LOVE IN THE AIR
The sun was an incendiary orb descending in the Afghan sky. The Bad-e Sad-o Bist Ruz, the Wind of 120 Days, had lived up to its name and there was now more sand in the air than on the ground. Captain Alex Milne had been stationed in Kandahar for a lifetime, or at least the blast furnace heat made it seem like forever. But when he climbed into the Bell Kiowa helicopter that morning the only thought he had was that it was one less mission, one less observation flight. One day closer to home.
Rick Seymour, his navigator, pointed out the windscreen toward the starboard horizon where the sky was dark with sand. “We’ll just beat it back to base,” Rick said into the microphone of his headset.
With the wind often being measured at over 50 knots, they would just outrun the sandstorm. Alex nodded, keeping his eyes on the familiar terrain around Mazar-e Sharif.
There was a sharp jolt that rocked the helicopter.
“We’re taking fire!” Alex shouted.
There was another jolt.
“We’ve been hit!” Rick turned in his seat trying to see where the shots were coming from.
The Kiowa wasn’t a gunship; it had very little defense capability so all Alex could do was immediately begin evasive maneuvers. Then the reality became obvious. Control was minimal.
Alex pressed the radio button to communicate with the tower. “Base, we’ve been hit.”
A white hot round streaked in front of the windscreen just missing the chopper.
“We’ve got your coordinates, 17A.” The tower replied calmly. “Can you make it back?”
“Not sure, Base,” Alex replied.
There was the slam of another hit. The tail end of the chopper shuddered.
“We’re going down,” Rick shouted.
“Houdini. We have a Falling Angel. Tail rotor’s gone.” Alex shouted to the airbase at Mazar-e Sharif as he tried futilely to compensate for the flat spin they were now in. Familiar words repeated through his mind. May Day. May Day. May Day. From the French m’aider which meant “help me”. But there was no one there to help him but himself and Alex battled to gain some command over the aircraft.
“This is what you get for being a short-timer,” Rick said trying to smile.
As the ground rushed up to meet them, Alex knew this is what death looked like.
Six months later:
“We’re dead,” Pan Carlisle said to herself as she left the old brick building, tugging at the neck of the uncomfortable suit jacket she had worn to impress the bank manager. It hadn't worked. She dragged the large barrette out of her long, dark auburn hair which she twisted a few times and then clipped up out of the way. None of the dressing up to look financially responsible had worked.
As she stood on the main street of Leicesterville, Pan felt a wave of despair. Her father was on the verge of being forced to declare bankruptcy, in danger of losing everything he had worked so hard over years to create and she hadn’t realized it.
Pan jumped as she felt a hand on her arm.
“Are you having an out of body experience? I called your name three times.”
“Sorry.” Pan replied to Betsey Locke, her lifelong friend. “My head’s spinning. Me and numbers, me and the bank. Ugh.”
“Pure oil and water.” Betsey grinned. “Come on. You look awful; maybe a cup of coffee will perk you up.”
Pan paused on the sidewalk.
“I’ll listen,” Betsey tempted.
Nodding, Pan realized she had missed the companionship of the confidant with whom she’d shared so many experiences. They had met in kindergarten and had been inseparable for the next twelve years. Betsey was like a sister to her and it wasn’t until that moment that Pan realized how much she needed her friend. Arms linked, the two lifelong friends, Betsey short and compact, Pan tall and lean, walked down the quiet street toward The Black Swan Tavern which had been in the Locke family for generations. Betsey’s mother had liked to say they owned it before the states became states but there was no proof of that even if it made for diverting storytelling for tourists just passing through town on their way to somewhere else.
The wooden stairs up to the front door were worn by thousands of footsteps and the planters on the porch were already full of early pansies adding splashes of color after a long New York winter. Betsey opened the heavy oak doors, they entered and Pan was surrounded by the familiar and comforting scent of the oversized fireplace. Even though there was no fire this time of year, the smoke had permeated the wide oak floors and the heavy beams in the ceiling. It was the scent of warmth and comfort.
Their favorite table was by the window with the view of the town green and Pan went there, wasting no time in pulling the jacket off, draped it across the back of a chair and sat down. She stared out at the tall maples outside just beginning to get their leaves. The grass was turning green and soon summer would be upon them. Every year there were concerts and fairs held on the green. Pan hadn’t been back for any of those activities in nearly four years. She hadn’t even thought of them, how they were part of her, until now. Now that everything seemed to be in danger of slipping away from her.
Betsey put a large mug of coffee and a plate of homemade cookies down in front of her.
“What’s up, Pan? You look miserable,” Betsey asked sitting across from her and studying her friend closely. Pan’s rosy complexion was pale, the sparkle was missing.
It would be foolish to be less than honest about the situation. “My father’s in debt like you wouldn’t believe.”
Betsey nibbled at a corner of a cookie sparkling with sugar. “We wondered,” she admitted hesitantly.
“Why didn’t you call me?”
“It’s not as if we knew for sure.” Betsey paused. “We thought he was like a little squirrel with reserves stored away in case of bad times.”
Pan looked at Betsey.
“Didn’t you know?” Betsey asked.
“No. But I wasn’t here.”
“He’s the strong, silent type, Tom doesn’t admit to failings.”
Pan nodded in agreement as she reached for a cookie. That was true. Her father always put the best face on everything. Even when her mother had died, Tom tried to minimize the catastrophe.
“He isn’t so strong anymore, though, is he?” Pan asked.
“People have survived heart problems and if anyone can, he can,” Betsey assured her.
“At least he had medical insurance, otherwise everything would be gone already.”
Betsey reached for another cookie. “My mother’s been checking up on him. She makes sure he’s got food, brings him a good hot meal.”
“I appreciate it.” Jane Locke had a true instinct for mothering people, which was why she ran the tavern so successfully. Everyone knew they’d be greeted enthusiastically and given a wonderful meal. Even the New York Times food critic had been impressed by the tavern when had been reviewed for an article written about upstate restaurants.
“We’re an extended family, the Carlisles and the Lockes. If there’s anything we can do to help you through this crisis, we’re there for you. You know that.”
“I do know that but what can be done? This hole is deep and getting deeper by the minute. Is Kevin still flying?”
Betsey folded a packet of sugar over into a tube shape. “He spent the winter in Florida teaching down there. Late in March he came back north and immediately began teaching at Chamberlain Airport. There’s a businessman who buys and sells potatoes so a couple times a month Kevin to flies him up to Prince Edward Island in a very nice straight-tail Beechcraft Bonanza.”
“Mister Potatohead doesn’t fly it himself?”
“No. It’s a company plane.”
Pan finished her coffee. “When are you going to get married?”
Betsey shrugged. “No one’s asked.”
“You could ask him.” Pan stood, picked up the jacket and decided it would be better to be a little cold than to wear the blasted thing back home.
“Maybe Kevin needs time.” Betsey stood.
“He’s known you since you were six.”
“Maybe I’m like a sister to him by this point.”
Pan put her arms around her friend. “I think having you as a sister is the last thing on Kevin’s mind.”
Betsey followed her to the door. “What are you going to do about the airplane museum?”
Pan shook her head and smiled. “I don’t have a clue but the most predictable thing about aviation is that you never know what will happen.” Pan leaned in to kiss Betsey’s cheek.
“You’re an enabler,” Pan told Burt Nygard as she entered the hangar where he was working on a carburetor.
“Don’t try that psychological stuff on me. I’m too old for it.” He rubbed his large, gray handlebar mustache that he’d had for as long as Pan could remember.
“Why did you let my father buy that Gypsy Moth?” Pan opened her briefcase containing all the bank paperwork on the tool bench and laid out the bill.
“It’s an antique.”
“We have forty-five antique planes. We could have lived without another one.” Pan pointed around the hospital hangar filled with ancient planes in various stages of decrepitude. One didn’t have landing gear, one didn’t have a wooden propeller, one didn’t have a tail section, the Piper Cub, the very plane she had learned to fly in, looked like the canvas had a bad case of poison ivy.
Carlisle Aviation had one of the most extensive assemblages of pre-World War Two aircraft in the country. No one had a finer private fleet of World War I era planes that they routinely flew. Carlisle Air Museum wasn’t for show, it was for real. To give visitors an accurate sense of these fine aircraft, the planes had to fly and demonstrate their characteristics. Anything less was boring.
Years ago, before Pan was born, her father had been able to acquire a small collection of rotting old planes. He and Burt put them back together, restored them to perfection and in order to keep them flying, had to come up with a way to support this folly. Tom woke up in the middle of the night with a bizarre idea.
“Let’s create a museum!” Tom said waking Pan’s mother.
“What kind of museum?” She had asked still mostly asleep.
“Vintage aircraft.” He answered as if it was obvious.
“If that’s what you want,” she replied and turned over to fall back to sleep.
Two hours later, in the half-light of dawn, The Old Leicester Aerodrome was born at Tom Carlisle’s kitchen table.
Now, after all these years, it was in danger from the bank and every creditor imaginable. The older the planes became, the greater the costs to maintain them. That it was possible for people to have antique aircraft within their reach, see demonstrations and even take rides in these planes couldn’t compete with sports networks, computer games and other modern diversions so attendance was down each year until it had dwindled to practically nothing.
Pan hadn’t been aware of what was happening at the aerodrome. Going off to college to pursue her interest in photography, she had so much work to do there wasn’t time to think about anything besides her studies. For the last summers of her college career, Pan had interned at a newspaper, a magazine and a photography studio, only returning home for brief visits.
There hadn’t been much of a future to see in her hometown. Leicesterville, New York was hardly a center of activity and commerce. While it had been bustling community during the Revolutionary War when a minor skirmish had been fought, and won by the colonists, prosperity had never kept pace with surrounding towns. There was a certain amount of tourist traffic due to the historic sites but people who were interested in the Revolutionary War didn’t seem to be as interested in World War I.
“Tell me the truth, Pan. Did you come back to help or to sell out?”
“Burt, to help, of course.” Pan hoped she sounded persuasive.
She could never have conceived the business could start spiraling into the ground so quickly. When Pan went off to college everything was fine. Then in her sophomore year, her mother had died and her father never seemed to get over the loss as Pan hoped he would. The enthusiasm for life was gone. No one was there to watch him show off. Even though Tom was demonstrating the planes for the visitors every weekend, Carolyn wasn’t there to enjoy the crowds and conduct tours. It wasn’t the same.
This situation made Pan sick with worry on top of the concern over her father’s health. Tom had always been so vital, working long hours, laughing, teasing and now after the cardiac problem had been identified in the hospital, he was no longer the man she remembered. He couldn’t fly anymore, and maybe never would be able to again, so Tom, the driving force of this living air museum, was diminished. Buyers could be found for the planes, it would give him a nest egg for the future but Pan knew he would never agree to it.
Somehow, when she asked for a temporary leave from her job at the travel magazine, Pan knew it would be permanent. There was a whole wide world outside this village and she longed to see it all. She wanted a normal life, a home where there weren’t wooden propellers in the living room or carburetors in the mud room. She wanted to be surrounded by people with their feet on the ground.
She loved flying, she loved aviation, it was all she had known but Pan had enough. This life had been financially and emotionally insecure. If every time someone left for the day and there was the uncertainty as to whether they were coming back in one piece constant worry was a normal response. Even pilots realized they took their lives into their hands every time they left the ground. They didn’t mind.
That’s why Pan was a photographer and not a pilot. She did mind. The common quip pilots made when they landed “I cheated death one more time” was all too real for her.
“What are you thinking about?” Burt asked.
It took a great deal of effort, not to mention money, to prepare for the opening of the air museum’s season. A casual stroll around the grounds had shocked her. The winter had been hard on the buildings. Hangar Two had a leak in the roof right over the Spad. A torrential rain had washed out part of the parking area. The 1910 Bleriot was a mess and needed new landing gear but at its age could have done better with a wheelchair. That was the oldest plane they had and was capable of the wind whipping speed of just under 50 mph.
Pan knew Burt would do everything he could but it had always taken both Tom and Burt to teach aviation students in the Piper Cub and conduct the flying demonstrations. It had taken both of them to keep everything running. Pan wasn’t a mechanic. At the height of the summer, they would need someone and that meant paying for the help. There wasn’t any money to pay for help and parts. Even with her poor math skills, Pan could figure that much out.
“We’ll be okay,” Burt said with certainty.
Before Pan could reply she heard a plane fly overhead. It had a new, but small, engine. They walked out of the hangar together and looked up into the sky over the short grass strip they used as a runway. About two thousand feet up there was a small biplane.
“Do you know who that is?” Pan asked shielding her light hazel eyes from the sun so she could see better.
Burt squinted. “No.”
The plane began climbing.
“Student pilot?” Pan wondered out-loud. Sometimes students would use their strip as a reference, doing turns about a point using their hangars or making practice approaches to the field. The strip was way too short for novices and even more experienced pilots had trouble since new and larger planes required more than eleven hundred feet of runway to take off or land.
“In a biplane, I wouldn’t think so.”
The plane continued climbing, nose up, until it couldn't maintain that attitude any longer. In a sustained stall, it nosed over and then the plane began to lose altitude beginning a series of alternating slipslides.
“I've never seen anyone do a better falling leaf maneuver,” Burt commented in admiration.
About four hundred feet off the ground, the plane inverted and made a pass over the airstrip upside down.
“Good plane driver,” Burt nodded.
“He's an idiot,” Pan replied. “You know what they say.”
“There are no old, bold pilots,” Burt said by rote. “I think I taught you that.”
Pan began striding down the path to the grass field to meet the plane that was now landing. “And one of the best lessons I've ever learned!”
The small, colorfully painted two-seat plane came to a halt near the windsock and the engine was cut. The door opened, the pilot unfolded himself and jumped gracefully to the ground, grinning.
“Who the heck are you?” Pan demanded.