When I used to barnstorm for a living in order to support the Student Prince, busy days of hopping rides would allow me little time to visit with the folks who paid their money to fly. Frequently, once the first intrepid passenger had taken a flight with me, and everyone else saw how ecstatic and thrilled they were when they landed, several others would decide to go. So while my ground crew performed the functions I once did for my dad while he hopped rides; starting a list of passengers, collecting money, lugging gas cans, and loading and unloading passengers, I would keep the engine running on the Prince, shutting down only to fuel up. In the rear cockpit, with no communication with my passengers in the front, I had only brief moments to interact with them. They would flash me a smile and greeting as they climbed on the lower wing to climb in the cockpit ahead of me, sometimes asking for a fly over their house or town, or to tell me not to do any loop de loops. Usually, even if they were excited, there was an air of trepidation present in their demeanor. Then, after take off when I would level and start doing a few gentle turns and wing overs, inevitably they would turn and grin broadly me and flash a thumbs up. I would grin back and nod my head in agreement. Upon landing they would be transformed. Alighting from the cockpit and floating off the wing walk to the ground with wild hair, they would be glowing and telling everyone within earshot how incredible they found the experience. They would give me a heartfelt thank you and shake my hand while looking deep into my eyes. And off they’d go, regaling the rest of the onlookers with tales from the air. And another passenger would be loaded. I came to feel left out in sense, when I would taxi away from my newly alive passengers. I longed to talk to them, hear what it was like for them in the air with me and the Prince. I wanted to know what they felt, saw and smelled. I wanted to know what it was they made them so happy. Ironically, it was exactly because people were so happy when they returned from the air, that I didn’t get the chance to visit with them. Responses like theirs were good for business and other people would want what they had and I would fly until dark. By then, most of my passengers had finally gone home and I would miss my opportunity to hear their stories.
So I started a passenger book. A red book with blank pages in which my ground crew would ask passengers to write whatever they desired after their flight. And what a treasure that book turned out to be! On those tattered, grease stained pages people left a piece of their hearts. It was wonderful to read later. People would draw pictures, and write the most beautiful things. They would say that had no idea it was so beautiful in the air, that it reminded them of being young again, or that they wanted to learn to fly, that the air was so fresh, and that it was so exciting and that they weren’t afraid at all. They would also pump me up a bit when they would exclaim that I was the smoothest pilot, the best pilot, made a perfect landing and that my father would be so proud. In the evenings, when the Prince was tied down, covered, and wiped clean of grease, I would pore over the comments written in the book. They buoyed my spirit, and I fully recognized that I wasn’t just selling airplane rides to thrill seekers. I was offering people an experience that they would never forget. And although I was young, I understood that somehow I was in a position incredibly rare, unique and special. And I also understood that it wasn’t me, that it was the Student Prince. I was the messenger only, but it was a privilege and an honor to offer the sky to others. I have always tried to wear the honor gracefully and humbly. Reading the heartfelt comments left on those pages inspired me to fly as many rides as there were passengers. I would be exhausted when the sun set, but it was such an insignificant price to pay for inspiring people’s souls.
I am now on my third (and much larger!) passenger log, and I made certain that it went with me to Ohio and back. I collected several wonderful comments from joyous souls I shared the sky with during the trip, including one young man I met when we landed in the middle of Iowa in a grass strip surrounded by corn fields. We landed, said hello, and when I learned that he had never been in an airplane, I asked him to fly with me and within five minutes, Chrissy had him loaded, called for a hot mag and swung the prop. We took off, two strangers into the evening. The sky was pink, the moon full and the air was soft velvet. The young man was all smiles upon landing and he wrote that it was an awesome experience and that he loved every second of his time in the air. My book also contains the signature from Herbie, the WWII Thunderbolt pilot. He gave me the best compliment, he told me I flew like a fighter pilot. Sometimes people write funny things too, like how it’s the best fun they’ve ever had while dressed. Sophie wrote that she thought I was crazy and that she liked that about me. And later on, when she posted a picture of herself in the Student Prince with a wide smile, she wrote, “This one’s for the long book.” And she’s right, upon my return from my amazing trip to the birthplace of Oroville and Wilbur Wright, I have decided to write “the long book”. The book that I’ve always known was in my heart but that I never felt like I had enough experience to share. Well, thanks to the marvelous, immediate and wonderful responses from the folks who followed the blog, I’ve decided that now is the time to tell my stories. Thank you all for inspiring me. I hope I write a book worthy of your attention and that it inspires you.