The chance came again last week, in Lebanon, NH. I’d flown up to spend the weekend with a few old friends. The New England summer was out in all its glory, so I’d flown up from Boston the long way: a stop at Hampton Field to sip a Coke in the shade and watch the Cubs and Champs shoot touch and goes in the grass, then westward, low and slow over the Merrimack river valley. The late afternoon sun on those rolling hills had peppered the sky with scattered cumulus. “Turbulence” to those whose only business in the sky was getting from Point A to Point B, the thermals turned the sky into my playground. I had spent much more time flying than strictly necessary, throttling back to take a turn or two in the rising air, and watching the red-tailed hawks above, whose looks of obvious disdain made it clear that my flying skills would never match theirs.
When my earthly commitments and dwindling fuel supply brought me to ground at Lebanon’s 5000 feet of asphalt, I fueled up, tied the plane down for the night and called a cab. Cabbies, I’ve found, are frequently kindred spirits. They’ve heard a million good stories, and always seem game for one more. I climbed in, buckled up, and began to tell him of the roiling sky and red-tailed hawks that had filled my afternoon. “Well,” he said sagely, as we pulled out of the general aviation parking lot, “the important thing is that you made it here safely.”
That, as they say, put an end to that. For this man, no older than I was, the airplane was a device constructed to move people around quickly and comfortably, and was to be tolerated only for its convenience. There would be no stories; I was stuck in the company of a stranger with whom I could not talk about flying. The ride would be 15 minutes, and there was nothing more I could say. The saving grace was that we had to pick someone else up at the passenge terminal. Perhaps…? No, just a little old lady who lives in town, he said. For want of other conversation, we joked, somewhat unkindly about what she would have to say of her turbulent flight up. We fell silent as the cab pulled up to the terminal. The woman, a prim but sturdy New Englander in her 70’s climbed in, said her polite “hello”s, and we were on our way again. There would be nothing but smalltalk on this trip.
After the proper pause, our cabbie asked, knowingly, “So, how was your flight?” A short, but unhurried response: “Oh, it was a little rough…” The driver poked a thumb back in my direction. “You should see what *he* came in on — a tiny little airplane!” She turned and asked, genuinely, “Really? What kind?”
I didn’t really know at what level to answer her question, so I pulled out the wallet photo and proffered my catch-all opener. “Oh, it’s a little antique two-seater, a 1946 Commonwealth Skyranger — nobody’s ever heard of them.” Her voice softened as she looked at the picture, and her eyes got a faraway look. “Oh, that’s *very* nice,” she said. Then quietly and wistfully, added “I used to own a ’39 Aeronca Chief. An old 11-AC….”
In those fifteen minutes we shared in the cab, I learned that she’d grown up in a farm town in Michigan. That at age 6, a barnstormer had come to town, and her grandfather had bought her a ride, making her promise not to tell her mother. That by the time the wheels had cleared the farmer’s field, she had known that she was meant to fly. The barnstormer had flown down Main Street, and she leaned over the side, waving and yelling to the people below. By the time they landed, mother already knew, but the die was cast.
She soloed when she was 18.In those days, it was unthinkable for a poor girl from a farm town to take flying lessons. Not only was there no money, what business would a woman have learning to fly? But where there’s a will to fly, there has always been a way. She organized a flying club, perhaps the first in the state, and sought out members from the neighboring towns. Six men, doctors and lawyers put money to buy the Chief, and she ran the logistics. Paperwork, maintenance, tiedown and insurance, and she got to fly for the price of gas.
Years later, after her husband and kids, she didn’t get to fly much, but the magic of flight was still alive in her. She told me, almost whispering, of how she’d take the old Chief up to altitude, alone. She would pull the nose up, pull the engine to idle, and ride down in a falling leaf maneuver, slipping this way and that. It was something personal and beautiful, she confided, to hang in the sky and trust in the wind.
Too soon, it seems, we were in town, and it was time for me to go. The cabbie, silent for the entire ride, thanked me for my tip and looked at his two pilot-passengers like odd ducks. The woman held my hand earnestly and wished me a pleasant stay. Then the cab was gone, carrying off my newfound kindred spirit. As it rolled away, I realized that I had not had the chance to tell her anything of my flight that afternoon — of the grassy airstrip, the rolling hills, and red-tailed hawks. Somehow, though, that didn’t matter: I knew she had already been there.