Category Archives: Aviation

Memories, Father’s Day, and an 89-year-old plane

“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things”

– John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

I clicked on the radio transmitter in my plane.

O’Neill Traffic, Bonanza xx departing to the south. And Trimotor, thanks for flight #1. We really enjoyed it.

And we had. Off to my left, a 1929 Ford Trimotor airliner was heading off into the distance, looking as if it were just hanging in the air, glinting in the morning sun, 1000 feet above the ground. Earlier that morning, my boys and I had been passengers in that very plane. But now we had taken off right after them, as they were taking another load of passengers up for a flight and we were flying back home. To my right was my 8-year-old, and my 11-year-old was in back, both watching out the windows. The radio clicked on, and the three of us heard the other pilot’s response:

Oh thank you. We’re glad you came!

A few seconds later, they were gone out of sight.

The experience of flying in an 89-year-old airliner is quite something. As with the time we rode on the Durango & Silverton railroad, it felt like stepping back into a time machine — into the early heyday of aviation.

Jacob and Oliver had been excited about this day a long time. We had tried to get a ride when it was on tour in Oklahoma, much closer, but one of them got sick on the drive that day and it didn’t work out. So Saturday morning, we took the 1.5-hour-flight up to northern Nebraska. We’d heard they’d have a pancake breakfast fundraiser, and the boys were even more excited. They asked to set the alarm early, so we’d have no risk of missing out on airport pancakes.

Jacob took this photo of the sunrise at the airport while I was doing my preflight checks:

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Here’s one of the beautiful views we got as we flew north to meet the Trimotor.

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It was quite something to share a ramp with that historic machine. Here’s a photo of our plane not far from the Trimotor.

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After we got there, we checked in for the flight, had a great pancake and sausage breakfast, and then into the Trimotor. The engines fired up with a most satisfying low rumble, and soon we were aloft — cruising along at 1000 feet, in that (by modern standards) noisy, slow, and beautiful machine. We explored the Nebraska countryside from the air before returning 20 minutes later. I asked the boys what they thought.

“AWESOME!” was the reply. And I agreed.

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Jacob and Oliver have long enjoyed pretending to be flight attendants when we fly somewhere. They want me to make airline-sounding announcements, so I’ll say something like, “This is your captain speaking. In a few moments, we’ll begin our descent into O’Neill. Flight attendants, prepare the cabin for arrival.” Then Jacob will say, “Please return your tray tables that you don’t have to their full upright and locked position, make sure your seat belt is tightly fastened, and your luggage is stowed. This is your last chance to visit the lavatory that we don’t have. We’ll be on the ground shortly.”

Awhile back, I loaded up some zip-lock bags with peanuts and found some particularly small bottles of pop. Since then, it’s become tradition on our longer flights for them to hand out bags of peanuts and small quantities of pop as we cruise along — “just like the airlines.” A little while back, I finally put a small fridge in the hangar so they get to choose a cold beverage right before we leave. (We don’t typically have such things around, so it’s a special treat.)

Last week, as I was thinking about Father’s Day, I told them how I remembered visiting my dad at work, and how he’d let me get a bottle of Squirt from the pop machine there (now somewhat rare). So when we were at the airport on Saturday, it brought me a smile to hear, “DAD! This pop machine has Squirt! Can we get a can? It’s only 75 cents!” “Sure – after our Trimotor flight.” “Great! Oh, thank you dad!”

I realized then I was passing a small but special memory on to another generation. I’ve written before of my childhood memories of my dad, and wondering what my children will remember of me. Martha isn’t old enough yet to remember her cackles of delight as we play peek-a-boo or the books we read at bedtime. Maybe Jacob and Oliver will remember our flights, or playing with mud, or researching dusty maps in a library, playing with radios, or any of the other things we do. Maybe all three of them will remember the cans of Squirt I’m about to stock that hangar fridge with.

But if they remember that I love them and enjoy doing things with them, they will have remembered the most important thing. And that is another special thing I got from my parents, and can pass on to another generation.

A Grand Adventure: Sailing the Springtime Sky

And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.

– Khalil Gibran

To be a pilot of a small plane is to be a scientist, a mathematician, and a poet. We read charts, analyze weather reports and forecasts, calculating what the headwinds will do to our fuel situation.

But in the end, the wise ones let the earth speak to us through these charts, and go where it invites us — where the skies are smooth and blue.

And so it was last week that we did not go to California as planned, but instead to the mountains near Santa Fe, a canyon near Amarillo, and a remote museum in far southwest Kansas — all the while hearing the delighted exclamations of “wow!” from our children.

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As we sailed along up there in our flying machine, down below we saw the rugged, craggy mesas of New Mexico, here and there punctuated by a lake, a little town, or an isolated airport — each a friendly sight in its own way. Our boys read some books, and sometimes pressed their noses to the windows, while little Martha mostly slept and sometimes played or ate — she enjoys flying more than driving.

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Mountains have a way of reminding us all that the earth is larger than we are. We drive around them, fly around them, and even on a pleasant day they make the air bumpy. But once down on the ground, Oliver got out of the plane, and looked at the mountains all around us. He couldn’t stop saying “Wow! Dad, wow! Amazing! Look at that!” Jacob was more excited that an American Airlines plane was taxiing by right where we had been a minute before.

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The boys helped us plan our trip. They’re the ones that chose for us to head southwest, and the #1 thing on their Santa Fe agenda was riding the New Mexico Rail Runner Express. So, despite a strong and cold wind, ride it we did, all the way to Albuquerque for pizza, then back to Santa Fe. When they weren’t busy listening to the “meep meep” sound the doors make when they’re about to close, they were excitedly reading the timetable or taking in the world as it whizzed past their window.

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Martha, too, took in the train — though she still enjoyed her chew toys. Those things out the window don’t fit into a mouth so easily.

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Up in the mountains, the Puye Cliff Dwellings brought home the history of the place. The stories of the peaceful people that lived there, told by their descendants, members of the Santa Clara pueblo. Our guide Elijah picked up a shard of pottery, many of which remain on the mesa. He explained why there were no intact pottery examples up there. When his ancestors were done with a pot, then would throw it on the ground, shattering it — to give it back with thanks to the earth from where it came. One gets the sense that these ancient peoples knew quite a few things that our modern societies have not yet learned.

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After a full day, a cool evening in our hotel was welcome. Our room had a wood-burning fireplace, burning the pinyon pine that gives Santa Fe such a distinct sweet smell in the winter. Jacob would gaze into the fireplace for quite awhile.

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I have never seen a photo do justice to Palo Duro Canyon. As you drive along the desolate, high Texas prairie, complete with tumbleweeds, all of a sudden you go around a corner and the earth opens up. It’s the “painted canyon” for a reason, and even though we’d been there before, as we rounded that bend, I heard exclamations of “Dad, this is AMAZING” from the back seat once again.

The vastness of the place cannot be captured on a screen. How can one capture 60 miles of color, ridges and gorges stretching out into the horizon, in a few inches?

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The boys were excited, bubbly, and bouncy as we hiked along some trails on the canyon floor. They’d make up games to play, most of which involved teasing me in some way.

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Oliver particularly loved to tease me.

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Jacob insisted I take a picture with him and Martha.

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But even these excited, bubbly kids would stop to reflect sometimes. Sometimes Jacob would say, “Dad, I have GOT to take a picture of this!” And sometimes they would just stare, maybe even with a mouth agape. Children know beauty, too.

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The three siblings delight in each other, too. Oliver would play a version of peek-a-boo, saying “I’m alive! Horse pill!” (he’d say silly things, and whatever made Martha laugh he’d keep saying.)

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All told, we traveled over a thousand miles by air, spending some 7 or 8 hours in the plane. Had we attempted to drive it, it would have been more than 30 hours. There’s something amazing about seeing so much of the world in such a short amount of time.

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Perhaps this is why many pilots secretly give their plane a little pat after a long journey. After all the smiles, laughter, the memories, the feeling of being part of sky — if you pay attention, it truly is more poetry than physics.

And that is why, though it is always nice to return to our home, in my mind’s eye, the hangar door is always open.

Flying with my brothers

Picture one Sunday morning. Three guys are seemingly-randomly walking into a Mennonite church in rural Nebraska. One with long hair and well-maintained clothes from the 70s. Another dressed well enough to be preaching. And the third simply dressed to be comfortable, with short hair showing evidence of having worn a headset for a couple of hours that morning. This was the scene as we made a spur-of-the-moment visit to that church — which resulted in quite some surprise all around, since my brother knew a number of people there.

For instance:

Pastor: Peter! What are you doing here?

Peter: [jokingly] Is that how you greet visitors here?

And then, of course, Peter would say, “Well, we were flying home from South Dakota and figured we’d stop in at Beatrice for fuel. And drop in on you.” Followed by some surprise that we would stop at their little airport (which is quite a nice one).

This all happened because it was windy. This is the fun adventure of aviation. Sometimes you plan to go to Texas, but the weather there is terrible, so you discover a 100-year-old landmark in Indiana instead. Or sometimes, like a couple of weeks ago, we planned to fly straight home but spent a few hours exploring rural Nebraska.

The three of us flew to Sioux Falls, SD, in a little Cessna to visit my uncle and aunt up there. On our flight up, we stopped at the little airport in Seward, NE. It was complete with this unique elevated deck. In my imagination, this is used for people to drink beer while watching the planes land.

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In South Dakota, we had a weekend full of card and board games, horseshoes, and Crokinole with my uncle and aunt, who are always fun to visit. We had many memories of visits up there as children — and the pleasant enjoyment of the fact that we didn’t need an 8-hour drive to get there. We flew back with a huge bag of large rhubarb from their garden (that too is something of a tradition!)

It was a fun weekend to spend with my brothers — first time we’d been able to do this in a long while. And it marked the 11th state I’ve flown into, and over 17,000 miles of flying.

Giant Concrete Arrows, Old Maps, and Fascinated Kids

Let me set a scene for you. Two children, ages 7 and 10, are jostling for position. There’s a little pushing and shoving to get the best view.

This is pretty typical for siblings this age. But what, you may wonder, are they trying to see? A TV? Video game?

No. Jacob and Oliver were in a library, trying to see a 98-year-old map of the property owners in Township 23, range 1 East, Harvey County, Kansas. And they were super excited about it, somewhat to the astonishment of the research librarian, who I am sure is more used to children jostling for position over the DVDs in the youth section than poring over maps in the non-circulating historical archives!

All this started with giant concrete arrows in the middle of nowhere.

Nearly a century ago, the US government installed a series of arrows on the ground in Kansas. These were part of a primitive air navigation system that led to the first transcontinental airmail service.

Every so often, people stumble upon these abandoned arrows and there is a big discussion online. Even Snopes has had to verify their authenticity (verdict: true). Entire websites exist to tracking and locating the remnants of these arrows. And as one of the early air mail routes went through Kansas, every so often people find these arrows around here.

I got the idea that it would be fun to replicate a journey along the old routes. Maybe I’d spot a few old arrows and such. So I started collecting old maps: a Contract Airmail Route #34 (CAM 34) map from 1927, aviation sectionals from 1933 and 1946, etc.

I noticed an odd thing on these maps: the Newton, KS airport was on the other side of the city from its present location, sometimes even several miles outside the city. What was going on?

1927 Airway Map
(1927 Airway Map)

1946 Wichita Sectional
(1946 Wichita sectional)

So one foggy morning, I explained my puzzlement to the boys. I highlighted all the mysteries: were these maps correct? Were there really two Newton airports at one time? How many airports were there, and where were they? Why did they move? What was the story behind them?

And I offered them the chance to be history detectives with me. And oh my goodness, were they ever excited! We had some information from a very helpful person at the Harvey County Historical Museum (thanks Kris!) So we suspected one airport at least was established in 1927. We also had a description of its location, though given in terms of township maps.

So the boys and I made the short drive over to the museum. We reviewed their property maps, though they were all a little older than the time period we needed. We looked through books and at pictures. Oliver pored over a railroad map of Newton from a century ago, fascinated. Jacob was excited to discover on one map that there used to be a train track down the middle of Main Street! I was interested that the present Newton Airport was once known as Wirt Field, rather to my surprise. I somehow suspect most 2nd and 4th graders spend a lot less excited time on their research floor!

Then on to the Newton Public Library to see if they’d have anything more — and that’s when the map that produced all the excitement came out.

It, by itself, didn’t answer the question, but by piecing together a number of pieces of information — newspaper stories, information from the museum, and the maps — we were able to come up with a pretty good explanation, much to their excitement.

Apparently, a man named Tangeman owned a golf course (the “golf links” according to the paper), and around 1927 the city of Newton purchased it, because of all the planes that were landing there. They turned it into a real airport. Later, they bought land east of the city and moved the airport there. However, during World War II, the Navy took over that location, so they built a third airport a few miles west of the city — but moved back to the current east location after the Navy returned that field to them.

Of course, a project like this just opens up all sorts of extra questions: why isn’t it called Wirt Field anymore? What’s the story of Frank Wirt? What led the Navy to take over Newton’s airport? Why did planes start landing on the golf course? Where precisely was the west airport located? How long was it there? (I found an aerial photo from 1956 that looks like it may have a plane in that general area, but it seems later than I’d have expected)

So now I have the boys interested in going to the courthouse with me to research the property records out there. Jacob is continually astounded that we are discovering things that aren’t in Wikipedia, and also excited that he could be the one to add them. To be continued, apparently!

Morning in the Skies

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This is morning. Time to fly. Two boys, happy to open the hangar door and get the plane ready.

It’s been a year since I passed the FAA exam and became a pilot. Memories like these are my favorite reminders why I did. It is such fun to see people’s faces light up with the joy of flying a few thousand feet above ground, of the beauty and freedom and peace of the skies.

I’ve flown 14 different passengers in that time; almost every flight I’ve taken has been with people, which I enjoy. I’ve heard “wow” or “beautiful” so many times, and said it myself even more times.

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I’ve landed in two state parks, visited any number of wonderful small towns, seen historic sites and placid lakes, ascended magically over forests and plains. I’ve landed at 31 airports in 10 states, flying over 13,000 miles.

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Not once have I encountered anyone other than friendly, kind, and outgoing. And why not? After all, we’re working around magic flying carpet machines, right?

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(That’s my brother before a flight with me, by the way)

Some weeks it is easy to be glum. This week has been that way for many, myself included. But then, whether you are in the air or on the ground, if you pay attention, you realize we still live in a beautiful world with many wonderful people.

And, in fact, I got a reminder of that this week. Not long after the election, I got in a plane, pushed in the throttle, and started the takeoff roll down a runway in the midst of an Indiana forest. The skies were the best kind of clear blue, and pretty soon I lifted off and could see for miles. Off in the distance, I could see the last cottony remnants of the morning’s fog, lying still in the valleys, surrounding the little farms and houses as if to give them a loving hug. Wow.

Sometimes the flight is bumpy. Sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate, and it doesn’t happen at all. Sometimes you can fly across four large states and it feels as smooth as glass the whole way.

Whatever happens, at the end of the day, the magic flying carpet machine gets locked up again. We go home, rest our heads on our soft pillows, and if we so choose, remember the beauty we experienced that day.

Really, this post is not about being a pilot. This post is a reminder to pay attention to all that is beautiful in this world. It surrounds us; the smell of pine trees in the forest, the delight in the faces of children, the gentle breeze in our hair, the kind word from a stranger, the very sunrise.

I hope that more of us will pay attention to the moments of clear skies and wind at our back. Even at those moments when we pull the hangar door shut.

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A great day for a flight with the boys

I tend to save up my vacation time to use in summer for family activities, and today was one of those days.

Yesterday, Jacob and Oliver enjoyed planning what they were going to do with me. They ruled out all sorts of things nearby, but they decided they would like to fly to Ponca City, explore the oil museum there, then eat at Enrique’s before flying home.

Of course, it is not particularly hard to convince me to fly somewhere. So off we went today for some great father-son time.

The weather on the way was just gorgeous. We cruised along at about a mile above ground, which gave us pleasantly cool air through the vents and a smooth ride. Out in the distance, a few clouds were trying to form.

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Whether I’m flying or driving, a pilot is always happy to pass a small airport. Here was the Winfield, KS airport (KWLD):

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This is a beautiful time of year in Kansas. The freshly-cut wheat fields are still a vibrant yellow. Other crops make a bright green, and colors just pop from the sky. A camera can’t do it justice.

They enjoyed the museum, and then Oliver wanted to find something else to do before we returned to the airport for dinner. A little exploring yielded the beautiful and shady Garfield Park, complete with numerous old stone bridges.

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Of course, the hit of any visit to Enrique’s is their “ice cream tacos” (sopapillas with ice cream). Here is Oliver polishing off his.

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They had both requested sightseeing from the sky on our way back, but both fell asleep so we opted to pass on that this time. Oliver slept through the landing, and I had to wake him up when it was time to go. I always take it as a compliment when a 6-year-old sleeps through a landing!

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Most small airports have a bowl of candy setting out somewhere. Jacob and Oliver have become adept at finding them, and I will usually let them “talk me into” a piece of candy at one of them. Today, after we got back, they were intent at exploring the small gift shop back home, and each bought a little toy helicopter for $1.25. They may have been too tired to enjoy it though.

They’ve been in bed for awhile now, and I’m still smiling about the day. Time goes fast when you’re having fun, and all three of us were. It is fun to see them inheriting my sense of excitement at adventure, and enjoying the world around them as they go.

The lady at the museum asked how we had heard about them, and noticed I drove up in an airport car (most small airports have an old car you can borrow for a couple hours for free if you’re a pilot). I told the story briefly, and she said, “So you flew out to this small town just to spend some time here?” “Yep.” “Wow, that’s really neat. I don’t think we’ve ever had a visitor like you before.” Then she turned to the boys and said, “You boys are some of the luckiest kids in the world.”

And I can’t help but feel like the luckiest dad in the world.

The Simple Joys of the Plains

We love to go exploring as a family. Last year, we gave Jacob and Oliver a theme: “find places older than Grandpa.” They got creative really quick, realizing that any state park counts (“dirt is older than grandpa!”) as did pretty much any museum. Probably our hit from last year was the visit to the tunnels under Ellinwood, KS.

Beatrice, NE

This year, our theme is “places we can fly to”. A couple of weeks ago, Laura had a conference in the beautiful small town of Beatrice, NE. So all four of us flew up, and Jacob, Oliver, and I found fun activities while Laura was at her conference.

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We walked around Beatrice a bit, and I noticed this rails-to-trails area. Jacob and Oliver were immediately interested (since it was railroad-related). They quickly turned it into a game of kick-the-dandelion, trying to kick dandelions off their stems and see how high in the air they could get them. The answer: pretty high.

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Of course, you can’t go wrong with swimming. Here’s Oliver getting ready for some swimming.

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Right near Beatrice is the Homestead National Monument. Of course, the bales decorated like a minion got their attention.

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Like the other national parks, this one has a junior ranger program. You complete a few things in an activity book and take a pledge to protect the park, and then you get a badge and some stickers. Here’s Oliver proudly taking his pledge, holding the new raccoon he bought in their gift shop.

Canyon, TX

Laura and I have been to Canyon, TX, twice — the first was for our honeymoon. Yes, we did get some strange looks when we told people we were going to Amarillo for our honeymoon. But it was absolutely perfect for us. We both enjoy the simple gifts of nature.

We kept thinking “we’ve got to take the boys here”. So this weekend, we did. We flew a Cessna out there.

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Almost every little general aviation airport seems to have a bowl of candy, a plate of cookies, or some such thing for people that are flying through. I often let Jacob and Oliver choose ONE item.

They hit the jackpot when we stopped at West Woodward, Oklahoma for fuel and a break. Two whole fridges stocked with stuff: cans of pop in one, and all sorts of snacks in the other. In typical GA fashion, there was a jar in the fridge asking for $1 if you took something. And it clearly hadn’t been emptied in awhile.

They also had a nice lounge and a patio. Perfect for munching while watching the activities on the ramp.

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After landing at the beautiful little Tradewind Airport in Amarillo, we ate dinner at Feldman’s Wrong-Way Diner in Canyon, TX. Oh my, was that ever popular with the boys.

The eagerly looked around to find anything that was “wrong” — a plane hanging upside down from the ceiling, a direction sign saying “Tattoine – 30 parsecs”, movie posters hung upside down, whatever it might be. The fact that model trains were whirring past overhead certainly didn’t hurt either.

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They had a giant bin of crayons by the entrance. Jacob and Oliver each grabbed a fistful, and decided it would be fun to do some math problems while we wait. Oliver particularly got into that, and was quite accurate on his large addition problems. Impressive for a first-grader!

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Of course, the big highlight of the area is Palo Duro Canyon. Jacob and Oliver were so eager to explore the canyon that they were just about bubbling over with excitement the night before. They decided that we should explore one of the most difficult trails in the canyon – one that would take us from the bottom of the canyon all the way to the top and back, about 2.5 miles each way.

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And they LOVED it. We’d stop every few minutes to climb on some rocks, smash up some pieces of sandstone, munch on a snack, or even watch a lizard scurry past.

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At the “trading post” in the canyon, both boys explored the gift shop. Jacob happily purchased a Texas magnet and Palo Duro Canyon keychain, which he carried around the rest of the weekend. Oliver loves stuffed animals, and he bought a cuddly little (but long) snake. When we got back to the hotel, he tied a couple of knots in it, and it became “snake airlines”. Here is the snake airline taking off.

He named it “Rattletail the friendly snake”, which I thought was a pretty nifty name.

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The hotel’s waffle maker made Texas-shaped waffles, clearly a hit!

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Saturday, we explored the absolutely massive Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum. (How does something that huge wind up in Canyon, TX?) Both boys enjoyed spending hours there. Here’s Oliver in Pioneer Town (an indoor recreation of a 1900s town) sending a telegraph message.

Oliver wanted to help with the plane. He helped me tie it down in Amarillo, helped check it over during preflight, basically got involved in every part of it. Jacob studied aviation maps (sectionals) with me, planning our flight, figuring out how fast we’d go. I loaded Avare (an Android app) on an old tablet for him, so he had aviation maps in the cockpit just like me. He would be telling us how fast we were going every so often, pointing out landmarks, etc.

When it was time to head back home, both boys wanted to stay longer — a sure sign of a good trip. They wanted to hike another trail in the canyon, go back to the museum, and “eat at Feldman’s 18 more times.” (We got there twice, which was plenty for Laura and me!)

On our drive home, Oliver said, “Dad-o, will you teach me to be a pilot? You should be my flight instructor. Then I could fly everywhere with you.”

Now that just makes a dad’s day.

A Year of Flight

“Dad-o, I’m so glad you’re a pilot!”

My 9-year-old son Jacob has been saying that, always with a big hug and his fond nickname for me (“dad-o”). It has now been a year since the first time I sat in the pilot’s seat of a plane, taking my first step towards exploring the world from the sky. And now, one year after I first sat in the pilot’s seat of an airborne plane, it’s prompted me to think back to my own memories.

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Flying over the airport at Moundridge, KS

Memories

Back when I was a child, maybe about the age my children are now, I’d be outside in the evening and see this orange plane flying overhead. Our neighbor Don had a small ultralight plane and a grass landing strip next to his house. I remember longing to be up in the sky with Don, exploring the world from up there. At that age, I didn’t know all the details of why that wouldn’t work — I just knew I wanted to ride in it.

It wasn’t until I was about 11 that I flew for the first time. I still remember that TWA flight with my grandma, taking off early in the morning and flying just a little ways above the puffy clouds lit up all yellow and orange by the sunrise. Even 25 years later, that memory still holds as one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever seen.

Exploring

I have always been an explorer.

When I go past something interesting, I love to go see what it looks like inside. I enjoy driving around Kansas with Laura, finding hidden waterfalls, old county courthouses, ghost towns, beautiful old churches, even small-town restaurants. I explore things around me, too — once taking apart a lawnmower engine as a child, nowadays building HF antennas in my treetops or writing code for Linux. If there is little to learn about something, it becomes less interesting to me.

I see this starting to build in my children, too. Since before they could walk, if we were waiting for something in a large building, we’d “go exploring.”

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A patch of rain over Hillsboro, KS

The New World

A pilot once told me, “Nobody can become a pilot without it changing the way they see the world — and then, changing their life.”

I doubted that. But it was true. One of the most poetic sights I know is flying a couple thousand feet above an interstate highway at night, following it to my destination. All those red and white lights, those metal capsules of thousands of lives and thousands of stories, stretching out as far as the eye can see in either direction.

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Kansas sunset from the plane

When you’re in a plane, that small town nowhere near a freeway that always seemed so far away suddenly is only a 15-minute flight away, not even enough time to climb up to a high cruise altitude. Two minutes after takeoff, any number of cities that are an hour’s drive away are visible simultaneously, their unique features already recognizable: a grain elevator, oil refinery, college campus, lake, whatever.

And all the houses you fly over — each with people in them. Some pretty similar to you, some apparently not. But pretty soon you realize that we all are humans, and we aren’t all that different. You can’t tell a liberal from a conservative from the sky, nor a person’s race or religion, nor even see the border between states. Towns and cities are often nameless from the sky, unless you’re really low; only your navigation will tell you where you are.

I’ve had the privilege to fly to small out-of-the-way airports, the kind that have a car that pilots can use for free to go into town and get lunch, and leave the key out for them. There I’ve met many friendly people. I’ve also landed my little Cessna at a big commercial airport where I probably used only 1/10th of the runway, on a grass runway that was barely maintained at all. I’ve flown to towns I’d driven to or through many times, discovering the friendly folks at the small airport out of town. I’ve flown to parts of Kansas I’ve never been to before, discovered charming old downtowns and rolling hills, little bursts of rain and beautiful sunsets that seem to turn into a sea.

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Parked at the Smith Center, KS airport terminal, about to meet some wonderful people

For a guy that loves exploring the nooks and crannies of the world that everyone else drives by on their way to a major destination, being a pilot has meant many soul-filling moments.

Hard Work

I knew becoming a pilot would be a lot of hard work, and thankfully I remembered stories like that when I finally concluded it would be worth it. I found that I had an aptitude for a lot of things that many find difficult about being a pilot: my experience with amateur radio made me a natural at talking to ATC, my fascination with maps and navigation meant I already knew how to read aviation sectional maps before I even started my training and knew how to process that information in the cockpit, my years as a system administrator and programmer trained me with a careful and methodical decision-making process. And, much to the surprise of my flight instructor, I couldn’t wait to begin the part of training about navigating using VORs (VHF radio beacons). I guess he, like many student pilots, had struggled with that, but I was fascinated by this pre-GPS technology (which I still routinely use in my flight planning, as a backup in case the GPS constellation or a GPS receiver fails). So that left the reflexes of flight, the “art” of it, as the parts I had to work on the hardest.

The exam with the FAA is not like getting your driver’s license. It’s a multi-stage and difficult process. So when the FAA Designated Pilot Examiner said “congratulations, pilot!” and later told my flight instructor that “you did a really good job with this one,” I felt a true sense of accomplishment.

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Some of my prep materials

Worth It

Passengers in a small plane can usually hear all the radio conversations going on. My family has heard me talking to air traffic control, to small and big planes. My 6-year-old son Oliver was playing yesterday, and I saw him pick up a plane and say this:

“Two-four-niner-golf requesting to land on runway one-seven…. Two-four-niner-golf back-taxi on one-seven… Two-four-niner-golf ready to takeoff on runway one-seven!”

That was a surprisingly accurate representation of some communication a pilot might have (right down to the made-up tailnumber with the spelling alphabet!)

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It just got more involved from there!

Jacob and Oliver love model train shows. I couldn’t take them to one near us, but there was one in Joplin, MO. So the day before Easter, while Laura was working on her Easter sermon, two excited boys and I (frankly also excited) climbed into a plane and flew to Joplin.

We had a great time at the train show, discovered a restaurant specializing in various kinds of hot dogs (of course they both wanted to eat there), played in a park, explored the city, and they enjoyed the free cookies at the general aviation terminal building while I traded tips on fun places to fly with other pilots.

When it comes right down to it, the smiles of the people I fly with are the most beautiful thing in the air.

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Jacob after his first father-son flight with me

Free cars, sunsets, and Kansas

“Will you have a car I can borrow?” I asked.

“Sure. No charge. There’s a sign telling you where to find the key.”

It is pretty common for small airports to have a car for a pilot to borrow when flying in. This lets a person go into town for lunch, or visit friends. And it’s usually free, with a can to donate a few bucks or a polite request to fill up the tank when you’re done.

Still, when I had called ahead to ask about flying into the airport in a small town in north-central Kansas, I hadn’t expected to be told to just waltz into the place and take the key. But they had no staff at the airport most of the time. So, to me — another person from a small town — it made perfect sense. Somehow, because of that phone call, this town I had visited once, maybe 25 years ago, seemed instantly familiar.

My mom grew up in a small town near there. She wanted me to see where she grew up, to meet some people that meant a lot to her. As it’s quite a distance from home, I offered to fly her there. So, Laura, mom, and I climbed into a Cessna one morning for the flight northwest. We touched down at the airport, and I pulled the plane up to the little terminal building.

Smith Center, KS airport terminal

After I took care of parking the plane, I went to find the car. Except the car was missing. Some other pilot had flown in the same day and was using it, according to the logbook on the desk. I called the number on a sign — which rang to the sheriff’s office — and they confirmed it. According to the logbook, this was only the third time that car had been driven since Thanksgiving. Were we stuck at the airport a few miles out of down?

Nope. Mom called the people we were going to meet, a wonderful couple in their upper 80s. They drove out to pick us up. I’m rather glad the car was gone, because I had such a great time visiting with them. Norris told me about the days when the state highways were gravel — how they’d have to re-blade them every few days due to all the traffic. I heard about what happened when the people in that community heard of some folks in Africa in need of car equipment — they modified a tractor to fit in a shipping container and shipped it to Africa, along with a lot of books, blankets, supplies, and anything else needed to fill up a huge shipping container. Sounds like something people around here would do.

We drove around a couple of the small towns. The town my mom grew up in has seen better days. Its schools closed years ago, the old hotel whose owner gave her piano lessons is condemned, and many houses have been lost. But the town lives on. A new community center was built a few years ago. The grain elevator is expanding. Every time a business on Main Street closes, the grocery store expands a little bit: it’s now a grocery store with a little hardware store and a little restaurant mixed in. “The mall”, as the locals jokingly call it. And, of course, two beautiful small churches still meet every Sunday. Here’s the one my mom attended as a child.

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We drove past the marker at the geographic center of the contiguous United States. Norris saw some other visitors, rolled down his windows, and treated them — and us — to an unexpected story of the time thousands of people banded together to completely build a house in a single day, just down the road. Smiles all around.

So here I was, nearly 200 miles from home, in an unfamiliar town – but one where I could just feel the goodness. After spending a few hours with these people, I felt like they were old friends.

As I flew us home, I spotted one of my favorite Kansas sights: a beautiful sunset. From the plane, it almost looks like the land at the horizon turns blue like the ocean, and above it the last hint of sun paints the canvas-sky.

In this week of controversy, politics, and reports of violence, it reminds me that we all get the privilege of sharing this beautiful Earth. I didn’t ask anybody on that trip about their politics, religion, or opinions on any of the divisive issues of the day. Whether they agree with me on those things or not is irrelevant. I got to spend a day with good-hearted and delightful people, so I flew back with a smile.

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Wow. I did that!

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.

Grass

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”.