The old man in the plane

Editor’s note: This article was the winning entry in the inaugural Richard Collins Writing Prize for Young Pilots. Over 60 young pilots sent in articles for consideration, and after reading them all our distinguished panel of judges (including Richard’s son) selected Emma Hutchinson as the winner of the $2,500 award. We hope you’ll agree that this moving article is a fine tribute to a great writer and pilot.

At first glance, the exterior of the airplane appears worn. The slightly faded red and blue paint streaks twisting to the underbelly of the old bird hint to the notable life it has lived. The wings creak with stories of windy skies. The rudder holds signs of endless dips and swoops and turns and glides. Although this plane may at first seem unsafe, the prop holds the real strength. To the touch, the twisted beams of metal divulge tales of the perfect takeoff, the nail biter landings and every trip in between.

But, the outside only serves to foreshadow the weathered appearance of the cockpit. The chipped varnish on the yoke from countless death grips on final approach perhaps reveals more about the previous owner than the plane itself. The slightly crooked compass serves as a directional aid, which will help the new owner to fly on a straight course if they turn their head slightly to the left, that is. The seats crack with age and smell of old leather. The flight instruments appear just as they did back in the golden age of aviation. Although worn down, this plane has an unspoken reliability, telling a story of an old man and a young girl.

My grandpa was not a pretty man. His blue eyes crinkled with childish delight each time he flew, but they could not cover the sun scars, wrinkles or cheeks as large as apples. He laughed like a steam engine train roaring down the rails, loud and with explosion. His cheeks were always flushed deep red as they filled with color in the morning and stayed that way until he went to bed each night. His hair was pepper. His belly was round from too many cookies. His short legs looked as pale as legs could be. That said, his personality was the most beautiful thing about him. His laugh, his smile and especially his witty quips all contributed to a loud and purposeful life.

Hutchinson grandfather by Cirrus
Poppop, with his brand new airplane – nothing like the old one.

My grandpa’s childhood dream was to become a train engineer and as such, his mechanical intellect was unparalleled. He could imagine the whole engine of any movable machine and figure out exactly what was wrong with it or what it needed based on sound. When he stepped into the workshop, my grandpa was in his element. With his tools dirty with oil, his pants full of dirt that would bring reprimands from my grandma and some old machine sputtering slowly to life, his was the life of luxury. A favorite pastime was teasing his granddaughters. His eyes twinkled especially bright if he could make them blush and say, “Poppop!” My first childhood memories of my grandfather are not ones of him playing with me nor of him burning cookies, both which happened quite often, but ones of flight.

At age five, my favorite part of playing consisted of the moment on a swing where gravity had not yet taken hold, the brief second of free flight looking up at the clouds. I felt like I was on a rocket ship. The only thing better was actually flying in the clouds next to my grandpa. I don’t remember the day I became a copilot, but it was a position I would hold throughout my childhood with pride. My siblings understood that my time next to Poppop was sacred. If I was lucky, he would let me take hold of the controls during takeoff. My small hand would carefully hold on, and pull back lightly when prompted. I never really believed that I was fully in control of those takeoffs, but he assured me that I led the whole operation. I was a shy child, but in that moment I held the power to escape some laws of gravity and my shyness melted away like the trails of exhaust in the wind.

The rickety plane followed our every wish and desire as we spent days simply finessing flight. I grew up adoring the blinding sun touching the end of the wing with a shifting sparkle. My eyes were taken with the floating clouds above, the Lego set ground below and the expanse of water in the distance. The plane led us everywhere and never once failed us. The rough exterior revealed nothing about the power in the prop nor the memories of those seats. It had a smell that never failed to calm my nerves and reminded me during moments of fear to look at my grandpa, take a breath and try again.

My grandpa told me the sky was his church, the place he felt the presence of a higher being, always present. He guided me to start my own journey in the old plane, this time with a new instructor. As I started my flight lessons with a certified flight instructor, my grandpa bought a new airplane. This plane was sleek, beautiful and incomparable to our previous plane. The paint shimmered even without the sunlight. The compass finally sat at a perfect 90 degree angle. The seats were plush leather, smelled of a new car and held none of the comfort of the old plane. The plane was perfect.

One Saturday, I returned sweaty and tired from a cross country meet. My mother explained we needed to visit my grandparents’ house as soon as I climbed into the car with my three younger siblings. At first annoyed, I complained that all I wanted to do was shower and take a long nap. I fell silent upon looking at her. She gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles and tears streamed down her face. I turned to question her, but realized she couldn’t speak as she covered her mouth to keep her sobs silent from my younger siblings. I felt an overwhelming sense of dread at what news I would be receiving.

Once we arrived, my siblings sat on the porch waiting. We were bracing ourselves for news of my grandma’s ailment as she had been in poor health recently. I was stunned when my grandma came out onto the porch with us. I grabbed my younger sister’s hand. My father stepped out and started a sentence, “The Coast Guard contacted us about Poppop’s plane… he crashed into the-” He was interrupted by a cry of grief as my younger sister screamed “No, not him. Not him.” I sat in silence. I held my sobbing sister and wondered again and again why I wasn’t with him. My siblings’ screams echoed in the big house once full of steam engine laughter, now empty.

FlightAware track
A flight that went terribly wrong.

My grandpa’s death was not a peaceful fall into the afterlife, but a death fitting to the greatness of his character. Falling unconscious for unknown reasons, he could no longer control the airplane. The new plane continued on the initial flight plan, flying over the restricted in airspace in Washington, D.C. Two F-16s circled the airplane as soon as it passed through the bounds of the airspace, noting his slumped figure. They stayed with him the rest of his flight, acting as the wingmen he needed in those moments. The prop eventually slowed to a stop when the fuel ran out. The airplane crashed into the ocean and with it fell the only man who understood me completely, going down with his plane into the Atlantic. The grief surrounded me when I imagined the plane crashing into the depths of the ocean as the water surrounded him.

The only piece of comfort in the days following my grandpa’s death was the seats, the smell, the old plane sitting in the suddenly empty hangar. I sat in the hangar by myself, some days brave enough to clamber into the plane and other days barely able to look at it.

Although my Poppop is gone, he often comes out in my younger brother’s booming laugh. His love of cookies has undoubtedly transferred to me, as well. But the greatest gift my grandfather ever bestowed onto me was the great love and appreciation for the sky. When I am up in the air, I know I am not truly alone and that my copilot is sitting right next to me guiding my every move. The sky has become my church. The old plane lives on, sputtering to life each time I twist the ignition and still smelling of leather and comfort.

A few years have passed since my grandpa’s death but the plane never fails to remind me of him and his incredible place in my memory. I grew up in these seats, grew old when I learned to fly by myself and grew wiser when I realized the plane was of truly no importance, but the memories will always be of significance to me. I continue on my flight journey alone but the old man in the sky lives on in the plane holding the story of an old man and a young girl.

28 Comments

  • We are because they were. We will always be because they have been.

    What a beautiful story, beautifully written. One of those I know I will remember always.

  • A moving and kind of sad story, until reading the author’s bio which made it a bright and happy ending. Congratulations on your win, Emma, and good luck in your Naval career. I’m sure your poppop, and all your family are very proud.

    • Emma,

      Your story brought a tear to my eye. Your Poppop was up there with you, gently guiding you from a very early age, every flight with him imperceptibly shaping you into the pilot you are now, and will become in the future, wherever that leads you. You are part of a continuum.
      My Dad, however much he wanted to be Pilot, never could be for medical reasons. But in his own way, he shaped me into the Pilot I am today. In the midst of the drama of illness and a crumbling marriage, he would somehow find the time to take me to the Oakland Airport to watch the huge airliners land and take off. He would buy me airplane models to assemble, mostly WWII aircraft that he was familiar with. He would take me to Airshows to watch the Blue Angels.
      When I was old enough and wanted to begin my flight training, he set me on a course that continues to this day. One day when I was about 15, we had a discussion about how to get going with flight training. He was in no position to financially support my flight training. What he did was pull out a Billie Holliday record, and he played “God Bless the Child”. Listening to the lyrics, I got it. If I was going to do this, I had to do it myself. The next morning, I got on a bus and rode out to the airport. I knocked on doors until I found someone who would give a job to a scruffy teenager who wanted to fly.

      The rest will be my next story for Air Facts Journal. Thank you for the inspiration. The judges made the right choice.

      Cheers, Drew Kemp

  • Emma, Congratulations on your “wonderful” well written article! Perfect!
    So sorry about your Grandpa….. I wish you all the best.

    Reading your story, good thing I didn’t have any contacts in, I may have washed them right out of my eyes.

  • Thank you for a very great tribute to an ordinary person by an exceptional young pilot
    serving our country. As one the age of your grandfather, thank you for the respect you
    have given your mentor. Thank you for your service time from all of us.

    Regards, C. Rogers
    ‘Champ 7EC Driver’

  • Dear Emma: What a great gift you have been given. Your memories and shared times will only get sharper and they will serve you well. Know your PopPop is among the greatest aviators to have ever flown and when YOUR skies are the darkest and YOUR ride the bumpiest, listen for them. That bolt of confidence will be PopPop saying,
    …” Atta girl Emma, you can do it”.

  • Such a moving story. Your beautiful prose brought me to tears as I sat in a hotel lobby waiting for my room. This is such a beautiful piece and I hope you develop it into something more! A book or perhaps a movie. I am sorry for the loss of your Grandpa, but I love the inspiration he instilled in you.

  • It brought tears to my eyes as I realized how it would end. Beautifully written. Congratulations to Emma and with gratitude for her service at the US Navy. The prize was certainly well earned.

  • Gosh I love this story, Nothing is better than when a writer is writing from her heart and not necessarily her brain. Poppop surely is bursting with pride. Thank you for sharing your story. I hope one day my VTail passes by your Marine Corps Helicopter thank you for sharing your story and thank you for you service to our country

  • As “Papa” of 3 granddaughters, ages 5 to 3, I want to say thank Emma! You sharing your story helps reinforce the experience I’m trying to share with my granddaughters, even though they may be too young to express their feelings right now. I am excited to see how their journey unfolds just as I’m sure your Poppop was very proud and excited to observe and share in yours. I wish you all the best!

  • Emma:
    I appreciate your touching story. I grew up in aviation sitting on a phone book flying beside my father. I am lucky that he survived his flying career. I know several families steeped in general aviation that have lost loved ones. Like the pictures in the bar at Edwards Airforce Base depicted in the movie “The Right Stuff”, tragedy is a constant companion to the aviator. You have been given a special gift by your grandfather: the opportunity to learn to fly as a child. Just as many professional musicians are children of musicians, your early exposure will make you a natural pilot. To this day when I land I hear my father’s voice:”Hold it off; hold it off”. I fly GA for many reasons. An important one is flying brings me closer to those I have loved but lost. My father has crossed the bar. But I always find him waiting for me in the sky.

  • What beautiful and heart warming story. I read through it as seeing everything written, thank you Emma.

  • Great story. Great young adult. Young adults like this retires my faith that our country will be ok. Thank you for your service in advance. Godspeed to you Emma., well deserved award!

    PS- I hope I am able to inspire my own grandchild in aviation like your PopPop did for you. Funny, my own called me poppop until they could say grandpa! LOL.

  • Well done. Keep writing – there are hundreds of thousands of safe pilots today because of Dick Collins’ writing. This award keeps his spirit alive – just like your grandpa’s. We need to hear more from you.

  • Great story, Emma. I’m a grandfather already with 71 years old and I’ve been flying since my twenties. My son also flyes and, most of the times, we fly together. Unfortunately, my oldest grandson (not the same with the youngest), doesn’t like to fly. I wish I have the fortune that he’ll like to fly also with me, so that he, someday, when I passed over, he could remember the joy of flying, and flying with me, shearing the joy You expressed in Your touching story.

  • Emma, I can certainly identify with your story, having taken my own grandchildren (and various nieces, nephews, brothers and sons-in-law) flying in my RV-7. It almost brought me to tears, not only for the tragedy depicted, but also for the beautiful prose and appreciation for flight. That’s saying something for a 79 year old guy who has been around the block a few times. I remember hearing about the incident when it happened. So sad. I hope you get to fly helicopters in the Marines, but whatever you do, keep writing.
    Cheers, Ken Howell

  • Dear, dear Emma, you are a writer first class! I sat reading your story just before church started this morning, and I’m sure those around me wondered why the tears were flowing. Thank you so much for sharing, in such beautiful prose. I have no doubt that Poppop was proud of you long before his passing, and that he would be all the more proud of you now.

    I have taken all three of my grandchildren in my airplane, and my granddaughter is the one most likely to continue to fly. She seems like a natural, although it’s hard to tell whether at age 8 she’ll maintain that interest. I hope she does.

    Very best wishes for your military career. I remain proud of my time in the USAF, many long years ago. Whatever your future brings, I predict success. You are a special, very special, young woman.

  • I can immediately tell why this was a winner. My eyes became faucets the moment I realized the turn this story was about to make. Most people can only hope to pass peacefully in their sleep. I guess the next best thing is to pass doing something that you love. It is great that you find solace in the fact that your grandpa will always be with you in spirit.

    All the best pursuing your hopes and dreams. I know your grandpa will be proud of you. Thank you for serving our country and giving me the good cry I probably needed.

  • Emma, that was a beautiful and heartfelt story. I can relate to it, as I recall my own World War 2 Grandfather Aviator, and the nice flying stories shared by him and my father of aerobatics in NA T-6 Texans and such. Those stories helped spark the desire to fly that led to my following on that dream, and 40 years of combined Active Duty and Guard/Reserve military flying in everything from jet fighters and transports to rescue helicopters. Now as I enjoy the twilight of my aviation career in an airliner jet, I can’t but help think every day on those powerful mentors. Enjoy life everyday, and enjoy every flight, like it might be your last. Thanks for choosing to serve your Country. There can be no higher calling. You will enjoy the inner peace that comes from flying for a higher calling. Flying helos was a blast, you will love it. Most of all, enjoy being in the sky every time as if it was a Cathedral. God Bless, and best of luck with everything in life.

  • Emma, thank for this moving and inspiring story. Indicating the power of your story, I just read it a second time, and tears ran down my cheeks again. I hope you are keeping a diary, because you will have many experiences in military life begging to be turned into literature. The diary will preserve those experiences for the day you are moved tell us about them. Safe flying!

  • Emma:

    What a beautiful tribute to your grandpa, Poppop, Ron Hutchinson. I had the honor of working with and for your Poppop. Your wonderfully written story brought back so many memory of his hearty laugh and sense of humor. He truly was a man of honor and respect. He loved his family dearly. He respected his employees and peers. He was fun and often a godsend. Congratulations on your award, so well deserved. Thank you for sharing your Poppop with us. What an amazing man and soul.

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