If you ask my wife and me to name our most memorable journey in our decades of flying, we’ll both respond with our “long journey north” from Phoenix to the Canadian border for a relative’s funeral.
I wrote a column about this trip years ago, recently revisited as I work on an upcoming book project. But the bigger rediscovery was a recorded talk I gave at the 2004 AOPA Expo detailing the memorable journey when it was still fresh.
The trip was spontaneous, hardly planned, and involved crossing much of the country in a Cessna 182 through difficult weather. But we all know how it is with family events, right? There was no choice but to go.
Along the way we experienced numerous aviation adventures, our wackiest “airport car” ever, and some of the craziness found in every family.
Pilot listeners will also appreciate the details I reveal along the way, about how we make piloting decisions to get us to faraway destinations by light airplane, safely.
The talk is 50 minutes long, and I believe you’ll be compelled to sit through and enjoy it. So grab a seat, a cold drink, and have a listen!
Wow! Five years have already passed since my first solo “Views from the Flying Carpet” photography exhibition.
Thank you, friend, fellow pilot, and Master Printer Richard Jackson (above left) for starting me down this path, and former Northern Arizona University College of Arts & Letters Dean Michael Vincent for inviting this first solo exhibition that led to numerous others.
“Super Snipe?” Old Doc had to be kidding. Sure, some birds carry the name “snipe,” but like most former boy scouts I remembered only the pain of being duped into a ritual “snipe hunt” on my first troop campout. (Future Scouts avert your eyes to preserve your coming initiation.)
When Jean and I first married, her grandparents lived in tiny Juneau, Wisconsin. We flew there from Indiana by Cessna 172 to visit them as often as our newlyweds’ budget would allow. Our usual mission was to hang out with family, but once a year we’d bundle into Grandpa’s car after landing for a multigenerational road trip to “the Oshkosh fly-in.”
I soon joined another annual excursion thanks to Gramps and Granny’s next-door neighbors, “Doc” and Marge. Doc was a large-animal veterinarian who over the years had liberated numerous collectible cars from dusty corners of his patients’ barns. Among them were a sporty 1939 Ford business coupe, a pair of fin-tailed 1955 Plymouths, and a bulbous ’51 Pontiac Eight. Although hardly rare, all were low-mileage cars and notably rust-free given Wisconsin’s brutal winters.
Doc also mentioned something about a “Humber Super Snipe,” but I figured he was pulling my leg. After all, “snipe hunt” is a slang equivalent to “wild goose chase,” and Doc was a master of straight-faced ribbing.
Doc’s own favorite ride was a good-enough-to-eat 1941 Lincoln Zephyr convertible – he’d share keys to his other autos, but reserved the Zephyr for himself.
I’d long been interested in old cars, ever since conducting unprintable adventures in those owned by friends and I during high school. Anyway, it turned out that every year Doc took all his roadworthy cars on a 100-mile pilgrimage from Juneau to the annual “Chicken Roast and Old Car Show” in the yet-smaller town of Iola. To my delight Doc invited me to drive one of his cars in the upcoming procession.
Accordingly Jean and I loaded friends into a flying club Cessna and soared over Indiana cornfields, Chicago suburbs, and Wisconsin meadows to Juneau’s Dodge County Airport…
Here’s Flagstaff Rain, my latest terrestrial Fine Art Metal Print, featuring historic downtown Flagstaff on a rainy July Art Walk night. It’s amazing the effect of water in “punching” nighttime colors and lights.
Matt invested in this 20″x30″ Fine Art Metal Print as a gift for a couple who first met in Flagstaff and are shortly moving away.
Turns out Matt’s friends originally met in Charly’s Pub at the far end of the pictured Weatherford Hotel, and he thought this would be a great goodbye present for remembering their friends and the origin of their relationship here. What a cool gift!
Young Ryan Elliott was on a Wisconsin grade-school playground when he joined his friends watching a WWII-era Boeing B-17 bomber rumble slowly overhead.
“Hey! That’s my Dad!” yelled Ryan, pointing up at the giant 4-engine bomber.
“No it isn’t!” replied his friends. “You’re just making that up!” Ryan’s dad, my longtime buddy Sean Elliott, laughed while sharing the story.
“I was taking recurrent training in the B-17 out of Oshkosh’s Wittman Field,” Sean explained, “and found myself flying over Ryan’s school while the kids were outside for recess. After work, I asked Ryan, ‘Did you see me fly over?’ He said, ‘Yeah Dad, I saw you. But nobody believed me when I told them!’”
Sean has one of the coolest aviation jobs anywhere. As EAA’s Vice President of Advocacy and Safety, he’s also Director of Flight Operations. That includes training pilots to fly EAA’s 1929 Ford Trimotor , their B-17, Aluminum Overcast, and the many other vintage aircraft that fly out of Pioneer Field. In fact, Sean personally piloted the Trimotor for the scene in the movie Public Enemies, in which John Dillinger is depicted returning to Indiana following his capture in Tucson.
My friend’s duties also include flying EAA’s Socata TBM-700 turboprop. “My favorite is piloting the warbirds,” he explained, “but the turboprop does have its perks.” He told of circling Pioneer Field in the TBM one sweltering Wisconsin afternoon, with CSI New York actor and AirVenture musical performer Gary Sinese. “When some pilots flying the B-17 nearby started ribbing me for driving a cushy modern plane, I said, ‘Hey guys, listen to this. Hear that click? It’s the air conditioner switch!’”
Sean may also qualify as the coolest dad in the universe. When not flying radio-controlled model airplanes with his son, the two often convene at the EAA Museum after closing, where on each visit they spend hours poring over a given airplane. Among the latest was a 1930s Curtiss P6E Hawk biplane fighter.
Recently Sean treated Ryan to his first Young Eagles flight in honor of his 8th birthday, the minimum age for qualifying as a Young Eagle. Asked what plane he preferred for the mission, Ryan picked the Ford Trimotor. That would make any kid’s birthday memorable, but perhaps genetic influences also impacted his selection.
You see, Sean proposed to his wife René in that very airplane, aloft over the 2001 Oshkosh AirVenture fly-in!
These weren’t first flights in the sense of first solo, first glider flight, or first balloon flight, although such milestones were memorable each in its own way. Rather, these were moments when I discovered, fresh and new, the pure joy and freedom of flight.
The first of those experiences occurred in a banking turn, flying a Cessna 150 over the cracked ice and windblown snow of Lake Mendota, near Madison, Wisconsin. I don’t remember if it was as a solo student or new private pilot — it doesn’t matter — but at that instant I escaped for the first time the nagging traumas of becoming a pilot and the consuming minutia of doing what pilots must do to remain aloft.
Instead of fearing the terrain as a threat to be avoided, I noted with fascination sailing iceboats and fishing tents among which I’d skated between college classes in the winter. While skating I’d experienced the fast-moving iceboats only as flashes of color passing me by. From the air, however, I could see their forward progress across the lake, and the paths left by their runners for miles behind.
The pressure ridges that blocked my progress when skating could now be seen in their entirety — cracked and buckling they formed huge rational patterns stretching for miles like spider webs across the lake. I soared and gazed, soared and gazed, and knew that day for the first time that I’d achieved the ranks of birdmen and would never be cured.
My second “first flight” occurred on a warm autumn day just short of 30 years later — three weeks and two days after twisted souls hurled peaceful airplanes against skyscrapers. At first the grounding of all things flying seemed appropriate, in homage to those who had died and revulsion to the dark twist taken during the normally beautiful act of flight.
For days afterward I walked our quiet street, gazing up in wonder at a tranquil sky never before seen devoid of airplanes — at least in my lifetime. I’ll admit to enjoying the peace of it for a time, and finding myself content with the quiet and solitude afforded by empty skies. But when airliners were again released to fly my mood changed, and I was soon overwhelmed with jealously…