Not too long after Pop’s death, I was in the gallery one afternoon. It had been quiet that day and I wasn’t really in the mood to do much, and I couldn’t get airplanes off my mind. No matter what I did to change the subject in my head, the images returned with greater persistence. I could hear them taking off with their engines pulsing at full tilt as they zoomed overhead. Whether real or imagined, I could even smell kerosene as the vapors of the distantly departed jets drifted lazily in our direction.
All this prompted me to make the telephone call to Atlantic Aviation. I would have to pay a visit to Bader Field which was in Atlantic City and was used as the primary vehicle (other than by automobiles and trains) for bringing people into the area. It was, I believe, the oldest airfield in America and was named after the Mayor of Atlantic City. We kept the Aztec 6897 Yankee at Philadelphia International Airport in their general aviation facility, (Atlantic Aviation) adjacent to the main terminals.
Aztec 6897 Yankee
As I was driving to the hangar that afternoon, I began to recall all the times I had been there in the past. It had been my way of life for so many years. The action had always been nonstop even into the wee hours of the evening with people on their way to somewhere, or on their return from another place. From the air, the lights glittered below as the planes made their approach to Philadelphia International Airport. The surrounding oil tanks winked harmoniously a thousand fold each second. There must have been a hundred thousand incandescent watts burning brightly and lighting the ground as though it were daylight. The headlights of the passing automobiles targeted the roads ahead of them and gave the appearance of dual flashlights moving evasively in random direction. When they streamed together it was like looking at a mammoth ray of light that was seemingly unbreakable, until a few dissidents turned off onto another roadway to form their own beam of guidance. The refineries worked around the clock so there was always a sense of life and action. The blow-off from the gas processors fountained into the sky with brilliant orange illumination, as the flames leapt upward, sometimes as much as twenty and thirty feet. They would perform gloriously for a second or two, then retreat, and then repeat the act with continuous enthusiasm, lighting the surrounding skies, then darkening them with their absence, then lighting them again, and again, and again.
From the ground, looking up one could spot the airplanes coming in for a landing, as they were on final approach. Their landing lights could illuminate a football field to near reading level. They were blinding, but exciting to look upon as they approached. From a distant twinkle as they first identified themselves for descent, to the penetrating extraterrestrial rays they forwarded when nearing the runway. We used to try and guess what kind of aircraft would be next, as it was far afield on final. The more strobe lights and white lights, the more complicated the task. Their objective was to be seen clearly, and often the light they emitted was so dazzling that it was easier to identify them by the sounds they made rather than by their appearance. The drone of the thrust reversers was ear splitting as the thunderous wake of the Rolls Royce or Pratt and Whitney jet engines was redirected forward to resist the aircraft to a halt. They came in pretty hot and needed all the assistance available to stop eating up the runway. At the peak of the reversing emphasis you could hear the crackle in the air as if electricity were being shot through the sky. It was thrilling and frighteningly awesome.
Today would be my first solo endeavor into what had always been a partnership effort. It was totally my responsibility now and I wasn’t at all thrilled with the prospect of going it alone. Pop was irretrievably gone and airplane upkeep was not of special interest to Alan. I had done my share of flying, having had a tenuous start when I was a shy six years of age, so I had a curious fondness for the metal birds.
Skirting an Anvil
For some reason, there are two specific flights which I remember indelibly. The first one, which effects a feeling of peacefulness, was the return trip in the Tri-Pacer, “44 Papa” from Trenton to Morrisville. We were cruising at about 4,500 feet, 140 knots, and it was about six o’clock on a rather summery day. There were no winds, and the sun was setting in the distance in front of us. We were near the airport, but the atmosphere was such that it felt as though the entire world had been put on hold. It stressed the absence of anything but tranquility, and it lasted forever, or at least for the forty five minutes which followed. Rarely had I enjoyed such a calm anywhere else on or above the earth. Time was asleep, and I was privileged to have captured a segment of it from another perspective. The sun transformed itself from a glowing orange to a mature reddish amber as it slowly relaxed into the horizon. The rays above it which criss-crossed throughout the once blue sky, were streaks of deep yellow, orange, and magenta; a wavelength of spectrum. The atmosphere was alive and rainbow- swept from one end to the other as far as the eye could see. As we peered eastward, we could see the edge of darkness creeping rapidly upon our path. The sinking globe of retired fire was nearly vanished into the earth, save for the rich pink tinged purple corona which was the last to yield to the next hemisphere. Suddenly darkness was minutes away and there was the runway in front of us. I was sad to have to let go of the experience, but it was one which I would never forget.
The other flight, which wasn’t nearly as fond a remembrance, took place on a Sunday afternoon when Pop was “going under the hood” for some training; he would be wearing a visor which would blind him to all but the instrument panel. No visibility out of any window, thereby forcing him to live by the instruments. In reality, it was a simulation of zero visibility conditions outside, such as locked in fog or complete cloud cover.
Pop was studying for his instrument rating, which was one of the most strenuous regimes in flight management that was ever invented. It meant countless hours of being under the hood, untold months of regulations and chart plotting, and basic training for flying in the blind. Norm Hortmann, his friend and instructor, was training him, and after a couple of hours in the back seat with Norm’s unfiltered cigarette smoke drifting in my direction, I thought I was going to be sick. Pop couldn’t see where he was going, and that petrified me, the smoke was vile, and the steep turn and bank procedures could wreak havoc with anyone’s equilibrium. That wasn’t beyond survival, but when we did touch and go practice and Norm killed one engine in the Apache just as we were pulling off the ground, I thought it was over for all of us. I thought he was being a wise guy, or worse yet, a complete idiot with a very weird sense of humor. As it turns out, that technique was an integral part of the intense training for the rating. I can see the logic in it now, but at the time it was pretty ghastly. The other unanticipated trick came at about 5,000 feet. We were at cruise with the essence of cigarette drowning the innocents in the back seat; namely my brother Bruce and me. Except for that and a little boredom, we had no major complaints.
Out of nowhere we took a very harsh dive downward; the kind where you’re on a roller coaster at top speed racing toward the bottom. I couldn’t believe I was going to have to live through it. I prayed and feared for my life at the same time. I held onto the red leather seat for my life and tried to let out a scream. It wouldn’t come out; even though my mouth was open wide I was breathless. My eyes bulged out as far as they had ever been allowed, and the trauma in the pit of my stomach was not to be forgotten. I thought the seat belt would tear through my back, as it crushed my ribs on the way. I was in serious pain, coupled with the worst fright I’d ever experienced in my life. I thought it would never end. I made up my mind right then and there that if I did make it out alive, my flying days were over.
After the lengthiest minute and a half, we pulled out of the dive which had turned into a partial spin. I didn’t know which way was up, the disorientation was ever present and confusing.
With my last breath I yelled to the front, “What the hell was that?”
I got no answer, as if everything was within the course of normal and nothing unusual had occurred. I looked over to Bruce. I hadn’t seen him in the past few minutes because I was so restrained that I couldn’t even move my head sideways. He shot a look back at me as if to say, “They’re out of their bloody minds, and so are we for coming with them.” I knew that look anywhere, and I was in total agreement. Did they think that was fun? If that’s what it takes to become a pilot, then you can count me out right now! We caught a break. They decided to land and take a breather. I understood the real meaning of the word; I was grateful, and committed to the notion of not going up again—ever! As with many bad experiences, one tends to forget or at least minimize them in relation to the present.
When I was tall enough to reach the rudder pedals, I really got the chance to get my feet wet and feel the thrill of piloting through blue skies, fog, and even an occasional thunderstorm. I steered away from the spins and the dives, making my fear quite clear. I endeavored to learn everything that this man could teach me, though I suspected even then I would neglect to get my pilot’s ticket, even with all of those hours I would log. There is no doubt in my mind that though my father loved and lived his business, first in line after his family was his flying. It was an escape from life’s pressures to a fantasy land where there was nothing between himself and the heavens. He was at one with himself and the universe; there was an enduring calm which was only interrupted by the occasional squawk of the radios which signaled a potential weather problem, a marker, a warning, or aircraft within range. He was aware of everything around him; all of the engaging noises, any changing specks of light or dark in the surrounding skies, and yet he was totally withdrawn. Life on the topside was a mystical experience for him. There was something magical about the alluring interrelationship between the forces of this man and the airspace around him. We would fly for hours on end with nothing more than a few non-verbal communications; a change of the radio setting, a pointed finger in the direction of a passing aircraft, or simply an involuntary smile of expressed satisfaction. It was wonderful to share in my father’s joy and to see him so totally immersed in something which gave him such saturated pleasure. It was like watching someone who’s close to you when they open the present about which they’ve only dreamt, but never expected to receive. And so to know Pop was to fly with him, soaring to unparalleled emotional heights, experiencing a rare degree of closeness, and sharing the emotional contagion which surrounded him.
As I drove up to the hangar I saw that the line crew had pulled the Aztec out, as I had requested. The sun was still pretty strong, so the reflection of the glittering metal was intense. As I turned in from the access road to the separate blacktop where all of the airplanes were chocked, I could see that the Aztec had also been washed recently. She had been standing idle for several months now and really needed to be run up to maintain her mechanical ability. It wasn’t good to let all of the oils and fluids stay still for too great a length of time. They would turn thick and possibly cause problems during the next flight. I had the choice of taking care of this myself or letting the airport crew do it for me. That of course was out of the question. I wasn’t going to let anyone else take that pleasure away from me, and I certainly wasn’t going to allow anyone but myself to get into this plane, let alone start her and taxi back and forth. I had an uneasy knotted sensation in my stomach. I hadn’t been back here since before Pop had died, and the last time I had seen the Aztec was not a good one in my mind. It was at Bader airport in Atlantic City, just days before Pop left for Europe.
I unlocked the cabin door of the airplane with the little key which had been resting quietly in the desk drawer at the gallery. I had never used it; Pop always unlocked the door. I could still see him bending toward the door in his tan Levi’s as he stood on the inside walkway of the wing, turning the tiny key to open the latch. “No Step” was prominently labeled near the flaps as a reminder. I was concerned that the weight of our bodies would dent or structurally damage the metal near the fuselage. The door opened with an inaudible click. I pushed gently on the handle which was slightly recessed to avert any extra drag and to maintain superior aerodynamic characteristics.
The smell of old leather was as encompassing as I had remembered. It had been locked up in there for months with nowhere to go, so it re-circulated and sweltered in its own divine fragrance as it matured. The tops of the seat backs were still ever so slightly shiny from the oils on the back of our necks, and they glistened in the late day sun which was weakening by the moment. I slipped into the left hand seat, straightened myself and closed the door. As it shut, I could feel the pressure of the vacuum it sealed on the interior. My ear drums compressed, then relaxed.
I stared at the gauges in front of me, and as I did, the tears streamed down my face. Nothing was the same. There was a very distinct stillness within the cabin, which was devoid of energy and filled with lonely silence. This flying machine was in mourning for her friend who would return no more. My heart ached for her and for myself. We were a trio once, but we would never fly together again. Even if I were to go to ground school and get my private ticket, it would be too painful a reminder of the past.
I’d always been sentimental and had held onto pieces of the old days, but accompanying the airplane and her warm memories came the pounding remembrance of my father’s death and its permanence. I cleared my eyes and cranked up the engines, left to right, and listened to their sweet purr which still had a mesmerizing effect on me. For a split second, I was next to Pop again and we were about to taxi down the runway when the shattering reality shook me....it was over. The noise of the engines returned and the seat next to me was empty. Damn it all, why did he have to die so soon? We had something so special; it was all history now.
I went through the procedural checklist and taxied out to the area where we used to run up the engines; away from the hangars where damage would result from the wake of the tremendous thrust. I ran them up to the maximum, one at a time, then together with my feet pressing hard on the brakes while the wings were buffeted by the wind of the twin Lycoming power plants. She began to buck and lurch with anticipation, as if her old master had returned once again, and for a split second I almost let her go, but I cut the power and returned to the hangar. The temptation to take-off was nagging, but without Pop it was meaningless. I knew my fascination with flying would never quit, but that I would also not pursue it; it was just too painful.
A tough step was in order, one which I knew was inevitable and which would grow more taxing as time went forward. I was going to have to sell the Aztec. Even if I were legally able to fly, it would be too distracting and too fraught with old haunts to keep her. It would be constant torture to continually fly with only half of the original crew, and though on one level I loved the idea. I felt it an unhealthy attempt to reach for something which wasn’t there, and which would never be accessible.
Another problem confronted me, and that was the tight market for fuel-hungry twin engine aircraft. We were smack in the midst of a serious energy crisis in late 1973, and it would be a grueling marketing challenge for me to get the sale consummated. Everybody was on a conservation bent, and here I was offering a gas guzzler for fun and recreation. I placed ads with a few top brokers whom I felt could get the job done. Surprisingly, it didn’t take but a few weeks before we had serious interest and closed the sale. The saving grace which ultimately sold the plane was her pristine condition and youthful status. The motors had less than two hundred hours each, had just been through a “major” and there wasn’t so much as a nick or paint chip to be found. Pop had provided her the best possible continuing maintenance, both mechanical and cosmetic. After all, this was his baby, and nothing was too good for anyone who was covered by the umbrella of his love! I was assured by the broker who represented me in the sale that his client would continue to provide the same loving care and concern for this airplane. He respected the sentiment which the Aztec had come to represent. I suffered a tremendous degree of guilt and sadness in letting go of “6897 Yankee” as we knew her, but somewhere I was confident that my father would have endorsed my feelings of hardship if the situation were reversed, and would have done exactly the same thing.
This editorial was written by Carl David, resident editor at Fly Away Simulation. Excerpt from Carl David's latest book "Bader Field" (Nightengale Press, 2008).