The place as it stands today bears no resemblance to the airport tucked away in my thoughts. Every pilot has melancholy memories of favourite places because flying sears powerful images and feelings they long for.
The airfield that comes to mind is where I learned to fly. Introductory flights were $10 back then and a large sign posted on the hangar grabbed my attention every time I drove by it. The airport was uncontrolled and had two paved runways in the middle of a farmer’s field, the airplanes tied down on grass. The clubhouse needed paint, but it was inviting and so informal looking, it put any aviation neophyte at ease.
One thing I’ve discovered over the years and it was proven to me the first day I flew in a small plane, flying people are friendly and (no pun intended) down to earth. The instructor assigned to me did everything right to put me at ease. He showed me how to feel the throttle stem with my index finger for better power control, instead of grabbing it with my fist like a knuckleball. The centreline was an elusive target marked by my weaving ground-roll but he quickly taught me how to steer with my feet. I soon discovered that the yoke was not a steering wheel but a wind deflector that kept the wings and tail up or down even when taxiing. My instructor convinced me on my maiden flight that I alone took off and landed without his assistance. He was painfully honest with me when I needed correction but he was also subtle, always in control without showing it.
My first solo was uneventful yet one of the most rewarding milestones in my life — which is what it should be when it comes to flying. We simply stopped on the taxiway after completing a circuit and my instructor stepped out of the plane, nonchalantly told me to fly one more and come and see him after I landed and secured the aircraft. I could still picture his clean-shaven face, his white shirt billowing in the propwash and necktie dancing on his shoulder. He had one hand holding down his sunglasses and the other propping open the door. Before slamming the door shut, he wished me luck and told me to enjoy the flight as pilot-in-command. Those words made me feel like the captain of an airliner. My flying skills flourished under his guidance.
One time shortly after I was released to fly on my own, I took off on a solo practice session. Changing the radio frequency for the training area, I missed a Unicom broadcast for all planes to return at once. I booked 1.5 hours for my flight and enjoyed every minute of it before returning to base in near gale force winds. Unwittingly, I was too inexperienced to know any better about the potential hazards. I elected to land without flaps, performing an uneventful short-field landing, one of my best, and happily sauntered into the club looking for my mentor. Staff scrambled to appear unperturbed from their earlier trepidation for my safety.
My instructor was a tremendous confidence builder, often mentioning matter-of-factly at deliberately appropriate times before my checkride, that I was flying better than he. This was often the case, he said, because a student concentrates so intensely to master the rudiments of flight, summing up all that learning, airmanship becomes well honed. I stuck with him for my private, night and commercial licences, wondering to this day whatever became of this congenial teacher.
I most fondly remember those halcyon days as a student pilot when my fellow classmates and I pulled out the ground school chairs onto the clubhouse roof that seconded as an observation balcony. We tilted back in our chairs, sipping Cokes, talking flying and watching aircraft do touch-and-goes in the summer twilight. Classes were great but it was the air that we lived for, putting theory to practice.
Those novice days are long gone and they come only once to be cherished as every pilot sees fit. They’re fleeting moments that become buried in the march of time. Years ago I returned to the place where I became an aviator. Of all the aerodromes without a tower, Maple was heralded as the busiest in the country. All that remained of it was an empty hangar. Memories flooded back — the kind you yearn for. I looked inside and heard the ghosts of rumbling Lycomings and Continentals. I heard radio chatter and aviation-talk from a clubhouse that had long been demolished and I swear, my nose picked up the distinctive whiff of burned avgas.
Flitting barn swallows broke my trance as they flew in and out of the hangar’s cavity. The dank smell of an abandoned building jolted me to reality.
Today the hangar is gone. People mill about their blurred suburban landscape, ground once home to hundreds of airplanes and aviators. I doubt they know that the lawn they’re cutting or their backyard pool was once home to a grass tie-down or the surface area of a runway that saw thousands of aircraft chirp their pleasure in a perfect landing. History is the only record for the few who care.
Mournful thoughts abound.
The ghosts are real — but only pilots can see them.