I have learned as I get older that inspiration can come from the most unexpected places or people. It is only with time does the object of inspiration present itself unmistakably. Parents, having the biggest opportunity to inspire and support, sometimes don’t grasp or take hold of the offering.
As a young child, going to the local airport on weekends was a frequent event. With my Dad, you never knew what we would be doing. One day could be a flight to Arizona, maybe just a local flight around the airport or sometimes we just changed the airplanes oil and didn’t fly at all. I hated that. As you can imagine a seven year old attention span is not captured by changing oil on a dusty and deserted airport. We kept our airplane at the local airport South of Las Vegas. At the time it was called “Sky Harbor”. It was owned and operated by a cranky old pilot that made his entire living in aviation dating back to the 1920’s. Through a child’s eyes, he was mean. He walked with a slight gimp and was rumored to be a result of multiple crack-ups in aircraft. The airport buildings were a mix of modern metal hangars and salvaged World War II airfield buildings. They were dank with peeling white paint and smelled of old airplanes. In the hangars, we snooped around and found wondrous treasures of mysterious aircraft and parts stored in corners and the rafters. I was fascinated by it all but never spoke to the old pilot. It’s a shame though, I am sure he had many interesting stories if you could get past his tough exterior shell.
One of the other intriguing goings on at the airport was the gliders. If you have not witnessed a glider in powerless flight, it is a graceful and delicate display with hardly a whisper. Typically these aircraft are designed to carry one or two persons. To get these craft into the air, gliders are towed behind a powered aircraft with a rope. Once the desired altitude is achieved, the tow plane releases the glider. The pilot of the glider has one of two choices. He or she can glide back down to the airport for landing or search for updrafts in the form of rising currents of air. In the desert, rising currents of air are quite common and soaring, as it is called, makes for an enjoyable sport. Sky harbor was the base of a flight school that offered glider training. On the days that we had mundane work to perform, I prayed for glider operations. It was very entertaining to watch the tow plane slowly grind its way to altitude with a glider in tow. Upon disconnect of the rope, the tow plane would bank sharply to the left and the glider banks to the right ensuring sufficient clearance between the aircraft. It is fascinating to watch the gliders perform slow circles searching for elusive lift to stay aloft long after the noisy tow plane had descended, landed and shut down its engine.
On one special weekend at the airport, my Dad motioned for me to follow him. He was walking over to a glider that was being connected to the tow plane. I had watched the glider descend and land just minutes ago and could see the ground personnel preparing the ship for another flight. An older man with a pleasant smile was leaning against the glider adjusting the seat belts and shoulder harnesses. He was a few years more senior than my Dad and was wearing a plaid shirt, jeans and cowboy boots. He noticed us walking up and addressed us with a hearty, “Hey there, fellas”. “Hello, what’s the cost of a ride?” said my Dad. The man smiled and said “seven dollars for a ride to pattern altitude and twelve dollars for a ride to three thousand feet”. “That’s a good ride because we normally can pick up a few thermals” he said. My Dad paused for a moment, thought about it and said “he’ll take the seven dollar trip”. Needless to say, I was excited. After all this time watching gliders, I was going for a ride! “Climb in front son, I’ll get you strapped in” said the man. I quickly jumped into the front seat. Just forward of the seat was a control stick and a spartan instrument panel. On the panel was a large red knob. It was odd because it reminded me of a door knob. The canopy was a clear bubble that covered the forward and aft cockpit. The man climbed in behind me and pulled the canopy down. In the back, I could hear him buckling and adjusting his straps. On the radio I could hear him communicating with the tow plane, most of which I didn’t understand. I did catch one part though, “…take us to 3,000 feet”. Even at my young age, I realized he was going to give me the premium ride to catch some thermals. The take-off and climb were somewhat similar to a powered airplane except that we were following the tow plane by what now seemed to be quite a thin thread. During the climb, the man patiently explained all of the nuisances of flying in formation behind the tow plane. At one point as he was explaining another aspect of soaring, I turned around and to look at him and he was happily smiling as he spoke. At the tender age of seven, I felt as though I was being welcomed and indoctrinated into a very special aspect of flying and my guide was somebody who loved what he was doing. “Hey there son, see that big knob in front of you?” “Sure do”, I replied. “Pull on it like you’re trying to pull it out of the panel”. I reached up and could hardly get my fingers around the knob, so I grabbed it with both hands. As I put my hands on it, I could slightly feel the vibration from the tow plane resonating through the tow line and into the knob. I pulled hard. With a solid “thunk”, we were free of the tow plane and banking to the right at an extreme angle. I could hear the glider airframe creak and groan under the increased loading on the wings. It’s funny, you would think without an engine, flying a glider would be especially quiet, but it isn’t. In fact the high pitched whistle of the wind is always present as you fly. The wind noise only changes as you speed your craft or slow down. We soared and caught a few thermals and the enthusiastic man did his best to treat me to a deluxe glider ride. We finally had to return to the airport and just like anything good in life, it’s always better to quit before the fun ends. As we approached the runway, in the distance, I could see my Dad waiting for us leaning on one of the other gliders. Touching down lightly, the glider coasted to the staging area. The canopy was opened and my Dad was walking over quickly. “Wow, you guys were up there for some time”. To me, the time aloft in the glider wasn’t long enough. Of course, it was long enough to inspire me. Still tightly strapped in the man said “hey there young man, you can solo a glider at 14. How old are you? 10?” Without shifting his gaze from me and speaking to my Dad, “You know… he’s pretty comfortable up there, seems to have a handle on the machine”. My Dad offered “He’s only 7.” He has a few more years to go and that’s if he doesn’t grow out of it”. The man started to unbuckle. Over the heavy metal clinking of his harness, “I have a feeling he’s not going to grow out of this.. he has the bug”. I thanked the man and slowly walked the length of the wing lightly touching it as I went. Thinking back, I never knew the man’s name but I’ll never forget his infectious enthusiasm or encouragement.
Several weeks later, arriving from school and slunking my book bag down my Dad met me at the door. Without hesitation and in a monotone voice he said “Remember your glider pilot?” I nodded yes. “He and his wife were killed today.” They were maneuvering low and the gusty winds caused them to stall and crash. The engine came into the cockpit and crushed them both.” Not skipping a beat, he looked at my older brother and said “Rob! You going to going to get the lawn mowed before the sun goes down?!” He walked away to perform another task. As the news sunk into my 7 year old brain, a cold and piercing emotion ripped through my body. Running from the house and across the neighbors house I sat by a cinder block fence looking down at the red dirt. Hot tears flowed and formed puddles of red mud. I did not cry, but the tears flowed. The neighbor man hurried out of his home, I am guessing, to find out why the kid from across the street was camped out near his fence. Hey there lad, can’t you find someplace else to sit. Looking up at him with red swollen wet eyes, he looked up and down the street. I can only imagine he was looking for the culprit that just beat me up. “What’s the matter kid?” I was embarrassed that he saw me crying and I mustered “Nothing is wrong… you wouldn’t understand”. Brushing myself off, I walked to the top of our street. It met with the wide open expanse of desert. Walking to the top of a small hill, I looked in the direction of the glider field several miles distant. The sun was glinting off the hangar roofs. The field that day looked lonely and existed with a coldness that comes with loss of life. My Dad and I never spoke again of the man, the crash or the glider ride. 37 years later, I still think of the man and his encouraging influence on me. Sometimes, as I’m buckling my harness in the front end of an airliner, I can still see the man’s smile.