People Who Fly

Back to Shan’s Thoughts On Flight

–One of my favorite bits of writing about flying from long ago.

For nine hundred miles, I listened to the old, old man In the seat next to mine on Flight 224 from Dallas to Atlanta


“How did I come to be a salesman?” he said. “Well, I joined the Navy when I was seventeen, in the middle of the war…” And he had gone to sea and he was in the invasion at Iwo Jima, taking troops and supplies up to the beach in a landing craft, under enemy fire. Incidents many, and details of the time, back in the days when this man had been alive.

Then in five seconds he filled me in on the forty odd years that came after the war: “…so I got this job with the company in 1945 and I’ve been here ever since.”

We landed at Atlanta Hartsfield and the flight was over. I said goodbye to the salesman, and we went our ways into the crowd at the terminal and of course I never saw him again. But I didn’t forget him.

He had said it in so many words- the only real life he had known, the only real friends and real adventures, the only thing worth remembering and reliving since he was born were a few scattered hours at sea in the middle of a world war.

In the days that led away from Atlanta, I flew light airplanes into little summer fly-ins of sport pilots around the southeastern US, and I thought of the salesman often and I asked myself time and again, what do I remember? What times of real friends and real adventure and real life would I go back to and live over again?

I listened more carefully than ever to the people around me. I listened as I sat with pilots, now and then, clustered on the night grass under the wings of a hundred different airplanes. I listened as I stood with them in the sun and while we walked aimlessly, just for the sake of talking, down rows of bright-painted antiques and home-builts and sport planes on display.

“I suspect the thing that makes us fly, whatever it is, is the same thing that draws the sailor out to the sea, ” I heard. “Some people will never understand why, and we can’t explain it to them. If they’re willing, and have an open heart we can show them, but TELL them we can’t.”


It’s true. Ask “Why fly?” and I should tell you nothing. Instead, I should take you out to the grounds of an an airport on a Saturday morning in the end of August. There is sun and a cloud in the sky, now, and here’s a cool breeze hushing around the precision sculpture of lightplanes all washnubed in rainbows and set carefully on the grass. Here’s a smell of clean metal and fabric in the air, and the swishing chug of a small engine spinning a little windmill of a propeller, making ready to fly.

Come along for a moment and look at a few of the people who choose to own and fly these machines, and see what kind of people they are and why they fly and whether, beacause of it they might be a little bit different than anyone else in all the world.

I give you an Air Force pilot, buffing the silver cowel of a lightplane he flies in his off-duty hours, when his eigh-engine jet bomber is silent.

“I guess I’m a lover of flying, and above all of that tremendous rapport between a man and an airplane. Not just any man– let me exclude and be romantic– but a man who feels flight is his life, who knows the sky not as work or diversion, but as home.

Listen to a couple of pilots as one casts a critical eye on his wife in her own plane, practicing landings on the grass runway: “Some times I watch her when she thinks I’m gone. She kisses that plane on the spinner, before she locks the hangar at night.”

An airline captaion, touching up the wing of his home-built racer with a minature paint bottle and a tiny brush. “Why fly? Simple. I’m not happy unless there’s some air between me and the ground.”

A young woman who only that morning learned that an old biplane had been lost in a hanger fire: “I don’t think you’re ever the same after seeing the world framed by the wings of a biplane. If somone had told me a year ago that I could cry over an airplane, I would have laughed. But I had grown to love that old thing…”

Do you notice that when these people talk about why they fly and the way they think about airplanes, not one of them mentions travel? Or saving time? Or what a great business tool this machine can be? We get the idea those those are not really so important, and not the central reason that brings men and women into the sky. They talk, when we get to know them, of friendship and joy and beauty and love and of living, of really LIVING, firsthand with the rain and the wind. Ask what they remember of their life so far and not one of them will skip the last forty-three years. Not one.

“Well, right off the top of my head I remember chugging along there in formation with Shelby Hicks leading the way in his big Stearman biplane, heading for Council Bluffs, last month. And Shelby was flying and Johnny was in the fron cockpit navigating– you know the way he does, oh-so-careful with his distances and headings down to the exact degree– and all of a sudden the wind catches his map and POW! there it goes up and out of the cockpit like a big green ninety-mile-an-hour butterfly and poor Johnny grabs for it and he can’t quite get it and the look on his face is all horror and Shelby is sort of startled at first and then he starts laughing. Even from flying alongside I can see Shelby is laughing so hard there’s tears runnning down his goggles and Johnny is disgusted and the in a minute he starts to laughin’ and he points over to me and mouths ‘You’re the leader!”

A picture burned in memory because it was wild and fun and shared.

“I remember the sky over Scottsbluff. The clouds must have gone up ten miles over our head. We felt like darn ants, I tell you….”

Adventures in a country of giants.

What do I myself remember? I remember flying at Embry-Riddle, and one weekend at the nearby airport when I was still waiting to hear if I had made it on the flight team. I remember that arrogant prick Bill Kelfield saying how he could land a plane right on the numbers every time. I told him I could land a plane on a dime every time. He said “Oh Yeah? Try this!” and he walked out onto the old tarmac and spray painted a red circle on the center of the runway and dropped a quarter saying “Here, it’s bigger than a dime and you’ll STILL miss it!” I was so fired up I hopped right in the old 172 I had flown over in and tore around the pattern practically red-lining the engine. I came down like a bat out of hell, fighting the cross-wind and side-slipping down out of the sky like a rock DETERMINED to hit that damn quarter. Bill and his buddies came running out and I braked to a stop and yanked open the passenger door. All three of them hustled in and yelled “GO GO GO!” It turns out I HAD landed the plane right on the quarter. It flew a good 20 yards across the runway and through a canvas awning and broke the window on the old radio shack. We laughed so hard I could hardly talk on the radio as we requested clearance into Daytona. I decided then and there that Bill wasn’t so bad after all.

Games of skill and sneaky tricks unplayed since childhood.

You reach a point, I found, where you begin to know that a pilot does not fly airplane in order to get somewhere, although he gets to many somewheres indeed.

The more I wander around airports, the more I see that the reason most pilots fly is that simple thing they call life.

Give yourself this simple test, please, and answer these simple questions.

How many places can you now turn when you have had enough of empty chatter?

How many memorable, real events have happened in your life over the last ten years?

To how many people have you been a true and honest friend– and how many people are true and honest friends of yours?

If your answer to all of these is “Plenty!” then you needn’t bother with learning to fly.

But if you answer “Not very many” then it just might be worth your while to stop by some little airport one day and walk around the place and find what it feels like to sit in the cockpit of a light airplane.

I still think of that saleman on the flight from Dallas to Atlanta. He had despaired of ever finding again the taste of life, at the very moment that he moved through the sky that offers it to him.

I should have said something to him. I should at least have told him of that special high place where a few hundred thousand people around the world have found an answer to emptiness. That place where we fly home.