He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying.Friedrich Nietzsche
How many dreams stick with you since childhood? For me the dream of flight formed when I was a young boy growing up on a small farm in rural Maine. I would look up as airliners passed overhead, drawing faint while streaks across the sky, and, if I was lucky, catch a glimpse of a light aircraft meandering over the fields and forests. I became fascinated with flying machines of all types and became an avid builder of balsa and plastic models. I even replicated various aircraft designs by gluing together toothpicks (with varying degrees of success) for 4th grade show-and-tell. Building models fed my aviation aspirations before I really understood what it would take to command these amazing, complex, and magical craft.
I can’t recall if there was one moment when I knew I wanted to learn to fly or whether small events coalesced into a sense that the desire had always been there. Military aviation intrigued me but these hopes were dashed when I came to understand (incorrectly) that those pilots needed perfect vision and by age 10 my eyes were already succumbing to nearsightedness. My first experience in a light aircraft came a year earlier, facilitated by my fourth grade teacher, whose husband was a private pilot. The instrument panel of his rented Piper Cherokee towered over me so my view was limited to what I could see out the passenger window. Nonetheless I was in awe of the sea of gauges and switches. Actually being able to take the yoke and maneuver the aircraft was addicting.
As I got older I retained my love of flying and relished any chance to travel by air. When I was 12 I got to fly cross-country (alone!) to meet by biological father for the first time. As I recall, the TWA Lockheed L-1011 was roughly half full (not like the sardine can seating of today) and the flight attendants served complementary champagne to the entire cabin (with the exception of the unaccompanied minor, of course). I don’t remember if I ever seriously discussed learning to fly with my parents or whether I just assumed it was an unrealistic and frivolous desire at the time but, either way, I filed it in the “someday” mental folder. High school and college and marriage and life (and marriage again) filled my waking hours and added their constant pull to my bank accounts.
It wasn’t until I was in my mid-thirties, with a second marriage slowing drifting to an end, that I decided to take stock of life and what I had (or hadn’t) gotten out of it. By now I was working a stable, well paid technology job and had downsized from a “power couple McMansion” to a spartan one-bedroom apartment in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood. I was making intentional changes in my life to create a better, more fulfilling future. So, while it sounds cliché, I finally just asked myself, “what am I waiting for?” The call of the sky hadn’t disappeared. It was time to make those past dreams real. It was time to become a pilot.
I must have also uncovered a contrarian streak because I also decided to pursue my dream a bit differently than most. About a year earlier a colleague had introduced me to the world of taildraggers. He owned a Maule—a M7-260C to be precise—and we would discuss the benefits (and challenges) of tailwheel aircraft during several scenic flights. Learning to fly a plane with a “little wheel in the back” was difficult for many skilled pilots of tricycle gear aircraft, much less someone with no practical piloting experience (beyond games and simulators). It would be much harder than training in your average Cessna or Piper. Sounds great—sign me up!
It was also during this period that I made another decision. Realizing that I was now both single and well compensated I placed an order for an airplane (a taildragger, of course). Eschewing notions of renting, co-ownership or potential problems of a pre-owned aircraft, I landed on (no pun intended) a brand-new-from-the-factory Maule which would carry the moniker N5509M. Now, unlike with an automobile, there are no “new plane lots” with rows of airplanes to browse. Research is performed at airshows, fly-ins and the occasional chance encounter on the ramp. I eventually decided on an IFR-equipped M7-235-C, the logic being I would eventually train for and receive an instrument rating. I selected options like float fittings, stainless steel cowling screws and cupholders (just kidding), submitted the order (along with a sizable deposit) and set about waiting for the factory in Moultrie, Georgia to alert me it was ready to be picked up.
Owning your own aircraft is a big commitment, both financially and in terms of your free time. As it happens, two events occurred in between placing my order and flying down to Moultrie to pick up my purchase: the dot-com bubble burst and I met “the one”. Both would have an influence on my dream’s future trajectory. My plan to rely on stock sales to fund the balance due on N5509M had to be altered and I ended up financing the equivalent of the proverbial “luxury SUV”, adding to my monthly obligations of hangar rental, insurance, fuel, maintenance and so forth. And while “her one-ness” was not opposed to the occasional cross-country flight to a worthy destination she did not share my drive to go “burn some AvGas” on any available sunny weekend.
In her defense, the square footage of my hangar was larger than that of my apartment and if we were going to get serious (and we were!) owning a house was more practical than sharing ownership of an airplane with the bank (though they never asked to borrow it, which I thought was nice). So, not long after we tied the knot it was time for N5509M to find a new home. It was a bittersweet transaction. Though I was saying “so long” to something that represented the culmination of a childhood dream I knew “she’ would be in good hands and not far away. On March 12, 2002 I inscribed the final entry in my logbook as pilot in command of N5509M for the ferry to Vashon Island. I had sold N5509M to my flight instructor George.
I felt the pangs of melancholy for some time afterward but, as it often does, time helped heal the wounds. I had a new bride, an exciting new job (more on that in another post), and a new house to finish building before our new baby arrived. Before long the demands and joys of marriage and parenthood took center stage. My consolation came from an acceptance that I had, at last, realized my childhood dream in a way few do. After all, how many people can say they owned their own airplane? Surely my dreams will now be dominated by other things and I can safety cherish my flying days as fond memories, never again to emerge so strongly.
Or can I?