It started before I was born. My “plane thing,” as I call it. My dad worked for a large oil company as an aviation fuels marketing manager, and the job gave him liberal use of a 1959 Beech Twin Engine Bonanza for business and personal trips. He was based in Boston in the early ‘60s, and transferred to Illinois when I was 2.
Planes had entered his life long before I had. When he joined the Navy in 1942, he first flew a Stearman he dubbed “the Yellow Peril.” It was his first Navy trainer as he learned to become a flight instructor. Then he flew an SNJ trainer, and finally, an SB Dauntless. He left the Navy in 1945 when he got married and later told me he wished he had stayed in.
So the Twin Bonanza wasn’t a leap when it “arrived.” He knew planes. While my mother was carrying me in 1962 and into the summer of 1963, I was in that Bonanza going to Wisconsin to visit relatives. This didn’t abate when I arrived. I have a photo of my family in front of it. My dad stands tall and thin, aviator glasses over his blue eyes and his hands on his hips, looking very much like a pilot (all seriousness). The family stood to his left: my auburn haired mother, a kerchief on her head; my sister, tall and blond also in a kerchief; my oldest brother John, in the same glasses and displaying the same pose as my dad; my 5-year-old, dark haired second brother, in overalls; and then a tiny blond girl in overalls that (horrors!) matched her brother’s (2-year-old me).
My fascination for planes — their noise, their lines, the very concept of being that high in the sky — continued unabated into adulthood. But I kept my distance in a way. I wasn’t remotely interested in learning to fly. I have an overdeveloped sense of balance, and my ears and stomach would not allow it. I settled into finding out which ones flew when, the difference between a turbo prop and a jet, how a jet worked. I recognized their sounds when they flew overhead, wanting to be able to identify them in the sky.
When my dad passed away in 2005, I knew I was missing some pieces of his history. I didn’t have regrets, really, just one more day with him, knowing in advance that it was the last one. That is when I would’ve have picked his brain more, and written things down. Instead, I’ve settled for learning more about his aircraft experiences through my older siblings and my mother. (And these conversations generally include large amounts of Wild Turkey and laughter).
So when the opportunity arose to see the only, still flying, SB Dauntless at the Chino Air Show in California, I knew: I had to go. My fiancé, Steve, an aerospace engineer by training, a World War II buff by hobby, found my plane (and car, but I digress) fascination unusual. The fact that I had completely lost track of time in the Seattle Air Museum when he and I had gone there, and honestly, was not ready to leave when he was, bordered on the downright weird.
If asked to explain why airplanes were such a big deal to me, I could never do it. Perhaps, like my green eyes, it’s genetic. All I know is it has always been there. Always will be. A plane going overhead will stop me in my tracks, as my eyes seek it, wanting the catalog in my head to determine its type: 737, 747, 767, Beech, Airbus, Learjet, Citation, King Air, Cessna. I even liked the names: the simplicity of numerical varieties made some sort of weird Soduku sense to my otherwise mathematically-challenged brain.
We got to the Chino Airshow and parked in the middle of a dark brown farm field scattered with nearly white pieces of hay. The earth had been mashed down and slightly watered to contain the dust as SUVs, cars, and trucks bounced over the uneven terrain to park. The hot sun was tempered a bit by a fairly stiff breeze. An introvert to a fault, I am overwhelmed by crowds at times. (When I go to the mall, I go directly to the store I need and leave, I never wander). But on that day, I simply didn’t notice all the other people. Steve’s son and a good friend of his were with us.