Winthrop. It’s an airport alright. I can see it slipping rather quickly beneath my wing as I look it over. Technically it’s an airstrip of dirt, gravel and grass less than a thousand feet long (960 feet—but who’s counting) with towering, plane grabbing trees on each end and a road with traffic crossing on one of those ends with drivers who pay no attention to planes on their roads. Most would never call this an airstrip—let alone an airport. But the locals know it is their quickest connection to the mainland, so therefore it is not only an airport—it’s their airport and they are right proud of the fact it’s a notorious dragon waiting to swallow any plane it does not approve of. Passengers fortunate enough to fly over it to its big brother a few miles away never even notice it as it slides slowly underneath them. If their pilot is bored enough to point it out to them they still rarely see it, and if one of them does happen to pick that short strip of dirt and gravel out of the trees…they think it’s a dirt road and we are telling stories as we pilots are wont to do. I can assure you it is in fact an airport though; it has the windsock to prove it! Ahhh the windsock. Winthrop’s windsock could have stories of its own written about it since it often just points in any direction that pleases it. Those stories will be saved for another day, today we need to land this plane and deliver the ever important U.S. Mail. And land we surely will, but first I must paint a quick picture for you. I must attempt to describe to you a place that seems set back to a quieter, more peaceful place in time. This medium sized island is relatively flat and lies twelve miles off the coast of Maine, it is named Stone Island after the beautiful smooth brown stones found on its beaches. During the summer months there are many people living on the island, but the year round residents mostly work in some way with the fishing industry and a handful work for taking care of the many tourists. Although the island is not heavily populated, with approximately eight-hundred year round residents; at the peak of the tourist season it can easily rise to nearly 3,000 people when including its wealthy summer residents. These wealthy additions to the island add a unique flavor and sometimes…some very interesting stories in their own right. Well enough of my babbling, let’s land this bird shall we?
Winthrop is one of the hardest strips we operate out of on the best of days, but it can be a real bugger in the wind. The wind you say? Wind is relative right? I mean, it could be minor nuisance to a mariner and at the same time a gale to those at an outdoor wedding. But what is it that makes the wind an issue to a steely eyed, chiseled chin aviator that can fly over the highest mountains, or through the darkest of nights? Well as pilots we all have wind stories, but when it comes down to it—wind is just something we deal with. The wind is something that we have to work with because we cannot change it. The wind can be the ultimate equalizer. Never mind that it can scare the living hell out of pilots and make them want to sell shoes for a living…let’s just say it can wear you down trying to fly through it all day long and totally bust your bubble when you feel you’ve finally mastered the pilot’s domain of the sky. For example, I cannot say “Boss, it’s rather windy today. I’d prefer to not fly until it’s a little more forgiving. You know, maybe say…tomorrow?” Nope, suck it up Daedalus. Get the mail and drop it off at the post office tout suite! As pilots we do tend to exaggerate the winds ferocity and tenacity, certainly its ability to end a flight with visions reserved only for Hollywood. But truthfully it’s just the wind…it’s just air…air flowing like a river of water around all the obstructions that get in its way and it can make for some really interesting flying.
But I digress—why go on and on about the wind when I cannot do a single thing about it and all I need to do is land my craft as I have been doing all summer long. Day in, day out, multiple times a day. Pull that throttle back! Trim that nose up! Slow her down…hold it off a bit longer! Land already! Pretty simple when viewed this way. Mr. Pilot just do everything as you’ve learned from the books and your instructors and all will be well and good. However, on days like this, when the winds are gusting out of the northwest it’s anything but simple. As a matter of fact it can be downright dangerous and very intolerant of a ham-fisted pilot neglecting to listen to his plane. My company alone has had accidents and incidents at most of our island airstrips; certainly Winthrop would be no different. Hardly, Winthrop has had numerous incidents and is the main reason for our sky high insurance rates! Well I can’t sit around here whining about the dangers involved, I have to try and avoid those dangers, use my skill and judgment to accomplish the task of landing this airplane. So I do what I do best, I take a deep breath, say a quick prayer and ask for the forgiveness of any young maiden I may have wronged in the past—then I start my turn onto final approach. Final approach, no truer words are spoken.
The airplane is a machine. I mean it’s hundreds, possibly thousands of moving parts working together to serve one purpose—to fly. That in itself is absolutely amazing. I mean who in their right mind could have envisioned man jumping into a contraption (pardon me Mr. Airplane, I use these words loosely) meant to “break the surly bonds”? Airplanes are amazing! My particular steed is an exceptional example, it has personality…it has style. Our company is rather unique in that it really likes us pilots and hopes we make it back to our original point of departure. After writing this I think I may not be entirely correct, maybe they really are just hoping their airplane comes back and it’s reusable? Maybe they don’t even think of us pilots much? Well I’m not entirely sure what their motive is but truth be known, they take really good care of their pilots and their planes and for that alone I’m grateful. All of our planes have numerous modifications allowing us to do things Clyde Cessna never approved nor dreamed of. However, as mentioned earlier, my craft has style—and that is important. Now an engineer or an analyst would say “Style? What are you talking about Mr. Pilot? This plane is the leading edge of technology…able to leap tall buildings with a single bound, fly through the nastiest of weather, land precisely on the runway even in fog…and you talk of style???” Well yes Mr. Engineer…Mr. Analyst—this plane has style and any pilot worth his salt will say he’s flying the best machine ever made, bar none, no questions asked—the sexiest, fastest, most beautiful mistress in the world, which is how any pilot worth his big fancy wrist watch views his plane. Style may not make the plane operate better, but it sure makes the pilot think the plane is flying better, and that is half the battle.
As I roll the airplane to the left aligning myself with the short dirt strip I notice a bird circling slowly in front of me. I’m not worried about hitting this bird, they are around us all of the time and I can see I will pass well below this one just prior to landing. However, I do think back to other pilots mentioning things like; “Those birds will dive straight down at you like they’re on a one-way mission” or, “You remember that bird that dived down and hit old Stan? Well he damn near died that day and would’ve if not for his quick thinking and dashing good looks.” Quick note…aren’t all pilots dashingly good looking and have the quick responses of the greats like Bob Hoover and Chuck Yeager? Well I know I certainly am and do so I figured this bird was no problem to me, I would be able to avoid him with ease. As it grew closer I could see it was not a bird. A bird is a sparrow, a pigeon, a crow or maybe even a hawk. But this “bird” was not a bird at all, it was enormous! This thing was as big as my plane, it had to be one of those plane killing birds known commonly as Cathartes aura…aka the turkey buzzard! And even he was having a hard time in this gusting wind! Good Lord, maybe I should just admit defeat, call upon all my godly piloting abilities and go home to tell the boss that “Winthrop no longer exists—it just isn’t where it normally is today boss. Maybe I should try again later—when the winds have died down.” I mean that would be the proper thing to do right? I’m supposed to be the professional that constantly evaluates my surroundings and determine if my cargo or passengers can safely be delivered to their destination. But this time I had to land. This time I really didn’t have the option of powering up and going home. This time I had to complete my mission. I mean, I had the U.S. Mail in the back and isn’t their mantra “Neither rain, sleet, snow nor ice”? So there it is written all over the bags behind me—I was landing this plane and delivering this mail. How else could I justify wearing my leather jacket, scarf and goggles (and big watch) if I couldn’t even get this plane on the ground. Anyone can do this stuff. I mean when is the last time you heard of one being left up there in the air? They always come down!
I ease the power back to idle and the engine purrs like a hundred angels on Sunday even as the noise of the engine slowly diminishes to a slow rumble and occasional pop. I push the propeller control fully forward and the plane slows slightly as I press the flap lever forcing the flaps to lower like the sun on a warm summer day. The plane starts to rumble and feel sluggish as planes do when you add flaps and drag, and this is exactly what I want it to do. You see, as mentioned earlier…this strip is only 960 feet long. I have A LOT of weight onboard; there is no headwind component to speak of because it is nearly all gusting, plane crushing crosswind. Therefore I have to slow this plane down well below the recommended approach speed to keep from running off the other end of the runway and into those motorists who aren’t looking for airplanes on their road! But if I slow it too much the plane will plummet into the ground leaving my bags of mail scattered about the crash site haphazardly—not really good to have on ones resume. The plane protests my slow approach speed by rolling dramatically to the left as a gust slams into the right side of the plane, I counter with abrupt control movements to the right to ward off the impending roll…possibly a stall and subsequent spin only to find I’ve added too much control movement because the gust unexpectedly went away faster than it came on! This fast, jerky dance between me and my airplane looks hideous when viewed by a non-pilot, but it’s the only way to even remotely stand a chance of getting the craft safely down and stopped at this airstrip. This erratic dance continues and results in abrupt control movements all the way down final approach, leaving me not a second to account for the vulture and how he makes out in these blustery conditions.
What normally takes 10 to 15 seconds on final feels like eternity but I find myself doing what I am supposed to be doing and listening to those who’ve gone before me…making a respectable landing—smooth even. As pilots we know our smoothest landings will come when no one is there to witness our aeronautical prowess. Whenever we have observers, on the ground or in the air, we never seem to get the landings we desire but we sure do make for some interesting conversations with our abilities to bounce airplanes down the runway. This time I not only make a presentable landing, but I also manage to stop the plane prior to the cars that are ignoring the flashing lights and speeding across the road ahead of me. My bags of mail are nonplussed; they offer no sign of thanks for my otherworldly piloting skills and sit silently in the back waiting for me to carry them to their next destination oblivious to the skill it took to just get them here.
As I ease the plane into its grassy parking area I pull the red mixture knob fully out and wait for the engine to quit running, in turn allowing the propeller to stop its endless quest to ingest anything in its path. As all of these parts come to a quick stop and silence ensues, the only thing I notice is the ticking of the hot engine and the oppressive heat of a warm summer’s day slowly working its way into my cockpit. I sit there for a few moments thinking of the last 60 seconds of work it took to get me to this point knowing I was going to do this numerous times today whether the wind blew or not, whether it was raining or not, whether it was foggy or not. No complaints here, I love this work. Fact is, most of us pilots know it’s the most enjoyable thing we could do and we can hardly describe it as work so we pretend we are working when in fact we are playing and collecting a paycheck to do so—as minuscule as it may be. Dear reader please don’t tell my boss these last few thoughts as I’m sure he feels we make far too much already!
On this morning I notice out of the corner of my eye a woman with three small children. She is an attractive blonde haired woman and standing perhaps a hundred feet from my plane with a large smile on her face pushing a stroller and with two small children standing at her side. I could tell right away they were here to see me, well more accurately the plane anyway. I was supposed to be delivering the mail to the post office and I didn’t have any passengers heading back to the mainland that I was aware of so I wasn’t quite sure what she may need. One thing was for sure, she was smiling happily just as her children were so I knew I was not dealing with an unhappy customer or neighbor, and for that I was thankful.
Oftentimes people will complain about the noise around airports, and given the types of planes we fly—ours are noisier than most. Some of the noise just goes along with the type of plane we fly and its noisy propeller, but some of it is due to the performance enhancements done because of our unique flying requirements. Anyway, the airport could have existed for seventy-five years and the unhappy neighbor that is upset with the noise may have moved in just a few short years ago—you’d think they would have not moved so near to an airport if they’re sensitive to this sort of thing. Well as stated earlier, this woman appeared happy so as I opened the door and said “Good morning!” she immediately said “Hello” in return and moved cautiously towards the plane. Her children were dead silent. They stood quietly looking at the plane with awe in their eyes and smiles on their little faces but not uttering a sound. They didn’t come too close to the plane. It was evident they were skeptical of the scene before them—or more accurately, they were skeptical of the unshaven, wild-eyed pilot before them. This is probably the exact scenario their mom was always warning them about, “Watch out for strangers but especially watch out for those pilots!”
It was my turn to offer a welcome and see if there was something I could do for them so I asked her if she was flying with us today. Normally I ask this question for a couple of reasons. First, the dispatcher typically tells me the name of the people in the party that I should be picking up, but like the typical pilot I’m usually not paying attention and I show up willing to grab whomever and fly them to wherever, whenever. Not too professional I know, but accurate nonetheless. There is just so much going on in my mind concerning airspeeds, winds, obstructions, breakfast, my date that evening, that I’m really prioritizing my thoughts—and apparently picking up the right passengers is not high on my priority list. Please keep in mind I’m a work in progress, I’m just happy to have landed the plane and it’s still capable of being reused. Another reason for asking this question is because it’s generally just a good icebreaker. Even if they are not our customers, they will respond accordingly and conversation ensues. The young woman slowly moves towards me with her children and tells me she is not one of our passengers today but she and her kids were nearby and they loved airplanes.
Well, this is my script to a tee! Please allow me to indulge you a bit and explain where I came into flying. I have been around airplanes since my first memories and they have grasped my deepest, most heartfelt desires for nearly my entire life. I have never wanted to be anything but a pilot. Ever. Oh sure there were the typical fireman, policeman, astronaut thoughts for short periods of time, but I never entertained them and always returned to flying. I owe this to some fantastic mentors over the years and their love of aviation was passed on to a young mind ripe for knowledge and with a thirst for aviation like none other. I have never wavered in my love for flying, and the fulfillment that it brings to me, so I found years ago I really enjoyed getting children involved with aviation to open their minds and pique their curiosity. I suppose it was an innate desire to pass my excitement along and as time has progressed; my joy of opening the eyes of children to my world of aviation has grown significantly. It has now grown far beyond what I envisioned. This passion to pay forward what was done for me is probably as strong as my desire to fly if not stronger. I realized at some point that I wasn’t just giving back as I had originally intended, but I was “gaining” so much more from it than I ever was really giving back! Now I’m sure those of you reading this have heard this sort of mantra before about gaining more from the student than the student is gaining from the teacher—but until you actually feel it, until you actually see the results of it, you cannot realize the power of this emotion because it is truly a force to not be taken lightly.
Here I am face to face with three small children that love airplanes. Well, forget about the ever important U.S. Mail for a bit, the post office won’t mind me taking a few moments because it’s time to put on my community relations hat and entertain these kids! I had to give these kids a tour of the plane as I like to do whenever possible and time permits. So I walked over to the woman and introduced myself, she told me her name was Karen and her children’s names were Zach, Evan and Katelyn—aged six, five and three respectively. I looked down at these children whose faces were filled with wide-eyed anticipation and awe and asked them if they’d like to look at the airplane. Having asked this question countless times to hordes of kids, I’ve always been amazed at how shy the loudest kids can get when faced with the option of looking at the airplane up close. Well, these little ones were no different and they remained very quiet and a bit hesitant as they slowly inched towards the plane. These young children were extremely well behaved and ever so slowly loosened up to the point where they would touch the plane but that seemed to be the limit of their comfort zone and they had no visible interest in getting any closer. Even my gentle coaxing could not persuade them to get closer, or heaven forbid, climb into the cockpit. Now what caught my attention was Mother Karen. She was noticeably excited about the kids getting “the full experience” since the unknowing and overly trusting pilot was opening the plane up completely for them. She was getting more and more animated and devious in her attempts to get them into the pilot and copilot seats for pictures—but the kids were having no part of it! So after a few minutes of trying to entice them into the plane she finally gave up and the true reason behind their being at the airfield to watch planes became apparent—Karen was the one with the interest and wanted desperately to get into the plane!
Well…I didn’t see that coming! She was so quiet during the last five minutes or so with regards to her fascination with the plane that I did not pick up on the true reason for their visit, and she now continued to amaze me with her interest in the plane and aviation! Karen wasted no time climbing into the pilot’s seat, even stating “Well I suppose if you kids are not going to get in then I must not waste this opportunity!” Did I see a slight spring in her step not there previously? Did I not notice her arm quickly moving her kids aside so she could climb into the cockpit? Well, I may or may not have noticed such things but what was readily apparent was her smile inside that airplane…she was totally beaming inside that cockpit. You’d think she just conquered the Atlantic and was Charles Lindberg landing in France! She had questions, she had ideas, and she had the wild-eyed look I had when I first sat in an airplane thirty years earlier. Her children just stood there next to me probably with the same look I had on my face, astonishment and bewilderment. Was mom going to start this baby up and leave us all behind?
Karen had to be in her mid 30s, and I’d found out during her short visit she had never even touched a small airplane like this but had wanted to fly since childhood. Here she was sitting in the pilot’s seat with the controls in her hands (not making airplane sounds as I would have been doing) and with a look on her face like she was in heaven! Why hadn’t she done this somewhere in her past? Why would she give up something she apparently had such a strong desire to do for over fifteen years? Well the answers are long and varied whenever you ask someone like this that particular question, some have valid reasons while many others have excuses disguised as valid reasons. Thankfully Karen’s children started to see the fun she was having and their uneasiness started to wane and curiosity blossomed as they cautiously started touching the plane and even climbing up into the cockpit to see just what it was that so captivated their mother.
Of course Karen would have to climb back out of the plane to allow her now eager children access and I could see the disappointment on her face. She did disembark, although grudgingly. Evan was the first to climb on up the landing gear and slide on into the cockpit but Zach, not to be outdone by his younger brother, was hot on his heels forcing Evan further over into the copilot’s seat. Now watching these two climb into the plane was a treat on many levels but what I noticed right away was how quickly they changed from the quiet, timid boys I’d been observing to the rambunctious but respectful young boys most would expect to see. They obviously had gotten over any fear of the plane or pilot and jumped right into the role of “Pilot” and “Copilot”. But hold on for one second.
Had we overlooked someone? How about the little curly-blonde haired, big blue eyed Katelyn that was sitting in the stroller staring at me? This young girl was not looking at the plane at all. As a matter of fact I couldn’t help but notice she had been staring at me the whole time. I’m not talking about looking at me most of the time; she had been watching me every single time I’d looked at her. I was beginning to become a bit self conscious. What was it about me that made this little girl stare at me so intently? Did I look so amusing that she felt pity for me? Did I have grease or oil smeared across my forehead? Thankfully I didn’t have to wait for an answer, at this point Karen has slipped back into “mom mode” and took that cute little girl out of the stroller and put her in the back seat of the Cessna. Throughout this I was staring intently back at Katelyn and noticed the entire time, and during every bit of maneuvering required to get her into the back seat, she was still watching me. I was starting to wonder if she was part owl and her head would rotate nearly 360 degrees in order to keep a watchful eye on me. Should this happen I was fully prepared to turn-tail and run! But something interesting happened when she was sitting there in the back seat of my airplane; viewed through the window the expression on her tiny face was changing. I saw her face change from one of intentness to one of happiness and joy. This little girl starting smiling at me with the innocence of youth and accentuated with the cutest little dimples—and it was melting my heart. And as it turns out, it was contagious…I couldn’t help but smile back. Of course I probably was doing so with some awkward adult look on my face, or maybe even with that grease or oil on my forehead for good measure, but I was grinning ear to ear nonetheless!
In my short four decades of life I have found that I am slowly becoming more and more attuned to the important things in life and the simplicity of it. How is that you say? Hmmm…for instance, what difference does it make if a three year old girl stares at you with pure happiness in her eyes, isn’t that just a fleeting moment that holds no significant consequence? Well my friend, it makes all the difference in the world. You see, just fifteen or twenty minutes ago I was fully engaged with figuring out how to land the plane in a pretty hefty crosswind in the smallest airstrip my company fly’s into. That sort of thought takes most of my consciousness, but now just moments later, that is all history and I’m fully enthralled in how to make this day the best possible day for four people—specifically three of them. These kids don’t know anything except for what is happening here and now. What more attentive audience can you get? I learned from those who gave me their undivided love and attention when I was young that when you have the attention of a child—their full attention—you have a point in their life that is worth your complete focus and purpose. I intended to make the most of this short time we would spend together.
So with this in mind, I made the best of the next five minutes and enjoyed every single second. I made sure those three children (especially that little blue-eyed cutie with curly blonde hair) had memories that would last a lifetime. You’d think, “Why would five minutes in a small airplane make such an impression on children?” Simple, they were happy and they were completely and totally immersed in something they had dreamed of yet knew very little about—flying! Not necessarily flying in a plane…but flying still! They were essentially living a dream but for the first time and they were doing it with me. How could I be so lucky?
As I drove that old dilapidated Ford van back to the airplane from the post office on Stone Island I could not help but think of my early years around airplanes and aviation, the joy it brought me. Truth be known, those memories still bring me much joy to this day. All I did today was give that same opportunity to three young children. The opportunity to dream. The opportunity to believe that flight is not only possible but mystical and wondrous at the same time.
I walked towards the airplane with a strong feeling that what I was doing was what I was meant to do all my life. At no other time had I felt this strongly that I had finally found what it was that I was supposed to do. With this new found direction I felt very relaxed—totally at peace with my life and the direction before me. As my hands and eyes swept through the start sequence and the engine came to life I couldn’t help but imagine what my life would be without flying. I mean what would I do with all the aching in my soul to find what ails me? To put it succinctly, I would be a lost soul without flying. There would be a hole in my inner being that could never be fulfilled with anything but flying.
So, I just learned all this about myself in less than an hour? Impossible! This life altering moment just came out of nowhere and now I know what it is I have to do in life? No not impossible. Not impossible at all. See these things are completely possible when your eyes are opened by the innocence of a child and your mind finally sees what your heart has seen all along…your most vulnerable wishes, desires and secrets. I will never in my lifetime forget the smile of that little girl and the wonder in her eyes. She made me a better person than I would ever know and I didn’t question it for a second—I just continued to spread the word. You know, that flying is…