Flying Lessons

Flight Lesson – 34

IMG_0867I sat on the grass and talked to Meis.  I asked Meis van der Rohe, “How could you do that, dear man?”  Build a fortress of black bars and glass, in such a beautiful space, along the curve of Lake Michigan.  Were your tower’s built to keep people out, or as a box to put them in?  You’re a genius, what were you thinking?  It was the day before my birthday and I wanted some time off to grow young again.   Unthink and pretend.  Watch the Air & Water Show by the lake and play with Cirque du Soleil.  Why did you have to take that away?  You took the present of the day and made it about the past.  The oak trees planted outside your twin tower’s are mulched in black.  The shade they provide is a shroud.  Two black towers wearing a mourning cloak from the morning of 911.  Meis your philosophy of ‘less it more’ doesn’t help me today.  More is more on birthday’s.  Have you met Antoni Gaudi? Have you’ve seen the La Sagrada Familia?  I have.  May I teach you something please?

There was a place where I learned to fly.  Not Traverse City, where I got my private pilot’s certificate, but Lakeland.  It was the place I learned to fly because it was where I taught other’s to do the same.  It wasn’t pretty or orderly or neat.  It was a hodgepodge of buildings that stretched lazily across the horizon, like they’re yawning.  Relaxed and welcoming.  Just as an airport should be.  There was a white tower there, with no gates or bars around it.  Twenty-one years ago, anyone could drive right in.  At the base of the tower was a restaurant named Tony’s.  A family run restaurant.  You could sit at a table by the window and watch the planes land.   To get into the tower, you just pressed the buzzer and said, “Hi. Can we come up for a visit?”  There was a man who worked there.  His name was Terry.  He was an architect too.  You would have liked him, everybody did.  You see Meis, Terry didn’t put people in boxes, like you want too.  Monolithic squares of black steel that you fit people inside and write off who you think they are.  His architecture was organic and gentle.  Free flowing and unfinished like Gaudi’s.  Terry was an architect of the sky and retired this year.  Terry taught me how to build people.

Terry never raised his voice or pounded his fist in the microphone.  If he was too busy, he’d ask pilot’s to wait politely outside the airspace until he had time for them.  Mostly I remember Terry as having empathy for everyone.  If he didn’t understand a request he’d just ask for clarification.  He had the coolest head and the warmest voice of any man I’ve every met.  His voice has always sounded like home to me.  Terry greeted me each flight with, “Good morning young lady.  Good afternoon young lady.  Good evening young lady.”  A combination of intimacy and respect.  Even in my fifties, Terry still said those kind word’s to me.   Lakeland Airport has changed since 911.  Like most of the airport’s in the country.  Fences and distrust and security have made fortresses out of them.  A knee-jerk reaction to someone else’s cruelty.  The future of anything should never be determined by the past.

Sitting in the shade of Meis van der Rohe’s twin towers, at the Air & Water Show, a voice behind me said, “Good morning young lady.  May I sit down?”  I looked up at the voice by the lake.  The man was dirty.  He looked tired and was wearing a Ghutrah.  I was alone and probably should of been afraid but I have always lacked stranger danger.  “Have a seat in the shade,”  I replied.  “They fenced it off here but they haven’t kicked me out yet.”  We didn’t say anything to each other, just sat and watched the airshow.  I knew my presence by him, a well-dressed white women, would keep the security guards from telling him to leave.  The AeroShell team started flying and the man in the grass said to me, “They’re really good aren’t they?  I always wanted to be a pilot”

“Yes, they are,” I replied.  their founder is an incredible pilot, Alan Henley.  He had a neck injury playing with his children.   He’s paralyzed from the chest down now.  Makes you appreciate each day doesn’t it?”

The man said nothing.  I got up to leave for Cirque du Soleil.  I had an extra ticket and I asked him if he would like to go with me. He just smiled shyly and looked down.  Ashamed.  I had gotten too close to a wound inside him he wasn’t ready for me to see.  I told him I’d talk to the security guard’s and tell them he was with me.

Driving back from Cirque du Soleil, after my day before my birthday adventure, I got my first Happy Birthday text message.  It was from Terry in the white tower.  “Happy Birthday Hon.  Hope you have a super day.  U deserve it.”  I rewrote the day in my head.  Meis van der Rohe’s dark tower’s were replaced by a sandcastle shaped like La Sagrada Familia.  Cirque du Soleil performed during the airshow for everyone on the beach as we sat on giant sea turtle’s.  The man in the Ghutrah was a wealthy United Airlines’ captain, earning the salary pilot’s use to make before 911.  Alan Henley flew lead pilot in the AeroShell performance and the Golden Knight, Corey Hood, was still alive to jump again.  Of course Terry was Airboss, keeping everyone safe.   Terry doesn’t know this but I keep a message in my phone, just to have his voice never erased from my memory.  It begins, “Good morning young lady.”  When I listen to it, that’s the age I’ll always be.

Flying Lessons

Flight Lesson – 33

SCAN0019 - Version 2Close your eyes. I have a present for you.  No, it’s not your birthday but I wanted to give you something anyway.  A before my birthday, birthday surprise.  I couldn’t decide what we would like.  What would be the perfect gift?  You’ll have to tell me if I got it right.  I think you’ll love it.  No peeking.  Hold out your hands.  Don’t be fooled by the small size, there’s a treasure inside.  Ready?  Go ahead open your eyes.  Let your present begin.

I have been given so much sometimes I feel guilty.  I have had so many incredible experiences I think they’re going to overflow out of my body.  Like I’m too full and my life doesn’t deserve anymore but that’s not the way it works.  There’s always room for more.  The Law of Abundance is more is more.  Like Oliver Twist in Dickens’ Workhouse asking, “Please Sir, I want some more?“  You don’t get what you want, you get what you are.  What you are is the sum of what you’ve been through, both good and bad, and what you’ve learned from those experiences.  My parents understood the roll of presents.  We were given gifts but most special occasions were celebrated with trips or adventures.  They were the best presents because they never ended.  Never broke or wore out, instead they live on in our memories forever.  They have a butterfly effect, a gift that keeps giving.  My birthday’s coming up on the 17th and I’m looking to give the perfect present.

I think the perfect present is the present of presence, experiencing the ‘best day ever.’  The ‘best day ever’ is different for everyone but it is the comment I hear most from grateful fliers.  Joy skipping off peoples’ tongue’s while their words jump up and down in their phrases of praise.  “Thank you, this was the best day ever,” or “I had the time of my life flying today, I can’t tell you how grateful I am.  I can check this off my bucket list.”   I don’t have a bucket list.  I emptied the bucket of big adventures pretty early in my life.  My aspirations are very sweet now.  Ease, peace, love, and laughter are all I’m after. There are some places I’d would like to see or experiences I still hope to have but I am content, except for one thing.  One good thing I have yet to do and I can’t do it alone.

Last year, in June, I wrote a very strange story titled, The Wish Twin.  I shared it with a few people and they all agreed with me, it was very strange.  The wise one’s liked it. The story was about finding Buddy in a field, in Nowhere, on the day before my birthday.  One wing gone, he was left abandoned and alone by the side of a barn. The plane had been so abused and broken he had forgotten how to believe he could fly.  When a little girl, me, comes along and restores the plane’s faith by believing the plane would fly again. Believing enough for two until the plane eventually believe’s it too.  I wrote it in ten days, completely in writer crazy-brain.  In my story I make a wish that I can fly, and then give my second wish away to the plane.  My Wish Twin.  I wrote, “When you make a wish you need to make two, then give one away.  Everyone has a Wish Twin. Somewhere there is someone who has the same wish as you.”

Trying to figure out why I wrote what I did, I took myself out of the story and put a little boy in it instead. If you want to understand anything, look at it from someone else’s perspective.  I’ve been writing a version of The Wish Twin for Vintage Aviation Magazine and I couldn’t finish it.  For the last issue I wrote about Blu, stuck in entr’acte, not knowing how the story would end until this past weekend.  I was visiting my father and he asked me what I wanted for my birthday.  I said, “Nothing.  I already have everything. I just haven’t got it yet.”  I had already bought my birthday present early.  I met with my Attorney that morning and asked him to form a non-profit corporation.  The Buddy Flights Organization.  So I could raise money to donate flights to people who have been through trauma and needed their lives lifted up by the gentle fabric wings of a vintage airplane.  A buddy.  A friend who believed they could fly, until they did too.  Just like Buddy had done for me when I didn’t have my own plane to fly.   What I did for Blu when he was such a mess anyone else would have given up on him.  Amazing, the gifts our planes give us. Time is sticky, and clocks are tick-tock, tricky.  I wrote the story a year ago but my birthday wish just came true.  Sometimes you have to very patient and wait for your wish to come true.  A wish that is both good and true, is never too good to be true, but you have to believe enough for two.

BTW I wont be writing here again until mid September.  I have to finish the story for Vintage Magazine and paint the illustrations.  It has a very happy ending. I want to take a break to enjoy the lake and fly Blu.  Build a Buddy Flights website, so much to do…Happy Birthday.  I hope you like my present.  It’s the future and I made it just for you.

Flying Lessons

Flight Lesson – 32

IMG_5930Schrödinger’s cat is standing by my wing.  Flips a challenge coin and says, “Call.”  Alive or dead.  I’m too smart to fall for that old cat trick.  Uncertainty is the only certainty a pilot knows.  I know what to pick.  Alive.  Don’t you know pilot’s never die?  We just go into a holding pattern in a different sky.  We have nine lives too, just like you. Now quit being such a scaredy-cat and get in my front seat.  I’ll take the very best care of you.  I know what you’re really afraid of young Schrödinger’s cat.  You’re afraid of being vulnerable.  Afraid to pop the top off the box and see what happens next.  I think we’re going to have a great flight.  Make up your mind.  I’m not going to offer again.  Don’t you know who the fuck I am?

Ethan was standing on the ramp as I taxied in with his Dad.  I was about to teach Ethan a lesson.  I spun the tail towards the hangar door and shut down the engine.  Ethan stood by my wing, stomped his foot, and threw his arms up in frustration. “I knew that was going to happen,” he said.  I knew it was going to happen too.  I had offered to fly with Ethan first but he said he didn’t want to.  Ethan is the teenage son of my good friend.  He is extremely smart, a computer wizard, and a deep thinker.  Ethan analyzes everything and is very uncomfortable with vulnerability.  He refused to fly because he had a bad experience with another pilot and was afraid to trust me.  I’m a hard-ass with people who say they don’t want to fly and then change their minds.  If Ethan would have been honest with me about the real reasons behind his refusing to fly, I would have treated him differently.  Worked through his fears with him.  Reassured him that I would never be unkind or do anything to scare him on our flight. I knew the storyline running through his adolescent mind.  We were going to be hijacked by cannibals, almost massacred on landing, and then carried off by Bigfoot riding on a giant painted fish into the woods of a mysterious island.  Not really, that’s me.  I like to make up stories in my mind.  Ethan’s reality was, he was simply afraid of what if?.

As Ethan’s Dad climbed off Blu’s wing I said quietly to him, “Doesn’t your son know who the fuck I am?”  That’s a joke between us.  It comes from an old Barnstorming buddy of mine that saw how some male pilot’s talked down to me.  Or ignored me, thinking I was just someone’s girlfriend and not an aircraft owner and a pilot too.  He’d watch my face glaze over as I sat listening to their stories of me, me, me.  Teasing me after they left by saying, Don’t they know who the fuck you are?”  I know who I am so I don’t care what other people think but I wanted Ethan to understand something.  Something important he had to learn.

It is a privilege to fly, not a right, or an afterthought.  For every person I take flying another one will be denied.  Each flight is special and ephemeral, like each day of our lives.  You can never be sure what is going to happen next but you can’t let that stop you from experiencing life because of the fear of, ‘what if?’   What if you’re afraid?  What if you make a fool of yourself?  What if you fail, or what if you succeed?  What if all you had was today and you let it slip away?  It is very complex to teach the concept of time to someone who is young.  They don’t comprehend it until you end it.  I did that when I shut down the engine in front of Ethan.

Ethan was pouting.  His Dad and our friend Mirco were looking at me to see what I would do next. They know I’m tough on teenagers.  I sat in the seat and didn’t say a word, didn’t move.  Watching.  Mirco ran up to the side of my cockpit, promising that he had talked Ethan into flying and he really wanted to fly with me now.  I looked at Ethan and all I saw was a scared little boy standing in front of me.  Analyzing the infinite possibilities of what if?  A beautiful boy with so much so to give and so much life ahead of him.  I didn’t want him to grow up to be a scared man.  Stuck in a box waiting to decide how to live a life well lived. With no regrets.  I looked at Ethan and said, “Ethan I’m not trying to be a hard-ass but I need you to understand something.  It is a privilege to fly these planes.  It is a privilege to fly with me. It is a privilege to fly on this beautiful day and it will not be wasted. Not on my watch. Do you know how many people would love to fly with me today for free?  Thousands.  So I can’t fly with you unless you really want too.  If you really want to fly, I will start this engine again and you will have the time of your life.  I promise you’ll be safe with me but you need to decide.  Right here, right now, that you really want to fly or I’m putting Blu inside.”

Ethan replied, “I really want to fly!”  I flew with Schrödinger’s cat.  We had a great time and he came back feeling more alive than when he left.

Flying Lessons

Flight Lesson – 31

Picture 1037I have this plane because of you.  I saw you standing at the airport fence, a Faraday Cage I couldn’t recognize you through.  It had been so long since I had seen you.  Seems like a thousand years ago.  You recognized me first, or at least you thought you did.  I couldn’t see your eyes behind your sunglasses.  You stood at the fence watching me.  You wanted to fly but just wanted to be sure it was me.  Make up your mind watchman.  Are you going to fly or not?  My schedule is already loading up and I won’t get out of the the seat until lunch.  I have all the time in the world and nowhere else to go.  Our signs are on the fence at the Freeport Fair this weekend.  Biplane Rides.  We can’t leave until everyone who wants to, fly’s.  You turned and walked away.  I knew you from somewhere but where?  You came back with two men.  You left them at the ride booth and waited until they unloaded my front seat flier.  You walked up to the side of Blu and smiled at me.  I smiled back.  I still didn’t recognize you.  You lifted your sunglasses and said, “Brigadoon.”  It was Danny.

Danny was a legend.  A boat captain, former military special-ops, larger than life man, and incredibly handsome.  He was so handsome it was hard to look at him.  Danny had girls in every port, friends at every pub, and a dock waiting for him in every marina along the Intracoastal Waterway.  I met Danny in Hoboken, at least I think it was Hoboken.  It’s hard to remember, it feels like a lifetime ago.  I was married then and my husband was a boat captain too.  We were returning to Lake Michigan from having spent a year on our Island Gypsy trawler named Brigadoon.  Danny was delivering a motor yacht to Lake Michigan and tied up for the night next to us in the marina.  He knocked on the side of Brigadoon’s hull and asked for permission to board.  Danny said he knew a local dive named Arthur’s that had the best steaks in town.  Would we like to come to dinner with him?  We became old friends in one night.  We traveled up the Hudson River and through the Erie Canal in tandem.  He knew all the best harbors and bars, and everyone knew Danny.  He drank Dark and Stormy’s, Goslings Black Seal rum and ginger beer.  Every bar we walked into already had his drink made, and waiting for him, by the time we sat on the stools.  I knew Danny for years and looked up to him, even though he was younger than me.  After I took my first discovery flight, on my 30th birthday, I drove to Charlevoix to have dinner with my husband and Danny.  We sat at the bar drinking Dark and Stormy’s.   While my husband didn’t think much about me wanting to be a pilot, Danny did.  He encouraged me to go for it.  Offered to introduce me to the wealthy yacht owners he knew, who had their own jets once I got my commercial certificate.  When I divorced I jumped ship literally.  I loaded my clothes in my car and moved to Florida to get my ratings.  I never looked back and I never saw Danny after that.

I’ve lost entire periods of my life in a blur of sensory sound bites.  Memories of living on boats and then learning to fly, overlap randomly in the archives of me.  The crash of plates, breaking in the galley, almost broaching in the swells off Cape May.  The squeal of tires, almost crash landing the flight school’s C-150, on my first solo cross-country.  The smell of diesel exhaust in the Waterford Flight of Locks.  The smell of my first log book.  The feel of morning mist, raising goosebumps on my skin, as we rounded the Citadel on the Hudson River.  The feel of sweat running down my back, sticking to my seat, on my private checkride.  Seeing Danny standing beside Blu at the Freeport Fair, was like entering a time machine.  The past and the present colliding in one man.  Danny’s friends flew with me first, then he hopped in my front seat.  We had so much catching up to do.  As we flew I felt the fizz of ginger beer in my nose and the wooden bar stools the night after my first flight.  My lost memories were catching up with me. It seemed like a lifetime ago and felt like yesterday.

Danny flew us over his land as he talked about his life and his new business.  He had a wife, a family, and a farm.  Danny was softer than I remembered him.  A rounder frame surrounded the chiseled warrior now.  He was a happy Dad and it made him handsomer than he had been.  In a gentle way.  It was easy to look at him now.  On the flight Danny looked up in the mirror at me and said the kindest thing. “ We all missed you and wondered what happened to you after you left.  Everybody knew what he did to you.”  Nothing to say but, “Thank you.”  Danny was the only one who encouraged me to fly.  No one was at the airport waiting for me to land on October, 29th when I got my private pilot certificate.  I don’t even have a picture from that day, just a logbook entry.  Nice to hear but it didn’t matter.  I couldn’t remember most of it anyway, except for the surreal sensory memories of another lifetime ago.  Brigadoon disappeared in the mist.

I am horrible at record keeping and remembering dates, so I try to record things in my computer calendar to remind me of important events.  Blu was delivered from Texas to Poplar Grove last Friday evening.  Just before a summer storm hit hard.  I opened my calendar to July 17th to record Blu’s Homecoming.  There were three events already there.  They read: Pete Birthday, Danny Freeport Fair, and Goodfellow.  The first one I already knew.  July 17th is my brother Peter’s birthday.  It’s easy to remember as we share the same birth day, just one month apart.  Mine’s August 17th.  The second event was a complete surprise.  I didn’t remember when I flew Danny at the Freeport Fair but there it was.  July 17, 2010.  I picked up my phone and saw I still had Danny’s number and called him.  I said, “Hey Danny it’s Sarah, the Stearman pilot.  Through a strange series of coincidences I just got my PT-17 back last Friday.  I want to start a program donating “Buddy Flights” to veterans.  Could you help me?”  He said he’d be happy to help the flying Skittle pilot.  Danny called me the flying Skittle pilot because when I flew his enchanting daughter, she renamed sweet Blu after her favorite candy, Skittles.  Danny and his wife had their own foundation, helping veteran’s families, and they knew a lot of resources for me.  The third event for July 17th, Goodfellow, was a mystery.  I knew Blu had been based at Goodfellow Field, TX in WWII.  You can send the bureau number of your military airplane to the Smithsonian and they will send you the history.  If you don’t know it you can give them your civilian number and they’ll find it.  Blu’s numbers’ were on my computer.  Military  #42-17836 and civilian #75-5999.  But why did I write Goodfellow on the 17th?  Or did I?  I honestly can’t remember.  As if my life could get any weirder?  I googled Goodfellow Field and their Home Page flashed, 17th Training Wing on the screen, again and again.  I went to their history page and read Goodfellow Field was established on August 17, 1940, and the first classes of students arrived on June 11, 1941.  June 11th was the day I picked up Blu in 2005 and the day I called Robbie Vajdos, in 2015, telling him to get me Blu back at any cost.  Ok, my life just got weirder.  I get it God, it’s crazy but I get it.  I think I just got back a Time Machine.  I better buckle up.  It’s going to be a wild ride.

Flying Lessons

Who is Jimmie Allen?

Has anyone seen Jimmie Allen?  I’ve been looking all over for him.  I stood in Russia with the Night Witches and pointed at his picture. “Do you recognize him?”  All they said was, “Nyet.”  I flew to Egypt to ask Count Almásy.  “Have you seen Jimmie Allen?” László replied, “He doesn’t exist my dear, but I’m not really a Count either.”  I flew to Rome to ask Balbo.  He said, Scusa, no.  I flew to Africa to ask Beryl Markham, “Have you seen Jimmie Allen?”   She said, “No, but come back when you find him.”  I hopped a boat to Hammondsport to ask Glenn Curtiss and then motored down the Hudson to Old Rhinebeck to see Cole.  They said, “No one has seen Jimmie Allen but we’ve been waiting for him to show.”  I stayed up all night waiting for Saint-Exupéry to fly over me in the Strait of Gibraltar.  Yelled up to him from my deck chair.  “Have you seen Jimmie St. Ex?”  He said, “Non, ma fille douce. Bonne nuit.  I stopped Mermoz in Barcelona as he was leaving for Alicante.  Jean had never heard of him.  I went to the Mall at Roosevelt Field and I ran into Anne and Slim shopping incognito.  The Lindbergh’s said, “No joy, but we know he’s out there somewhere.”

I’ve spent years trying to figure out who Jimmie Allen is.  Looking at hundreds of pictures and digging through archives.  Sitting in his Speedmail, wondering about him.  Jimmie’s names’ on Buddy, not mine.  I like to pretend, so I made up Jimmie Allen for the comic we were working on in 2012.

Jimmie Allen is very deep, about a 90 meters or so.  I came up with who Jimmie was by posing a question?  What happens to someone when grace steps in?  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was the inspiration for my Jimmie Allen. The mischievous, curious, young Jimmie Allen mirrored St. Ex as a boy quite well.  But what happens to the boy when he goes off to war and becomes a man?  Who is Jimmie Allen then?  I thought about St Ex’s death and wondered, what if I gave him an alternative ending?  What if in July, 1944, flying his P-38 on a photo mission between Marseilles and Cassis France in preparation for the Allied landing, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry didn’t die. It is accepted that St Ex was very depressed, struggling with his age and deteriorating health near the end of his life. Some believe his death in the P-38 was suicide.  I was not there so I do not presume to know.  What if, sinking in the Balearic Sea with water rushing in his canopy, grace stepped in. In that instant, all things that didn’t seem possible started to happen for him.  The canopy opened, the belts unlocked, he swam to the surface with the strength of a younger man, and looked around him.  I asked what would St. Ex do next?  Swim to the nearby uninhabited island of Riou or swim toward the coastline of war-torn France.  And if he choose the island of Riou; a metaphor for the peace, ease, and tranquility that nature and a quiet life can provide.  I wondered how different St Ex might have been?  Much happier I imagine and I like to make people happy.  A little Mozart killed and resurrected.  I would love to read what St Ex wrote on the island.  His writing had gotten very dark and he was obsessing with God’s business.  Politics, nations, and war.  Writing about things he could do little to change.  St. Ex is beloved worldwide and I would never be disrespectful of that fact, I love him too.  So I made a second Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in my head. Brought him back to life, one year after his death on his birthday, June 29,1945.   I relocated him to the West Coast of the US.  Growing up  around the San Juan Islands, well off and privileged.  A little Mozart.  Brilliant and full of promise. I named him Jimmie Allen.

To figure out the mannerisms of Jimmie Allen for the Comic artist Mary Claire to draw, I read everything I hadn’t read by Saint-Exupéry and went further into his head using MBTI and astrology.  I wanted to mirror Jimmie Allen’s life choices closely to St Ex, but set him in a real time.  Combine history with fiction.  It was very fun imagining detail’s of him to Mary Claire.  In the comic Jimmie Allen’s parallel, with Saint-Exupéry flying for the Aeropostale, was his time as a pilot with the Pacific Aerial Surveys Company.  Flying photo missions in P-38’s, mapping the coast of Washington state from 1965-1968.  It was a real company that used P-38’s.  The friends he met there were Jimmie’s ‘Band of Brothers.’   Included in his group of co-workers was Jimmie’s real brother.   On their one day off each week, they would all go over to Allan Island to escape.  It is a real place too.   An island, once owned by billionaire Paul Allen, with a long grass strip down the center of it in the San Juan’s.  They would explore, swim, laugh, and brings girls when they could find cute one’s to go with them.  It didn’t much matter, the Band of Brothers, enjoyed each others company best.  They called themselves the Knights of the Air.   There was a lighthouse on Allan island that I borrowed, with artistic license from nearby Borrows Island, and transplanted it there.   At night they would all climb to the top and watch the stars, or the storms roll in, together.  The Vietnam war was their time frame.  The Knights of the Air all went off to war in different ways, and some in different branches of the military.  On the night before they left, they signed an oath.  Fourteen friends promising to rendezvous again, under the beacon, on Allan Island.

The pledge I wrote for the Knights of the Air in 2012 was…

As poet guides of infinite space.  We have pledged our lives to safeguard the cargo of cherished hopes and precious interests entrusted to us, as Shepherd’s of the Air.  We alone have flown below the clouds and embraced the landscapes we crossed as our treasured friends. Though we leave our brother’s here tonight, to fight for our country as  is our duty, we will never again be the pilots of destruction.  Those of us that have not fallen, vow to rendezvous to continue our Noble Crusades.  To seek our successors and ensure our line to continue; to that we commit our lives to protect.  For we are the Knights of the Air.  We are Gardeners of Men.

Not to give the plot away, but I gave Jimmie Allen the same view of man’s inhumanity as St Exupéry had seen.  A realistic and not a romantic one.  He returned to Allan island.  A little Mozart murdered.  Broken.  Suffering from survivors guilt and depression.  Memories eating him alive from the inside.  Sitting under the beacon alone, holding the pledge in his hands, Jimmie plans to commit suicide.  Grace steps in.  Jimmie Allen wakes up the next day believing he is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Buck_Cliff_01BWThere were two other characters in the story.  Two kids named Sarah and Buck.  I named and modeled Buck after the noble sled dog in Jack London’s Call of the Wild.  Buck had seen enough of ‘the Law of Club and Fang’ and left to explore on his boat after college.  Returning to the wild.  A storm forces Buck to land on Allan Island.  He meets Jimmie and stay’s.  He’s quite happy hanging out with the guy who thinks he’s St Exupéry.  Reading, building, writing, playing music, inventing things. They enjoy each other’s company immensely.   I gave Buck and Jimmie a very interesting way of communicating. They wrote what they had to say on pieces of paper, then folded the notes into paper airplanes, that they sent flying across the room to each other.

sketch_comp_sarahSarah (me), finds Allan Island by chance after she “borrows” her father’s boat on her birthday.  (I used to “borrow” things from my parents all the time without permission.)  She can’t find a harbor.  Circling the mysterious island, she talks to the cliffs.  Not knowing someone is watching, Jimmie Allen plays a trick on her.  Their conversation went like this…

Sarah: Echo.

Jimmie Allen: Echo.

Sarah: Hello?

Jimmie Allen: Hello.

Sarah: Anybody there?

Jimmie Allen:  Anybody there?


Jimmie Allen:  I’m here.

Sarah:  Really?  No way.

Jimmie Allen: Yes. Way.


Sarah: Who’s here?

Jimmie Allen: Who’s where?

Sarah: That’s not funny.  Who’s here?

Jimmie Allen: I am.

When Sarah arrives she stirs everything up. Bugging the heck out of Buck at first. The two of them eventually become best friends and dig into Jimmie’s past.  Following the mind-mapping of Jimmie’s mind drawn on the walls of his cave.  Scared geometry, fantastical flying machines, Sator Squares,  fish-shaped submarines, and sign language in Jimmie’s grotto like the hands on the Cosquer cave.   Unraveling history’s mysteries together.  Mirco Pecorari and I had great fun planning it.  The biggest mystery on the Island was, “Who is Jimmie Allen?”  It still is.

This post is longer that I usually write but I have never talked about the comic backstory.  I didn’t read comics except Peanuts, in the Sunday paper, when I was growing up.  I read Shakespeare and Grimm’s Fairy Tales.  I do think comics are a powerful tool to make complex subjects easier to understand but I prefer books with illustrations.  I was not the main character in it, nor was Buck, we were simply opposite sides of the same person.  Jimmie was the star. I think Jimmie Allen is every little Mozart born within each of us.  The divine child.  Wounded by circumstances.  Waiting to come alive again.  Waiting for grace to step in.  Only Jimmie can answer that.

If you see Jimmie Allen, tell him I’m still looking for him. I’d like to thank him.  Building his plane helped me answer a lot of questions in my life.  Selling it to fund a nonprofit will help me to answer a lot more.  I’d like Jimmie to know how grateful I am.  I need his help to solve a riddle I wrote at the beginning of the comic. I don’t know the question, just the answer.  I always come into everything backwards.

Answer:  The only way to survive the past is to remember it.

BTW if you see Jimmie Allen or Antoine de Saint-Exupéry please tell them I wrote a happy ending for everyone, with their own plane to fly.  His name is Blu.  I think that would make both of them very happy too.

Flying Lessons

Flight Lesson – 30

“Don’t you leave me Goose.  Don’t you leave me.”  My first teacher was now my wingman.   Neither of us were Maverick’s.  We were two of the biggest chickens on the American Barnstormers Tour and proud of it.  Goose’s.  A freudian slip of my wingman’s tongue.  I was his Radar Intercept Officer that day.  We were on top of a layer of clouds flying from Burlington, IA to Freeport, IL  He was in the New Standard with only a bubble compass.  I was in Blu with a vertical compass, electric turn coordinator, and loads of instrument time.

We left that morning with Barnstormer’s bravado.  Pork Chop, our ringleader, calling Burlington CTAF, “Barnstormer flight of 16 departing to the Northeast.”  We had a show to do and “the show must go on” on Tour.  Sixteen vintage planes, flying in trail up the center of the highway just below the overcast.  That morning I had forgotton ‘the cop’ was in my front seat.

I was tired from moving every day on the tour.  We were all dog tired.  As foggy as the weather was.  On mental autopilot, moving in the direction of our destination.  I had barely spoken with ‘the cop’ when he joined the Tour the day before.  I was busy sleeping with the Candyman.  Literally, sleeping on the crew room couch’s together because we both had heat exhaustion and were about to collapse. The cop in my front seat was a freelance writer for EAA we referred to as the cop’.   The Barnstormers weren’t sure if they wanted a cop along.  I told them, “He seemed nice on the phone.”

Once the weather opened up, the faster planes went up with it.  The Waco’s and Speedmail left the circus and the slower planes paired off.  Two by two we made our way toward Freeport and I got to know ‘the cop’ in my front seat.  He was a seasoned detective, a 27 year veteran, who dreamed of being a professional writer.  All buttoned up and reserved, his exterior loosened as he talked boyishly about writing and his love of airplanes.  ‘The cop’ told me he wanted to write his own book.  Someday.  He was working three jobs;  detective, freelance writer, and raising a family simultaneously.  A Frank Furillo busy keeping all his precinct’s together.  Worrying about What would Frank do, instead of doing what he wanted to do.  The cop in my front seat was in for quite a wild day with the Barnstormers.

I was flying with Waldo in the New Standard and I had pulled back my power for him to keep up with the Stearman.   The clouds weren’t lifting and dodging cell towers is not fun.  Waldo, ‘the cop’, and I were on top of a scattered layer and the clouds started closing in below us.  Turning our sky into a layer cake and the icing was getting gray.  The icing was starting to melt.  We were above a sloping cloud deck.  Not a good place for VFR equipped airplanes. Two little biplanes making our way in a sky that was slipping to one side.  Waldo was scared, I was scared, and ‘the cop’ in my front seat was scared too.  “Don’t you leave me Goose.  Don’t you leave me,”  Waldo said.  I replied, “Look at me.  Fly off my wing.  Keep your eyes on me.”  I lit up Blu like a Christmas tree.  Strobe and nav lights on.  We talked nonstop the whole time.  It got grayer and grayer until we couldn’t stand it anymore.  Enough.  We had to land.  We found a hole in the sky to spiral down through.  Came out in a tiny space between the green and the gray.  A wedge of light that looked like safety.  We looked around.  There were candy colored planes dropping in from the clouds.  Falling down all around us.  Each one looking to roost too.  Our ringleader was among them.  Pork Chop called out on five fingers, 123.45.  Barnstormers get in trail.  He called to a duster strip on CTAF.  “Flight of…?  Barnstormers… landing.”  It was starting to rain.  We could barely see the planes in front of us.   All moving in trail.   We had to land.  It wasn’t an option.

I came in behind the big Travel Air 4000 in the rain and we hurried to cover the planes.  I looked for ‘the cop.’  He was nowhere to be found, then he came up to tell me he had got a car to pick him up.  He needed to get back to work.  Had he taken the day off to play with the Barnstormers, he would have seen the day had a happy ending.

The airport owners called  the neighbors to bring a gaggle of cars to take us to breakfast at the local bowling alley.  The newspaper came out and took pictures of the planes in the rain.  We told stories and jokes.  Napped and read.  There was nothing we could do but wait for the weather to improve.  When it did some went on to Freeport and the remaining chickens decided to stay put.  We’d catch up to the tour the next day.  You learn a lot of patience barnstorming.  We were tired and needed to recharge.  We went out to dinner, drank pitchers of margaritas and laughed.  Oh, did we laugh. It is one of my favorite memories from the Tour’s.

51BwrhyIE+L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_‘The cop’ in my front seat and I have been friends for a very long time.  Almost ten years.  He came to sit with me at Sun-n-Fun in 2012, when Buddy’s restoration was completed.  Still working three jobs and still a detective keeping his precinct’s together.  He didn’t like his day job and seemed pretty blue.  I told him I had a present for him.   A clock.  A bronze Richfield Oil clock from the 1930’s.  I said, “Tick-tock my friend.  You told me you wanted to be a professional writer and a published author.  I believe you can do it.  Maybe this clock will remind you to believe it too.”  ‘The cop’ retired from the police force in 2014.  Author, Jim Busha is now Director of EAA Publications and a professional writer with his own book.

Flying Lessons


Blu was donated to Triple Tree Aerodrome to help their youth program July, 2017.

“I know the price you paid to get Blu. I wouldn’t worry about it too much, that’s our lucky number.”

Flying Lessons

Flight Lesson – 29

IMG_0080An angel laid on my wing in the museum.  Her name is Evie.  She was eight and told me she wanted to be a veterinarian.  I saw the angel again a few weeks ago.  Now she wants to be a ballerina.  Both are worthy vocations.  She tap danced in sandals, for her parents and me, as the band played in the museum.  Evie told us she see’s dead people.  I said, “I believe you.”  She laughed and just kept dancing.  I see dead people too.  Just among the living.  Fairy princesses and noble knights locked in soul dungeons.  Imprisoned by their lives and their adult decisions.  Grown-up’s wanting to figure out what they want to be when they grow up.  Quantum suicides, pulling the trigger again and again.  Creating parallel persons, where they are both living and dead simultaneously.

I wanted to be a ballerina, an archeologist, a mounted policeman, and a cabaret singer.  I’ve been variations of all of them. I was lucky enough to have parents who told me I could grow up to be whatever I wanted to be.  They never cared if I made money, they just wanted me to be happy.  I’ve tried on professions like shoes my whole life.  Wearing them for awhile and then slipping on the next profession for size.  Seeing which one felt the best.  The ones I’ve worn the longest are pilots’ boots.  I love flying in boots. If it’s hot I take my boots off and fly barefoot.

I remember JC as a monogramed, meticulous man.  I call him JC because I don’t keep full names in my logbook, just initials and copies of 8710’s with the Designated Examiner’s signature that they passed.  All of my students passed their checkride’s.  JC had been promised he could do his private pilot certificate in less than a month by the flight school marketing women.  I hated it when they promised timeline’s to students.  Especially students over 30 years old.  It’s a matter of biology, entropy taking over.  The older you get the slower your reflexes are. Your eye-hand coordination diminishes. The rule of thumb I used was for each decade over 20 years old, add 10 hours to the FAA minimum standard of 40 hours to get your private pilot certificate.  JC was in his 50’s or early 60’s. I don’t remember but I do remember he was an executive.  He had taken a month out of his busy life to get his private pilot’s certificate. The flight school labelled JC as ‘EXEC’ on my schedule.  That meant he was to get my full attention and I was charged with getting him his pilot certificate, no matter what.

JC was superior at cross-country planning, smart, an excellent student, but he struggled with landings.  That smart man could not get the sight picture of how to land a plane no matter how hard we tried.  Usually I give a student to someone else when I’m stuck on how to help them.  There was no one I could give him to that was better than me.  That’s not ego, it’s timing.  A byproduct of turn over at flight schools.  Sometimes there are other qualified instructor, sometime there are not.  I was the only hope he had.  We were coming up on his promised timeline of a month and he was way over forty hours of flight time but I couldn’t sign him off.  JC was ready for the check ride, except his landings still sucked.  We were stuck in a holding pattern, in the pattern, practicing landings again and again with no different results.  The definition of insanity.  I could feel him getting more and more frustrated, which made his landings even worse.  It was all in his head.  His fear had taken over his body.  He was headed for a complete meltdown. I believe in letting student’s do controlled crashes and JC had a big one coming.  SMACK.  He face-planted on the runway hard.  I took the controls and said let’s taxi back in and chat a bit.  By the time we reached the ramp he was crying.  By the time he walked off the wing of the Piper Cherokee he was leaving FlightSafety.  By the time we debriefed he was having a full-blown temper tantrum and never flying again.  I wanted to blow on his face, like a baby.  Get his attention and stop the meltdown.  JC was an ‘EXEC’ and I couldn’t say what I wanted to say to him.  What I wanted to say was, “I’ve spent everyday with you for a month.  Listening to how much you hate your job, your life, bitching about all the bad things that have happened to you.  How much flying means to you.  That it is an escape, total freedom, a holy grail.  How you feel like a kid again when you fly.  Now you’re running away from the one thing you want more than anything because of your fear.  Sabotaging your success by obsessing about some preset FAA timeline you’re not young enough to meet.  You feel like an old man and a failure, so you are becoming what you see.  Literally shooting yourself in the foot.  You are your own prison guard.”  But it was against company policy to crawl into students minds and confront them honestly.  Unprofessional and forbidden.  We were trained to always be polite at FlightSafety.

I had run out of ways to help JC until I saw him walking out of the briefing room.  The shoes.  I apologized, “I’m sorry I didn’t realize this sooner.  My bad.  Your shoes are all wrong.  I should have seen it all along.  It’s not you, it’s your shoes.  Take them off and let’s go up again.”  JC took off his shoes and flew barefoot.  His landings improved immediately.  He lit up inside and would come to fly barefoot, grinning ear to ear in wrinkled shorts and a t-shirt.  Was it a placebo?  I don’t think so.  JC was struggling with his age. Fighting the fact that his eye-hand coordination had changed and he wasn’t as quick to respond as he once was.  He passed his checkride and went on to own his own plane.  He is still flying his plane today.  JC found his soul through the soles of his feet.  He remembered he could dance the day he learned to land the plane as a barefoot boy again.

Flying Lessons

Flight Lesson – 28

Stearman 1 B Email

Missing the missing man.  We saved a slot for him in the sky on the airshow fly-by.  Look up.  Do you see him in the space we erased?  I do.  Look down, he’s standing right in front of you.  Go on.  Keep talking about the planes and how many men were killed in them.  About sacrifice and the meaning of loss.  He’s listening to every word you say.  Can’t you see his fuse ignite.  He’s smoldering inside.  Internal detonation.  It wasn’t a sentimental journey to him.  But he won’t say a word to you.  You just keep looking at the planes.  Commemorating the dead, forget about the living.  Enjoy the airshow.  You don’t see what you’re missing, but I do.

The missing man’s signaling dot, dot, dot.  Dash, dash, dash.  Dot, dot, dot from the inside.   Morse coding right now SOS.  An anxiety attack.  His shoulders are starting to shake, his chest is heaving, holding back his sobs.  Code Red.  Men don’t cry.   His head moves.  Left and then right, to see if anyone is watching him.  I am.  I’ll give you something to cry about soldier.  We discipline our own.  The missing man folds his arms across his chest.  Squeezes his biceps, his fingers digging trenches into them.  Silently ordering himself to “hold it together.”  Beat yourself up and stuff those emotions down.  Don’t loose it in a public place. The missing man’s shoulders are shaking harder.  Everyone is looking at the airplane formation and missing this man misfiring.  Breaking down in front of me.  Do something.  Help him.  I walked up and stood beside him, just close enough so my shoulder was touching his.  “Would you like a piece of gum?” I said.  Handing the pack of Beemans gum I kept in Buddy out to him.  Startled he slapped the tears off his face.  He didn’t say anything but his frame relaxed.  He didn’t just take one piece, he took the whole pack of Beemans.  Pascal’s Wager won.  Embarrassed, he turned his head away and looked up at the airplanes.  Silent still.  As he chewed a piece of gum I could hear his breathing slow down.  I stood completely still too.  It seemed like a long time until he spoke but it probably was less than a minute when he said, “It should have been me.”  The man standing next to me at Sun n Fun was missing the missing man and wanted to go with him.

Fighter pilots, fighting machines, Top Guns.  They can be the hardest to read.  Not the WWII veterans, they’re just happy to see their ‘old friend’ Stearman again.  The veterans who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq are the ones I find incredibly interesting to fly with.  Challenge coins, each one of them.   Many are postwar byproducts spring-loaded with PTSD symptoms.  Minutemen addicted to adrenaline and hotheads.  Being a flight instructor for so long, and an empath, I am pretty good at spotting them. They’re war horses, easily spooked.  If you’ve ever had horses, you know the best way to get a horse to let you approach is to calm yourself first.  When I saw their hands shaking, strapping themselves into the military harness without assistance, I would slow everything down. Become as calm of a presence as I could. They were full of anxiety about flying.   They had a love/hate relationship with airplanes that had nothing to do with me.  All CFI’s monitor the temperature of a flight.  The skilled ones regulate it.  I discovered a secret weapon that would lower their stress level and the temperature of the flight.  After I saw my Top Gun’s eyes, down and locked on the panel, staring at the instruments compulsively.  Overheating and sweating.  I would reach up and tickle him until he started to laugh.  In the WWII Stearman’s you can reach the front-seater and touch them.  It’s an interesting method of regulating a fighting machine, but it works.  I could feel them physically cool down once I got them to laugh. Laughing helps retrain the brain. Increases short-term memory and significantly decreases the stress hormone cortisol.  Laughter is proven to be very good medicine. The fighting machines came back from the flight lighter than when they left.

Beemans gum.  The gum of test pilots. The ones with The Right Stuff came home and after what they’ve been through, found everything changed.  The Boeing Stearman, Model 75 WWII trainer, was based on Lloyd Stearman’s Model 6 design.  The “Cloudboy.”  Boeing bought the Stearman Aircraft Factory and they changed the mission of the airplanes built there.  Flying machines became fighting machines.  If a little fabric Stearman trainer taught Cloudboy’s to go to war, it could teach them how to come home too.

Flying Lessons

Flight Lesson – 27

SCAN0068A clocca is a clock.  A clock is a bell.  A bell marks a watch.  From the tower each hour, the Watchman calls, “All’s well.”   Wæccende, Boatman, remain awake.  Ships watch changes four quarters a day.  Thirty minutes, turn the double bubble upside down.  Second Dog Watch finished.  Eight bells and all is well.  First Watch has begun.  Not till the pendulum swing, did a second make the face.  Chronostasis took place.  Men put time in their pockets, chained to their vests. Shackled time to their wrist.  Wound themselves up by the crown with their free hand.  No longer Watchman standing watch.  They were just men, watching a clock.

I grew up in a house full of clocks. They all chimed at different times.  An 1820 Scottish longcase was the most emergent.  It’s loud quarter hour chimes, overpowered the petite floor clock painted with me and our Newfoundland on its face. The Cuckoo clock in the kitchen rang in when the Glockenspiel remembered to open the door.  The fancy French wall clock was wound daily, but snubbed time regularly.  The brown victorian clock of no origin, nagged at time from the top of the stairs.  The Wilson family clock did not work, just presided over our history.  Silently guarding the mantel and the hearth.  Every hour was a strange ticktocking, chiming in, all at different timing.  I own one clock, and it can be found in the left hand corner of Buddy’s panel.  A 1929 Pioneer Eight Day clock. It’s very rare and I spent years finding the exact one original to my plane.  I am fascinated with that clock.  It runs well but I never wind it.  When I fly, I just move the set of red hands to mark the time I start the engine.  That is the time my watch begins, and I become the Watchman who doesn’t wear a watch.

When I flew for commercial operators, flight was all about time.  Time out. Time off. Time on. Time in.  On schedule.  Behind schedule.  Ahead of schedule.  The measure of a flight was measured by time.  Flying the old planes is different.  You get there when you get there but you get there all the same.  The only presence of time in my cockpit is the red hands marking the start of the engine, and the fuel gauge telling me how long until I land.  There is a timelessness in this type of flying that is a tonic for people in a time obsessed society.  When I sold 30 minute flights, the only question I got about time was, “How much time do we have left?”  A question asked by my flier because they didn’t want the flight to end.  My flights aways ran over, at least 5 minutes.  I had so many hours of Stearman time by then, I felt I could share some extra time with them.  When we returned to the airport the pilots would run to get their logbook, or put the card with their flight time and my CFI signature in their wallets.  Tucked away for safe keeping until they could recount  it into their flight ledgers.  If time is money, then flight time is a gold standard.   A zeitgeber, “time-giver.”  I find it fascinating when I meet a flier, the qualifier they most often define themselves by is flight time.  How many flight hours they have, how long it’s been since they flew last, or how old they were when they started to fly.  Timing their timelines by tenths, spent in, or away from the sky.

I am enjoying being on Sarah time.  Living on the circadian clock of the islands and the lake. There are no working clocks in my cottage this summer, the only sign of time are the bells.  Westminster chimes; singing the song of St. Mary the Great and the Pugilist’s Tower across the lake.  I found myself looking forward to hearing the bells.  Waiting for them.  Then noticing their absence and wondering when they would ring again?  The bells echoing across the water were beautiful, but they were inconsistent.  Some half-hours they didn’t ring at all.  Some times they played a song.  When they chimed the time, they began on the 9’s instead of the 0’s. I began timing the bells to the atomic clock on my computer and trying to find a pattern. Was I in an acoustic shadow?   I like playing connect the dots.    Time to find the source.  I followed the sound of the carillon to the Community Church in town.  A pretty little church on a hill above the lake.  I didn’t see a bell tower.  I asked the Secretary about the church bells.  She didn’t know when they set the bells, or why they played what they did.  She did ask me,  “You do know they are electronic?”  No I did not, but I found it very ironic.  I had become a Kettle and Nob.   A Kettle is Cockney slang for a watch, its origin coming from the phrase, “A watched kettle never boils.”  The bells chimed in their own time, on their own clock.  But they did chime each day, all the same, and it was a joyful noise.  Maybe the seconds they’re early, or late, is extra time we can share on the lake.

Every pilot I’ve ever met, certificated or not, looks up each time a plane fly’s by.  The atomic clock stops for them when they hear the sound of an airplane engine.  They stop what they’re doing and watch that plane fly.  Watchman still, standing watch.  The sound of a plane, like a bell.  Reminding, Wæccende.  I am here.  All’s well.

Happy Fathers Day to all the Watchman.  Dad’s standing watch, guarding the mantel and the hearth.