Fear of flying

Thinking about Pop this Father’s Day…his love of aviation…and one memorable Saturday morning flight.

He had gone in with two other guys at work and bought a little Cessna. Like a kid with a toy, it became his passion and arguments soon ensued at dinner about all the time he spent flying “that damn plane.” He was always trying to get me to go with him, but it was his thing, not mine, and I kept begging off. One Friday night he caught me, sprawled watching TV. He mentioned casually that he was going flying tomorrow, would I like to come? I discerned a faint wistfulness. I suddenly felt bad, all the stuff he was always doing for me…and I kept blowing him off? Geez. OK Pop, sure.

The next morning had a happy vibe; my mom fixing pancakes and eggs…Pop getting his flying stuff together. The bacon sizzled as he spread out an aviation map and showed me our destination–Pahokee. “You see these?” he asked, pointing at little symbols. “Those are radio towers.” I looked as I ate. “See the height marked? You gotta stay away from them.” As he folded the map, I drained my glass of OJ and we were off.

Boca airport in the 1970s was a dinky little building with a few hangers for the bigger planes; most were simply tied down outside. I followed Pop inside to check in and he was greeted the regulars, a dozen guys his age, all wearing nylon windbreakers, caps with aviation themes, and glasses. They looked me up and down with interest. As he filed our flight plan, the radio squawked now and then with Foxtrot Niner and Five by Five and other indecipherable airplane jargon. The regulars just kept looking at me with satisfaction…ah, passing the torch to the next generation. It’s in the blood.

We went through the preflight essentials and then climbed into the cockpit. The seats were side by side, our hips almost touching. We taxied out to the main runway, Pop periodically talking aviation stuff over the hand-held microphone to the control tower while adjusting knobs and switches. I was impressed. We were cleared for takeoff and Pop pushed the throttle forward. The engine roared and the little plane wavered and shook down the wide runway, patches of black tire rubber everywhere. The ground blurred and I watched the airspeed dial. At about 80 mph, Pop pulled back on the wheel and the shaking stopped as the ground fell away…and with it, my stomach. I was used to big commercial jets, not this little thing that felt like a Tilt-A-Whirl.

We banked and climbed…heading NW for Pahokee…and leveled out at about at 4,000 feet. It was a warm day and the cabin soon became hot. Pop pointed and yelled out the function of each instrument over the engine noise; I nodded and got about half of it as a tiny breeze came in through a ventilation port. I felt queasy as I looked down at the patchwork of agricultural fields and swamps.

Pahokee airfield–if you could call it that–soon became visible. We descended, landed, whizzed past the concrete block control tower and took off again. We repeated this several times…”shooting landings”…before heading back. Pop was delighted. He was doing his thing, it was a beautiful day, he had his kid with him. The kid was trying not to be a buzzkill, but struggling to control a rising tide of nausea that, with each take off, each turn, each anything in the hot, loud cabin threatened to burst.

Finally, one big air pocket was too much; we dropped several feet and my stomach convulsed. A remarkably forceful geyser of pancakes, eggs and OJ erupted all over me, all over him, all over everything in the tiny enclosed space. To his credit, Pop didn’t lose a beat. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We’re going in.” He flicked this switch and that, banked, descended and radioed Boca airfield. In a short time, we were back on the ground.

Pop squelched bow-leggedly for the building as I stood miserably by the plane. He returned shortly with a bucket of cold water, some rags, and the grinning old aviator dudes. It was the most interesting show of the week as I was roughly swabbed down, followed by the instrument panel, the controls, the seats, and finally the carpet of Pop’s beloved Cessna. Everything stunk. The regulars stood a little way off, quietly talking with an occasional snicker.

On the way home, there was an awkward silence. I was still nauseous as I sat listening to his big band music. Finally he reached over and switched it off. He cleared his throat. Oh boy, here it comes. “Hey,” he said gently. “Don’t worry about it.” He put his hand on my soggy jeans and squeezed my knee. “It happens to the best of us.” He held my gaze for a second. He “Do you know what causes air sickness?” he asked. I said I didn’t and he explained it was the continual turbulence, the inner ear, my brain thinking I was falling. It was interesting, but did nothing to dispel the humiliation, the stink, the looks from the old guys.

“I’ll tell you something,” he said. “You keep at it, and it’ll go away.” He switched Glenn Miller back on and started humming along. I marveled. Despite ruining the cockpit, despite embarrassing him in front of his friends, despite failing miserably as his student pilot…he was still happy just to have me with him and wanted me to go again.

I think on that day we became buddies. Miss ya, Pop.

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