The tail wheel lifted off the grass runway as the Champ gathered speed. Within a hundred feet more, the main wheels broke contact with the earth for only the third time in nearly thirty years, the third flight this week. The airplane rose further into the sky, happy to be home after all this time. He departed the area, listening carefully to the sound of the rebuilt engine and feeling the effects of the ailerons in his fingertips as he banked gently left and right.
Returning to “wings level” flight, he continued his climb.
Flying is quite like dancing – when you find the right partner, you can dance for hours among the clouds.
Getting familiar with the nuances of any particular aircraft is like dancing with a woman for the first time. No two women feel the same. How she settles into your arms is one thing…how you settle into hers can make it a partnership. You move your hand here, she reacts. You put pressure there, you gauge her response. You must know how she responds in order to guide her gracefully, precisely and joyfully.
As he approached about a thousand feet above the ground, he turned west, toward the afternoon sky. Dotted fields of apple orchards stretched as far as he could see. Rows of fruit trees filled the acres as they slid slowly below him. The lake on the right stretched east and west. After a few miles, the orchards gave way to forested lands broken by the occasional open field.
The drone of the engine and the sound of the wind gave life to an aircraft that had been rebuilt after sitting in a barn for three decades. Wrecked, but salvageable, he rebuilt the broken left wing. New spruce replaced the fore and aft spars. New wood ribs were hand-cut from using ribs from the right wing as templates.
The young man was single and had no immediate family. He fell in love exactly once. He had a dance partner, he thought, for life. Just at the moment it seemed that he took her hand to guide her to the dance floor, she was suddenly taken from him by illness.
Fate left him lonely.
Now, he had the aircraft to fill his time but he had no partner to fill his heart.
Rebuilding the engine was a labor of love that progressed slowly through the winter months over two years.
Steel tubing in the fuselage was straightened or replaced one section at a time. New fabric covered the entire airframe and was painted to match the original yellow and orange when it left the factory in 1946. The finishing touch was the hand painted name of his only love: Angela.
In the fifth summer, the sixty-five horsepower Continental engine sputtered to life, sounding the same as it did when it was built 75 years ago. As he flew, she performed just as if she had never left the skies. Gentle pressure left and she banked left over wooded land. Flight in Angela progressed slowly over the world, and he smiled, as all pilots do, when they feel the journey become the destination.
Suddenly, Angela went silent. When either an airplane or a women go suddenly silent, it’s never good.
All he could hear at this moment was the wind. He thought about it for two or three seconds until he realized that he had to land. With no engine, he had no choice. All he could do was control where he landed.
Below him were scattered woodlands and open fields. He chose a field and turned the airplane, now a glider, toward it. As he approached the field he kept his airspeed at 60 miles per hour. Angela reacted the same as if her engine were running. She responded to his pressure, left, right, level. At this point he knew he was not going to clear the trees below him and make it to the open field. Planning for a crash into the trees, he aimed Angela’s motionless propeller between them as he approached.
He braced himself for an impact that he never felt.
His eyes opened and he looked around. He was not sure how long he was unconscious nor did he recall banging his head. Everything looked normal. The Champ was sitting upright. He was strapped in his seat. The few loose items he had were now on the floor.
He saw movement out the corner of his eye and he looked left to see a farmer approaching his airplane through the field of tall grass. The farmer looked into the airplane, right at the pilot, “Gotta go get help.”
“I think I’m all right,” the pilot said.
With that, the farmer walked off.
He reached to unbuckle his harness. He couldn’t seem to move the latch cover to open it. It wouldn’t budge. He grabbed a small hand-held radio that had fallen to the floor and turned the knob to turn it on. He couldn’t turn the knob.
“Must have broke when it fell on the floor.”
He put the radio down, leaned his head against the side and he thought, “The farmer will have a knife to cut me out of my harness.”
Then his world went dark.
The flashing lights of a dozen emergency vehicles surrounded the airplane as he opened his eyes. State Police, Sheriff deputies and firemen all wearing full gear. An ambulance was backing into position just to the right of the airplane. He tried again to unbuckle his belt, but he could not.
An EMT leaned in the doorway, then turned and said, “There’s no hurry.”
“If you could just use your knife to cut me out of my harness,” the pilot said, “I would like to get out.”
The EMT checked his pockets, and left the doorway.
The pilot looked down at his harness buckle again and tried to open it. It didn’t budge.
A woman’s hand reached in, and deftly unbuckled his harness and took his hand. “It’s time to go,” she said as he looked back toward the rescue crews, “take my hand.”
He climbed out of the plane. Her hand felt particularly alive in his. As he stood, she took both of his hands in hers and suddenly the colors were vibrant. The sights and sounds of the emergency vehicles faded. He was standing face to face with the only love he ever had, “Angela!” Her brown eyes sparkled in the afternoon sun and she smiled. His heart filled with her memory but knew that it was only a dream.
He returned her hug. It was at that moment that he felt a surge of love and warmth course through his body in a way he had only felt when Angela was alive. She pressed her body against his and there was no longer any separation between them. They were one.
He must have hit his head harder than he thought.
He turned to look back at the airplane. She urged, “Don’t…”
The aircraft was a mangled mess. It was then he saw his own body as the EMT’s pulled it gently out of the aircraft.
And then he knew.
He turned back to her and she said, “I’ve been waiting for you.”
His heart filled with joy.
And they danced among the clouds for eternity.
A gallery of Kristina’s images is here.