I’m flying alongside colleague Kollin Stagnito in his fetching Cessna 140. Our airplanes are evenly matched, and our attentive, relaxed flying styles, too. The crisp, clear fall morning is peaceful, still. There’s not a ripple in the air, and the radios are quiet as Kollin leads us northwest out of Frederick, Maryland, to Greater Breezewood Regional Airport (P17) in Pennsylvania for the grass strip’s annual pumpkin drop.
The morning sun, shining from behind us, propagates rust hues and random blasts of red on the Appalachian ridges below. The temperature is rising slowly, leaving an occasional patch of fog in a distant hollow and giving those underneath a little more time in cozy laze before the sun summons them to endeavor. The day is so smooth and my Super Cub rigged so well that it’s akin to having an autopilot. I can take my hand off the stick to sip home-roasted coffee, or adjust the satellite music flowing through my headset. I feel some warmth from the paltry cabin heat, which knocks the chill off my legs in sporadic waves. The Lycoming O-320 is droning smoothly, seeming as content as I am with the entire setting. I’m viewing an Imax movie out my front windscreen, but I’m not just watching the action; I’m in it. Immersed in this spectacular panorama. The smells, sounds, vibrations in my seat are real. The moment is bliss, and I’m so grateful to capture it, well aware that it is transient, both in a moment and in a lifetime.
Gradually, the air will roughen as the day warms and the winds sprout. The sun will crescendo from soft glow to bright glare. Traffic and radio activity will increase and we’ll share a crisp fall flying day with other pilots, but for now, it feels like this space, this moment is entirely ours. We don’t talk much, choosing instead silent wonder and appreciation for this sensational setting that can only be captured now, in this time and from this perch.
This chapter of my life is also transient. Days progress to years, and then decades. Time will not pause. No matter how frequently and earnestly I implore it to, airborne in my Super Cub. Skills, physical and mental strength will eventually erode and I’ll have to find something else that brings this sense of fulfillment. I am under no illusion that something else exists. So I won’t think about that now. There’s no point in it. It only depresses the moment. Where our minds linger is a choice, and I choose the present. This precious moment in time and this fortunate chapter in life. I will access this as much as I can for as long as I can.
Flying has brought so much to my life—in many ways has been my life. The feeling of gratitude to the many people who’ve boosted me here comes back frequently. In ways it seems unfair that I was exposed to aviation and given opportunities few have. I feel a growing urge to give back, cast a wider net, and expose more people to this splendid experience that can change the trajectory of a life.
We arrived at P17 and socialized with a welcoming and friendly group of pilots from across the Appalachian region. The pumpkin drop attracts local curiosity. Almost as many people drive in to P17 as fly in, and there’s a large crowd of nonflyers who just want to watch airplanes and to see how exactly you go about “pumpkin bombing.” Several of them show timid interest in flying and are surprised to learn we will take them up. No fees, no strings. Most people we fly will have no interest in pursuing flying further. They’ll satisfy some curiosity and move on in life, with a positive feeling about flying and the culture surrounding it. This scene is repeated in hundreds of locations across the country. Pilots exposing people to this joy, almost out of obligation. Someone did that for us, and it changed our lives.
My favorite passenger of the day is Payton, a 10-year-old who’s never flown in a small airplane. She’s mildly curious about flying, but completely taken by dropping a pumpkin out the door and watching it explode. I’m not sure what impact the flight will have on her life or how long she will remember it. First flight: doors wide open, wind blast, chill, loud noises. When I looked back, I saw a look of utter determination, then a wide smile and charming giggle when she released the pumpkin.
Another glorious day in my Super Cub. I’ll never have that one again, but I’ll have more like it. For a while longer at least.