Like a ballerina in the air
Southern Chester County, from the cockpit of a 1946 Fairchild 24.
By Alessandra Nicole
I have always believed that
there is something so strong, yet so vulnerable, about flying in a
small plane. I am in love with that duality; it’s like both cursing
gravity and knowing you're also at the mercy of it. So when I arrived
at the New Garden Flying Field on July 25, on assignment for this
magazine, I knew that I was about to relive that duality.
For there it was, waiting for me. A flawless, shiny red 1946 Fairchild 24.
I do not remember my first flight. I was a colicky infant coming over to the United States from Germany with two new parents, who told me later that I cried through the entire eight-hour flight.
I flew again when I was 16, on a flight from Philadelphia to Miami with my father, during the week I graduated from high school. I sat glued to the window the entire time. I had never seen clouds from the top before; and the sight impacted my portfolio for art school. As a result, the experience married my obsession with Degas’ graceful, blue-bathed ballerinas and the ethereal cloud shapes through which we flew.
When I was in my early twenties, I held a job in Washington for three years as a federal contractor, so I flew to just about every major U.S. city for a week at a time. The constant travel at that age felt glamorous, and every Monday morning was filled with prickly anticipation of my next big-city destination.
But the first flight that overtook my heart was while attending the Savannah College of Art & Design. I had begun contributing some of my photography to a local entertainment newspaper. On one of my assignments, I found myself in the belly of a large military plane headed to Fort Bragg, N.C., along with 100 Green Berets. They were required to routinely take what’s called a “Hollywood Jump” to maintain current parachuting status, and I photographed them as they stepped, one by one, off the back of the cargo opening and floated out over the beautiful patchwork quilt of farms below.
On the return to Savannah, the pilots had me join them in the cockpit for the flight, and from there I was absolutely hooked. It felt like glorious magic watching the pilots guide such a tremendous machine through the air. I loved everything about it, the banter of the pilots on the headsets, the communication with air towers, all the dials and instruments, the updrafts that would put butterflies in my stomach, and the feeling of defying physics to some degree ― the thrill of some form of anarchy against nature.
Years later, on my commutes from my office in southwest Washington, D.C., to my home in Delaware, I would regularly pass a tiny airport outside of Annapolis on Route 50. It had a large banner advertising their flight lessons. In late summer of 2001, I was intrigued enough to find my way to the landing strip and go up in a small, twin-engine airplane to see if it was something I’d like to further pursue.
The experience I had in Annapolis on my hour-long first lesson that August afternoon was a total delight. Being in a small aircraft was completely different from being in a large cruising commercial airliner. It felt personal. It was intimate, delicate, highly technical; an elevated experience in a spiritual sense. I felt like a ballerina in the air.
When we landed again, I was absolutely over the moon about the flight. I wore an enormous, irrepressible grin for hours, even days afterward.
I signed myself up for lessons immediately; I couldn’t wait to learn more! I couldn’t wait to feel like I was levitating again. I wanted to see the mosaic of homes and hills stretch out to the horizon, to see sun spill across the Chesapeake Bay in endless throngs of glitter beneath me. I was looking forward to the prestige of mastering a skill unheard of in my family and social circle.
My first lesson took me into the air and taught me about using my heightened sensitivities to feel the changes in the air mass around me, and gave me confidence in my innate desire to find balance within the given atmosphere amidst all of its unpredictable changes. I loved it in the sky.
A few short weeks later, on Sept. 11, 2001, however, the world was in shock. Things were never to be the same again.
My life changed, too. I was a handful of blocks away from the World Trade Center that morning when the buildings were attacked. The magnitude of witnessing such a thing deeply changed my own life’s course. My small flight school was closed for federal audits as our nation’s government sought to learn more about who was taking lessons on simulators for domestic commercial aircraft. The greater Washington area shifted into a mode of sheer fear and daily panic, as heightened security measures were implemented all around. The day’s color-coded terror alerts were discussed over our morning coffee.
My own job subsequently got very busy; many of my co-workers refused to fly for a long time and I, still being willing to go up in the air, was assigned a great deal of travel. The goal of working to earn a pilot’s license would be put on hold indefinitely.
Today, I am a professional photographer, and more than 12 years after my last seat in the cockpit of an aircraft, I was given the opportunity to climb back in. As I made the tranquil, picturesque drive to New Garden Flying Field to meet with manager Jonathan Martin, I felt nervous to the point of nausea. My heart was in my throat at the anticipation of the experience.
I parked the car, fumbled clumsily around for my camera bag, took a great big deep breath, and trekked over to the landing strip, where Martin met me with an encouraging smile. There, he revealed his stunning and fully restored 1946 Fairchild 24. My nervousness vanished. An enormous, irrepressible grin – one that had accompanied me on all of those past flights years before – had returned.
We flew Martin’s red vintage plane over Landenberg and out to the Chesapeake Bay and chatted about how we each fell in love with aviation. The Fairchild 24 is a cozy craft with four seats, crank windows, high wings, and an inverted (upside-down), self lubricating 200-hp engine. Martin’s plane hadn’t flown since 1952, and, as the third owner in 2011, it was his second total aircraft restoration. I could tell it was restored lovingly. “Truly a labor of love,” said Martin, “Wanna fly it?”
“Yes!” I gasped. Very gingerly, I took over the flight.
The Fairchild handled like a danseur, noble with complete aplomb. It was a smooth, steady, responsive gentleman of the sky. We took a course out over Havre de Grace, saw the Cecil County Fair from above, and saw the sun spill its treasure over the vast Chesapeake Bay once more. I was captivated. I fell in love all over again.
After some time, I relinquished control to Martin, who curved us around back toward New Garden.
“Wanna land it?” asked Martin.
“Oh ... No, no thank you!” I answered, suddenly very nervous.
“Aw, come on. It’s the most important part! Takeoff is optional but landing is mandatory,” he said.
He vectored us in for a landing in the grass, right next to the landing strip. “This old plane prefers to land in the grass," he said. "Easier on the rubber.”
New Garden Airfield was originally built by the duPont family and was sold to New Garden Township in 2007. Martin, who has had a special place in his heart for New Garden Airfield since he was 12, was asked to join the township as manager of the airfield in 2008.
I was elated to learn that Martin, along with Court Dunn, a pilot with a teaching background, has been very enthusiastically heading a young aviation program for the past five years. The Future Aviators Summer Camp was established in 2009. The first year, they had 28 campers, and every year the program has grown. It now attracts children from all over the United States. This year, they had more than 130 campers registered.
I told Martin that I wish I had been exposed to aviation from the small aircraft vantage point much earlier in life, and that these young people are fortunate to have access to such a thrilling program. I believe Martin is responsible for inspiring and changing the trajectory of young people’s lives in a very positive way. It would be an honor to know that through your passion, you have begun a program that has impacted the lives of young people in such a horizons-expanding manner.
I believe exposure to small craft aviation sets a young person up for the ability to dare to achieve worthy things in life.
The return to the cockpit and the wide-open skies in that gentle and elegant way was a return to myself. I left the experience feeling a decade younger, and I text-messaged one of my friends with shaking hands. “There is something so strong yet vulnerable about flying in a small plane," I wrote. "I had all but forgotten the wonder of it.”
Moments later, he responded.
“Strong yet vulnerable?" he wrote. "You’re describing yourself! Welcome back.”