Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Just the Way He Dreamed It

Here's another of my favorite articles. I got thinking about it after re-reading the Star Wars article earlier, and spent forty minutes looking for it. I'm posting it here so I don't have to go looking for it again....

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AOPA Pilot
June 2005 Volume 48 / Number 6

Just the Way He Dreamed It
Offering the flight of a lifetime

I'm not too thrilled about taking strangers up for joy rides. The liability thing worries me. Sure, I've got insurance but a million dollars isn't enough these days, and that's all I could get. I'm an airplane owner so I'm supposed to be rich, right? They'd sue me into the Stone Age. So why did I take him up?

In the first place, he looked a little seedy, and I didn't know quite what to think about that. He was wearing construction boots, heavily weathered jeans, and a blue work shirt that apparently had seen some pretty laborious duty. His shirt was partially unbuttoned, revealing a T-shirt with a pair of crossed red bars with white stars in them. His fingernails were caked with black grease, or whatever, all around the edges. A ball cap topped a thick crop of shaggy jet-black hair. His neck was as red as the clay in the cotton fields here in Alabama, and the lower part of his face was covered with week-old stubble. Not to say that the pilots on this private airfield deck out in Armani and Gucci, but it was clear that this lad was a fish out of water here (see "Welcome to Moontown," May Pilot). Anyway, as far as I was concerned, he was just another passer-by who stopped to watch the airplanes.

I was fueling my Yakovlev Yak-52, Stack Doll, when he parked his truck and got out. I noticed him over there, hands in pockets, eyes riveted on the Yak, but I didn't give him much thought. Local people came here all the time to watch the airplanes but few ventured beyond the parking lot — not that anyone would have objected. I guess it's the feeling of not belonging that made them keep their distance. But then the guy approached.

"Y'all mind if I look at it?" he asked delicately, almost reverently. His voice was deep, slow, and very backwoodsy. He looked to be 25 to 30 years old.

"No," I said. "Go ahead."

He walked slowly around the Yak while I went into the office and settled up the gas bill. When I came out he asked, "What kind of airplane is it?"

I explained that it was from Russia, although it was actually built during the Soviet era and was used to train military pilots. He looked at me with a blank expression that made me wonder if he knew the terms ascribed to our former Cold War adversaries. He asked if it was mine. "Half of it," I cracked, loudly enough for the pilots sitting on the FBO benches to hear. "I own the back half. George, over there, owns the front half — that's the half that has all the moving parts." A round of chuckles and counter wisecracks issued from the bench, but the young countryman didn't smile. I wondered if he had gotten the joke.

"You mind if my wife and kids look at it?" he asked.

I looked in the direction he pointed and saw a young woman and two small kids standing in front of the stilted pickup with fat mud tires and — sure enough — a gun rack. "Sure," I said. He beckoned them over. The woman's face broke into a toothy grin and she ushered the children onto the ramp. The guy picked up his son and drew close to the Yak, telling him, "There it is, Connor. Look. There it is!" The mother took the daughter by the hand, bent over, and whispered something similar to the gawking girl.

The man then moved back in my direction. He said, "We live over yonder." He pointed to a distant mountain, visible from the field. "We been watching y'all." I nodded, wondering if I was about to be lambasted about airplane noise. That area was a favorite site for our aerobatics. He put the boy down and looked squarely at me. "I sit on my front steps every Sar'd'y mornin'. I watch y'all up there doin' flips and tips and loop-ti-loops and chasin' each other around, and all."

"I hope we don't disturb you," I said.

"Naw!" he drawled. "No way! I love to watch you. I look fow'rd to it. I hope for clear sky every Sar'd'y, 'cause I know y'all gonna be up there." That made me feel pretty good, but after answering a few more questions I got uneasy with him. I was afraid he would ask for a ride. I strolled over toward the bench where my flying buddies were hanging out. I wasn't comfortable with it — the lawsuit thing, you know. What if something happened?

But I was by no means through flying for the day. That oh-so-perfect Saturday was yet young and I was waiting for my old ex-fighter pilot buddy, Gordy, to get his Yak out so we could fly some formation. I'm always irked over Gordy's propensity to sit around drinking coffee and telling flying stories too long before he gets up, goes to his hangar, and drags his Yak out. And it takes him forever to preflight it. It's like he enjoys preflighting it, or something; I don't know. He's one of those guys who just savors airport time, as though standing around talking or working on the airplanes was as good as flying them.

While listening to Gordy argue with George over some tidbit of aviation wisdom, I kept looking back over my shoulder at the family, who was still eyeing Stack Doll. The guy looked my way and stepped over.

"What, uh...." His voice trailed off. He scratched his head and looked away. I knew it was coming. "What would it take to...maybe...I know, can I ride it?" The conversation on the benches died out and heads swiveled toward me. They were all grinning. They wanted to see him take the ride. I knew I was trapped. I had to do it. There was no way I could turn this humble country boy down.

"Let's go," I said. His eyes widened into dinner plates. He looked at his wife and his lips moved but no sound came out. He must have been afraid I would rescind my offer if he was too loud about it. His finger pointed up. She cringed and covered her mouth with her hands. She pulled the kids away.

I climbed up and pulled a parachute out of the rear cockpit and handed it down to him, saying, "Try this on for size." He grabbed it and wanted to know what it was.

When I told him what it was he yelled out to the woman and then the son. "It's a parachute! I gotta wear a parachute! Hear that, Connor? I'm wearin' a parachute!" I helped him into the rig and up onto the wing and into the rear pit. I strapped him in and briefed him on the harness quick release, the chute, the intercom system, the canopy operation, and the sick sack. Then I got in the front pit, strapped in, and started the engine. Suddenly it occurred to me that I didn't even know the guy's name. I asked him over the intercom.

That made me think again about how foolish this was. The liability thing is enormously important. I don't mean to say that I never carry passengers, just that I don't like carrying strangers. Sure, a close friend could sue you just as easily as any stranger — and that close friend's family probably would, if you caused his incapacitation or death. But it's an issue of degree, as I had always explained to my flying buddies. Reducing your exposure — that was the name of the game. Yeah, taking this strange dude aloft was absurd, but I couldn't turn him down. He just had a hungry look — hungry for something. I didn't know what.

We took off. I gave him a max-performance climb — the Yak goes up like a rocket, although I don't like to do that every time. A loss of power while you're hanging on the prop could be too interesting. I leveled off and headed straight for the mountain and found his trailer in short order. I climbed over it to a safe altitude and did a nice 1-G roll. He didn't even depress the intercom button, but I could hear him yell above the rumble of the engine as the green Earth lazily rotated over the top of the canopy and slid back underneath us again. I turned back over the trailer, and did a slow roll, making him go light in the harness. Then I did a snap roll. After that I got a little more altitude, carefully keeping the trailer underneath us, and picked up some speed.

I pulled up and climbed straight into the sun and arched over into the inverted position. I released back-pressure at the top of the loop to get that exalted floating feeling, when you feel you're just suspended inverted at the top of the world. Then I let the nose fall through and eased into a 4-G pull. As we pulled through the bottom of the loop I let the nose come up and did a quick double aileron roll. After the Earth and the sun concluded a wild tail chase with each other around the airplane, I heard him press the intercom button and yell, "This is just the way I dreamed it would be! Just the way! Just the way!"

I must admit, I choked up. Right there in the front pit of the Yak my eyes started watering. I knew this flight was something special.

We did a few more maneuvers and then I took him down the runway for a flyby. I saw his wife and kids standing beside the grass strip. Some of the local pilots had escorted them out there. I pulled up into a soaring pop-up climb to the downwind and brought Stack Doll around for grassy plop-down. I taxied up and shut down the big radial and helped him down and out of the parachute.

He was at a loss for words. He looked at me but simply couldn't speak. His bottom lip was kind of wrinkled. Finally with some difficulty he spoke softly, repeating what he had said when we completed the loop and double roll. "It was everything I dreamed it would be."

He reached for his wallet and wanted to know how much he owed me. I would hear nothing of it. I would just as soon die a slow torturous death listening to Gordy's stories than take that lad's money. He thanked me generously and headed for his truck.

I watched them drive away. I would never see them again. I thought about all the flying I had done over the years. I had flown fighters and transports. I had been a forestry pilot and an airline captain. I had carried at least a million passengers and thousands of tons of cargo. But this had to have been one of the most gratifying flights I had ever made. To give a man his dream must be the next best thing to giving him his soul.

But I definitely didn't have enough liability coverage for the soul thing.


Alan Cockrell of Owens Cross Roads, Alabama, owns and flies a Yak-52.


Blogger Unknown said...

I read it a few times before, but it is like a new story every time I read it again!

9:44 AM  

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