“Hey lady!” a squeaky boyish voice behind me called. “Is that your plane?” Another young voice said, “Wow, this is cool!” I straightened up from the horizontal stabilizer, holding a dripping sudsy sponge and turned. Four boys astride BMX bicycles were looking at me and the Student Prince, their eyes bright and curious, reminding me of young squirrels.
No older than twelve, they had the look of boyhood summer vacation; tanned arms, frayed jeans that were too short, faded t shirts, their hair needing trimmed. The tallest kid had a dirty blond bowl cut that was buzzed up the back of his neck, the long hair on the sides falling forward and covering big brown eyes. There was a chubbier boy with an affable smile,a medium sized kid in a striped shirt with a red stain on the front, and the smallest, a wiry dark haired boy with an impish grin. Astride their bicycles on the dusty late summer road, the scotch broom bushes behind them in full bloom, barn swallows swooping overhead, they seemed straight out of a movie.
“Hi guys,” I said, “what are you up to today?” I wiped soap from my nose and squinted at them. The littlest one spoke up, “Well, we were just riding our bikes on the power line and found this place! Is this the airport?” They were clearly enthralled with their unplanned adventure and listened closely when I replied, “Yes it is, and that’s my airplane there,” I pointed to the Prince. “I’m just giving it a bath.” The boys erupted in chatter, exclaiming, “That is so bitchin! A real airplane, how rad, and look! It doesn’t have a roof!” Their excitement was infectious and I said, “Listen, if you help me finish giving the airplane it’s bath, I’ll take you each for a ride in it.” “Oh WOW, that is AWESOME!” they pushed their bikes to the grass by the hangar and walked to biplane, two of them high fiving each other.
I gave them each a sponge or a rag and dumped the bucket of old dirty water, refilling it from the hose and adding soap until it bubbled over the rim. “Now listen up guys,” I said loudly enough to quiet them down, they looked at me expectantly, “First you want to get the airplane wet with the hose,” I demonstrated, squirting the fuselage ahead of the tail, “but be careful not to get any water in the cockpits,” I pointed, “I have to sit in the back one, and you will ride in the front. I don’t want to look like I peed my pants.” The boys giggled, the tall kid peeking shyly at me from beneath his bangs with a dimpled smile. “Then, you rub it with the soapy rag, getting all of the dead bugs and grease off. After that, you want to rinse it really well, avoiding the cockpits.” The boys nodded earnestly. “Ok,” I said, “go to it.” In a flurry of energy, the boys quickly sorted out who would run the hose, and what part of the airplane to wash first. I stood back and watched.
In no time, a water fight erupted, adolescent voices on the verge of deepening cracked as they whooped and laughed, fighting over the hose, slinging wet soapy water from the sponges at one another, their sneakers squishing. When they settled down and began scrubbing the surface of the biplane, the small boy contemplatively rubbed the rudder with a soggy rag, “Isn’t this just the best you guys?” he said, “We’re together and we get to do something.” All the other boys nodded, “Yeah.”
The airplane didn’t look much cleaner an hour later, and I could plainly see where spots were smeared with grease or had been missed all together, but I didn’t say anything as I emptied and rinsed the bucket. The kids were soaked and grinning, proud of the fun they were having. I told them all to pose in front of the airplane for a photo, and they gathered round, the chubby boy sitting on a step ladder, the two larger boys behind him, arms around one another’s shoulders, the small boy next to them. “Ok then,” I pointed the camera at them, “say biplane!” Just as I was depressing the shutter, there was a loud crack! The step ladder crumpled and broke, the boy who had been sitting on it sprawling on the asphalt in surprise, the other three boys falling down, shrieking with laughter, holding their stomachs. “Hey you guys! It’s not funny!” The boy who had broken the ladder tried to sound offended, but he started laughing too. I managed to snap a photo of the chaos; the broken ladder and mirthful boys on the ground, looking as innocent and playful as a box of puppies.
When the hilarity had abated, I asked them, “Are you ready to go flying?” The littlest one pumped his fist into the air, “Yes! And I get to go first!”
“Alright then,” I grabbed the left wing handle and pulled, turning the biplane toward the taxi way, “let’s get you ready.” I placed extra cushions in the front cockpit and gave the boy the smallest leather helmet. The other three boys paid rapt attention, watching as I fastened the helmet under his chin and instructed him on getting into the biplane. “First, you must stay on the black part of the wing when you get in and out.” I pointed to the black non skid near the fuselage on the lower left wing. “Otherwise, you will go directly through the fabric, making a hole in the wing.” His impish cockiness vanished and he focused seriously on what I was saying. “Next, you need to face forward, grab this strut near the windshield and swing you leg up and over the rim of the cockpit, and stand on the cushions with both feet.” I demonstrated, “Then, slide down and sit.” “Okay,” I stepped off the wing, “your turn!” I realized just how small the boy was when he had to make a big step to clamber onto the wing and I gave him a boost to swing him into the cockpit. Standing next to him on the wing, I reached into the cockpit and fastened the seat belt snugly across his small waist. “Now you see this?” I pointed next to his left arm at the black and red knobs, “these are my engine controls, and they will move. Don’t touch them ok?” He nodded, “Ok.” I patted him on his head, “What’s your name?” He replied, “Kevin.” “Alright Kevin, let’s go flying!” I swung into the rear cockpit and buckled my helmet.
The three boys whooped and waved as we taxied away and Kevin’s little hand waved back. Two barn swallows followed the biplane as it taxied, the birds swooping and soaring in counter clockwise circles around the airplane, the back of Kevin’s helmeted head barely visible above the cockpit rim.
When I taxied onto the runway and lined up, Kevin turned his head and looked back at me with wide brown eyes. I nodded reassuringly, smiled and advanced the throttle for takeoff. After a short roll, I pushed forward on the stick lifting the tail and correcting with rudder to stay on center line. The biplane responded willingly and rolled on its main wheels gaining speed and seconds later I gently pulled back, the airplane leaving the ground and climbing briskly, the hangars growing smaller, while three dots near the windsock waved vigorously. I pushed the stick left and right briskly, rocking the wings, the biplane waving back.
Discovery Bay came into view beneath the left wing, the sunlight sparkling on the blue surface, the Olympic mountains in the distance snow capped. I watched the back of Kevin’s head as it swiveled left and right, taking in the view. I could see him smiling, his eyes bright, all trepidation gone, his bravado and impishness returning. I banked right, gauging his reaction. The boy leaned into the turn like a dog riding in the back of a truck, looking down the wing tip at the valley and the golf course, his head sticking out into the slipstream. I knew then that I wouldn’t have to fly gently with him, limiting bank angles and rolling in and out slowly, the kid clearly loved it.
Rolling quickly, I did some steep turns left and right, leveling the wings crisply after 360 degrees of turn, the biplane bumping as it flew through it’s own wake. Kevin looked back at me with a wide smile, holding his thumb up. Smiling back, I did a couple of wing overs, pulling the nose up high in a bank and letting it fall, slicing through the horizon, the sound of the wind growing louder as I pulled the nose up again in the opposite direction to complete the pattern. I could hear Kevin faintly over the Kinner engine as I throttled back, “Wheeee!” He turned around with raised eyebrows and with his index finger, he described a circle. There was no question; the little fellow was requesting a loop! I nodded and added power, climbing for altitude and looking for other airplanes.
Lining up over a straight road, I lowered the nose below the horizon gathering airspeed, making sure my wings were level. Pitching up firmly and briskly, the G forces beginning to push me into my seat, I added full power as the nose arced through the horizon. Nearly vertical, I noticed that Kevin’s head was no longer visible, that he had completely disappeared. Fully committed to the loop, there was nothing for me to do but continue the maneuver, pitching over the top, the wheels of the airplane pointed at the sky and the nose tracing it’s way down to the ground again.
In the few seconds it took to complete the loop minus any visible sign of my passenger, my mind quickly deducted what had happened. Past experience had shown me that youngsters are more sensitive to G loads, finding them altogether new and odd, not sure what to make of the sensation of being twice or even three times their weight in an instant. I assumed that when Kevin felt the three and a half Gs going into the loop, and having never experienced the sensation before, he turned turtle and tucked into a ball. Nearing the bottom of the loop, in order to avoid pulling more Gs, I sacrificed symmetry for comfort, relaxing on the stick and neglecting to pull hard. My maneuver looked more like a Chinese character than a circle.
When we reached wings level, Kevin’s head popped up like a Jack in the Box and he turned to me, eyes huge. Even though I couldn’t hear him, I clearly understood what he was saying as he wagged his finger back and forth. “No more! No more!”
I chuckled as we headed back to the airport. Even the small, the young, and the fearless have their limits.