by Gloria Salavarria
I’m afraid of heights.
In fact, I don’t like getting up on a stepladder to change a light bulb and as such, I put compact fluorescent bulbs in all the overhead lights in my house to make sure the task of changing a light bulb is done less often.
I hate going anywhere near a window in a skyscraper and you’ll never catch me doing a bungee jump.
However, my fear of heights doesn’t carry over into flying around in aircraft – mainly because there are no vertical lines between me and the ground to give me a true sense of just how high up I am and so flying doesn’t bother me.
Everything down there on the ground looks unreal. Those are just toy cars down there and look at how tiny those houses are! They are just a scene that someone has artfully put together with model trees, houses, and vehicles on a tabletop.
I started flying early in life, mainly because I hated housework and knew that if I hung out with my Dad, I could avoid housework. When he wasn’t working, Dad hung out a lot at airports and so did I – from the time I was 11 years old until I left home for college.
Dad’s fear was different.
Instead of fearing heights, he feared not knowing how to properly handle himself in an emergency – say like if the plane’s engine conks out and all of a sudden he has to land the aircraft safely without the benefit of an engine.
He began his life in the air by first learning how to fly gliders – planes without engines – and it made sense. If ever he were to find himself in an emergency in which a single-engine plane’s engine conked out, well – he would be flying a glider but one with a shorter glide path ratio and thus he would be in a better position to land his aircraft safely.
We never found ourselves in that situation but at least Dad was well prepared to handle it if it did happen. Learning not to panic in an emergency was a lesson we kids had to learn as Dad didn’t have much tolerance for emotional meltdowns when anyone in our family was under stress.
On more than one occasion, throughout my childhood, I heard him say, “If you don’t stop that whining, I’ll give you a real good reason to whine!”
And so I spent the summer of my 11th year with Dad at the Frankfort, Mich., airport where he learned how to fly gliders and I learned how to be a passenger in a two-seater glider. Since gliders have no engine for takeoff, most of our flights began with winch tows but we also took the more expensive airplane tow for higher altitude, longer duration flights.
The cheaper winch tow was performed by a tractor engine parked at the far end of the airport runway and it became my job to grab the hook end of the cable and run the cable down to the opposite end of the runway and hook the cable beneath the nose of the glider.
Once we were inside the glider, Dad would signal and the tractor started spinning the cable drum and we’d get launched into the air like a kite – climbing to the point where we’d begin to porpoise and then Dad would release the cable and the flight would suddenly smooth out to a peaceful floating along on the air currents with only the whistle of the wind flowing over the wings as we drifted off in search of thermals – upward flowing air currents from the ground that we used to gain altitude and maintain ourselves for as long as possible in the air before we’d have to land.
However, before we left home for the airport, we would always read the flight of birds in the sky above us. If the seagulls or the buzzards were flapping their wings, we didn’t bother to go to the airport that day, but if they floated on their wings, then we got into the truck and headed to the airport knowing that conditions were good for flying gliders, too.
Flying gave us a period of peace – when all of our worldly troubles were left on the ground and so we enjoyed that moment of grace we had of being above it all. It was a time when my troubled Dad was mellow and relaxed, and so flying made me relax and forget my fear of heights.
By watching everything my Dad did in the air, I quietly learned how to fly and the next year, when Dad started training for his private pilot’s license in single-engine aircraft, I again went along for the ride – this time in a four-seater Cessna 172. After Dad qualified and got his private pilot’s license (a license that entitled him to fly single-engine aircraft with passengers on board, but he couldn’t charge them for the flight), he decided to test me.
One day when we were flying, he turned over the controls to me and told me to fly us back to the airport. We always flew out of a small town airport at Empire, Mich., (no control tower there) because it was the base for the Falcon Aero Club – the club to which my Dad belonged and from which he rented the club’s Cessna 172.
Dad was the kind of guy that expected a kid to do whatever he told us to do and so I took over the controls and flew us back to the airport but as we circled in preparation for a landing, I expected Dad would take over the controls and land the plane.
Instead, he told me to land it and so I did. We didn’t run out of runway. We didn’t break anything or kill anybody – and we walked away from a not perfect but a very good first time landing.
Flying was Dad’s sport. I was Dad’s backup – in case Dad became disabled all of a sudden and needed someone to land us safely.
I learned how to fly but I still had my fear of heights and that didn’t diminish with my experience in the cockpit. I didn’t like flying anywhere near TV towers or any other device that provided a vertical line to the ground and thus a better perspective on just how high up in the air I was while flying.
I also became very meticulous about doing the pre-flight safety checks before we took off. I’ve seen what happens to bugs when a car windshield runs into them and so my mind can imagine what can happen to a human body if things go wrong up in the air and one had to jump out of an airplane only to find out that the parachute wouldn’t open.
I don’t mind flying but the idea of treading air scares the bejeebers out of me!
Later, when Dad bought his own plane, a Citabria two-seater tail dragger, we had an airplane that was much lighter and much easier to glide down to earth safely should the engine conk out but still, we didn’t take any chances. We were just as meticulous when doing our pre-flight inspections on the Citabria as we were on the Cessna.
By then, I had a lot of flight hours but still, the idea of jumping out of an airplane with a parachute remained on my short list of things in life that I didn’t want to do.
It’s been a while now and for most of my life, I haven’t given any thought until recently about jumping out of a plane with a parachute and it was only because I attended an air show at the main airport in Toledo, Ohio. There I sat firmly on the ground and watched young guys jump out of a perfectly good airplane and for no reason other than to show off their bravery and their parachuting skills.
I was a good deal less concerned while watching pilots at that airshow taking planes through aerobatic snap rolls, hammer head stalls and a whole host of other weird ways to stunt-fly an airplane because my Dad used to do that in the Citabria whenever he got bored with straight and level flying.
The guys jumping out into thin air were members of the U.S. Army’s Golden Knights elite parachuting team and they jumped out of their comfort zone – not just once but twice during the air show. (You have to wonder at the sanity of guys like that!)
Unlike me, they were young and very athletic – and not gifted with an overactive imagination. At least the parachutes nowadays look more like a glider and so the chute offers more control over where one will land – wind currents permitting, that is. Back when I was a kid, parachutes were the basic round ones like those used during WWII and I remember watching guys parachuting into Normandy during the 1962 movie, “The Longest Day.”
That movie made me squirm all the more because not only did these guys risk a splat landing, they also risked landing somewhere other than the ground – such as the tops of trees and church steeples, and then there’s the obvious fact that they also could get shot dead by Germans before they even landed.
It wasn’t until 1966 when the forerunner of our rectangular high-performance parachutes, the Barish Sailwing parachute, appeared as a better option to those WWII-style parachutes.
Today’s high performance rectangular parachutes are a vast improvement over the ones from WWII but I’m still not too keen on the idea of stepping out of a perfectly good airplane and letting myself fly without the benefit of wings and a propeller.
What my imagination is capable of achieving with the ground rapidly coming toward me is liable to kill me long before I hit the ground – especially now that I have more anatomy to splatter than I did when I was a kid flying with Dad.
Still I looked up in the air above the west end of the Toledo Airport and saw these patriotic daredevils jump out of the U.S. Army’s plane at an altitude just below the clouds and then come floating down toward us.
Earlier, they had dropped tracers to measure the wind conditions aloft and make sure that conditions were right for them to jump and amaze the crowd who had paid $35 a head at the gate for each adult under the age of 65. (I got by with $11.50 – the advantage not only of being a senior citizen but I paid “online.”)
On seeing the streamers released by the Army airplane prior to the jump, official observers on the ground were able to radio back that conditions were good and that the paratroopers could go ahead with the jump.
I admired their courage (or is it insanity) but that long descent before pulling the chute open made my skin crawl. Fortunately, all parachutes opened and every man landed safely on the ground, only to do it again later that afternoon.
I never got my private pilot’s license. I learned to fly and flew a lot with my Dad because it kept him happy. What my parents earned was not much and we could barely afford to pay for Dad’s flying and so the hours of solo flying that it would have taken for me to get my private pilot’s rating was not in the family budget.
As it was, I wanted to go to college more than I wanted a pilot’s license, and even one year of in-state tuition at a public college cost as much as my Dad earned in a year.
We all make decisions in our lives as to when we will or will not jump. In my family, we all jumped at the chance to keep Dad happy by allowing him to fly in the hope that he’d come home happy and be less inclined to lose his temper with any of us.
Neither Dad nor I ever had to jump out of an airplane.
Instead I jumped out of poverty through college and entered into a life where I can do whatever I want to do and not sweat paying the bill.
I still fly a lot – in commercial airliners – and commercial airliners do not issue parachutes on boarding.
I’m content with that.