Soaring

Airborne and alive, again

March 1, 2009

Interview

Question 1: Steve, your recent book, Bodies in Motion, explores why people are attracted to psychokinetic thrills. Why is that?
Question 2: The book must have special meaning for you. Did your interest in psychokinetic thrill-seeking predate your motorcycle accident? Or was it inspired or enhanced by the accident?
Question 3: What happened? Can you briefly describe the accident and its consequences?
Question 4: Your article in AOPA Pilot shows how you’ve become reacquainted with flying for the first time since the accident. What was it like to get back in the cockpit?
Question 5: In Bodies in Motion, you talk about Father Staudenmaier’s—a motorcyclist himself— explanation of our attraction to the sensory thrills associated with sports like flying, motorcycling, or motorized movement in general. He says that motorcycling, like flying, emphasizes man’s smallness and frailty. “It’s a way of making myself present to God,” he says. So there’s a spiritual as well as physical aspect to flying, wouldn’t you say?

One of the many good things about not quite being killed in a motor vehicle accident is that you subsequently get lots of time to think without the distractions of life’s daily busy-ness. Lying mostly immobile in various hospitals you have the opportunity to meditate on what matters and what doesn’t, starting with the fragile wonders of life itself.

I inadvertently signed up for this course of enforced meditation on the rainy night of my fifty-sixth birthday in 2004, when a combination of adverse factors led to my becoming, for a half-second or so, a hood ornament on a 1995 Chevy Monte Carlo. I’d been riding a 1995 Triumph Tiger motorcycle with tires just sufficiently less well-scrubbed-in than I’d thought, headed home at a not particularly high rate of speed, when events unfolded rapidly to change my plans. I didn’t get home that night, and wouldn’t for four months. So I had plenty of opportunity to think about the really important stuff. Such as: Would I be able to fly again?

The doctors thought I was crazy to worry about flying when I had barely escaped death and couldn’t walk. But once flying is in your blood, it’s there for life. I knew flying again would be tough, what with a bum leg and the meds that I knew the Federal Air Surgeon probably considered more than sufficient for grounding me. So I tried to stifle my need to fly for four years. Until my buddy Stew Crane called one summer’s day.

“Soaring,” he said, cryptically—which was fitting, since Stew was a recently retired Army Signal Corps colonel. “Now that you can get around with a cane, I’m 100-percent positive I can shoehorn you into the front cockpit of our club’s [Schweizer] 2-33. So get up here ASAP.”

ASAP meant a few weeks later, when I rendezvoused with Stew at his Reno, Nevada, home and he drove us out to Air Sailing Gliderport (NV23), home to the Nevada Soaring Association. Founded by Edward L. Blalock around 1958, the association began operating out of a dry lake just west of Stead Air Force Base with glider tows by cars—usually, according to Stew, Buick convertibles. Six years later, when Stew’s father, Lt. Col. Carroll B. “Pappy” Crane, was stationed at Stead, Stew began flying gliders with his dad at the NSA site, and has never stopped.

When Stew retired from the Army, he moved back to Reno and continued flying with the 50-member club. Like many similar clubs, the NSA almost fizzled out at least once, but was resurrected, according to Stew, by retired U.S. Air Force Col. Vern Frye in 1981. Frye, along with the late Herb Brown—a World War II glider pilot—reenergized the club. A lifetime member of the Soaring Society of America, Stew is now the state governor of the SSA for Nevada and has about 300 hours of pilot-in-command time in gliders, so he was the ideal mentor for my flight.

Located in the Palomino Valley about 25 miles northwest of Reno, Air Sailing Gliderport (known to most as ASI, for Air Sailing, Inc.) is surrounded by rugged, rocky mountains; tumbleweed; sage; and whatever else can thrive in the high desert. We parked at the clubhouse, and without further ado, Stew had me in a golf cart and trundling over to a Schweizer 2-33 leaning on its starboard wing tip, hinged canopy open and rear door ajar.

The first hurdle for this adventure was simply to get into N7532’s cockpit. Stew decided that I should be in front, but obviously, the fuselage step would be of no use. So I leaned against the cockpit coaming, facing away from it, while Stew helped hoist me up. I fed my bum leg and its heavy brace over the coaming, pulled up my right leg, slid down the seat—and just like that, I was sitting in the cockpit. I looked at Stew. He smiled and wriggled into the back seat while I figured out how to stow my folding cane.

A short briefing on tow procedures and tow-rope release followed, and it seemed like only a minute or two later we were rolling along Runway 17 behind the Piper Pawnee flown by Charles “Goose” Gore, retired United Airlines pilot and naval aviator. Then, at about 8,000 feet msl (3,700 feet agl), at Stew’s command, I released the tow, and we were free.

As Stew stood the Schweizer on one wing tip or the other trying to catch the thermals, it was hard not to attend to the skill he was showing, which inevitably engaged the pilot in me. But I forced myself to look, to feel, and to live again life in the air, separated from the sky by only a fabric-and-aluminum skin and a clear canopy. Stew’s nonstop narrative about the land below and his decisions about how and where to fly the 2-33, coupled with the mechanical noises of the rudder pedals and stick moving continuously under his expert feet and hands, easily drowned out the wind noise of our passage, but it also added to the strangest sensation of all: the familiarity of the experience.

As the sky and land wheeled and danced around us, as the handheld radio occasionally awoke with another pilot on our frequency announcing his intentions, as the unmistakable but tantalizingly indefinable smell of an airplane—any airplane—awoke memories going back to the early 1950s for me, something deep inside relaxed. I’d only flown in a glider once before, long ago, so it wasn’t our engineless flight that did the relaxing, although that helped. No, it was, I realized as Stew kept us dancing in the air, touching 10,000 feet, for almost an hour, something else. Something that every pilot who flies because he or she loves it knows in the bones.

The something is the sense of utter peace, of being home. This is the source of the addiction, this centeredness in flight. I suspect that, apart from all the other obvious aspects of flying—being comfortable with unusual attitudes, with indeed the very idea of leaving the Earth in a machine—this being at home airborne is critical to why we love it so much. It is more than merely leaving the cares of the Earth below, more than merely using our bodies and minds fully as few other activities demand of us, more than any notional membership in any supposedly exclusive club.

When I was a boy, all I wanted to do was fly. I dreamed of it, as so many do, without the need of wings or a machine; I’d just somehow levitate and be off, flying over towns and cities and forests and farms—out, out to the skies beyond, up as far as my imagination could take me. Long afterward, I called the combined experiences of that kind of flying the Peter Pan Perspective, and although like everyone else, I grew up and left my childhood behind, I never lost my longing for that uniquely peaceful and satisfying perspective, known only to real-world pilots and the Peter Pans of our imaginations.

As Stew Crane himself knew so well, when our lives suffer upheavals and catastrophes, when we age out of so much else—ability, agility, cocksureness—we who fly never lose the why of our flying. When we are truly home in the air, as I was once again thanks to Stew, we live as we do not elsewhere, and in that living, rejuvenate ourselves if not in body, then in the far more important parts of ourselves, our spirits.

There is more than one reason, after all, why they call it soaring.

Steven L. Thompson is a former executive editor of AOPA Pilot. His latest book is Bodies in Motion: Evolution and Experience in Motorcycling.