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First Flight

by Margaret Cullison

My first memory of my father's interest in flying began when he took me to watch small planes taking off and landing at a grass field somewhere "down the line", as he used to say, from our hometown of Harlan.  The country was in the middle of World War II, but we Iowans were safe from airplanes that spit bullets and dropped bombs in foreign lands.  Rarely were we even subjected to the practice air raid black outs that people who lived on both coasts accepted as routine.  My dad was too old to go to war and thus free to indulge his fascination with flight by watching those single engine planes fly, an interest that reflected the growing popularity of general aviation.
       The skies over Iowa were clear of both pollution and air traffic and the Midwest plains ideal for visual flying.  In the summer months, when the skies were sunny almost every day, no radar or navigational instruments were needed, and the novice pilot had plenty of open space for flying.  I must have been about five years old, but I remember standing beside him at the edge of the airstrip.  Other plane-watching people stood around us, and some airplanes were tied down in the grass along the side of the runway.  We stood for a long time, Dad looking skyward without saying much, intent on figuring out how the flying was done.  Probably the seed was already planted in his mind that one day he too would fly free as a bird on the wing.
       Towards the end of the war, a rudimentary airstrip was built near Harlan, the dark rich soil of a cornfield sacrificed for the purpose.  We made frequent trips to this new airfield closer to home, and we'd stand at the edge of the runway, squinting into the hot sun as yet another plane glided down from the sky.  The wings tilted side to side as the pilot adjusted to the changing air currents closer to the ground, a vulnerable package of engine, metal, and human that aimed to land safely on the corn stubble
       We'd stay there for hours, watching the pilots doing their 'touch and goes.'  Fierce wind from the propellers blew dust in my eyes and plastered my summer dress against me as the planes taxied past us.  Once, sleepy from standing in the hot sun, I leaned against the man standing next to me, thinking he was Dad.  When I looked up, I was shocked to discover that I'd attached myself to another of the airport regulars.  I usually ended up bored and impatient to go home, yet I never turned down an invitation to go out to the airport.
       Soon a hangar of corrugated tin was built on the field, a long and silvery shed to house the planes.  Thirsty after our time beside the runway, we'd go into the office where all the other plane watchers hung out.  The pop machine opened from the top and the rows of bottles were held in place by their necks on metal tracks.  I'd put a nickel in the coin slot and then guide my selection along until it was released into my eager hands.  Dad and his friends usually chose the light colored soda, walked outside to pour some out, the dust fizzing with carbonated liquid, and then added a dash of bourbon.  I could never understand why they'd want to waste good pop.
       The day the war ended we drove out to the airport to see what was going on.
       "Peace.  We've got peace.  Peace at last," the men all said, as if they couldn't get over their fascination with a new word they'd learned.  I guess a lot of soda pop got wasted that day.
      With the war over, a hometown boy who'd been a fighter pilot came back to run the airport.  He still wore his leather flight jacket with a faded picture of a tiger painted on the back.  I called him "funny face", my childish attempt to attract his attention because I liked his broad and welcoming smile.  Years later the airport was renamed in his honor.  The Alvin Rushenberg Airport still operates today with a dozen buildings and hangars and paved and lighted runways.
      Flush from the post-war economic boom, Dad bought his first airplane, a 1946 cream and red Taylorcraft BC-12D.  I remember exactly how the plane looked and how it felt to settle into the seat next to him.  I recall the anticipation stirring in the pit of my stomach as we waited for someone to prime the propeller and yell out above the noise of the wind and the engine, "all clear", as he waved us out onto the runway.  I recall the instant the wheels left the ground, that first gentle lift into the air, and a magic I didn't understand moved us skyward.
       The plane grew small as the earth retreated below us.  Blue sky surrounded us, the sun so bright that I had to look away from its glare off the nose of the plane.  Gradually my ears adjusted to the altitude, the roar of the engine, and the air rushing over the wings and the fuselage.  I looked down at the farms below us, my eyes tracking the highway that led into town. Then I saw the swimming pool, the grade school, and finally our house.  The little plane banked deeply as we circled.  I held onto the edge of my seat and looked out the window at my side, which was now almost beneath me.  The roof of our house loomed large below us, and then Dad pulled the plane out of the circling turn and dipped the wings in greeting.  He turned his head towards me, the gold rim of his glasses glinting in the sunlight, and he grinned at the show we'd put on for the groundlings.
       Fifty years later, after the death of my oldest brother, who soloed at the age of sixteen and never lost his fascination with small planes, I looked up into the blue sky of a late afternoon in July to see a plane flying loops and rolls over his house in Harlan.  A friend was up in his stunt plane performing aerobatics to honor my brother's memory with a heartbreakingly stunning show.  The tradition of airplanes communicating with the earth bound goes on.
       Old-time pilots speak reverently of those first post-war private planes like our Taylorcraft, built for the fun and wonder of flying.  That first summer of flight Dad and I flew around the state on his business trips.  I don't remember why I was chosen over my two older brothers for this honor. I do know that I loved to sit next to him in the cockpit of that remarkable machine as we sped through the air, watching the wispy clouds roll by and gazing down at the lush Iowa farmland.  Often the hum of the engine lulled me to sleep, and I awoke only when the wheels touched down.  Another gentle, soft landing that we knew was being watched and critiqued by the airport regulars who stood at the edge of the runway waiting, as we often had done, for the next plane to land.



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