I recently made a gut-wrenching decision: I ended a love affair that’s lasted nearly fifty years.
It was my eccentric Aunt Dorothy who changed my life. She’d spent most of her life in Kenya, choosing to stay there after the Second World War, where she’d been stationed as part of a women’s auxiliary corps.
On one of her visits to Johannesburg, she’d told me that as a young woman, she’d entered a competition sponsored by the Rand Daily Mail newspaper. For a few pounds, entrants were given a short flight in a Gypsy Moth, during which they took over the controls and were asked to perform some very basic maneuvers. The one who performed the best won a flying course leading to a Private Pilot License.
|This may have been the Gypsy Moth my aunt learnt to fly on.|
My aunt won and not long after became one of the first women pilots in South Africa. Her brother, my father, used to tell us of her exploits, such as wing-walking and winning a prestigious air race.
These are the things that capture a young boy’s imagination.
I was twenty-one when the Rand Daily Mail revived the competition after a long hiatus. With images of Aunt Dorothy in my head, I entered and was soon climbing aboard a Cessna 150 for my ‘test’. I didn’t win, but I was hooked and falling in love. And for the next year or so, I used any spare cash to buy flying lessons.
|I learned to fly on ZS-EDH. This is a similar plane.|
In 1969 I was awarded the coveted PPL – Private Pilot License. My love was now a passion.
As has so often been the case in my life, serendipity came knocking on my door. In 1971 I had gone to the University of Illinois to study the educational uses of computers. One day my advisor told me that the university’s Aviation Research Laboratory was looking for someone to explore how computers could improve pilot training. I was the perfect fit – probably the only person on the planet who was a pilot and interested in computer-based education.
For the next twelve years, I flew as part of my job, earning Commercial and Flight Instructor licenses and an instrument rating, all courtesy of Uncle Sam. The research was fascinating, and I loved every minute of it.
But it was the recreational flying I loved the most. I remember taking three friends in a Cessna 182 from Illinois, across the Rockies to the Grand Canyon, up to Salt Lake City, and back again. Every day we found a small airport, usually with a grass strip, and pitched our tents beside the plane. People were unbelievably kind – lending us cars so we could go and buy food, or leaving terminal buildings, such as they were, open, so we could use the toilets.
|Part of the Rockies|
I remember taking some other friends, also across the Rockies, to the San Juan islands off Seattle. Again we camped. Again we experienced astonishing hospitality.
|San Juan islands with Mount Rainier in the background|
Then there was the time a friend asked me to fly him to Winnipeg to pick up the three children he and his wife had just adopted. What an introduction to their new father for them; what an emotional trip for me.
And aerobatics! I learned in a 1940’s Boeing Stearman biplane – a heavy beast with a throaty radial-12 engine that spewed oil. Helmet and goggles were necessary. It didn’t have an inverted fuel system, so after a few seconds of flying upside down, the engine quit! What fun.
Sometime in the 1980s, the Civil Aviation Administration of Namibia asked me to present a three-day workshop on aviation safety in Windhoek. “But,” they said, “we don’t have any foreign currency to pay you. Would it be okay if we loaned you a small plane and paid for all your fuel and accommodation?” Needless to say, it was okay, and I wandered around Namibia’s magnificent countryside for ten days.
On the first day of that trip, I flew from Windhoek to Sossusvlei in the Namib-Naukluft National Park, home to some of the world’s biggest and most beautiful sand dunes. Some of them are 380 metres high (1200 feet). Anyway, my destination was the Sossusvlei Lodge, which had a sand landing strip. The bad news was that I couldn’t find it – a sand strip in a desert! I flew around looking, then decided to ask for directions. I saw another dirt strip on a farm and landed. A very elderly Herero gentleman told me to follow the road next to the farm for ten kilometers, and I would be there.
Directions in hand I returned to the plane to find it wouldn’t start. Battery flat! Curses. Fortunately I had noticed some telephone wire lying around, so I asked the old man to bring a tractor to the plane. We then jump-started it, disconnected the wires, and off I went.
|Dunes at Sossusvlei|
|Gemsbok (oryx) on the dunes|
It was flying that got me into writing. On my annual trips back to South Africa, I would rent a plane and take friends on flying safaris into Botswana and Zimbabwe. It was on one of those trips, in the Chobe National Park in Botswana, that we watched a pack of hyenas hunt and kill a wildebeest. In four hours they had eaten everything, flesh and bones. That evening, my friend Michael and I decided that if we ever needed to get rid of a body, we would leave it for hyenas. No body, no case.
Fifteen years later we started writing A Carrion Death, which opens with a game ranger and an ecologist stumbling upon a hyena which hadn't quite finished devouring a human body that had obviously left there on purpose.
|Trying to impress a young Danish lass in 1971|
|The plane I fly in South Africa - a Mooney 201|
|Michael and me at the birthplace of humankind - Tsodilo Hills in Botswana|
|Ballooning is also a wonderful way to see the countryside.|
|Minnesota cornfields from a balloon|
These are all great memories, but it is the exhilaration that I will miss, the beauty of being above the earth, the bliss of darting through the canyons in the clouds, diving, climbing, hugging the white canyon walls. I’ll miss the awe of flying over herds of hundreds of elephants in Botswana and the pleasure of popping above the clouds during a North American winter and seeing the sun after weeks of grey clouds on the ground.
A few years ago, I closed the circle with Aunt Dorothy. For her ninetieth birthday, I gave her a flight in the same type of plane she had learned on seventy years earlier – open cockpit, helmet and goggles mandatory. The smile on her face was priceless as she climbed out of the cockpit after half an hour of having the wind blow through her hair. I will remember it until I die.
|Aunt Dorothy at 90 years old|
I’m not a religious person, but the following poem written by John Gillespie Magee Jnr. captures my love of flying. He was killed, aged 19, in a training accident over England in 1941.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air . . .
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
I'm writing this to share my passion but also my sadness, because I have decided to hang up my goggles.
There are many reasons for ending this affair, but the most important one is I am not flying enough to feel confident in my ability to handle an emergency. I want to walk the talk, to do what is prudent, and not end the affair in a pile of burning, twisted metal.
But how I will miss it!