On a crisp, clear winter morning in early January 1997, I took in my first whiff of 100LL fuel on the ramp at Watsonville Airport. My CFI let me fumble that morning with my own unfamiliar movements around the little flying machine. Tripping over the mains and bumping my head on the sharp trailing edge of that Reed Clipped Wing taught me quickly how to move about the preflight. He let me top off the 1938 J3 all by myself and then showed me how to inspect each moving part as if we were sure to lose a rudder or an aileron or even the engine on this very next flight, had we not. My heart raced my imagination while the latter painted roads turning into ribbons lacing the emerald green checkered fields of the Central California coastal farmlands.
After a couple of pulls on the prop, it was “mags on” and then some funny little leg gesture as he fell away clear, letting the engine come to life. As I obediently held the brakes for that brief solo moment, I felt like the only thing keeping that little Cub from taking me for a ride was the lump in my throat that must have wedged itself beneath the right main as a chock.
I don’t recall the taxi to the runway. It was just too much for my senses to retain. After my instructor walked me through what felt like a complicated dance of switches and knobs, I lined up and timidly advanced the throttle. From there, the throttle seemed to spring forward out of my grip as if the Cub was saying, “c’mon, don’t be so shy!”
The next minute or so was another bout of sensory overload but at 500 ft. the nose dropped from the climb and I felt a slight acceleration as we levelled off. Not until then did I notice that my instructor must have forgotten to close the window before takeoff! The window was on the right-hand side and I was certain that I shouldn’t take my grip off of that stick to close it.
The open window and the rush of cold air in the cockpit didn’t seem to affect the aerodynamics so I soon shifted my focus to the ground. The fields blanketed our route beneath us, lying limp over what seemed to be ancient hills budding from some sort of friendship between the earth and the wind. Those hills seemed to coexist with the wind as one was never absent of the other.
As I pondered 10,000 miles away, I was brought back to the cockpit with the stern orders of, “Pull the carb heat and back off to 800 rpm.”
“Stick back to 60 mph and hold it there.”
As the fields filled the windscreen, a strip of fertile dirt rose up through the windmilling prop and I then realized that we were not landing on the pavement where we took off! As we touched down, I noticed a farmer mounted on his tractor waiving good morning and the hollow sound of tubes and fabric rolling out over the tufts of grass to just short of the ocean cliffs.
The left rudder pedal dropped from beneath my foot for the taxi back and soon we were repeating this sequence of taking off, but this time we banked low over the crashing waves.
Once back at the tie down, I looked back at that little Cub and knew that my life had changed. I left a little piece of my heart in the sky that day that calls me often for a visit. I’ll oblige, as long as I can keep “the blue side up.”
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