It was a picture perfect day. Sunshine and no wind to speak of. An unseasonably warm February day, the first sign that perhaps winter’s grip was finally loosening. I had just returned from taking one friend flying and was preparing to take another up when something caught my eye.
Standing just outside the fence, staring in through the chain-link, were a man and a woman who looked to be about 20. Not sure what they wanted but with a vague idea in the back of my mind that this scene was somehow familiar, I approached them and asked if they were looking for someone or needed anything. “No,” they answered hesitantly, as though they weren’t sure they should be there. I was beginning to detect a look of wistful longing in their faces that answered my question almost even before I asked it. “So what brings you here?”
“Well, we saw there were cars here and we saw the airplane and,” was the reply.
Ah, so that was it! Yes, I recognized that look. It’s a beautiful day, spring fever is beginning to kick in, you’ve got a budding interest in aviation so where do you go? To the airport of course! But where at the airport? It’s a big place, surrounded by a seemingly impenetrable fence. Sure, you can stare through the fence all day long watching airplanes take off and land. You never tire of it. But sometimes, you wish there was a way through that fence. A way to see an airplane up close, to somehow find your way into the cockpit and perhaps from there, into the air to experience flying for yourself! You long to find out more, to understand this fascinating but mysterious world of flight. What is the key that will allow you through the fence to unlock this new world?
Yes, I know the feeling. I’ve been there myself, once upon a time.
“Should we leave?” they asked. “No, no!” I answered. “Come on over to the door, I’ll let you in.” Their faces lit up like the summer sun.
“Wow! There’s so many airplanes in here!” they exclaimed as they stepped inside the hangar. Like kids in a candy store, they stared open-mouthed.
During our brief chat, it didn’t take long to discover that both of them had more than a little interest in aviation. They were bursting with questions. And yet, neither of them had ever been up in a small plane before! I wanted to offer them flights right there on the spot but I had promised my friend a flight and daylight was fading. I was determined that I would get them in the air one way or another so I got their names, Will and Marlee, and contact info and promised to be in touch. I invited them to look around as long as they wanted and we parted ways.
Fast-forward two weeks to early March. The cold weather had returned and it was a little breezy—not as nice as that day in February but certainly flyable. I contacted Will and Marlee and asked if they’d be able to go flying that day. We arranged a time late in the afternoon that worked with their schedules and when that time came, there they were, bubbling with scarcely restrained excitement! When I met them at the door, they were as full as enthusiasm as the first time I had met them. Neither the intervening weeks, nor the clouds and cold of the day had dampened their interest in the least.
After a briefing on the Eagle Flight program in general and specifically our flight that day, I demonstrated a preflight inspection. They watched and listened attentively as I explained each item and, again, had very good questions. When I explained that this airplane (an RV-6A) was an experimental homebuilt aircraft, the words didn’t in any way faze them as they might have others not familiar with aviation. Preflight complete, I opened the hangar door and they helped me push the plane out. With Will’s encouragement, Marlee agreed to be the first to ride.
Together, the two of them accompanied me to the plane, Will standing close by as I showed Marlee how to climb in and fasten the seat belt, then moving to a safe distance away as I called “Clear prop!” and started the engine. He waved as we taxied out while I explained to Marlee how I was using my feet to steer on the ground and interpreted the controller’s taxi instructions for her. I talked through the pre-takeoff checklist and explained what the instruments tell me. Marlee sat quietly through all of this with only an occasional reply or question, but when I asked if she was ready to go as we taxied onto the runway, her bright smile and a nod of her head told me she was more than ready.
I advanced the throttle and seconds later we lifted smoothly into the air and climbed as only an RV can on a cool day. It seemed that with each hundred feet of altitude we gained, Marlee’s smile only grew bigger. “This is so amazing!” she exclaimed. We banked gently to the left to fly over the city of Oshkosh already sparkling with lights in the fading daylight.
As we flew over Lake Butte des Morts, I offered Marlee the controls. “Would you like to fly for a bit?” I asked. “Me? Really? Uh, sure!” she replied and gingerly took the stick in her hand. I directed her to try a small turn to the left, to the right, then to pull back gently to climb and push forward to descend. “Ooooh!” she squealed as she felt a moment of weightlessness as she pushed the stick forward. “That’s so cool!”
“Ok, do you see that town over there?” I asked, pointing out the cluster of lights south of the lake shore. She nodded. “Just point the nose of the airplane right toward that.” We circled the town of Omro and ended up on an easterly heading that had us pointed straight for the airport. I picked up ATIS, called the tower, and watched the runway come into view, a dark rectangle outlined by beautiful lights. A few minutes later, we were gliding to a gentle touchdown on Runway 9. As we exited the runway, I turned to Marlee and asked, “What did you think?” “Oh, that was so much fun! Thank you so much!” she replied, her smile again stretching from ear to ear.
Then it was back to the hangar for a quick passenger swap and a repeat of the flight with Will. Will asked a lot of questions all throughout the flight. Everything from “What does this do?” to “Can we go in the clouds?” to “If I want to start flight training, where can I find an airplane to fly?” It was clear he was also enjoying every moment of the flight. “The city looks so neat from up here!” He was all too eager to try the controls when I offered them and responded with an involuntary grin at feeling the airplane respond to his touch.
In the hangar, after landing and with the airplane put away, we sat and talked for most of an hour. I answered question after question, mostly related to flight training and how to get started. By the time we parted, Will and Marlee, perhaps without even realizing it, held the keys to their airport. Will is now a regular attendee at EAA Chapter 252 meetings and has had conversations with a number of flight instructors and homebuilders about his next steps. Having finally found a way through that fence, the airport has become a place where they know they are welcome any time. It’s a place where adventures are begun and a whole new world is waiting to be discovered. The only key needed to enter its gates is an interest in aviation and perhaps someone to open the door.