Milestones, benchmarks, birthdays – measurements of where we are in our lives. Since 2007 I have driven an hour and a half to Zellwood, Florida to visit my plane at Kimball’s restoration shop at least once a month. The first few years my plane was just parts stuffed in a shed, and a frame hanging from the rafters. But slowly, gradually, the parts came onto the shop floor and into each other and became Sarah’s project. On my forty-ninth birthday I drove once again to visit my project. I was hoping to see it with the propellor on and my project looking almost like a plane, and almost ready for me to fly. As I turned the corner at the edge of Kimball’s runway I stopped the car. I saw my beautiful Speedmail parked on the grass, out of the hangar, and covered in sunlight. That day, my project become a plane. I stayed at the end of the runway in my car for minutes, looking and saying over and over, “I cant believe this…I’ve never seen my plane out of the hangar, my plane is out of the hangar.” I hadn’t expected that surprise or even let myself prepare for it, or dream of what it would feel like when the years of restoration were over, and it was finally my plane. Mine to start, and mine to fly, and mine to keep – finally. When I pulled up next to the hangar I just left the car running and the door open and I stood there on the edge of the ramp, afraid to walk up or get too close. Everyone was silent and watching me. Watching me stare at my beautiful Speedmail, tears rolling down from behind my sunglasses. Kevin came over and stood next to me, then bumped my shoulder with his and said, “Happy Birthday, do you want to start your plane?”
I couldn’t move, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to stop crying. The thing I had waited years to have, spent every last dollar on and sacrificed my security to build, was now DONE and waiting on me to operate it from this moment on with a level of skill and grace I wasn’t sure that I possessed. The plane was much more than just a plane. I knew there was a reason why this plane had found me and everyone at Kimball’s knew it too. So I climbed in my Speedmail, hands shaking, and started my engine for the first time. That day, August 17th, the start of my fiftieth year began with an engine, a biplane, and a pilot, all coming to life.
Twelve days later I climbed in my Speedmail again and flew the test flight on August 29th. Then, barely a month after my birthday, I walked into my hangar at 7 am and said to my plane, “Hey Buddy, we need to leave now. I’ll take good care of you but you know its time for me to go, you ready?” His name became Buddy that morning. I left Florida to teach myself to fly my plane with skill and grace and to move somewhere, anywhere forward but we only had eleven hours of Model 4 time on both of us. He was big, and fast, and blind, and unfamiliar. But my need to go fly across the country wasn’t reckless, it was hopeful. That take-off was a blind leap into somewhere better that I knew was ahead of me, I just couldn’t see it, but I knew it was there.
We flew together for five weeks across fifteen states and sought out every safe hangar and summer barnstormer friend as if we were coming home to family. These people, vintage airplane lovers, scattered all across the country, are family to me. They open their hangars and their homes and share their lives so generously, it made me realize how much I missed them and missed flying cross-country these past two years. So I stayed in guest bedrooms and wore dirty socks, and we moved when we felt like it for the first time ever. No absolute deadlines, just places I eventually needed to get to. How and when we got there was totally up to me. I chose airports based on who was there waiting for me to arrive, not because of the money I would make giving rides, or the most direct route.
When we returned to Florida in the end of October, we had flown 50.2 hours. I believe that number holds great meaning for the start of my fiftieth year and was not a mere coincidence. I have always used planes to escape. I am easily numbed by the distraction and constant attention flying demands, especially tailwheel flying, especially Stearman flying. Like Saint-Exupéry, “I fly because it releases my mind from the tyranny of petty things.” I have been guilty of using my plane to travel to nowhere and escape from everywhere. This trip in the Speedmail was different because this year is different. This is my fiftieth year and I will use this plane to find my next life and begin on a great new adventure, wherever it may take me.