It’s now official: I’m a pilot. This has been one of the most challenging, and also most rewarding, journeys I’ve been on. It had its moments of struggle, moments of joy, moments of poetry. I wrote about the poetry of flying at night recently. Here is the story of my first landing on a grass runway, a few months ago.
Where the air is so pure, the zephyrs so free,
The breezes so balmy and light,
That I would not exchange my home on the range
For all of the cities so bright.
– John A. Lomax
We are used to seeing planes in these massive palaces of infrastructure we call airports. We have huge parking garages, giant terminals, security lines hundreds of people deep, baggage carts, jetways, video screens, restaurants, and miles and miles of concrete.
But most of the world’s airports are not like that. A pilot of a small plane gets to see the big airports, sure, but we also get to use the smaller airports — hidden in plain sight to most.
Have you ever taken off from a strip of grass? As I told my flight instructor when I tried it for the first time, “I know this will work, but somehow I will still be amazed if it actually does.”
I took off from a strip of grass not long ago. The airport there had one paved runway, and the rest were grass. Short runways, narrow runways, grass runways. No lights. No paint. No signs. No trucks, no jetways, nothing massive. In fact, no people. Just a mowed path and a couple of yellow or white markers.
I taxied down the grass runway, being careful to never let the plane’s wheels stop moving lest the nose gear get stuck in a pothole. I felt all the bumps in the ground as we moved.
End of runway. Turn the plane around. A little bit of flap for more lift, full throttle, mind the centerline — imaginary centerline, this time. It starts picking up speed, slower than usual, bump bump bump. Those buildings at the end of the runway are staring me down. More speed, and suddenly the runway feels smooth; it has enough lift to keep from falling into every bump. Then we lift off just a touch; I carefully keep the plane down until we pick up enough speed to ascend farther, then up we go. I keep a watchful eye on those buildings straight ahead and that water tower just slightly off to the one side. We climb over a lake as I watch that water tower pass safely below and to the side of the plane. It had worked, and I had a smile of amazement.
With a half mile of grass, you really can go anywhere.
Many times I had driven within half a mile of that runway, but never seen it. Never wondered where people go after using it. Never realizing that, although it’s a 45-minute drive from my house, it’s really pretty close. Never understanding that “where people go” after taking off from that runway is “everywhere”.