we’d look, and there would be a plane, right where he said it would be, a bright dot in the distance.

Ahead, was our town. After a bit of looking, we found the airport beacon, then spotted the runway, clearly marked by colored lights. Sam banked right, then left, to line us up with those lights, then brought us smoothly down. We taxied back, he turned off the plane and we were engulfed in a good and steady silence.

“Nice job, buddy,” I said. He smiled and opened the door.

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