January 23, 2014 7 Comments
The night before last I wrote a story called “Little Green Barn Part#1.” I wrote it at 3am, and intended it to be the introduction for this second part. Part one was about something really good that had happened, and part #2 here was to be about the idea of encouraging other builders to think about their own “little Green Barn.”
In a nutshell, For a long time, I wanted to have a small cabin on a remote airstrip where I could go and be in a very peaceful setting. I spent a lot of hours thinking about and planning this. Along the way I realized that these hours helped refine my own personal definition of what was ‘good’ in flying.
Many years ago I found the airstrip I wanted to put it on. The fact it was over 1,000 miles from my house did not matter. This was not about convenience or low cost lodging on trips, it was about having a personal refuge, an oasis of sorts. Phil Bolger, the nautical engineer, taught me that it doesn’t matter that elegant sailboats are at sea way less than 1% of their lives; the important point is the boats are “at sea” in the minds and imaginations of their owners 1,000 times more often, and they provide nearly as much sanity by that method. Even though I knew that I would not make it there frequently, the setting was important.
If you are new to aviation and fly out of your county airport it may be hard to imagine airports without chain link fences, airports that are quiet and peaceful, but know that there are literally hundreds of them out there. Aviation organizations like to project fears of ‘user fees’ and the FAA restricting access by small planes to national airports. This is actually the concern of wealthy elites who want to fly their $20 million dollar, six seat jet to an 8am landing slot at JFK or O’Hare. If you want to be a good stick and rudder pilot and fly to beautiful places, understand that your dreams are not under siege, and right now you have a lifetime supply of fantastic little airports awaiting you that are nothing like the restrictive elements of a gated and towered airport. It’s OK to learn to fly there, but use the skills you develop to go to places that Lindbergh would have loved.
Part#1 told about my Little Green Barn, and shared some personal things about people who had stayed there. Although I didn’t name anyone, I am sure that people who read my website might figure out who some of them were. The Barn had a guest log book and I shared some of the things written in it. I doubt the people in the story would even care if I used their full names, but when I got up in the morning I re-read the story in daylight and decided to take it off the site. About 200 people read it before I did this, and that’s OK, but I thought of the little place as sacred, and it seemed wrong to have it as a lead story on our website to have people who know little or nothing about my friends, cares and values wade though. Some day I will put the complete story in a book or something.
Here is the other part of the story: The Barn is no longer there. My friend’s airstrip was sold two years ago. The new owners have a put up a home there, and the things that happened in that setting can’t be the same. Only a handful of people made it to the little barn. This bothered some people to hear, but really, if you are 51 years old like me, you cannot go back and visit the setting of 95% of the best moments in your life. Places change, people pass and life rolls forward. All you get to keep are the treasured memories, a few photos, and the ability to convince yourself that there are other good times ahead, that you can make these things happen.
This motivated me to write. This summer I want to scout around for the location of the next “Little Green Barn.” This doesn’t just mean looking at maps, it means listening to stories of other aviators about places stumbled upon, dreams they have and people they know. Something of a treasure hunt where the trip is more important that the destination. Part of this was to say that some of my friends have this same idea in the back of their mind. They are not buying material for their barn yet, but they are thinking about where it will be, the kind of sanctuary they will make it, even things about how it will feel to arrive after a few months away and read the log book to find the appreciative words of fellow aviators, some they have known for years, others they will never meet.
Below are a few excerpts from “Little Green Barn part#1.” If you would like to see the whole thing, come to a college or find me at an airshow and I will share it, But I would rather find out that the words here motivated you to think about your own Barn, not one stuck in the past. Not everyone dreams of such places, but enough people have said they liked the idea enough that one day I will fly from Atlantic to Pacific, never speaking on a radio, only landing on grass, and staying in little green barns of friends. -ww
“I got up in the morning at first light and watched the sun rise sitting on the barn’s front steps. I realized that unless I willed otherwise, the whole day would pass without me speaking to, or even seeing another human. No computer, no cell phone, no TV, no land line, not even a radio. Watching the sun set after the first day, I realized that I could string together a number of these days without interruption, and this would be a rare opportunity not to be squandered. Theoretically someone could do something similar in their house in suburbia, but they would essentially be hiding, where I was out, alive, in the full of things. I had been alone at sea in a small boat out of sight of land, with the opportunity to do this same thing, but that setting requires a high degree of vigilance which keeps the mind occupied. Sitting alone at the airstrip required no such attention, and thus with the mind off guard duty, the spirit was free to come out and look around, unfettered.”
“One of the entries that included the words ‘ and guest’ after the pilots name had a long, beautiful paragraph written in a woman’s handwriting. It spoke about how quiet it was, and the color of the sky at sunset, and smell of the grass when you laid down in it to stare at the clouds blow by, and how unimportant time seemed on that day. Although I don’t know her name and will likely never meet her, I have this very strong sense that if she walked past me on the street, I would somehow know it was her.”
“If you tell people outside of aviation that “a plane can take you a lot of places”, they most often think of it as some sort of alternative form of a car. What is far harder to explain to them is how a plane is the ideal vehicle to travel to a different state, not a different geographical one, but a different mental state.
I have tried telling people how you can go flying for the last 30 minutes of the day, stare at the sky in awe, and feel the distinct division between you and the plane fading. As the sun sinks, you can quietly come down the sliding board and roll out on the grass and come to a halt. I can do this fluidly and gently roll into my front yard. This always gives me the very powerful feeling I have just been somewhere else.
The timer on the dash may record the exact number of minutes aloft, but it seems untrustworthy. The correct answer seems to be that I have been gone months not minutes, that I have been to a place thousands of miles away not thousands of feet away. It is just not possible to explain to people that a plane is the only vehicle that can transport you like that.
I have tried to explain that it is much like looking up from the last page of an incredibly good book, and finding that you are sitting in a chair with a book in your hands, not in the world described by the author’s words. Good writing, really good writing, can give you the impression you have been to and seen things you have not. It can unstick you from your immediate setting and transport you to a different place, or even a different year.
Planes and flying are the only things I have found in the physical world that have the power to do the same thing with an hour of your life. Aloft, alone, just you the plane and the sky, and you become detached from the ground. With no radios, there is no connection. Half of your brain is keeping track of the minutes and the navigation, and that half will run the whole experience if you let it. But the other side of your brain, the side that absorbs the entire experience, the part that drinks in everything that the senses provide, is also there. It is this second half of the brain that takes you to places beyond the physical sense.
If you can get to settings and planes without excess instrumentation and radios, you will relive the first half of your brain from being on full alert. It is exactly the same thing as I thought sitting alone on the steps of the barn:
“Sitting alone at the airstrip required no such attention, and thus with the mind off guard duty, the spirit was free to come out and look around, unfettered.”
In a really simple plane, alone in the sky, when you trust your work and basic flying skills enough to let go of your analytical side, they you can think, see and feel with the other half of your brain in a way that isn’t possible on the ground. You can squint your eyes, and it doesn’t matter what year it is anymore, or where you thought you needed to be.
Don’t mistake this for being dreamy or not alert; to the contrary, it is the analytical part of you brain that gets absorbed in minutia and misses the situational awareness of the moment. Consider that most great fighter pilots report having no sense of time in dogfights, proof they flew the whole event on the second half of their brain. You can exercise the same effect in a peaceful setting also.
Writing, planes, simple flight and the second half of your mind can take you many places, locations that are just not accessible by other means. They can take to both places you need to go, and places you should have been, and maybe even places that should have been. If you have watched the great Waldo Pepper 50 times, go watch it once more and think about that last sentence. “A Streetcar Named Desire was not a film about public transportation.*” and Waldo Pepper was not a movie about barnstormers.
* When confronted by people who dismissed a film by its surface subject, Critic Gene Shalit blurted out “A Streetcar Named Desire was not a film about public transportation”