It was a busy weekend, let me just say that, and a memorable one. Saturday morning we flew our oldest passenger, at 88 years old. She was also one of the coolest, I think. She took up kayaking at 83 and can't swim. She spent the flight hooting and whistling at us as we chased, and the after-flight ceremony, which took place on a land-owner's front yard was just as rewarding.
That evening's flight was canceled, and thankfully. We watched a huge thunderhead (cumulonimbus for you meterology geeks) collapse and change the wind direction a full 45 degrees in less than twenty minutes, then turn into quite a bluster that would have sent SkyBird first into the woods and then toward a very fast, very rough landing.
Sunday morning found us flying a Marine Corps laywer and his wife for her 40th birthday and had to be one of the more high-speed chases we've been on. SkyBird's path took her away from the roads so Jim had to make up for in speed what he couldn't make up in pacing, so a few bumps and bruises later we found ourselves just about flying down the access road to a local crop-dusting runway for a clean recovery.
Then came Sunday afternoon. A tethered flight. What worried me is that I kept hearing those three words uttered with a sort of sick desperation bordering on hatred. That afternoon found us setting up a whole mountain of nylon ropes, D-ring hooks and, oddly enough, two trucks and a tree. The inflation went well until the wind kicked up again, and found me and a heavy-set volunteer fighting the ground control rope and SkyBird, who wanted nothing more than to roll around just off the ground like a giant, gaily-coloured pendulum.
The wind finally settled, the line for rides grew, and we started off. The ground crew quickly developed a sort of assembly line process--kids (and a few adults) would enter from one side to board, while kids would exit the other side. When the gondola was full David would nod, we'd let go, he'd fire the burner and up they'd go, some forty or so feet, hover and bob gently in the breeze, then back to earth.
The best part for me was watching the little one's faces. They'd go up with hands clapped over ears and looks of somewhat abstract terror on their little faces and come down with huge smiles and bright blue fire in their eyes. They'd flown, and done so in the presence of all their families and friends and church mates, and they'd flown well. It made the near-constant sweat and mosquitoes worth while. We even flew a dear lady of some 70 years who was suffering from the most severe cerebral palsy I'd ever seen. Her caregiver sat on a folding chair and held her in her lap, and when they landed the joy on her face was almost painful to see it was so pure and uncluttered.
If only we could have set up an assembly line for everyone to use, to make goals and dreams come true so easily for everyone. Simply line them up, feed them in one side of the gondola, give them a taste of flight and set them back down, then feed them back out the other side to bubble and spread the joy to others.
Dark fell fast and there was still a line, but shortening, and our strength was waning with the setting sun. Toward the end, when there were only a few faces eagerly anticipating flight David looked at me and said "Come on, it's your turn."
Goose I am, I thought I was just going to get a ride. I'd forgotten the email David sent me a while back, which I saved, and reproduce here as I received it.
well done grasshopper.....your observations are obviously not as casual as they would appear as you stand there with eyes and mouth open wide....you have begun a quest that even if tried could not be derailed very easily...good job.....can't wait to read about your first time on the burner.....
I didn't realise that my burner time was what he was talking about until he said "Go ahead, take the burner."
I don't know what I did right then. I probably looked around for the hidden camera. I know I finally grabbed the stubby wooden handle of the burner assembly that I've seen every time we set up, but never touched. It's always seemed sacred, somehow. Sacrosanct. I looked at it's chrome body and saw where the manufacturer had engraved their company name in the metal. I looked at my passengers. MY passengers, because I was the guy at the controls, responsible for putting this simple machine back down on the ground safely. David caught my eye and said "Burn." I held the wooden handle in my palm, squeezed two fingers down on the short black lever. The propane caught fire with a roar and I was looking up at an eight foot tall flower, clear blue with orange-yellow at it's tips, and past that up into the stained glass dome of SkyBird's envelope.
I have to say this--David's teaching method is quiet. He spoke softly the whole time, just loud enough that I could hear him from my position a few feet away from him. "Burn." "A little shorter." "A little longer." The lesson I most remember, though, almost a koan was "Burn, then see what that does for you." "See what that does for you." That was the main lesson. The lesson underneath everything. Try it. Take the step and see where you are. Then, take another step. Take enough steps and you're flying.
I brought us up, then down a little, then up close to the forty feet or so that was the maximum length the tethers allowed, then let the envelope cool a little, keeping us aloft with short burns until we set down on the ground again, surprisingly softly. We offloaded a few fulfilled dreamers, took on a few eager seekers and repeated, only this time David just stood there and smiled that small smile that said "You showed me you know what to do, so do it." He crossed his arms and waited. I burned and we lifted, flew, hovered, then sank gently back again.
Then, since the line was still there and it was getting dark VERY fast, I debarked and he flew the last few passengers while I stood there crewing again, helping little kids and old men get their feet up over the edges of the gondola, reassuring them before they went up and smiling with them when they came down. We'd shared something, all of us. We were aeronauts.
The line ended pretty fast, and suddenly there was one little man left and David told me to get back on board, he was taking a break. I got on, situated myself and my passenger, and David climbed out. Out of the gondola. I was alone with my passenger. Again, MY passenger, but this time there was no helping hand standing across the short distance. David nodded, I reached up and felt the smooth wooden handle and the slick black firing lever and burned. We rose into the night sky. The little man asked me a few questions as we flew, and I remember answering them but don't ask me what I said. My mind was filled with the huge blue flame, with the orange and blue light that shone down from the dome over me with every burn, and the soft creak of the wicker as we moved and shifted in the wind.
I landed us, he debarked, Jim grinning at me and Cookie and Joy hollering happily at me. "Take her to the top," David said, and I stood there grinning into the bright flame as we went back up, she and I, up and up into the night. I know I was secure; the three nylon ropes would stop me before I crossed over the treeline and into the night itself but it felt...impossible. I felt like Daedalus must have felt when he handed his son his cup of wine and said "Here son, hold this. I wanna try something." I felt a tiny touch of what Pilâtre de Rozier felt when he first ascended in the Montgolfier's beautiful Fabrege' egg. I felt free. I felt like I'd somehow escaped gravity's notice, and that any second it was going to realise that I'd gotten lose somehow and was going to snatch me back with a resounding thump but for right now I was a kid skipping school, with the whole world open before me.
I know I called back and forth to the crew. I know at one point some jackanapes waiting below shouted "Cut the ropes!" and I said "Go ahead! As long as Jim is driving chase I know I'll be okay!" and I meant it. I remember David yelling up to me "Stop giggling and fly that balloon!" I remember Cookie and Joy calling out in high laughter that I was flying, that I was doing a good job, but all I really truly remember is how it felt to hold that handle in my hand, to feel the heat wash down on my face and to feel the few breathless seconds it took for SkyBird to react to the fresh heat in her envelope.
David made me do a few things, like hover the bottom of the gondola right at his head height, and then made me bring her as close to the ground as I could without touching. I remember him saying I was doing well, that I managed to hold her "at grass tip height" for more than a little while, and then I was up again, soaring to the limits of the ropes, then I was down for the evening before we ran completely out of fuel.
I think I helped pack her up. I think I gathered some of the rope and daisy-chained it. I think I helped put the big blue canvas bag and the wicker gondola back in the trailer because that's where it all ended up. All I know for sure is that my instructor talked to me briefly when it was all over. He told me he was proud of me. He said I had a good touch, a "good hand for it." He thanked me for my hard work, which to me is like thanking a tree for giving shade. Then he told me to go down to the little local municipal airport, to the little aviator's shop there "...and buy a pilot's log. You need to start logging your flight hours."
I don't remember the ride home, but I know I made it. I even have the pictures to prove it wasn't a dream.
* snipped from the poem "High Flight," here reproduced in full. Correct me if I'm wrong but I believe this poem is the unofficial poem of the Air Force.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
— John Gillespie Magee, Jr