losing a friend

A Gift of Flight

Two days ago, I lost my friend, Jon. I’m not sure what happened, but I didn’t even know he was sick.

I’m mourning. I’m shocked. I keep trying to remember the last time I talked to him.

I want to tell you about Jon. That will help.

Jon was a pilot. His wife is a pilot too. He once took Nick and his friend Adrian up flying when they were ten. I’ll never forget that day. We arrived at their house and Jon used some kind of assisted pulley to back the plane out of its hangar. Jon’s wife said there wasn’t enough room in the four-seater for her to join us, so I nodded my head and the four of us climbed into their plane without her.

Then, Jon taxied out of their driveway, down the road, and onto the little neighborhood airstrip. Imagine living in a neighborhood designed for pilots, one with its own runway, one where every house had a hangar instead of a garage. My dad would have liked Jon. For some reason, my dad had a lot of friends who were pilots. I guess I like pilots too.

I sat in the back seat with Adrain for the first leg of the trip. The plan was to let each boy have some time at the controls. Jon was calm about that. I was nervous. Looking over Nick’s shoulder where he sat in the front seat, I could tell Nick was nervous too.

“For this first part, you let me handle the stick and once we’re in the air, you can give it a shot,” Jon said.

“Okay,” Nick said. I could tell by his voice that he wasn’t going to touch anything until Jon gave him the go-ahead.

I loved the feeling of being pressed back into my seat whenever I lifted off in a plane. I was so excited, I don’t remember if Jon talked to anyone on his headset or if you just had to keep an eagle-eye out whenever you took off at such a small airstrip.

And then we were airborne.

“Can you show them where they live?” I asked over the hum of the engine.

“Roger,” Jon said and the next thing I knew, we followed our road up and circled around our house. Adrian’s house was easier to identify because of it’s oversized deck.

“There’s my house! I see it!” Adrian shouted. “There’s my mom’s van! It’s so little!”

“I see it, and my house too,” Nick yelled.

We were so low to the ground that if I’d been looking out my front window, I’d have wondered at the plane circling overhead like a hawk.

“Do you want to fly the plane?” Jon asked Nick after he’d straightened the plane out and gained some altitude.

“Can I do that?” Nick said. Oh, he was nervous. I’d let him have a go at steering my car a few times, but he hadn’t even had control over a go-cart.

“Sure, I’ll tell you what you need to know.”

Then Jon walked Nick through the altimeter, the artificial horizon indicator, and the stick.

And Nick proceeded to wobble up and down in our flight path, continuously over-steering until Jon suggested he let go of the stick completely.

Nick looked at him in abject fear.

“Just let it go. We’re not going anywhere,” Jon said.

Nick looked down at the ground, then over at Jon again and finally let go with his hands hovering over the stick just in case. Jon laughed.

The plane evened out.

“Wow. Did you do that?” Nick asked.

Jon explained that changes made to the plane’s direction could be controlled with small moves, that the plane stabilized when you let go.

“So, we’re not going to spiral straight down to the ground?” Nick asked.

“Nope. Do you want to make a turn?”

“Sure, if it’s okay.”

Nick wasn’t going to do anything unless Jon said it was okay. There was a glow to his face. He was flying the plane. We spiraled to the right. Jon told Nick to keep an eye on the altimeter and told him to lift the nose. We swooped up as if entering a loop-the-loop on a roller coaster. Jon calmly told him to even it out and Nick evened it out, only dipping the nose below the horizon a little bit when he did. Then, we spiraled to the left. Meanwhile, I kept my head on my window so I could see where we were on my mental map, more than half way to the airport in Snohomish. Cars below us on the road were tiny, the mountains on the horizon looked closer, and any people I could see looked like ants. I thought of the time when I was nine when my dad chose me to go flying with him in his friend Larry’s plane. I’d been ecstatic. Larry had let me fly the plane all by myself.

Just then, Adrian groaned.

“I think I’m going to be sick,” he said.

“Ah, Jon,” I said over the buzz of the engines and whatever Nick had been saying, "We need an airbag back here, just in case.”

“It’s in the briefcase under my seat.”

I pulled out the briefcase, popped it open, and handed Adrian the little green bag inside. Jon turned around and looked at Adrian.

“You’re a bit green, aren’t you?”

Adrian couldn’t answer, just nodded and clutched at the open bag I had given him.

“I’d better get this puppy on the ground for a bit. Nick, may I have the controls?”

“Okay,” Nick said.

After a few words and numbers stated into the headset and a garbled response, Jon dropped the plane onto the runway like a duck landing on a pond.

“I don’t think we’re going to stop for lunch today,” I said.

Adrian groaned.

“The Buzz Inn has good burgers,” Jon said, raising his eyebrows hopefully. Jon had expressive eyebrows.

Adrian groaned again.

“Nope, sorry. No lunch today.”

After three trips to the Museum of Flight and its flight simulator plus a couple of rounds around the fairway at the State Fair with Adrian, I knew he wouldn’t make it if he even sat at a table with food on it. And I didn’t want to have to steam clean Jon’s airplane after we got back either. That smell would take a year to come out of the back seat.

So, Adrian and I walked in circles around the plane trying to settle his stomach while Jon did the preflight check with Nick. Before I knew it, we were airborne again. Adrian sat in the front seat this time, but held both hands on the airsick bag I’d given him. Jon kept the controls.

That trip back seemed to take only about seven minutes. Jon flew straight. He flew without any flourishes that I so loved about flying. And then, we were back on the ground. Adrian and I got out of the plane at the landing strip and walked back while Nick and Jon taxied back to the hangar.

When we got back, I told Jon we’d have to take him out for lunch another day, that Adrian needed to go home and just sit for a while.

“Can I give you money for the fuel?” I asked.

“No. It was a pleasure. I loved going up with the kids.”

I kept trying, but Jon wouldn’t have it. He said it was a gift. And it was, despite Adrian’s queasy look. Nick still had a glow and a grin on his face.

It was a gift. And now, when I’m missing my friend, it will be a gift I will never forget.

Thank you for listening, jules