For my grandparents, flying was a way of life. They fell in love while working for United Air Lines. He was a career pilot, and she was a passenger agent. I have a clipping of their marriage announcement from the Los Angeles Examiner in 1944. It shows them in the cockpit of a United Mainliner, clasping hands, wearing broad smiles and tilted uniform hats. The caption reads: “Air Romance.” Their love for each other was entangled with the love of flight, and it bonded them over a lifetime.
My grandfather, Robert, flew for the fun of it. Early summer of 1933 saw him at work in Bradford, Pennsylvania, welding and wing-building on Taylor Cubs, lightweight aircraft that gave way to the popular Piper Cubs. His first lesson flying one lasted about five hours. Then, he wrote in his journal, “they turned me loose for a solo and I did four loops out of sheer jubilation.” By 1935, the factory wanted as much exposure for the Cubs as possible, so he participated in all the local air shows. He hatched stunts like spinning his plane in loops under telephone wires, or he’d cut the engine, stop the prop, climb out of the cockpit, and, with one foot on the landing gear, restart the engine by hand and fly away. He delighted in giving these theatrical performances, impressing people with the inventiveness of planes. Once, he noted, “a friend, while watching the show, got so excited he bit the end off his finger.” He loved to share the thrill of it all—with strangers, friends, his family.
Beyond her career as a passenger agent, my grandmother, Bernadine, also flew planes, displaying a knack for aerobatics: In 1951, she won an air derby in Illinois put on by her pilot’s club, The Ninety-Nines (founded by Amelia Earhart in 1929). She pushed her mental and physical limits, as well as the limits of her era. At the time, women couldn’t be commercial pilots or compete in most tournaments, but this didn’t stop her from contributing to aviation however she could. One of her first flights as a newly licensed pilot was testing out my grandfather’s handiwork. He had restored a Fairchild PT-23, an indomitable-looking World War II training plane, in their family garage, and she took it for its maiden voyage. I have a picture of her seated in the open cockpit, looking dashing and chic in a leather aviator cap.
I know from rummaging through my grandparents’ photos and pilot logs and journals that what they remembered most fondly were the times they were able to share their joy and passion for flight with others. Sometimes even with complete strangers.
In my grandfather’s days at the Cub factory, he would deliver the planes cross-country. Once, he landed in a cow pasture next to an orchard. A small boy arrived on the scene, and my grandfather told him that if he picked him a bunch of grapes, he’d give him an airplane ride. Soon, the boy reappeared carrying two huge baskets of beautiful, ripe grapes. My grandfather set a basket down on each side of him so he could eat and fly at the same time. In one of his final journal entries, he wrote, “I promptly did my part of the bargain and included a flight over the boy’s house and a few zooms across the landing field. It turns out, it was one of my best days.”
I have to admit that I am charmed by all of this. I want my grandparents’ love story to live on, for our family history to stay rooted in the sky. That’s why I took great pride, a couple of years ago, in my first flying lesson. From above, I traced the tributaries of the Colorado River, snaking like veins across the arid West. I landed and signed with zeal my first pilot log entry. If I’m lucky, it, too, might become a family heirloom.
Even though my grandparents had already passed, I felt I was connecting to them, honoring their sky-borne spirit. I touched on a feeling that must have been part of their beautiful obsession, the feeling that the world was immediate, new, and full of possibility. And I had unlocked an ability to course through it differently, like learning to sail or ride a bike. You teach yourself to see the world anew. Perhaps you are a little lighter for it, full of marvel, maybe even a little bit more in love with the world.