Landings and Take Offs

Posted on September 3, 2019


A few weeks ago, as I was walking my dogs, I saw a squadron of about fifteen geese on their final approach to a beautiful and graceful landing. They were in delightful formation, descending and weaving in and out of as they aimed for a lake at the old University golf course over by the University Arboretum.

The guys flared nicely as each approached the water, wings spread out, a few flaps to brake, and then they almost floated onto the surface of the lake, no doubt commenting to each other on another perfect landing on their journey south for the winter.

Watching them reminded me of take offs and landings in my career as a private pilot since I earned my pilot certificate in the spring of 1989.

What is it about flying that fascinates some of us to want to do it, not simply sit in a seat in a big jet liner like so many crows, but sit in the cockpit and actually fly the aircraft?

Now that the “Squad” of four Democratic congresswomen have embraced the “New Green Deal” with enthusiasm and are planning for the end of commercial aviation in ten years or so to clean up our planet, I thought I’d better remember how much I loved to fly, and thoroughly enjoyed it, before we all move back to earth. However, if the Squad and others of their persuasion are to bring this to pass in the same way they have turned L. A. and San Francisco into human sewers, perhaps we’ll still be flying in ten or fifteen years. That would be nice.

Flying is pretty new to us. The first successful powered flight was three years after my father was born in 1900. By the way we measure the passage of time, that’s hardly yesterday. We all know the story, or at least used to. I’d not be surprised if Jesse Waters did his “man in the street” interviews on some street corner in New York and nobody he talked to had the faintest idea who the Wrights brothers were. I can only imagine the answers.

But for those of us with fixation on flying since we were little kids, Wilbur and Orville Wright had the “right stuff,” another ancient term associated with pilots who did all sorts of things that left most of us with our mouths agape.

I wanted to fly naval aviation but was so far back in the pack in my NROTC class that when the time came for assignments, I ended up in the amphibious fleet rather than on the deck of a supercarrier doing my Tom Cruise thing. I enjoyed the amphibs though, storming beaches and bars across the Caribbean and Mediterranean seas for a couple of years.

But I never gave up on flying, although my career as a university professor did not seem to be aiming in that direction. Let me preach a bit here. If you have a vision or a calling or a hankering to do something and have let it go for mundane things like raising a family, paying bills, going to the grocery store, and working in your little tomato patch in your spare time, don’t give up.

But by the time I was in my late 40s I was not on the aviation track. I was teaching, writing books and articles and even had received a Fulbright to go to Peru in 1988, which I did, since it was a feather in one’s academic cap. Besides, I had grown up in Peru and liked to return. That the country was racked by a violent terrorist movement named the Shining Path only made the semester I spent teaching there even more interesting, with bombs, blackouts, and other tools of terrorists.

By then I had already taken my first flying lesson with an old student of mine, Ernesto Kortright, who also was a flight instructor. I had mentioned to Ernesto that I had always wanted to fly, and he said, “well, let’s go up.”

Let’s go up? I thought. Then, why not? I was past a very sad time in my life and had not yet connected with a very bright side that would open in a few years, and so, I thought, why not?

When? I asked Ernesto.

How about Sunday?

Ok, after I church, I told Ernesto to make sure I got the eternal taken care of in case of something.

He laughed. No problem prof. It’s all very safe.

And we went up. And when we landed, our little single engine Cessna, a 150 for you flying nuts, was bouncing up and down in the heat waves coming off the summertime concrete runway. I thought how is he ever going to get this down without killing us?

Ernesto was cool as a cucumber, just keeping a light touch on the wheel with one hand and the other on the throttle, letting the little plane bounce around as we leveled off and then flared a bit, and touched down.

I was hooked. I had scraped up enough to pay for Ernesto and the plane, and promptly began to squirrel away some more bucks for the next flight, and then the next flight, until one day in the spring of 1989 when I went up and soloed.

I saw the flock of geese in flight on another walk with the dogs after I witnessed them do their perfect landing mentioned above. They had taken off, all seventeen of them, and were cruising over east Tuscaloosa, probably practicing flying in formation, as if they needed to.

I envied them and their God-given flying skills that allowed them to do effortlessly what we pilots trained and trained to do without killing ourselves or destroying our little, or big as the case may be, planes. But God endowed us too with some remarkable skills, not the least of which one is actually building the planes, and the second is flying them, just like the geese, kind of.

Published as “Why do some of us want to fly?” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday Sept. 1, 2019