Taking Care

When I travel on a cross-county I spend a lot of evenings in bookstores, used bookstores when I can find them. It’s a bit of a ritual. I try to find St Exupery’s section, see if they have anything beyond Wind, Sand, and Stars and buy a copy of The Little Prince.  I store them in my baggage and give them out as gifts to people I meet, people I care for in my plane.  I know it’s strange to give a children’s book to an adult, even more so to give it to a relative stranger, especially when I know they don’t understand it. I don’t expect them to.  I realize people rarely read the books I give them, but I hope my gift will somehow infuse the words into them, even subconsciously.  I was packing my plane for the FiFi tour last week and thought I saw a copy of The Little Prince in the far back corner of my baggage, but just couldn’t reach it. I gave up and started throwing everything out of my baggage compartment on my hangar floor.  Headsets, folders, towels, notebooks all went flying, until I finally grabbed the book.  As it hit the ground a handwritten note on Terrace Hotel stationary fell out of the cover.  I just stared at the note without picking it up. I knew exactly what it said and who it was from.  It was a letter from Florence Mascott,  WWII WASP 44-10, to my mother who was dying of cancer written in March of 2010.  She had written it after a beautiful dinner in the Terrace dining room with a group of Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, where we were all soaked in martini’s and flying stories, sharing smiles and hugs after our day together. Florence wanted to wish my mother a Happy Birthday and thank her for having me, so she asked the waitress for a piece of paper and wrote her a letter at the table.  I never got the chance to give it to her.  I went to my mother’s funeral a few weeks later.  One of the great messages in The Little Prince is the importance of ‘taking care.’

I am always responsible for everyone I fly.  I am their protector in all ways and even if I have to struggle, I try to find some thread to connect me to them, to care about them.  It is my duty to bring them back safely and most flights that is where our relationship ends.   But some days I have the greatest feeling of joy knowing I will care for someone truly special, someone who will always be with me, imprinted on my data plate.  I stood in my hangar and replayed that day in March four years ago, as if it was yesterday.  That afternoon I loaded Florence into my Stearman and watched her climb up the wing, barefoot and ponytailed.  It was as if I was watching an eighteen year old student pilot climbing into her Stearman at Sweetwater, Texas for her first training flight.  She beamed, shy but fearless and just happy for the chance to fly.

Florence MascottAfter all the photos were taken of the WASP’s together around my plane we taxied off the ramp into the grass and put our arms up, straight up to the sky, and cheered to us. Two gals flying together about to go on a great adventure.  “Yahoo!” Florence yelled.  At lunch she had told me she was worried she would be sick or worse, scared.  I took her hands in mine and I promised I would take the very best care of her.  I told her I had just flown my eighty year old mother all across Florida and she loved every minute of it, so with her “Yahoo,” I knew Florence had chosen to believe me.  Trust is usually more hard-won.

We took off to the south and flew over the orange groves at 800 feet, low so Florence could smell the orange blossoms and I turned us to the north and told her I was going to take her to a secret place, my favorite place.  I told her to look down and she would see elephants magically appear for her. The Ringling elephant preserve is hidden north of Fantasy of Flight and there were at least twenty to be seen that afternoon.  Florence clapped her hands and giggled as we circled the elephant ranch five times.  With each turn she pleaded, “Just one more time, please, just one more.”  I started to sing to her the song my mother sang to me, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.”  I watched as her smile grew wider across her face, and her hands slowly emerged over the edge of the cowling as her shoulders relaxed.  Then Florence held perfectly still and I knew it was time for me to stop singing.  I looked in the mirror at her face, a face I held so dear, I thought of how Florence’s trust had been granted to me so easily.  Wondering why it couldn’t be that easy for everyone to believe I would take care of them in my planes always.  We flew silently across the lakes on our return to the airport as I watched tears run out from behind her glasses.  I don’t believe she was sad, she simply had remembered why flying had been so important to her sixty-five years ago.  It was as if Florence had run into an old beau.  A Stearman who had imprinted on her data plate, decades before, and she had forgotten how much she missed his company.  At that moment, I was just happy to be ‘taking care.’


A Conscious Conscience

What happens to one, happens to everyone.

Winter storms storm across the southeast.  A beautiful young women booked on a Delta flight to Tampa is rerouted through Detroit.  Her anger builds in waves as she pounds on her cellphone keyboard, seething inside. She storms up to the gate agent and demands to be compensated for her inconvenience and hails her frustration out at the women behind the counter.  The intensity of her words sting everyone around her as the gate agent tries to protect herself.  Explaining that the storms have caused the delay’s not Delta, and forecasting politely, “We’ll get you there.” The man standing next to the young women rages at the gate agent about his flight delay.  The young women hurls back at him, “Shut up I was talking to her first.”  The man hisses, “bitch,” at her through his teeth.  The gate agent’s eyes well with tears as she looks down and pounds on her computer keyboard, seething inside.  She issues a new boarding pass without looking at her face, saying, “I’m sorry for your inconvenience.”  The young women spits back, “You should be.”  She marches away and pushes through the boarding line like a fast moving front.  Her bag collides with a couple, pouring their coffee and papers on the ground, occluding the line as angry words rain all around us.  I put in my earbuds and put up an umbrella of music.  We begin to board the plane.  The gate agent takes my ticket without looking at my face.  I whisper, “I’m sorry.” She looks up and smiles, gray skies in her eyes dissipate

The beautiful young woman blows down the jetway and blusters at the flight attendants.  She throws her bag in the overhead, toppling the other bags already there. The man across the aisle hurls, “Hey, WATCH IT!”  The young women says nothing in response.  He freezes her with an icy glare then looks down and pounds on his laptop, seething inside. The young women slams down in the seat next to mine without looking at my face. I look at hers and say, “Hi.”  The young women says nothing in response. The Captain announces we’ll be delayed at the gate for a short time.  The cabin erupts.  Passengers pelt the flight attendants with demands. I look at my iPad and see severe storms forecasted in Tampa. The baby in front of me starts to cry.  Tempers rise.  Service freezes. Cabin pressures build with fear and frustration as people complain louder and louder. The baby cries louder and louder. I turn up my music louder and louder.  I watch the storms movement on ForeFlight and think I see the pilot’s timing our departure to avoid them. Sudden stillness, the pressure around me is shifting. I take out my earbuds. The mother is lifting the baby up, bouncing him in the air above her seat. The baby giggles louder and louder. The man across the aisle looks up from his keyboard and smiles at the baby.  The flight attendant comes out of the galley to compliment the mother.  I start playing peek-a-boo with the baby as we both giggle louder and louder.  The aircraft door closes. The crew announces our departure.  Cabin pressure drops.

The beautiful young women seated next to me apologizes without looking at my face.  “I didn’t mean to be rude, I’m just having a bad day.” I whisper, “I’m sorry.” She looks up and smiles, gray skies in her eyes dissipate.

Severe storms sweep through Tampa just before the Delta crew lands us safely in the light rain.

It is our conscience that tells us to be conscious that our emotions affect everyone around us, both positively and negatively.

What happens to one, happens to everyone.


Love is in the Air – a Biplane Valentine


Project in Progress

Shed of Buddy PartsArt from nothing, beauty from waste, discarded pieces collected, polished, refitted, and reassembled to be brought to flight again.  Restorations are never exactly as they were but better, more beautiful, and stronger than before. Watching Buddy’s parts be put together for seven years at Kimball’s, to most people they looked like a pile of junk in a shed.  An old frame, a rusted motor mount, chemical eaten duster wings, boxes and boxes of metal bits and pieces that would eventually come together to form my beautiful Speedmail.  I made monthly trips to visit my parts for years.  I would stand in the storage shed and look at them, not sure how Kimball’s were going to do it, but I could see clearly what he was going to be.  With all the wondrous metal machining and engineering they put into building Buddy, the most transformational part of the restoration for me, was when they started the fabric work.  When my plane was covered, stitched in fabric and painted, he came to life, and taught me a very important life lesson.

When I returned to Lake Geneva this winter after barnstorming, I looked around to see what was missing. I needed to shift my focus and discover a source, a different building block to start my Invisible Empire.  I call it “invisible” because no one else sees it but me.  My Invisible Empire is shaped like a Richardson Romanesque arch, arcing over my head. Constructed of conceptual wedge shaped “idea stones” or voussoir’s, representing projects I have in progress, even if only in my mind. It’s a big arch, supporting  a Jimmie Allen Flying Club comic, a festival of UP to cultivate curiosity, creativity, and rethink what flying means to everyone, a foundation to get at-risk teens life coaching in my airplane, a children’s book, promotional air tours, and many more aspirations.  In order to be the architect of such a massive structure, I needed to find the first idea stone, the right virtual voussoir to lay in place to start building upon.  Then see if my Invisible Empire arch holds, or it crumbles to the ground, and if so try another one.  I am a bit of a pattern watcher and sometimes I like to work backwards.  I begin by noticing the absence of something, before I notice the presence of something else.  In November I started noticing the absence of trash around me.  Lake Geneva is very clean for a city with a lot of tourism. In the alley behind my apartment there are as many recycling bins, as their are trash containers.  So I started watching trash. What filled up bags the most?  What filled up the bins the most?  Cardboard, hmmmm, interesting.  I started thinking about cardboard. Where it came from, where it went to, and what I could make out of it?  I discovered that paper was Wisconsin’s number one resource, and that it could be 100% recycled.  How can I make cardboard inspire everyone to fly, and who are the people who need to believe they can fly the most?  I looked at cardboard for a while, until I saw what was missing.

Late one night I buddy concept1 copyemailed my friend Mirco in Italy to ask a question, “Wasn’t the best present you ever got, the giant cardboard box it came in?”  I attached  a picture of a little boy in a cardboard airplane and my idea for  designing a “Cardboard Buddy.”  He shot back a picture of a race car he and his wife Monica built out of an appliance box for their son.  Seems we were going to make toys.  We started to design a buildable, wearable, customizable, “Cardboard Buddy.”  I sent the concept to my friend Ben Redman and he helped out with measurements of his little boy, so we could scale it.  Then I found a local manufacturer to build them right up the road at Wisconsin Packaging, who would outsource the assembly and packaging to another local company, who employ’s handicapped workers.  Even though we’re still finishing the concept design, strengthening the wings and adding N-struts, this “idea stone” seems to be holding up pretty well. When the design is finished we are going use the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, to raise enough money to build a limited edition.  So we can give the template away for free on my website, and donate the majority of “Cardboard Buddy’s” to children’s organizations and shelters.

Adults can play tooThere is a beautiful strength in the gentle nature of fabric airplanes and even cardboard ones, that mimics our lives and connects us to them in remarkable ways.  Many aircraft owners have a symbiotic relationship with their planes. I seem to be inexplicably tied to mine always.  A friend once said to me that our planes are our children, but I see my planes as my mentors.  Wiser than me, teaching me lessons, as I try to keep up with the homework they give.  What my Speedmail taught me during his restoration was that I was in need of a restoration myself.  I had too many pieces of metal built up on my exterior and not enough fabric, and that was compromising my structural integrity.

I’ve spent most of my life in the company of men. Tagging along with the boys since childhood, and traveling the country on boats and planes with them.  I love their company.  I guess I prefer the directness of a verbal punch over a passive aggressive pinch any day, but men can be pretty tough.  Flying alongside the boys for twenty years, I had been trying to be as tough as them.  It wasn’t until a series of stresses, a number of sadnesses came along in sequence.  One after another during the final years of Buddy’s restoration, that my tough exterior started to crack from mental metal fatigue, and all that toughness started to fall away.  Which is a good thing, but when I got one really hard life punch, I didn’t have the exterior metal I was accustomed to wearing to protect me and that blow caused some serious structural failure.  When I was there, in despair, leaking from every pore in my body, without any armor left, my plane reminded me I only had two choices.  To put all that metal back on, reapply all those tough exterior parts I had used as a brace, or leave them off and lighten up.  I listened to him and started enlightening myself with the strength of knowledge, and empowering myself with the power of love and kindness.  I learned the only armor I would ever need would be found in the friendship of people who were looking to lighten up, and enlighten themselves as well.  Change is hard for people, it makes them uncomfortable, and when you change inevitably the skeptics question, “Who does she think she is?”  I won’t answer them except to say.  I am not exactly who I was, or yet exactly who I will be.  I am a project in progress.




My Home

I feel like I’ll never get there.  Home felt like mittens and being wrapped up in sweaters.  It smelled like pot roast and dryer sheets, was lit up with candles, and only missing one thing –  ,

I’ve worked for years to become the person I wanted to be.  Someone really deeply connected with people who love me back.

I don’t know how long or exactly what form my story will take.  Whatever it is, I know it’s a love story about flying.  How flying changed my life, and believing that my biplanes loved me back, saved it…and helped me to find my way home.



Dusk at BrodheadSomedays are the days I break people wide-open when I fly with them, and they actually glow.  They become human glow sticks so luminescent their eyes shine, and their emotion and thoughts become transparent braille, readable on the surface of their skin.  I know that they have broken wide-open when their shoulders relax and they become completely still on the flight controls, when they are wordless, when the tears come. Somedays flights are the special ones, these are the people I go out of my way to fly.  When they finally find me I see it in their eyes, and I hear it in their voices, that a flight to them means much more than just a flight in a rare biplane.  It’s an escape tunnel towards an air bridge, from the dark where they’ve been, into the light they’re trying to get back to.  Even sitting behind them, unable to see their faces, there is much being said between us without words. I know the escape route by heart. Their escape begins the moment I move my hands away from the stick up towards my windshield, and when my feet shift down off the rudder pedals to the floorboards and I say, “you’re flying the airplane.” The door to the tunnel opens, when I give up my powerful to their mend their powerless, when I give up my trust fly to break their trust fall.  I put their life back in their hands along with mine, the moment I stop holding their hand, and I let go.  In that fearful moment, when they first have to make all their own decisions in my big, blind biplane, they start into flow, and just fly.  They forget about me and themselves and where they’ve been, and they start down the tunnel. When I see them ahead of me, flying towards the light at the end and not looking back, that’s when I know they’ve escaped. I don’t see them again until after we land and I look into their eyes, I see that they’ve changed.  Their eyes are glowing back at me, like tapetum lucidum.

Tapetum lucidum, meaning “bright tapestry,” is the glow that animals exhibit when a bright light is shone into their eyes at night. The iridescent quality of their eyes is due to a mirror like membrane at the back of their eye called the tapetum lucidum.  When light enters the eye, it passes to the retina and is reflected from the cells, sending it back to the retina, where it provides double the light as would normally be available.  It allows animals to navigate at night with low light sources, such as the moon and the stars.  So that they can remain hidden in the darkness and survive, hunting for food or shelter.  Humans, and most primates, lack a tapetum lucidum.  Yet I meet people who’s eyes glow, and I feel that their eye shine is a refection of grieving.  They’re afraid of the dark, just like me, and because of that fear they have chosen to become softer and more vulnerable.  Breaking open, instead of just breaking and closing up.  I saw that glow when I flew with Jamie and Lu Ann.

Jamie the PICThey both were special, one I knew had had a great loss, the other, I simply felt a certain sadness from. I didn’t want to fly them because I sympathized with them, I wanted to fly with them because I empathized with them. The ability to empathize with someone, to see things from their perspective and accept it as if it were your own, is the most important gift a teacher can have.  It is also the greatest gift we can give to one another.  I knew that I could get them on the air bridge, reconnecting them to remembering what it was like to feel fearless and full of joy, if I could give them the perfect flight.

I had flown Jamie briefly before, but it was far from a perfect flight.  Buddy knew it, he told me we shouldn’t fly that day.  It was gloomy and cold, kind of a harsh day. He told me by not starting his engine, and Buddy always starts.  Once he finally gave up trying to tell me not to fly, he started up.  On take off I asked Jamie, who is a new tailwheel trained pilot, to be “a little lighter” on the rudder so I could feel my inputs alone.  Buddy’s nose was weather veining to the right, and I knew something wasn’t right. We were on a paved runway and putting back down at that speed was not a safe option. Safety for me is always in the air, and I would have time to figure it out, what was wrong, in Up. I listened to my plane while Jamie flew, then I took the controls as I suspected that something in my rudder cable mechanism had jammed.  We talked it over and we discussed what was wrong with our plane, and how we would handle it together. I told Jamie that we would go back to Hartford, and if the wind was straight down the runway I’d land there. But if there was even the slightest right cross-wind, he was going to get to fly all afternoon until we found the perfect grass runway, into the wind.  As we approached Hartford airport, the crosswind disappeared, and we did a lovely landing in the grass on the north side of the runway.  Thinking about it now, maybe it wasn’t a mistake, and it was the perfect flight for Jamie.  I believe that my talking with him as a copilot and including him in the decision process, fired his mirror neurons.  It became his decision process as well, his safe landing, because Jamie’s eyes were glowing with confidence after we shut down, and he wanted to fly again.

Fearless FifiA few days later I did give Jamie and Lu Ann their perfect flights, and they gave me mine. On a cloudless evening with chiffon air, they both flew off the grass runway at Brodhead, WI.  Jamie flew first with me, then with my barnstormer friend Upside-down Brownell, where he got the chance to do loops and rolls and hammerheads, in Josh’s beautiful Waco.  Lu Ann’s turn was next, and her hands were shaking when she got into my plane.  She was quivering, Lu Ann admitted to me she had a huge crush on Buddy, and was blushing.  Within the first five minutes she was on the controls alone, and I watched as she made her headlong dash down the tunnel.  She hit the air bridge when I couldn’t get her to stop chasing the river, doing lazy eights, and turn back to the airport.  After our flight we hugged each other in silence, then she laid her head on Buddy’s cowling, and she glowed. Lu Ann wrote me later that her new nickname was Fearless Fifi, but I already knew that.

The thing is my friends…things that get used, that get run, that move, that start, that breath, that live and fly – they break.  Everything breaks and everyone breaks.  No matter how much care, love, or maintenance you give, everything will eventually wear out and break. It’s part of the lifecycle.  The measure of living your life courageously, deeply, artfully, is accepting and embracing the fact that we are all vulnerable, and just because we break doesn’t mean we’re broken.  Newton’s third law says, “Forces always come in pairs – equal and opposite action-reaction force pairs,” so breaking is the equal and opposite action-reaction of mending. They’re a pair just like us. When you see someone who is hurting, help them.  Don’t look away, look into them.  When you do, their eyes will shine back at you like tapetum lucidum, and you will become their mirror, and glow.


Lake Geneva

Wausau BallonFestWhen I first started flying in my PT Stearman Blu, I bought Richard Bach’s book Nothing by Chance and read twice.  It was a dreamscape, a wish book for me, for the life I wanted to build once.  I had the desire to be like those men, a Barnstormer.  It’s more than a story for me because I actually know Richard, and Stu MacPherson and Richard’s son Rob. I flew with Stu and Rob on the American Barnstormers Tour.  I have seen that love of adventure in their eyes, and they still carry it with them, though they no longer fly across the country.   They are all larger than life, real presences in my world, not just characters on a page.  In one of the stories in Nothing by Chance, Richard shows Stu how to choose their barnstorming route with the help of an ant, they called it the “Ant Method of Navigation.”  They followed an ant on the sectional chart as Richard instructs Stu, “You just follow him with a pen, now.  Wherever he goes, we go.”  The ant traveled a route that takes him right off the chart towards the piece of pie, the sugar.  It is a great metaphor of the nomadic, rudderless adventure barnstorming appears to be, if you take the term “sugar” at face value.   Professional Barnstormers picked their stops carefully, and the ones that thrived were master marketer’s.  Perfect orchestrators of larger than life promotions, and dare-devil antics, that would draw even the most cynical towns person to a farm field to see the show, and maybe buy a ticket to fly.  In barnstorming, “sugar” is money.  I’m trying to understand the essence of “sugar” for me at the end of this summer, barnstorming with FiFi.  I found such sweetness flying with this loving band of misfit winged things, and I flocked happily with them when I could, but drifted off route to see people and places that I loved.  My definition of “Sugar” has changed, along with me.  I’m more butterfly than barnstormer this year.

AspenI left Steamboat Springs in a booze soaked birthday haze.  As we drove down from 12,500′ on the two lane pass from Aspen on the way to Denver, I started to wring out my brain and sobered to one thought.  Where do I go next?  Buddy was in yet another borrowed hangar in yet another airport, and I was in yet another guest bedroom in yet another city.  We were both safe and well taken care of.  I had totally achieved the essence of Barnstorming, we could go anywhere in the country we wanted.  I have mined flight waiver email addresses and contact info, so that within a few hours I could have a bank of happy customers lined up to take flights wherever I am.  I knew I could support us.  But where did “I” want to go?   I wanted to go home!  I wanted to go home so badly I ached.  I laid my head against the car window and searched for it, but I no idea of where home was except in my plane.  I had carried home with me for so many years, I had lost all concept of it on the ground.   The only thing I could think of was to buy a  ticket to Lakeland, FL for the weekend.  Get my client mailing list I had forgotten on my computer, get some fall clothes, and get my hair done.  Then somehow get all of that, and me, back north to get Buddy and just fly somewhere, anywhere.

Lake Geneva, WIBy the second day in Lakeland I was wading through a sea of dirty laundry and months of unopened mail floating on my floor, doing absolutely nothing I should be doing, and everything I wanted to do.  Actually I was having a pretty good time visiting gal pals, doing hair and nails and shopping, but I was not sleeping at all.  I had slept like a baby in hotel rooms and guest bedrooms all over the country, but I couldn’t sleep more than a couple hours in my own bed. On the second night I woke up at 4:10am at the foot of my bed, stuck to my comforter after crying myself to sleep.  My eyes were swollen slits, and I sat up in the dark and knew I had to leave.  This wasn’t home to me. I walked out to the kitchen and got a glass of water and looked at my phone, it was full of messages from friends in southern Wisconsin.  For me these texts and voicemails became a map in the dark, and I started to think of where the most light was concentrated…and I saw it.  I saw my route home.  I have always chosen to call a place home, to live somewhere because of a job, or my husband, or family and friends.  This time I knew I would find home where the most love was.  That was my “sugar.”

Within twenty-four hours my car was packed and I was driving away from Lakeland.  Buddy is the last plane I will ever have, and I can’t imagine leaving him alone in a cold dark hangar for a whole winter, I would miss flying him too much.  So I will keep my hangar in Lakeland for a winter base, but mostly because landing there, and hearing Terry’s voice in the tower, still sounds like home.  Lots of love for us there.  But it’s not my real home.  I miss fall colors, and the smell of snow and wood smoke too much.  Florida hasn’t felt right to me for a long time.

I love travel and being nowhere, it will always be part of who I am, and I will always have a home in my plane somewhere in the air below 1500’.  This I know, but I need to find one on the ground as well, it’s time.  So I’ve picked a place to land.  It’s a perfect pink treehouse, right downtown in Lake Geneva, WI where I can walk and ride my bike everywhere. It faces south with light all day so I can paint, and has a porch that stretches all across the front, overlooking the lake. Buddy has a home too, in Hartford at Cub Air Flight, where we will be the guest instructor for September.  There’s soft grass and freshwater and cool nights there, and the best part is…I’m right over a wine bar!  Wish me luck.  It may not be the exact right place, but I’m going in for a landing to see.  I’m not sure this is home, but I know I’m getting closer!


Steamboat Springs

OSH 2013Watching the night airshow at AirVenture this year my eyes lit up with the ballet of incandescent winged things, trailing sparkles and smoke through layers of blue twilight.  The  airshow performers were perfect dancing spectacles of glowing grace, twirling and hurling in cloudless skies.  They twinkled at us from a vertical stage that stretched forever, like lightning bugs captured briefly in a glass sky box on our night stand.  It was theater of the air, but a tragic comedy to listen to.  The music scoring most of the acts was so bad I wanted silence. If I couldn’t have dreamy silence, then at least a little night music that matched the airplanes movements, to make me feel as deeply as I was seeing.

Maybe it’s my degree in theater, or the years working in arts marketing and promotions that makes me amazed, and saddened, by the unimaginative staging of airshows.  AirVenture was the first airshow I ever saw.  I remember watching it a decade ago and being quickly bored with the whining and droning of the engines, and performers zooming endlessly up and down without a storyline, or even a relevant musical score.  That afternoon I was ready to walk away when the air exploded with bass and fire and smoke, and the mesmerizing chaos of the Master’s of Disaster pounded my ears and eyes and drew me back in.  Finally a real show, one that raised the hair on my arms and imprinted itself in all my senses.  I still remember what the air smelled like and how their music made me feel watching them for the first time. I’ve always believed music leaves permanent tattoos on our lives.

OSH 2013 Night airshowLately I’ve heard way too much Lee Greenwood and 1940s music.  During the week at AirVenture I was surrounded by lyrical accents of people from all over the globe.  I was embarrassed that the best welcome we could give them, to the biggest aviation celebration on the planet, was playing, “I’m proud to be an American,”  again and again.  Looking around me during each airshow I saw a sea of young faces, yet all I heard was old men’s voices and old men’s music on the PA.  Where was the rock, the pop, the hip hop – this generation’s music?  I asked the Presten boys, both in their teens, about the music and announcers during the airshow, did they like it?  Both replied, “No, it totally sucks.”  How could the show producers not understand the power of music to influence, and drive a future generation of loyal brand fanatics?  How could they not understand the capacity music has to imprint on our right side brain?  Music defines generations, it scores all of our lives, and every young person there lost the opportunity to have that airshow permanently tattooed in their memory.  The Presten boys, and all the other teenagers at AirVenture, just watched an airshow, when they deserved to feel an airshow.  And all the adults making the decision to play their decades old music, lost an opportunity to make a memory for every young person there.  That’s pretty selfish, adults already have so many song memories of our own.

Boat party belowA few weeks after AirVenture, I sat on Andy’s back deck in Steamboat Springs, CO.  It’s the same deck that has been the stage for decades of lawn parties, sun parties, and snow parties, each one scored to our music.  It was a half-an-hour before midnight and I was hiding.  I’ve started playing a strange game with my songs from iTunes.  I select “purchased” from my playlist and hit shuffle, then see what comes next.  What came next out of my iPhone, was a song by Train – a sticky, beautiful, tragic song for me.  It took me immediately back, almost four Novembers, to when I first heard it.  It had been so hopeful for me then, now it was just hopeless, the only song in my personal songbook that was painful for me to hear. I thought I had deleted it.  But there it was, first out of the box, scoring my night like the hundreds of other songs in my life.  I knew all the time, speed, and distance in the world would never erase the memory of that song, or any of my life’s songs.  Just then my phone lit up with a text from Daniel, known to us simply as “D.”  He had noticed my disappearance from the house party, raging full force downstairs, and was checking in.  D texted me, hi from the floor below. love my hat. glad we are here with you.”  Sweet Daniel to the rescue.  I texted him, “back deck join me.”  D sat with me in the moonlight and we talked, mostly about starting our own businesses, and taking bold adventures at a stage in our lives when most of our friends were winding their adventures down.  Just before midnight, we stood up to rejoin the party downstairs and I hit shuffle on my iPhone, one more time.  Steve Winwood came next, and I smiled.  It took me immediately back to my first real job after college, at a summer stock theater in Traverse City doing their PR.  For just a few moments I was flying down M22 in my 1984 Mazda, with the sunroof open and singing along to Back in the High Life, racing to Leland after work to make the sunset on Lake Michigan.  I said to D, “Perfect, let’s go drink some champagne!”

It’s these life songs, these icky, sticky, painfully beautiful, permanent musical tattoo’s, both good and bad, that keep track of where we’ve been – even when sometimes we would rather forget.  They remind us that we should be the only ones who get to score our lives.




Andy and Me

At some point, we can all decide which parts of our history to record, and which parts we want to rewrite.

IMG_2020I will be fifty years old next Saturday, and we are flocking west on the B-29 tour.  Further west than I have ever flown, to Denver, Colorado, landing  at Rocky Mountain Metro two days before my birthday.  Denver is home to me, because it is the home of my oldest and dearest friend, Andy.  Andy has been my constant companion for thirty-five years.  His mother and my mother were childhood friends, so he and I grew up just down the road from each other, in polar opposite households.  Though our houses where completely different, we are exactly alike. So much so, we finish each other’s thoughts, and talk over one another in a silly, secret shared language of coded words and show tunes. I always wanted to trade my small, safe, watchful family for his big, wild, unsupervised one.  I suppose Andy wanted to trade his for mine as well.  When I would complain about my parents constant monitoring of my whereabouts, he would remind me how lucky I was to have someone actually care where I was.  It’s taken me thirty-five years to realize he was right, now I’m proud of being loved by so many people, and being expected to check in. It is a privilege, not an imposition, and this summer I’ve all but lost my longing to disappear

The last time I flew in Denver was over a decade ago, in a rented Piper Seminole, to get recurrent as a Flight Instructor at Centennial Airport so I could return to flying again. Two years earlier I had thrown my beeper in the Gulf of Mexico, and resigned from my LearJet job on the West coast of Florida.   I was sick and tired of hauling owners bags, and their ego’s, to vacation destinations across the country.  The rewards I had found being called “Lifeguard,” flying air ambulance, I had lost when I took a pilot job with a jet management firm.  I found myself just automating a swept wing limo, not flying anything.   I was burnt out on commercial aviation and everything else – I couldn’t get out of Florida fast enough.  After a semester in graduate school at the Savannah College of Art and Design, I was awarded a scholarship to a design program in Denver.  It was a perfect escape to somewhere safe…safe for me was Andy and Denver.

I remember sitting in the right seat of the Seminole that morning, with my right arm so numb I could barely hold the yolk.  Soon after I had arrived in Denver, I found myself waking up with my lower arm almost paralyzed each morning.  Andy took me to one of the clinics he managed to see his boss, a physical therapist named Jo.  She told me that I didn’t have a physical injury, but that I was clenching my right hand so tight at night, making a fist with such strength, I was actually paralyzing my own arm by morning.  She was right, I was fighting back in my sleep, something I couldn’t do by day.  The main reason I left Florida was because when I ended a relationship with a long time boyfriend, his response to my leaving was to threaten to kill me.  It was the first time in my life I knew fear, real fear.  I’ve always lacked “stranger danger,” so the idea that someone who I had loved, and who loved me, would actually want to hurt me was devastating.  I blamed myself for choosing so badly, and kept it a secret from everyone but my immediate family.  I came home from visiting the physical therapist that night to Andy’s house, and we sat in his basement, watching the Simpsons, and I finally told him my secret.  My secret was that I was scared to death and being threatened.  Then, as he had done my whole life, Andy’s response was to make me laugh.  He told me, “Oh honey, you’re a huge mess. This guy is a bully and we aren’t afraid of bullies.  We’ll get that arm fixed tomorrow, now let’s have a cock.”  (That’s code for cocktail.)  Andy fixed me and my arm within a month.  He made a plaster cast of my open hand, so I couldn’t make a fist, and wrapped it in an ace bandage.  Then locked my doors and checked in with me each night until the nightmares were less.  He found me a Shrinkyboo (That’s code for psychologist) to talk to, who reaffirmed that this guy was just a jerk and a bully, and that I was going to be fine once I learned how to develop a little “stranger danger.”  I got a good resume and I was hired at Fantasy of Flight, and eventually moved back to Florida to fly again.  I left Denver not completely healed, that would take years, but I had a really strong bandage.

So it’s fitting that this year I return to Denver.  I find the closer I get to the mountains and the closer I get to fifty, the closer I get to being fearless.  To me being fearless means letting go of the death grip on certainty and safety nets, and just free-falling, head first into some magical unknown.  Believing I’ll not only survive it, but thrive in it, wherever “it” is.  You have to really know fear to believe you can become fearless.  People ask me, “Aren’t you afraid of flying by yourself?”  No, I was afraid of not being alive, to fly by myself.  People ask me, “Aren’t you afraid of test flying your brand new Speedmail?”  No, I was afraid of a message on my answering machine, from the man who threatened me.  I didn’t recognize the phone number, so I googled it, and the call was from an office at the FAA.  It wasn’t lost on me that he had called from his office at the FAA, so I would know that he could track me, “flight follow” me throughout my life, and threaten what I loved most, being a pilot.  When I heard his message, I threw my answering machine in the trash, along with all my home phones, and repeated Andy’s words, “We aren’t afraid of bullies!”

The icing on my cake this birthday year is I’m playing make-believe  in a graphic novel for my new Jimmie Allen Flying Club, with the most creative group of people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.  I have none of the qualifiers most women use to measure their lives by this age, and no safety nets.  I have no husband, no children, no house, and not even a date for my birthday dinner.  To make it all the more crazy-perfect, I have absolutely no idea what the future will bring and I should be scared to death…but I am having the time of my life!  I am free-falling fearlessly into tomorrow, by savoring every minute of today.  Especially happy that my phone blows up each night with people who love me and are waiting for me to check in that I am somewhere safe, after a beautiful flight from nowhere.




 I’m very proud of my flying career and what I wrote documenting my journey. The posts have multiple meanings to the reader but only I know the intended message in each.  This was about why things don’t happen to me.  Why there was a group of men, none of whom I had a sexual relationship with exception of Chuck, who were always there protecting me.The metal has a memory was a cautionary tale directed at one person who is living a very inauthentic life – that it would take a toll on their health. A third theme is being broken, unable to move forward.  A fourth is my getting a wonderful birthday gift, so only I know what this means and am left guessing what others might think.  I imagine we all like to think we had something important to do with our lives. That’s probably just ego talking. People often said to me they wish they had pursued a flying career. I held my tongue and didn’t reply, “Well, what stopped you?” Most pilots who have flown professionally know that what is really being said, without being said, is that they didn’t want make the sacrifice. The money is always the sacrifice. Building time, being a CFI can be achieved while holding a job and holding on to all the luxury items that people like in their lives. But the years after are the dog years, sleeping on floors, wearing a beeper, getting paid 20k annual salary to build turbine time. Fact is, if you don’t pursue something then you are happy where you are. People like to be comfortable, even if they’re called to do greater things most prefer to be comfortable than to change. They’re happy. And I’m always glad to hear someone is happy in the life of their choosing. All I ever wanted was one honest conversation.

At dinner in Madison last night, I got a text from my friend Chuck Gardner who flies the P51 , with a picture of his throttle on the Mustang broken completely in half.  My first thought was poor little Mustang.  All those different hands and all the years of rough treatment on one thin piece of metal, connecting so many pilots to the heart of that plane.  Metal has such a long memory…my second thought was of Jon Hedgecock.

Jon was Chuck’s co-worker and a pilot at Warbird Adventures in Kissimmee Florida, who gave hands-on flights and instruction in the WWII advanced trainer, the T-6 Texan.   Jon was a beautiful man, he was also physically beautiful, with a long mane of wavy brown hair.  He was witty, sarcastic, and an excellent pilot; beloved by everyone he flew. Jon died in the T-6 with another pilot, May 6, 2005.  In the months following the crash, we learned it was due to a metal fatigue failure of the forward lower wing attach flange, discovered by the investigation team from the NTSB. The FAA issued an AD, an airworthiness directive, that all T-6’s had to have fluorescent dye penetrant inspections of the wing attach flanges, at intervals of 200 hours time in service. The inspection method described in the AD said it, “Should be capable of detecting relatively small cracks that are still growing relatively slowly,” from stress fatigue.  Jon and his passenger’s death, and the weakness that was discovered in the T-6 wing attach flange, may have saved other’s lives.  Too bad they don’t have dye penetrant inspections for people.

I am not mechanically savvy and I am very comfortable with the knowledge that “I fly em but I don’t fix em.”  So when I asked for help for how this could happen to my plane from my airplane guru Jack McCloy, to understand this failure and Jon’s death, he told me simply, “Metal has a memory.”  He explained to me in “Sarah speak,” that if I pulled too many G’s and overstressed my wood and fabric airplane, exceeding its limits, it would break right there and then.  Wood and fabric airplanes are lucky that way.  If we push them beyond their limitations they are honest enough to tell you immediately.  Then we can go beneath their skin and inspect them to see exactly what’s been broken. Metal airplanes like the T-6 are so strong, and built to be so tough, that they can be pushed to, and beyond, their manufacturer’s published limits, and still not fail.  They can be over-stressed  by pilots, becoming weaker and weaker until one day they simply can’t take anymore.  The day that they do break can come without warning, because they’re so tough they accumulate their stresses, holding them within.  Poor metal planes.

1005465_661911520504696_552685504_nI flew up from Brodhead to KMSN early to do some work and wait for FiFi and gang to join me for the big Bomber Show this weekend.  I also have a fuel leak in my fuel selector valve and feel the responsibility to be very careful getting us into Oshkosh. The selector valve is working perfectly in the main tank position, and so there it will stay until we go to Sammy Taber’s place after Airventure. I have an ever growing army of helpers coordinating a caravan of Jimmie Allen Flying Club stuff for me north. They have gone to Herculean efforts to get everything there, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world.  My best gal pal Jenny Jenn, is running all over Polk County to pick up signs and posters to deliver to Jack and Sally to be driven to Oshkosh.  Wade is flying into Madison for a extra set of pilot eye’s in my front seat.  The Kimball’s are driving in to Madison early to join me, and Mirco is coming in from Italy to unveil our latest creation.  We are writing a graphic novel for a new Jimmie Allen Flying Club.  I first met Mirco two years ago at Oshkosh, sitting with the Kimball’s in the IAC pavilion.  Once Mirco and I started laughing together we never stopped.  On that first meeting he said, “Sarah, you are Indiana Jones. I call you Indy from now on, because we are going together on a great adventure!”  He was right, and for two years now we’ve worked on my dream of reinventing the Jimmie Allen Flying Club in a relevant way, and that it would be designed for teenagers, they are the decision-makers I really want to reach.  So my Italian twin Mirco, and I have developed this wacky virtual office playground, where we Skype or FaceTime for hours to communicate across continents, while I’m flying all over the country in Buddy.  I’m spending so much virtual time with him, I am now virtually part of his family.  Mirco even takes me into his house on weekends, so I can say Ciao Bella to his wife Monica and his children Simone and Frederica.

Sometimes, late at night Skypeing, Mirco and I are really tired and become more serious.  In between my endless story updates, layout ideas, and compulsive design changes, we talk about some of the deepest and scariest things we both face in our lives. Just like the wood and fabric planes we are both trying to save, we allow ourselves to break, then we look beneath our skin to see exactly what’s been broken.  We patch and repair ourselves by laughing, Mirco and I are lucky that way.  Mirco moons Sarah, Sarah tells Mirco a really, really dirty joke, Mirco draws a smiley face on his toe and shoves it back in the computer camera, and on and on until we’ve forgotten what we were worried about, and go back to coloring happily together.

So in my imaginary world, work has become play, and play has become work, all the while effortlessly creating beautiful winged things and dreamscape. When Mirco and I are done with it, we send it all to Mary, a gifted young artist in Illinois, to draw Jimmie, Sarah, and Buck into the comic we are building together.  Mary Claire and her brother Jack gave me the best birthday present ever when they sent Mary’s drawing of me as a comic character, standing by my Speedmail, and asked, “Have you ever considered doing a graphic novel, a comic?”  How incredible is that? For my 50th birthday I get to be a 18 year old girl again, solving the mystery of, “Who is Jimmie Allen,” and discovering a hidden world with a private airfield and a wooden hangar full of fabric planes waiting to be built and flown by a bunch of my friends. Happy Birthday to me…Yippee!