Flying Lessons

Flight Lesson – 26

wp01_800x600 In the years counting up to the time you start growing young again, it is easy to forget the worst thing that can happen to anyone is losing their first best friend. People worry about losing so many things, because people think they get to own everything, but that’s the best part of a friend.  Friends choose you and you choose them.

When I first met my first plane, it looked so much bigger than the only other Stearman I knew.  A faded Diana Creme and orange striped plane, that looked just plain. Her owner was my friend and anything but plain.   He was a successful pro athlete who had traded places with whom “he wished he could be,” to actually become it.  A professional barnstormer.  He gave me my first Stearman lessons off Kermit’s private grass strip after his customers had left for the night.  He told me if I could fly a Stearman, I could fly anything.  I loved flying his biplane.  It was light and gentle.  No weight to the controls, no stiffness in the throttle, and no break in the stall.  I named her Crème Puff and left pink lipstick kisses on her metal cowling.  My plane was different.  It wasn’t feminine at all; gleaming in Army blue and yellow military colors.  A stunning 1943 PT-17.  The 111th Stearman Pete Jones restored at AirRepair and given the buzz number 111 by the builder.

A Stearman was a sentimental and dangerous choice for someone with 7 hours of tailwheel time and I was afraid of it.  I was right to be.    My few hours of tailwheel time were not at all compensated by my 3000+ hours of airplane time. While I had flown all types of aircraft, from pistons to jets, I had never really learned how to fly.  My boyfriend at the time Chuck, an unflappable lover of tailwheel airplanes, was the second set of training wheels in my front seat.  Another man who had traded places with whom “he wished he could be,” to actually become it.  A professional warbird pilot.  While both tailwheel teachers had very different styles, they had one thing in common.  They were both way over six feet tall.  Giant guardians of me, blocking any bit of forward visibility with their broad shoulders.  If I complained, they’d prop their arms over the sides of the cockpit cowling and make what little I could see, completely disappear.  I learned quickly not to complain.

Chuck and I left Brandywine, PA on June 11, 2005 to bring my Stearman back to Lakeland, FL.  I said, “This plane is trying to kill me,”  again and again on the trip.   It wasn’t trying to kill me, it was trying to tell me something.  Years of poor pilot technique and neglect had created a pretty unhappy biplane. The plane was definitely a “he” and I named him Blu on the trip home.  His shiny exterior was a veneer, hiding all the things wrong within him.  333 hours on his engine in 11 years wasn’t nearly enough.  One hour before we landed in Lakeland, the rear main bearing went out.  His Continental W670 engine was making metal.  It would have to be taken off, driven to AirRepair in Chuck’s truck, and rebuilt.  A month later, he had an engine with the improved roller bearing.  Next was the gear.  Blu had toe-in and wasn’t rigged right.  Darting, every which way, on take off and landing.  The brakes were mounted wrong.  The scissor-bushings were cracked.  His magneto timing was off.  The worst was the “Continental Cough.”  That was when we had our come-to-Jesus-talk.  Blu would just up and quit on me.  The engine would suddenly stop, then start back up again, with no change of power.  I never knew when it was going to happen. That was NOT allowed and I told him so.  “If I go down you go down.  I can’t fix you if you keep scaring the hell out of me, so cut it out.”   Blu was a mess.  With each failure we fixed him.  I became a self taught Plane Whisperer, explaining things wrong in “Sarah speak” to the best A&P’s in the business.  I flew him back to AirRepair to get his annual inspection early. Had Pete do every possible improvement at great expense.  We flew together on an engine that never missed or failed after that. Then hung a second engine after we had run 1400 hours together on the first.  What I didn’t learn, until after our first year together, was Blu had been totaled in a mid-air collision.  He was a ball of metal, wood, and human flesh embedded into the ground of a duster strip in Mississippi.  Nothing of the original plane remained except the registration paperwork when he was built in 1994.  Planes mirror people in extraordinary ways.  Blu’s physical form had been restored but his history remained.  I learned to operate him with skill and grace and he learned to trust that I would take the very best care of him. Something no pilot had ever done.  We became best friends and two parts of a whole after that first year.  I knew exactly why that plane found me and why I found him.

I sold Blu out of fear.  Fear I would not have enough money to keep him.  Fear I was not big enough to care for two planes in the final years of Buddy’s restoration.  I have no regrets except that one.  Fear.  Everything I have done; that may have been stupid, spontaneous, or even reckless was a decision motivated by love.  But selling Blu was a knee jerk response to fear.  The antithesis of what flying is all about.  I hated every moment of the transition and hated myself for selling.  I sat in the hangar with Blu for weeks, talking.  Promising I would get him back soon.  Blu didn’t believe me but he had never met anyone like me.  I’ve had an army of pilots reporting on my plane’s well-being ever since.  There is a brotherhood among vintage aircraft owners that runs deep.

On the last day of May, I woke up at 4am, and started Googling Blu’s N-number.  My intuition said he was for sale.  I had to get my friend.  Blu was sold and about to be ferried to the new owner in Texas.  Robbie Vajdos was the ferry pilot, a good stick, and one of the brotherhood.  Blu was in safe hands for the moment.  On June 11, ten years to the date I flew him home from Pennsylvania,  I called Robbie to see how I could get my plane back.  Robbie said he had an idea that might work but not sure.  Buy another Stearman for the new owner, give me time to raise the money, and be back on the 29th.  Perfect timing.  I have no idea if the deal will work out or if I can support two planes.  I have far less money than I did then.  The thousands of people I flew in Blu’s front seat have defined me, and him.  Buddy can’t do that.  He was designed for a different mission.  He’s a show plane, not a trainer, and I miss teaching tailwheel.

Are we the sum of who we care for, or is who we care for the sum of who we are?  I have struggled to be anything but my planes.  Something apart, a separate entity with my own identity.  Maybe that’s just a battle between ego and me.  Could I be anything greater than the sum of the people I help to fly?  People who contact me year after year, telling me how flight changed their life.  Healed a wound, erased a fear, gave them a deep connection with joy and freedom.  Is what defines Flight Instructors what defines planes?   A vehicle to lift a human spirit.  Friends chose you and you choose them. You and I have something important to continue together and neither of us can do it without the other one. We’ve missed each other so.