Going Solo

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Carrying the standard.  The author’s daughter, winging us back to KRNO.

One of the more reliable signs of spring is the return of the redwinged blackbirds. No matter what the calendar says, it’s only when I see them down in the meadow below our place, the males singing on a fenceline, or ganging up on ravens to chase them off the nesting territory, that I’m ready to call it spring and actually believe it. Redwings are a migratory bird, and can travel up to 800 miles from their summer homes to winter in better climes.

Lucky bastards.

Last week my wife and I completed our own migration of sorts, travelling south to watch my daughter’s first airplane solo at Stead Airport, near Reno.

As parents, there may be nothing finer than watching our children consumed by fruitful and productive passions at a young age, and to watch their confidence and maturity grow as they commit to excellence and mastery of a study, or a skill, or a task. This is especially true if they can build a career around it, and find a lifetime of rewarding challenges, experiences, and relationships, in the offing.

My daughter’s passion for aviation is perhaps genetically inevitable, and it has infected her with something of the same irreverent zeal enjoyed by the infamous Mme. Pancho Barnes, legendary barnstormer, stunt pilot, and patroness of the Happy Bottom Riding Club, who told the world that “Flying makes me feel like a sex maniac in a whorehouse with a stack of $20 bills.” Pilots are nothing if they aren’t colorful, vibrant, and understandably impious. My daughter is becoming all of those things, and I couldn’t be happier.

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The Aluminum Overcast

Stead Airport, which is home to the famous Reno Air Races, is also an airport I have flown out of countless times with my father, who kept a hangar there, and where ultimately, on a perfect day for flying, he unexpectedly, and tragically, drew his last breath. Seven years after his death on the same airfield, it was difficult to avoid the notion that his Quiet Birdman soul was in a pattern somewhere overhead, his chest filled with pride as his granddaughter—who he took on her first airplane ride as a small child—kicked her instructor out of the plane and greased an extended series of solo touch and go’s.

Those thoughts, which I indulged to some length as we stood out on the tarmac anchored with joy and memories and cameras, engendered a kind of deeply rooted emotional migration. Watching my daughter lift off into the sky alone, I thought, and it was something more like a revelation, that it was only after my father died that I ever truly solo’d as a man in the world. My accomplishments were my own, as were my failures, but he had always been there, his hands and expertise not exactly on the controls, but somewhere reliably near them, and then suddenly he wasn’t there at all, and I was flying truly alone for the first time.

That’s brutally honest. Maybe too much so. But it’s also at the heart of relationships, particularly when they are good ones, the kind we don’t celebrate enough when they are active, and mourn deeply when they are lost.

My father had a long running obsession with World War 2 heavy bombers and, in joyful coincidence, there happened to be a B-17 on the ramp. It was the Aluminum Overcast, which is a kind of airborne living-history museum, and makes numerous stops around the country each year so that pilots and history buffs can fly in it, or tour the aircraft’s storied compartments on the ground. Delivered to the US Army Air Corps in May, 1945, the Overcast didn’t see action in World War 2, but flies on today informing the imagination of thousands.

After the solo, I jumped in the backseat of the little Cessna 172 and flew with my daughter and her instructor back to Reno, sharing the sky for a moment with that B-17, which departed just before us, and finally landing beautifully on runway 1-6-Left, where my own father and I had also landed hundreds of times, in all kinds of weather.

Taxiing back to the hangar, and frankly, gloating, I felt somehow that I had just officiated a kind of spiritual change of command ceremony, as if I had taken the unit’s colors from my father, saluted him and his memory smartly, and handed them over to my daughter, who will now carry them forward into the future.

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On her own.  First solo flight.

What I felt was pride. Immeasurable pride, but also, inescapably, an abiding sorrow that the old man wasn’t around to see his granddaughter, who he loved, take up the standard.

For now, it’s allegedly spring, though yesterday it was snowing at our place. The redwings aren’t here yet, but when I close my eyes I can see them, somewhere between south and north, winging their way in our direction. They are flying back to the meadow down below the hill, where they will spend the summer. They will lay their eggs down there, in that perfect Cascade habitat, and a mere fifteen days after they hatch, those newest birds will take to the sky by themselves, truly alone for the first time in their lives. And while we are busy doing what we do into the fall, one day they will fly up, mostly unnoticed, enter the pattern, and continue the timeless cycle, drawn inexorably to their own migrations.

And may it ever be so.

This post originally appeared in The Nugget Newspaper, 11 April 2017.

 

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16 thoughts on “Going Solo

  1. Well said… and congratulations to your daughter, i think I’ve mentioned my dad was also a pilot (15,000 hours), i was fortunate to grow up in airplanes, we didn’t go to church on Sundays, dad took his four boys (i’m the oldest) to the airport, that was our church…at me dad’s memorial service, his brother commented, my dad would rather fly across the street than walk. He and his pals went to the Air Races at Stead every year. Never-the-less, again congratulations to your daughter, and mom and dad for your support and love…

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    • Thanks Todd. I do remember your dad was a pilot. We had a version of the same sort of church. On Sunday mornings, when we lived in Texas, while the other folks were gearing up for the big revival, my old man would make it look like we were going to church also, but we always went to a Chinese restaurant where he would pontificate on various topics. Great times.

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  2. Great piece Craig ( in every way ). Congrats to your daughter!
    Your mention of Pancho Barnes is well placed. I have yet to make it to the annual barbecue in her honor at what remains of The Happy Bottom Riding Club, but plan to after being inspired by the documentary of her. A real, true and one-of-kind American.

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    • Thanks Tramp. I have not been either. But I would sure like to some day. She was a classic: “My dad invented the air force” was always one of my favorite lines from her. A true original.

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  3. Great article!  It really hit home on a few fronts–I lost my dad last year and he was a co-pilot on a B-17 over Europe in WWII (as I’m sure you remember).  Probably my most memorable moment with him in the last 10 years was when I took him on a flight on a B-17 out of John Wayne Airport.  He was about 85 at the time and Gina’s dad and I had to hoist him into the plane, but once inside you could tell he really enjoyed being back in the old bird.  It’s an odd feeling when you realize the man who was always there to bounce ideas off of is gone and you now have to “solo” on your own…thanks for the insightful prose…as always! Honsy

    From: The Bunkhouse Chronicle To: ghons@yahoo.com Sent: Tuesday, April 11, 2017 2:48 PM Subject: [New post] Going Solo #yiv4044619091 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv4044619091 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv4044619091 a.yiv4044619091primaryactionlink:link, #yiv4044619091 a.yiv4044619091primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv4044619091 a.yiv4044619091primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv4044619091 a.yiv4044619091primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv4044619091 WordPress.com | Craig Rullman posted: “One of the more reliable signs of spring is the return of the redwinged blackbirds. No matter what the calendar says, it’s only when I see them down in the meadow below our place, the males singing on a fenceline, or ganging up on ravens to chase them of” | |

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    • I certainly do remember. I wonder if it was the same B-17? They go all over the place. That must have been a remarkable time with your dad in his old wheelhouse. The stories he could tell. Thanks Honsy.

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  4. Absolutely excellent Craig! I’m sure there are better superlatives but at 0300 hrs (local), and my AFIB churning away, that’s all I got.
    Congrats to your daughter! I understand you’re justifiably swelled up w/pride. Good idea!

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