Into the Blue

A Father's Flight and a Daughter's Return

Susan Edsall

St. Martin's Griffin

Into the Blue
1
Prologue
In March of 2000, spring arrived early in Montana. Melting snow and clear skies were the only signals pilots of small planes needed to know winter was sufficiently over. They were like crocuses in that way--wired to head for the sky at the tiniest indication of spring.
I was in Bozeman to visit my parents. As always, Dad and I planned to go flying, this time in his BT-13, a huge silver plane shaped like a bullet, built in 1942, and used to train pilots in World War II. Dad in front; I in back. This plane was magnificent--imposing and muscular. It had a 450-horsepower engine, which meant it could deliver the same oomph as a team of horses hitched up two-by-two and stretching on for half a mile. It was twenty-nine feet from its round engine to its rudder and had a wingspan of forty-two feet--bigger than a three-car garage. Made of sheets of aluminum riveted together along every edge, it blazed like a metal sun at high noon. You could fly with the cockpit open or pull a Plexiglas canopy from back to front to close yourself off from the wind, but never from the view.
The BT was one of two antique airplanes Dad owned. He'd been collecting and rebuilding them for nearly twenty years. He and his best friend, Bud Hall, had rebuilt nine together and were in the middle of rebuilding another.
Collecting antique airplanes differs from collecting stamps or Hummels or spoons. This hobby hurtles past fascination and curiosity, creating enough passion to make hardened men swoon. It also takes up more space and is riskier by a Montana mile. Stamp collectors or retirees breeding African violets rarely concern themselves with hangar space--or crashing.
Dad kept his prized planes in three hangars--one at the house and two at the airport. The hangar at the house had been taken over by his current project, rebuilding an old 1941 Airmaster. The BT and his beloved Fleet Series 9--the only one left in the whole world still flying--were parked at one airport hangar. Another held his Cessna 185, what we called his "regular plane" because, in our minds, it was ordinary--only one set of wings, engine properly stored inside the fuselage, closed cockpit, full instrument panel--practically a station wagon.
Dad was crazy about his BT, which he'd bought and rebuilt in 1993. It was the same plane he'd flown on the Freedom Flight in 1995--a cross-country trip he and two hundred other pilots of antique airplanes took from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II. My brother, Steve, flew on the first leg from Los Angeles into Kansas City. My sister, Sharon, flew the second leg from Kansas City to the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, where I joined up with them.
In Dayton, Sharon and I met dozens of World War II veterans, some of them so gnarled they could barely stand. The vets, former pilots, asked Dad if they could sit in his BT. We braced them with our shoulders, hoisting them into a plane that, as young men, they had flown expertly to prepare themselves to fly over German territory. They sank into the tiny cockpit, the feel as familiar as an old coat, faces lit up with memories going back more than fifty years asdistinct as this moment. "I flew this plane," they each would say, some of them tearfully, pulling the knobs, touching the indicators. "I flew this plane years ago," they told us.
I flew the final leg into Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, D.C. We swung past the Twin Towers in New York City, then everyone dropped long-stemmed red roses into the harbor as we circled the Statue of Liberty. I remember the wind blowing the skin on my arms into little accordion folds.
 
 
The morning after my midnight arrival in Bozeman, Dad and I headed for the airport. As always, his hangar was spit-shined and organized. Photographs, posters, old airplane parts, and memorabilia from air shows hung on the walls. A sizable American flag hung from the rafters. Four canvas deck chairs sat on a den-sized square of Berber carpet near the front, and provisions were stocked in the back. A microwave oven, shouldering a glut of ready-to-pop popcorn, perched next to a white refrigerator with the model name Coolerator sweeping in metal cursive across the door, a bumper sticker reading Semper Fi its only other adornment.
To move the Fleet or the Cessna out of the hangar, we'd each get behind a wing, put one hand on the wing and one on the strut, lean in, and shove. The plane rolled out of the hangar easily once we got it moving. Not so the BT. It was too huge. For it, Dad hooked a tow bar to his pickup and used it like a tugboat.
When the BT rolled from the windowless hangar out into the watery light of spring, it blazed, sunlight skittering off every surface, putting the devil to shame. Climbing in, I read again the words Dad had painted on the fuselage, written by poet and pilot Gill Robb Wilson, an inscription so apt that everyone in the family had it memorized: " ... and of the living, none, not one, who truly loves the sky, would trade a hundred earth-bound hours for one that he could fly."
He meant it.
Dad had wanted to fly since he was six years old and he and his older brother, Everett, had snuck down to the fairgrounds outside oftown where The Barnstormers had set up shop for the weekend. The Barnstormers were pilots who patched together a living by giving people joyrides in World War I airplanes at two bits a pop, a lot of money in 1935. A full day's wages for some. Somehow, without a whiff of his plans reaching their parents, Everett had scraped together enough money for one ride--for himself--leaving Dad on the ground looking up, outranked and wishing. From that moment on, he wanted more than anything to fly.
When he was a kid living in Missoula, Montana, Dad would often ride his bike to the airport after school and stand in the weeds outside the barbed wire fence to watch the planes land. Granddad, recognizing Dad's love of flying, gave Dad a ride in an airplane as a birthday gift when he was eleven years old. It was an open cockpit plane, and in March it was biting cold once they got in the air. The airplane, covered in a tight-weave linen, was a working plane--hauling cargo to various outposts in Montana--and the cloth cover had suffered. Dad looked down between his feet through a hole in the floor the size of a candy bar and saw the ground whiz past him thousands of feet below. Scary stuff. Thrilling. Flying got into his bones. It never left.
As soon as Dad towed the BT out of the hangar, I climbed onto the wing and swung my legs over the side onto the yellow leather seat directly behind the pilot's seat. I slid down, threaded the seat belt through the loops on the shoulder straps, and secured the buckle. Then I grabbed the shoulder straps and pulled them down hard, pushing myself firmly against the back of my seat. I stretched my legs way out in front of me, keeping my feet clear of the pedals. The joystick, used to maneuver the plane, stuck straight up out of the floor between my legs. Dad handed back the avocado-green headsets and I plugged them in. We would use these to talk to each other.
We taxied out to the airstrip, the nose of the plane so long that Dad had to make S-turns to see the runway in front of him. Dad lifted his finger in a wave to the other pilots getting ready to fly. As always, I felt lucky to be the kid in the back. What did other kids do onSaturdays? Dad checked all his instruments, ran the rpm's up on his engine to make sure the magentos were working, then he cycled the propeller, set the flaps for takeoff, and set the elevator trim to remove the back pressure on the joystick during the climb out. He called the tower to tell them he was ready to go, rolled out onto the runway, positioned the BT smack on the center line, and hit the throttle lever. As the speed picked up, he maneuvered the rudder with his feet to keep the plane straight. When he reached flying speed, about 70 miles per hour, he cranked a handle on his left, lifting the flaps to eliminate drag, changed the propeller from takeoff position to flying position, and we were in the air.
We lifted, lifted up over the farmers' fields, the malls, the football stadium, the grid of city streets, climbing past the clutches of gravity and obligation. The broad valley quickly changed from fields of alfalfa and wheat and barley into a patchwork quilt of green and beige and black. We left it all behind. All the worry and confinement and chatter couldn't keep up with us as we climbed into the sky. Below, everything looked like a tiny toy train set. Nothing to bother about.
I shouted and thrust my fists into the air and laughed, like I always did. I couldn't help it. The thrill of flying made it burst out of me.
"Where to?" Dad asked.
"Show me around!" I answered. I never cared where we went, as long as we flew.
So Dad took me over to Harrison Lake, where we camped as kids, past the headwaters of the Missouri to spot bald eagles nesting and coyotes on the prowl. We buzzed fellow pilot Jim Green's house on the way back, diving toward his barn and pulling up into a steep bank and climb. It took my breath away. I had learned to counter my instincts and lean into the turn for the best view and the biggest thrill. With only a smear of sheet metal between me and the sky, I felt like a bird.
"Let's find a place for you to live!" Dad said. He took every opportunity to get me to move back west. "Three Forks," he said. "That's the place to buy."
We flew over Three Forks and buzzed a farmhouse. "That's a nice place," Dad said.
"Is it for sale?"
"Everything's for sale."
We took off across the valley and over to Bridger Bowl, the ski area outside of town. Grazing the ridge of the Bridgers, the plane jumped and lifted with the air currents. I shrieked and laughed just like I'd done as a kid, gripping the edge of the seat as if it would make a difference.
We stayed in the air nearly an hour. As always, on our way back to the airport Dad headed for home, dropping out of the sky to buzz the house low and fast on the west side, then pulling up and away, leaving that distinct thumpety-growl of an antique engine in his wake, a signal to Mom that we'd be home soon.
Over the years, Dad and a loose gaggle of pilots have developed a Sunday ritual of flying to remote places for breakfast. Of course it's not about breakfast--it's about flying. Three of them will head over to Lewistown, a forty-minute flight. Or fifteen will fly the two hours to a grass airstrip in Sydney, where local pilots stand ready with plywood tables, metal folding chairs, and big griddles to cook up sausages and piles of pancakes. Sometimes Dad will call up my brother, who lives near Sun Valley, and suggest breakfast or lunch. "It's only a ninety-minute flight. We'll just fly over," he'll say as casually as I might suggest meeting for coffee at the café downtown.
As much as he enjoys flying with me, I know Dad has his greatest fun when he's flying with his fellow pilots. Up in the air these guys play for hours. They tune their headsets into radio frequency 122.75, the "bullshit frequency," and they're in a world of their own making.
On one typical Saturday, Dad and Bud were out flying their planes, tuned into the bullshit frequency to see who else was out there. They could pick up Steve Kleimer, but just barely, so Kleimer tried climbing to see if he could establish better reception.
"Where you guys at?" Kleimer crackled over the radio.
"Right there by the red barn next to the railroad track where the road turns left to go to Smitty's," Dad said. Dad had been flying for over fifty years, and for him these landmarks were as precise as a global positioning system.
"Where the hell is that?" Kleimer shot back, laughing. In his early fifties, Kleimer was still young. He'd only been flying for twelve years. He flew a Cessna 180 and was in the middle of rebuilding a 1940 Stearman.
"We're coming up on Madlow," Bud offered. He was nearly sixty-five and pussyfooting around retirement like it was a rattlesnake. He had a mat of gray curly hair that stuck so resolutely to his scalp it looked sculpted there. His tanned skin draped like melted caramel into soft pouches under his eyes and around his cheeks. He could fit his entire wardrobe into the glove compartment of his Jeep. Jeans and a T-shirt, white socks and tennis shoes, a baseball cap, and plenty of gum. Bud always, always chewed gum--it was the only exercise he got.
Although he'd been flying for over thirty years, Bud navigated strictly by towns and major highways, a source of ceaseless ribbing. The trouble was, even when he navigated with his road atlas he got lost, a word he refused to use, preferring instead "getting temporarily misplaced in foreign airspace."
Now they were looking for Kleimer, and Bud was mostly tagging along, glad to have someone else doing the looking while he concentrated on keeping track of Dad's plane.
Dad banked his plane steeply and craned his neck toward the windshield, scanning the skies for Kleimer's plane. "Where you at?" If Kleimer couldn't find them, maybe Dad could find Kleimer.
"I'm just coming over the Bunkhouse Bar," Kleimer ribbed Dad. How many Bunkhouse Bars were there in Montana? Hundreds?
That's it! Dad knew exactly which Bunkhouse Bar and he headed his plane in that direction. Bud followed, incredulous.
"What's your altitude?" Dad asked.
"Six thousand five hundred, coming south," Kleimer responded.
"We'll stay at six thousand, going north." Dad was zeroing in.
"Okay, we gotcha, you're at ten o'clock," Dad said, then added, "There's bald eagles below at about five o'clock. You see 'em?"
"Hell, no, I don't see 'em, Edsall. I'm having a hard enough time finding you!"
"Hey, boys!" Widebody broke in. He'd picked them up on the bullshit frequency and caught up with them. "Looks like Jack Frost visited the river last night. I'm going down to take a look." Widebody was young too, wild and good-natured, nicknamed for his squatty build. Bud often described him as "all ass and no body." He was the butt of merciless wisecracks about his hangar. Though Widebody was an avid beer drinker, there wasn't a garbage can in sight there. He just threw the cans on the floor and they were now ankle deep. Pilots always called his hangar the one with the aluminum floor. He had two antiques--a 1947 Culver and the plane he was flying now, a 1947 Vagabond painted bright yellow.
"Okay, I'll stay at ten o'clock," Kleimer answered Dad.
"What a great deal when Wilbur and Orville got together and shit-canned the bicycle shop, eh boys?" Bud summed up their collective happiness.
"What do you think about heading over toward Helena for a bowl of soup?" Guido piped in. Helena was only about a thirty-minute flight, and they were regulars at a good café. Guido was a lithe Italian who was a pilot for Delta Airlines. In addition to his "regular plane," a Piper Super Cruiser, he owned two antiques--a 1943 AT6, very similar to Dad's BT-13, and the one he was flying now, a 1944 Howard, which Dad and Bud had rebuilt for him several years ago. He was coming up on sixty-five years old, mandatory retirement age for Delta pilots, and it gnawed at him. All he'd ever done was fly.
"I'm hungry enough," Dad responded. "Let's go do her!"
"Let's go by Townsend first and take a look at Mike's new hangar." Mike had just retired from the Montana Aeronautics Division. He'd set a world distance record flying nonstop from Hawaii to Oshkosh years back. He was a member of the unofficial "Crash Club"--having had an engine failure in his Bonanza airplane over Utah. He and his girlfriend, also a pilot, set it up in a slight nose-down glide. It was snowing hard. They never saw the ground until they hit it. It destroyed the plane, but they walked away without a scratch. Bud calls them "shithouse lucky."
The five planes took the twenty-minute detour to Townsend, buzzed Mike, then swung over to Helena and had "a bowl of soup," which usually meant a burger and fries, gave the waitress hell, she gave them hell back, then they did the whole thing again only in reverse.
A typical Saturday.
I knew how these guys spent their time. I even knew some of the banter. But I had only the faintest inkling of what it felt like to be a pilot. Dad had the power to go anywhere he pleased, alone. He flew through canyons at 140 miles per hour, tipping the plane up on its edge to crank through a tight turn. He flew over places no one had ever been before, tracking herds of elk in the hundreds, grizzly bears and their cubs, bald eagles nesting, red-furred baby buffalo in the spring. He was a masterful pilot and chock-full of joy when he flew. He was free.
 
 
When we landed at the airport and taxied back to the hangar, Dad repeated what he said after every flight. "Got her down one more time!" as if it was a miracle. He logged his flight in his worn leather log book, stashed the headphones, and clicked all the switches off. I climbed out and stretched my arms high over my head, swinging my body left to right to get out all the kinks. We hitched the BT to the tow bar and moved it into the hangar, wedging it in next to the Fleet, closed the big hangar door, and headed home for lunch, like we always did. Like I assumed we always would.
INTO THE BLUE. Copyright © 2004 by Susan Edsall. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.