Besides learning the laws of aerodynamics and how to apply and respect them, one of the very first things I also learned as a fledgling pilot was that I was the newest member of a very special family. Family members within aviation come in all shapes and sizes, ages and genders and from any and all corners of the globe. When I began to fly, I belonged. Not only was I wanted, but I was encouraged, cheered on and assisted with my goals by my new friends. And I had done nothing to earn their acceptance except love airplanes. The support and connection of such diverse, funny, talented and caring characters was really what kept me passionate about aviation. Of course being free in the sky and mastering a machine as complex and wonderful as an airplane was incredible, but what really sustained me were the people who loved aviation and anything to do with it, and that included me. Once a member of this special and unofficial fraternity of folks it’s like a grab bag every day. You never know when you will run into one of them. They are a part of your personal history and you a part of theirs. All of the highs and lows literally and personally, all the triumph and defeat. It’s not even necessary to remain in constant contact with each family member, the common denominator of aviation will allow the relationship to run seamlessly with little if any hands on ministrations. The bond forged through the brother and sisterhood of aviation is one that is unique, long lasting, and strong. My aviation family has provided me with more satisfaction and fulfillment than being a part of any other group at any other time of my life.
Last Monday, it was a beautiful, blue bird day and we were descending over the mountains and into a valley to land at the small town airport of Dillon, Montana. It was my turn to fly and I was enjoying not only the spectacular scenery of snow capped mountains, sinewy rivers and alpine lakes, I was enjoying the thrill of flying a fast, modern business jet. I felt like Wonder Woman, except my jet wasn’t invisible, it was blue and white. French by design, the Falcon 2000 is a modern marvel. Capable of flying up to 47,000 feet at speeds near 84 percent the speed of sound while carrying 11 passengers and two pilots in utmost comfort and luxury. From a pilot’s perspective, the Falcon is a fine flying machine. The controls are light and harmonious and it has wonderful performance.
On the descent in to Dillon, it wasn’t all fun and games and sightseeing. It can’t be when one is flying at 300 knots and closing in on the terrain. My co captain was busy on the radio with air traffic control and I was monitoring the Dillon airport frequency and looking hard for other traffic. Dillon is a small uncontrolled airport with no control tower. Pilots are to look out the window for one another and self announce on a common frequency if they choose to. Some aircraft can and do operate out of such airports without using radios. I was keeping a sharp eye out for any other airplanes who may be in the pattern and most especially for the crop duster who ducks in and out of the pattern from any and all directions and at low altitudes unannounced. I heard a voice on the radio that I instantly recognized with surprise and delight. The voice was transmitting that they were also inbound to Dillon in another business jet. We were slightly ahead of them and I flew my pattern and landing with great anticipation of seeing one of my first aviation friends and one of my greatest supporters.
When I was eighteen I had flown the Student Prince to the Evergreen Fly In in Vancouver, Washington. One of the largest antique airplane gatherings on the west coast, I had heard much about it. Owning an antique airplane, it seemed only natural that I should go, so I did. I had been a pilot for just under a year, my father had passed away and I didn’t know many “antiquers”, others who owned and flew vintage airplanes. That would all change when I landed at Evergreen. The place was jam packed with row upon row of colorful antique airplanes, and crowds of characters who flew them, admired them and kept them flying. Old timey music was being played from a loudspeaker, old motor cars were scattered among the airplanes, and the sky was filled with the sound of airplanes. Reds, burgundys, greens, yellows, oranges, blue, and every color in between gleamed on biplanes, triplanes, open cockpits, engine cowlings. Overhead in the traffic pattern, it was a bees nest of old airplanes generally seen in black and white movies, but these were in full technicolor, 3D and surround sound! I was overwhelmed with the magnitude and the experience. I was also stunned to find how many strangers seemed to know me and the Student Prince. Although it wasn’t much of a stretch that they knew the Prince, after all it was an antique airplane fly in, and the Prince had been built just a few miles down the road, I was astonished to learn that they knew about me, where I was from, that my father had passed. The Evergreen fly in was my indoctrination into the aviation grapevine which is the healthiest grapevine, ever! I was instantly “in” due to being affiliated with a local piece of flying history. It was fun, I mingled, traded phone numbers, posed for photos, went to the awards banquet in a wonderful old hangar, danced to a swing band and met Bert and his family.
My feet were starting to ache and I was getting a good sunburn on my nose but it didn’t matter, I was too fascinated with the acres of beautiful antique airplanes to look at. Maybe it was an onset of heatstroke, but when I spied Bert’s tan biplane, I completely lost it. At my local airport cafe, there was a coffee table book of airplanes. Full color photos and descriptions of each. I had spent many hours at the counter eating pie while poring over the airplanes in the book. One that caught my eye was the Bucker Jungmann biplane. A European biplane known for it’s aerobatic prowess, and in particular it’s snap rolling capability, I was instantly smitten. It looked so ready to rumble in the sky, it’s landing gear jutting forward like talons, it’s narrow wings swept back. I admit it, I developed a serious teenage crush on an airplane I had never seen other than in photos. That is, until I saw my first one at Evergreen. Owned by Bert and his son Steve, who had just completely restored it, their Bucker had less than 30 hours on it when I saw it at the fly in. A gracious, understated family, they probably didn’t know what to think when a sunburnt teenage girl appeared and began jumping up and down and squealing over their airplane. Maybe they assumed that the only way to prevent me from making a bigger scene was to take me for a ride in it. And that is how, besides the test pilot and the immediate family members, I became the first passenger to ride in their pristine, freshly restored Bucker Jungmann. I had a smile plastered on my face for several hours after that wonderful ride in a gorgeous, nimble airplane.
I learned that Bert’s uncle had also owned a Student Prince at one time, and over the ensuing years, I remained fast friends with Bert and his family. While I was climbing the ladder toward becoming a professional pilot, I would occasionally receive a letter from Bert. Because Bert was a corporate pilot, the letters would be on hotel stationery from anywhere in the world. His letters would update me on his family and the Bucker, and encourage me to follow my dreams. Bert’s son Steve was also a corporate pilot, and it was he who was instrumental in me securing my very first corporate jet job. As a new co pilot flying my first jet, I was one in a string of several young pilots who rented an upstairs bedroom from Bert and his wife until I could establish my own place. Their family is the epitome of the spirit of aviation. Warm, caring, supportive and without expectations.
I hadn’t seen Bert for several years, although I did receive a card from him on my birthday. A card with a red biplane inscribing a smokey heart. When his jet shut down in Dillon, Montana I was there to greet him. And although years, miles, and life has passed over us both, nothing had changed between us. The affinity we have for one another that was forged through the bond of the sky was just as present as it’s always been.
As Richard Bach so succinctly wrote, “When you believe in the sky, you’re bound to find a few friends.”