Redemption – convincing my wife to fly again

Last September I broke something important to me. The cause was more an abundance of caution than of carelessness, and I took comfort in that. Still, I wished I could fix it.

Sitting at the kitchen counter one morning in June I thought I saw a way to make it right.

My 13-year old son had walked up and innocently asked, “We are flying to camp this year, aren’t we, Dad?”

Standing by airplane
“We are flying to camp this year, aren’t we, Dad?”

I looked at my wife Leanne. Her face had turned ashen and we both knew the import of his question. It meant that she might have to get back in the airplane for the first time since I performed a precautionary landing with her in the right seat last fall. The decision to abort the takeoff and land had caused her nascent faith in my flying ability to evaporate and she was terrified to travel in our 182 again. It was her trust that I had lost.

Neither one of us said anything so Justin filled the gap.

“I know we don’t save much time,” he continued. “And it is a little embarrassing showing up in a limo.”

I looked at him with encouragement and Leanne looked at him with fear.

“It’s just so much better to fly than to drive. I love circling over camp and seeing the big field where we play all those fun games, the beaches where we swim and all of the cabins.” His voice trailed off and he looked dreamily out the window. “What do you guys think? Can we?” He brought his expectant gaze back to us. As if we didn’t know, he added: “I really want to.”

My wife didn’t answer but I could tell she was stuck between two maternal instincts. On the one hand, she really is scared to fly, even on commercial jets, and our incident had done nothing but exacerbate her angst. On the other hand, we know that at his age he is growing up fast and there are fewer years left with him in our house then those behind us. She would want to be there to see him off. Unusual for his age, he rarely asks anything of us. Disappointing him was likely out of the question.

Looking at her she gave me a tentative and almost imperceptible nod. Unsure of the meaning I decided to bail her out until we had a chance to talk in private.

“We might be able to make that happen, let us talk about it,” I said slowly, answering for both of us but leaving wiggle room. “It sounds great, but as always it depends on the weather.”

Cleaning up the breakfast dishes, I waited for her to tell me what she thought. My wife is a person of few words, each carefully chosen and as good as gold, solid as iron. She doesn’t change her mind often and when she does it is cause for surprise.

“We can fly, it’s fine,” she said finally through tight lips. Sensing my unbridled elation, she had to puncture it to bring me back to her reality.

“If anything bad happens, at least we’ll all die together.”

“Not if it’s just us on the way home,” I countered trying to be funny.

“You’re a jerk,” she replied with a nervous smile and flipped me with the towel.

Camp counselors
Sending the boy off to camp, and greeted by happy counselors.

Covenant Harbor is a Christian Bible camp that sits on the north shore of Geneva Lake, in Southern Wisconsin. Sixty-five nautical miles from our home airport outside Chicago, Grand Geneva Resort (C02) is a former Playboy mansion that has an ample runway nestled in a narrow canyon of tall trees. Ground transport is free if you call one of the hotels who will send a shuttle but you might need to wait a bit; when time is of the essence, I use A1 Lake Geneva Taxi, a professional one-man company. Vito is always prompt and chauffeurs a champagne-colored Lincoln Town Car that is meticulously clean. I enjoy his company as well as his service.

The five-mile drive takes 15 minutes as you first wind through the resort grounds, past a residential area and then along the touristy business district. After the fudge shops and T-shirt stores, the main drag empties onto a narrow two lane highway. You are close when the massive vacation homes on the left give way to a thicket of tall trees and then a narrow lane appears behind a small perfectly-worn sign – seemingly out of a Ralph Lauren catalog – that announces the entrance.

After a quarter mile, the path through the dense forest opens to the main camp area and you can see in a glance that it is everything a kid could want for a summer holiday: Spartan bunk buildings scattered on a hill whose downslope leads to play areas framing scenic water views; Canoes rest upside down on a sandy beach where a long dock pushes out into the crisp blue basin and ends near a floating trampoline; a ski boat bobs and beckons the more adventurous while those less inclined seek out the covered pavilions nearby where they create amazing arts and crafts; all of it is bathed in sun-drenched, lake-scented freedom.

The staff consists of fresh-scrubbed, earnest counselors whose raucous greetings and each interaction inspire trust and makes you swell with pride that our country produces such incredible young people.

A seven-year alumna calls Covenant Harbor “The only perfect place I know.”

The camp has an inspiring annual theme and this year it seemed especially appropriate. It encouraged all to “Be Love” and the logo used a paper airplane made from a page of the Bible. We aren’t the most religious family, but I adored the message and the visual and pointed it out to Leanne when the pre-camp paperwork arrived. She noted the irony with a grimace.

The drop off is on Sunday afternoon around 5 o’clock. This means the thunderstorms and other cumulonimbus have a chance to build and it is usually a bumpy flight.

The day dawned as expected with mostly clear skies amid the promises of afternoon boomers. Earlier in the week an occluded front had zippered shut in a line starting near Rockford, Illinois, southwest to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Strong storms exploded in fireworks Thursday night along our route and continued with enthusiasm most of Friday. By week’s end, the energy had dissipated into a stationary front that drifted north of our destination. The residual moisture powered by the summer solstice caused puffy clouds to appear as our departure time neared. They grew large and thick in hazy skies with six miles of visibility.

We launched on time and received our clearance in the air. I wouldn’t dream of doing this flight VFR; it is almost entirely under or in O’Hare Class B.

Clouds by wing
Bumping through the clouds – would she enjoy it or be nervous?

Climbing through the bases at 2200 feet, we hit a few mild bumps and by 4000 we were flying the cotton going in and out of the top of the clouds. My son had insisted on taking the right seat and had relegated his mother to the back. She was pensive when she climbed aboard, but since she declined wearing a headset, except for one check right after departure, we mostly ignored her once we were airborne.

It was a routine, uneventful flight except for a robust smack of turbulence that rattled our teeth after we exited the last of the clouds near the state line and visibility improved to 10 miles.

As is my custom, I asked Justin if he would like to take over the flight and he eagerly agreed. I canceled IFR with Milwaukee approach and asked for flight following which they were happy to provide.

Clicking off the autopilot I handed the aircraft to my son – “Your Plane!” – who echoed his acceptance – “My Plane!” – and knew the approximate heading. Having made this flight before, he had a general idea of where the camp was and he immediately steered toward it.

I love the seriousness Justin’s posture and expression adopt when at the controls, reflecting his acknowledgment of the burden he has accepted. This is a responsibility few adults have shouldered and his attitude while so engaged is the perfect blend of joy and caution.

Is there anything that flying can’t teach the aware and willing student?

Once the lake became clearly visible, we had a picturesque view of the shimmering surface dotted with boats and their graceful wakes, some containing skiers adding a fugue of watery contrails.

Letting down from 3000 feet, Justin did a great job losing a third of our altitude and then holding it while on a direct course for the bay. As we approached he put the aircraft into a gentle right bank so that we could partially circle his destination and allow him the opportunity to see where he would spend the next week. Just as we got over the camp, he asked me to fly so that he could focus all of his attention on his sightseeing. His face was plastered to the window as he identified and pointed to the landmarks on his hallowed grounds.

Holding the attitude he had set, I did a 300° circle around the camp and then I turned toward the airport four nautical miles away.

The runway is northeast/southwest and nearly 4000 feet long, over three times what I require and twice what I insist on. The wind was blustery out of the southeast, 150 at 8 gusting to 14, making 23 a crosswind approach and landing. But once you get down beneath the trees, the wind dissipates to a whisper and I knew this as we approached so I didn’t plan to add anything to our Vref.

With great care I put our airspeed exactly where it needed to be and went through the final landing checklist. The trees on the approach are higher on one side so I always stay right of the centerline and then after crossing the foliage move 15 feet left for the landing. The way the wind was coming that worked out great and by luck we touched as softly as you can make any arrival.

“Are we down?” asked Justin with surprise as we slowed. The uneven surface of the runway answered the question before I could and he said, “Wow, that was smooth!”

Looking in the back seat, Leanne was nonchalant and started to gather her belongings, saying nothing. I knew she was relieved.

We taxied to the ramp area and Vito was waiting for us. After dropping Justin at camp it was time to head back home.

The previous times we have made this journey, we dined at The Chop House, a steak restaurant at the resort. We then departed after dark, avoiding the bumps in the afternoon and enjoying the splendor of night flight. Leanne would have a glass of wine with dinner, which usually makes her flying more pleasant.

Unfortunately our schedule required we return immediately and we would need to fly through the same bumpy clouds we had just traversed.

Doing the preflight, I saw Leanne reach into her bag and pull out a red Solo cup and a bottle of wine. Standing on the ramp she poured some wine into the cup, and then the cup into her. She buckled in and poured a second cup as I climbed aboard.

As I mentioned, Leanne doesn’t like headsets. They mess up her hair and she finds them uncomfortable so she almost never wears them. This makes flying with her like going solo because neither of us can hear each other.

As we bumped along in and out of the clouds on our way home I noticed her enjoying the view out the side of the airplane. This is unusual. Normally she fixates on a magazine in order to ignore the fact that we are off the ground. Perhaps it was the wine but she seemed completely serene.

The flight was unexceptional and the only question was whether I would do a straight in to runway 18 or circle to land. At Clow (1C5), everyone I know would do the straight in on this Sunday evening. Since it is within the mode C veil of O’Hare, my blank active traffic screen combined with the quiet CTAF and the controller’s report of an empty radar provided high certainly that there was no one in the pattern. But since I wasn’t ready for the flight to be over, I did a slow descending tear drop to the 45 degree entry to the left mid-field downwind anyway, all by the book.

I surprised myself with the second smooth touchdown in a row, thanks mostly to the Land-O-Matic feature of the 182. Anything between 60 and 65 knots over Boughton Road and you have the chance for a sweet kiss of asphalt. I nailed the airspeed and got lucky on the arrival again turning off with minimal brake at mid-field.

“Great job,” said my favorite passenger.

After we got home, I poured us each a beverage, eager to hear what my wife had to say about the flight.

“That was fun,” Leanne said brightly as I handed her a glass.

I went for broke. “Why don’t we go to Mackinac Island after we pick him up next week?” I suggested hopefully.

“Maybe,” she answered with a sweet smile and a voice that indicated anything was possible and that future trips were assured. “But don’t push your luck.”

We clinked our glasses in a toast and I smiled my broadest smile.

Like all redemption, it felt so good.

9 Comments

  • I know the feeling. On our first wedding anniversary my now ex wife spent the day as navigator in an air race with a rented C172 with a broken ASI. She came camping with me, tent underwing in a lonely field in Central Italy, But she got upset when we flew through a thunderstorm, having to divert to our alternative. Something changed. But she is great, she allows our son to come with me for fly away weekends and recently has complained that I still haven’t taken her for a flight in my recently purchased Cessna.

  • Good story. It’s clear that you take care to learn from others’ mistakes and pay attention – I hope your wife realizes that this alone separates you from a lot of pilots!

    One tip on the headset – she may like a halo-type unit like the Quiet Technologies Halo or the Clarity Aloft. They don’t mess up hair and I find them to be much more comfortable than the traditional Clarks or ANR.

  • Mark,

    Both installments in this series were a pleasure to read. Well written, and you craftily drive home some very insightful lessons about passenger comfort that are easy to forget as gung-ho, enthusiastic, aviation geeks. Thanks.

  • Another great article. I really enjoyed reading it. Good job to your wife for overcoming her fears! I hope you got to take that trip to Makinac!

  • Great story. My wife got back into flying with me after we had a nighttime engine failure. We both had broken backs and some other injuries. She has not, however been flying at all at night since the accident but I have done a little bit of night just to keep night currency. We were in that tiny percentage of accidents caused by mechanical failure and survived.

  • Thank you for an insightful, and well planned, story. Makes me jealous. Just wish I could get my wife in the air, so she could see some of the beautiful sights I get to see. (She gets scared just climbing on a kitchen step stool.)

  • Extremely well written and a pleasure to read. “The only perfect place I know”. Love it. We have a place on a lake in Texas and at 50 years of age this is the only perfect place I know as well. Like you I started flying at 49 years. 300 hours now and my wife and I have a 182T. Instrumented rated and loving every moment. Learning by the hour. Have flown to Canada to visit her parents and New Mexico as well as Colorado on 3 occasions. Wish I started years ago. I have been lucky so far my wife has been very encouraging. She used to sky dive so she is used to small planes. GA has been very good for my “mid life crisis” which I have never had. Great story once again.

  • Mark – We’re glad the runway at Grand Geneva served you well! Covenant Harbor is a wonderful summer camp and we’re glad your family enjoyed the luxury of flying up to Lake Geneva. We hope you’ll find time to enjoy dinner at Geneva ChopHouse next time! Perhaps for a date night to glimpse the fall foliage?

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