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My stomach was tight with excitement at going to the Fourth of July celebration in Bridgewater, but at the sight of the bright yellow Piper Cub zipping across the green pasture south of town and lifting into the air, my stomach did flip-flops. Oh boy, did I ever want to be inside that airplane! I wanted to soar into the sky and coast on the clouds and look down at tiny houses and cars and squares of farmland. I’d be just like a bird!
“Dad, look—the sign says we can buy rides,” I shouted. My four siblings sandwiched in the back seat of the car with me joined in a chorus of pleas.
“It’s part of the fair this year,” my dad said. “Don’t even think about it. I’m not spending money on plane rides.” Even at age five, I knew money was tight. I swallowed back tears as my excitement did a nosedive. But someday, I consoled myself, I’d fly. In fact, why not be the pilot?
Thirteen years later, as a freshman at Drake University, I carried that resolve with me and signed up for the USMC commissioning program. My eyes tested at a solid 20/15, so I felt certain I was on my way to becoming a Marine Corps pilot. After four years of hitting the books, however, my distance vision deteriorated. I didn’t need glasses, but I could no longer qualify for the vision standards of the flight program. I comforted myself with the thought that working with men would be better than working with machines, anyway.
That contrast was highlighted in 1971 when I was the Commanding Officer of the Marine Corps reserve unit in Des Moines. We were on the East Coast for two weeks of training that included observing a reinforced Marine battalion with close air support storm the beach in a landing. The occasion promised to be quite a show, and the bleachers were overflowing with spectators. I was among a group of four visiting COs given the privilege of a flyover before the event. The crew chief of the double-rotor Chinook helicopter we rode in kept the rear hatch open during the flight to improve visibility.
Our pilot was a student in training. By mistake, he flew us over the beach into the path of a low-flying A4 Skyhawk fighter strafing the beach. The profile of an A4 streaking directly at you at 600 mph has the appearance of little more than a bug in the sky. Fortunately, our experienced copilot saw it and immediately grabbed the stick out of the student’s hand. The emergency jerk on the stick sent our Chinook cartwheeling through the air. With a deafening roar, the A4 flashed past our craft, barely missing us. The turbulence threw us into yet another direction. Through the open rear hatch, I glimpsed a whirling exchange of water and sky. The ocean rushed closer with each rotation.
Somehow in that blur of events, the pilot halted our descent. The rotors were fifteen feet above the water when we stabilized. Ocean spray spewed onto us as the chopper clawed its way back into the sky. We parted the hair of ducking spectators screaming in panic as we flew over them to land behind the bleachers.
As the chopper set down, a senior officer ran over to our craft. He was intent on identifying the pilots to ensure they never flew for the Marine Corps again. Our lives had been saved, but in our zero tolerance military, the pilots had allowed the near-deadly situation to occur. I was relieved for our safety, but also felt bad for our pilots with their careers now ruined.
That wasn’t my only harrowing experience with flying. A few years later, I was the project manager of the US Army Mobilization Design series for the largest architectural/engineering firm in Indiana. My team and I were flying back to Indianapolis in the company plane when we received a warning that a number of tornados had been sighted along our flight path. The word was that we were moving into violent “unsettled air.”
We came upon the turbulence suddenly and were thrown around like a lose marble in a clothes dryer. I was concerned that the wings would be torn off our aircraft. Gripping my seat, I shouted at the pilot, “What level of stress is this craft rated for?”
His reply was calm. “Don’t worry about it. You’ll pass out from the G-forces long before we reach the point of structural failure.”
I considered the matter and realized I wasn’t even close to passing out. I shrugged and decided to treat the situation like I was on a roller coaster and simply enjoy the ride. We landed in Indianapolis an hour later and emerged from the aircraft with our knees only slightly wobbly and our stomachs only slightly more so.
My third thrilling ride occurred a few years later in an aging military aircraft. Returning from a West Coast Marine Corps exercise, the flight was uneventful until we arrived at St. Louis’s commercial airport and the landing gear indicator light failed to come on. The tower reported the gear was down, but the pilot didn’t know if it was locked in place. Therefore, they diverted us to a small military airport an hour’s flight away.
Okay, I understood that if we splattered on the runway in St. Louis, it would be a big mess to clean up and an inconvenience to commercial travelers. But when you’re the bug about to be squashed, you look at it differently. We flew to the military airfield with our hearts pounding and all kinds of dreadful thoughts assaulting our imaginations. As the plane descended to the airstrip, we clenched out jaws and braced ourselves for a crash landing.
I’m happy to report the landing was smooth as melted chocolate. Turned out the problem was only a warning-light malfunction and nothing was wrong with the landing gear. We were bussed back to St. Louis and then driven five hours from there to Indianapolis. We arrived just in time to go to work Monday morning. I was grateful to be alive, but by the time I dragged my buns home that evening, the stress and exhaustion of that plane ride made it the worst I’d survived.
Stats say the annual risk for the average American of being killed in a plane crash is about 1 in 11 million. As I’d anticipated as a kid, flying is indeed a marvel. Then again, as I’ve discovered as an adult, so is having your feet firmly planted on terra firma.