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.
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.
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.