Finding our fathers

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Knowing ourselves is a task for a lifetime. Knowing our forebearers is a great help. I am under no illusion that “the old is good, the oldest is best.” That conceit seems unavoidable, revealed in the stories of Noah and his ancestors. We hear it in the sobriquet given to our parents, “the Greatest Generation.” Our wiser self knows it’s not always the case. We still need to know where we came from.

The Greatest Generation? They didn’t think of themselves that way.

I have no doubt about the greatness of my folks. My dad was a decorated military officer with 10,000 hours of single-seat fighter time, the veteran of WWII and the Korean Conflict, and the commander of an Air National Guard fighter-interceptor group. He had to endure wingmen shot down in combat. On one occasion, his airplane was peppered by a Japanese Zero. He parachuted into the Pacific when it ran out of fuel. He was laconic about that, mentioning only the shark fin that scraped the bottom of his one-man dingy. He also mentioned his lifelong friend George, who made such a scene with an admiral that the Navy diverted a ship to pick him up. In my youth, I worked with him on our ranch. Together, we drove cattle, suffered the Dark Ages of adolescence, skied and climbed in the Sierra Nevada. I was at his bedside at his death in the summer of 2001.

My mother deserves that title, too. As a WASP during WWII, she flew P-41s, P-51s, and P-38s direct from their assembly plants to the western US coast for transport to the Pacific Theater. After the war, she raised a family, managed the ranch books, earned her master’s degree in political science, and helped found a city. After my dad’s death, then in her 80s, she wrote a two volume biography of him for the family and took up painting.

Truth is, my folks never thought of themselves as “the greatest generation,” or expected us to, either. They knew we had our own mountains to climb. Sadly, they are not here to cheer us on; it’s our turn now to cheer on our kids. In retrospect, they were always a little astonished by what their children undertook. Their greatness lay in their humility, their ability always to be astonished and to celebrate.

This is where the project with my friend Chuck begins. Chuck lost his dad in a KC-97 tanker crash in 1957. He was only seven, and has only wisps of memory for comfort and reflection. He proves one is never too old to look afresh at one’s roots, to know his or her father and mother and see their influence living on in life.

For much of the pandemic year of 2020, Chuck and I connected over the telephone. We told stories, I read to him, and we kept our sanity. For this story, Chuck told me I would share that he is dyslexic.

It turns out that Chuck has a vivid imagination. He would close his eyes, and imagine the scenes and events from the stories I read to him. I learned that he had run a successful business in elder care; had become a near-professional dancer; rode a motorcycle and loved to sail. He was an active surfer and can snow and water ski. He excels in kinesthetic and social intelligence: he can move and relate, brilliantly.

Father by airplane

Flying a B-17 in World War II took courage, in the truest sense of the word.

In the first months, Chuck told me a lot about his mom and a little about dad. He cared for his mom on a daily basis for the last three years of her life. One can only imagine. He knew his dad less well. He had a few stories and pictures about him, and a cursory Air Force accident report. His dad had been a B-17 pilot in the European air campaign with the 8th Air Force. Anyone who knows aerial history can fathom something of this trauma and terror. Chuck’s father was the definition of courage: “He will be called brave who is fearless in face of a noble death… and the emergencies of war are in the highest degree of this kind” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, III.6). He too made his generation great.

Come March 2021, Chuck, my wife and I got our vaccinations against Covid-19, and felt we could step back into the world. We were safe in ourselves and safe for others. Chuck made a simple proposition: if he could fly with me, he might connect more to his father’s spirit. He had never flown in a small airplane in all of his 70 years. It takes little to draw me back into the air. I had flown our Bonanza A36 until 2019, and missed it. To Chuck, I said, “Of course.” With about ten refresher hours and a basic flight review with a CFI in the Cessna 172, I could fly on my own and Chuck could fly with me.

For each flight, Chuck attached a photograph of his father to the panel, and surrendered to the unique, indescribable experience of flight. I search for metaphors to describe his experience. Leaves are supposed to fall. Flying is like mounting a leaf that carries you into the spaces where the earth becomes very large, finite, organic, multi-dimensional.

By the second flight, Chuck was ready to take the controls. We experienced something that most of us have forgotten—the rawness of the beginner, the difficulty of precision in flight. Pilots, think about what you know and what you can do: maintain precise headings, altitudes, airspeeds; stay upright and oriented in the clouds; fly stabilized approaches (most of the time); communicate at non-towered and towered airports with ease (but not at first); do stalls and steep turns with some grace and rigor (really?), and on and on. By the time a person has her or his license, he is like a barely competent musician afraid to play in public. He has marginal judgment, and is far and away from a seasoned pilot. By 500 hours, she may have a little humility. By 1,000 hours, he is nearly professional and no longer an accident waiting to happen.

For Chuck, the experience was unprecedented. Nothing in life had prepared him for this. The feelings of amazement, of risk in consciously choosing to elevate into the air—these all surged into Chuck between the engine runup and the takeoff. We had briefed “transferring controls,” “keeping one hand on the throttle,” and “looking outside most of the time.” We had talked about slow flight and go-arounds. These were as meaningful to him as kanji to most of us.

In takeoff, Chuck learned that full throttle in an airplane is routine, when only used in an emergency in a car.

In slow flight, he learned that the slower you go in an airplane, unlike a car, the louder and more labored its engine. When slowed, cars just stop and you pull over. With airplanes, something else happens. With cars, slow is safe; with airplanes, slow is risky. Surprise rolled in on surprise.

Chuck flying

“The briefing on the ground can never equal the actual experience in the air.”

We have words for these things. We can demonstrate with learning models in the comfort of the office. We can show with models what a stall looks like, how to anticipate ground effect. But the briefing on the ground can never equal the actual experience in the air. Take slow flight: the horizon disappears, the airplane falls below the “power curve,” suspense hangs in the air. The beginner can’t read the airspeed indicator (what is it, where is it, and why is it important?) or feel the growing mushiness of the controls. Why do I keep my inputs small and slow? Why do I need more rudder? What’s happening?

The first flight in an airplane has no equivalent in a car; one learns to trust the airplane, trust the pilot, and surrender to the brand-new experience. Kids in a car may yell at their parents in their youthful impatience; we never yell or even chatter in an airplane. In fact, we all agree before taxing: “No talking. If you see traffic, call it. Otherwise, a quiet cockpit. You OK with that?” “OK.” Flying for the first time is like going from riding a bicycle with training wheels to hands-free on a unicycle.

We had talked about all this. Chuck had to go through the feelings of hyper-concentration on his own. He had to learn that he could turn the airplane with his fingertips instead of a death grip on the yoke. On our first takeoff, our airplane was jolted right then left by a slice of horizonal windshear. Being slapped by an invisible giant shot him through with adrenalin and took his breath away. He did not yet have pilot instincts, that deep motor memory that lies beneath conscious thought. He did not know just to relax the back pressure on the yoke, keep the wings level or a little tilted into the wind, control direction with the rudders, and be patient. The airplane wants to fly.

Chuck learned that the pull of engine torque on takeoff would always be there and to plan for it. He learned that he could both climb and dip the airplane, roll into a turn without falling out of his seat. We did little more than fly square corners, slow flight and level turns in the air, fly back and forth over the farm lands of Oregon, and behold the beauty of the world.

That’s how it should be. To learn anything new, we need to recover our original naivete. Chuck helped me do that. If he wants to fly more, to fly the full gamut of maneuvers, takeoffs, stalls and landings, he will find an instructor. He’s a natural, believes in himself, and has his dad to thank.

Meanwhile, the basic purpose of our flight accomplished more than we expected. Chuck learned that knowing about flying would make him his father’s friend. They now stand together with a depth of understanding that Chuck did not have before. We are still gathering more information about his deceased father, a veteran of the war and a man among men. We have connected with his high school and college in the 1930s and have an emerging sense of his personality. Who knows what we will find?

There’s one thing for sure: Chuck can tell his grandchildren about his B-17 and KC-97 pilot father, and find words to describe his passionate heart and love of flying. We need to know who our parents and ancestors are. Now Chuck, like his father, knows the air and knows the world from above, where it is grand, fragile, and ineffably beautiful.

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