Edge of the Envelope

Budd Davisson, Flight Journal, 1997

One Last Time

She handed me the gift certificate and touched my arm to take me aside. Looking past her, I saw a senior citizen walking around my airplane. My eyes studied him, as she spoke.

Her annoyed whisper floated on a thin layer of impatience with a touch of humor. She found the entire situation amusing. Her words were telling me that her father-in-law, who I judged to be a shade over 80 years old, had pestered her and her husband into giving him an airplane ride for his birthday. She didn't tell me which one. Apparently it wasn't important I know.

To her, the only mission was to full-fill the annual birthday obligation. Such a bother. I asked if he had ever flown before and she shrugged. The answer was vague. Yes, maybe, a long time ago. She didn't know and the fact she didn't know didn't seem to bother her.

I was only half listening to her and that half was getting a little irritated. She wasn't showing much respect. The other half was watching the father-in-law. At first he stood back from the airplane. The younger woman was still whispering tales of woe about taking care of her father-in-law when I saw him run his hand through what was left of his white hair and step closer to the airplane. He was smiling as he reached out. A knowing finger slid slowly up the leading edge of the aluminum prop and he ducked his head slightly to peer inside the cowling. The S-2A Pitts Special was probably different than any biplane he'd ever seen. He appeared to be enjoying the process of introducing himself to it.

I've gone through the here's-how-you-board-the-airplane drill a thousand times. It's a part of my vocabulary that flows out as if a single, very long multi-syllabic word. I always deliver it as I'm helping them into the parachute. At one point, I drop down on one knee to grab the crotch straps and snap them onto the front of the harness. Most folks just stand there like a child being trussed into a snow suit.

As I reached for the straps, I found a wrinkled, age-spotted hand had beaten me to them. He was bent slightly as he guided the quick-release snaps unerringly into their proper rings.

Still on my knees, I looked up into the face. The eyes were focused and bright with just a hint of moisture around the lower lid. He smiled, and, as he did, an almost invisible tear squeezed out of the corner of an eye. He knew it was there and a shadow of embarrassment flashed across his face. Then it was gone. The brightness returned. The smile even wider.

I had been so intent on giving my briefing, he hadn't really had a chance to speak. When he did, he quietly said, "It's been a long time. I didn't know if I'd ever get the chance again."

That's when we started talking. And that's when the father-in-law stepped out of the role which age and children had forced upon him. He began to talk and it was obvious a lot of what he said had been bottled up for entirely too long. Apparently there were no listeners at home.

He hadn't always been a father-in-law. At one time he had been a lieutenant. And then a captain and, finally, a major. He had been there at the beginning. P-26's and P-12's as a lieutenant. P-40s as a Captain and Mustangs as a major. He knew how to put a parachute on. And he knew how to use it. He rolled up his sleeve and showed me where a bullet had left its long, tell-tale trace.

After we took off, he did most of the flying and expressed his surprise and delight, at the nimble personality that is the Pitts Special. At one point he asked if it would do a roll and I told him to have at it. Nose up, wings going around, his cackling laugh filled my headset through most of the flight. But, I was having far more fun than he was.

As I watched him rejoin his daughter-in-law, he glanced back at me with a smile and I realized I had just acted out a scene from my own future. Some day that will be me. I'll be the one seeking one last touch of the stick, one last taste of the element that has been so much a part of my life. Everyone has a last flight and, when it's my turn, I only hope there's someone out there, probably as yet unborn, who will recognize that need and has the patience and compassion to help this old man fulfill it. It seems to me that airmen owe at least that much to one another.