Ever since I can remember, airplanes have fascinated me. The fact that something so heavy can break the bonds of the earth and fly with nothing under it other than thin air never ceases to amaze me. While age is only a number and I don’t think of it as anything other than that, the years have passed. I have to thank my uncle (86 now!), who has spent all his life in aviation for seeding aviation in me. It was a trip to Singapore, back in the 80s, to visit him that led me to a pilot’s license several years later.
While on that trip, he took me out to Singapore’s Seletar airport. The Cessna 152 was out there. My excitement was building up. I had never been in a small plane before. After checking the plane thoroughly (a process that I now know is called pre-flight), he started the plane. The sound of the Lycoming engine and the vibrations it caused reverberate in me even today. Taxiing out, I wondered what it would feel like to take off, and no more than 15 minutes later, we lifted off the ground and made our way up. I didn’t have much of an orientation as to my bearings back then, but I definitely remember that there was a mix of land and water all around, Singapore being the city-state surrounded by a lot of water.
An hour later, when we landed back, I was no more the youth who had taken off. Such is the effect of aviation on our minds. The view from up above and that experience of flight had transformed me altogether. Through that short time in the air, my mind was racing to find answers. How does one get a license, where do you learn, how long does it take… most importantly, can I begin NOW?
The vacation finished up in a few days and I returned home. That was back in the late 80s. Life took over, I worked for a major airline for a while, took up to flight simulation, practiced 1000s of hours on a simulator but the desire to fly the real thing didn’t leave me.
Fast forward to 2011.
On vacation with family to Toronto, Canada, staying at a Marriott hotel just outside of Pearson Airport (my favorite location for a hotel in any city is the one that is closest to the airport and has views of the runway complex), I watched the planes take off and land. It was very early in the morning and my mind went back to flying lessons and a license to fly. We returned back to Chicago two days later and I headed straight to the local flight school, where I registered and began my training.
Training every morning, thirty days later I had soloed. My hours in the flight simulator helped me immensely. A month later I had my license. There isn’t a way to express the feelings that ran through my mind as the FAA examiner signed off my temporary certificate. The next goal was to find a way to fly frequently and as economically as possible. I looked hard for a plane, a share in a plane, or any way that I could get a nice plane to fly on my schedule and have a consistent experience. That didn’t happen till about six years later.
There was one more thing to do…
Over the years the engineer in me had studied the development of the early airplane intensely. The Wright Flyer was my favorite topic for such study. How could two bicycle mechanics succeed in engineering an airplane, and so far away from what they called home? I had read much of the Wright Brothers’ papers, published by McGraw-Hill to commemorate the centenary of flight. Each page I read got me even more curious. A plan emerged in my mind… why not fly my Cessna 172 to Kitty Hawk and land at the place where the aviation began? Seemed far-fetched initially, but when you put your mind to something, it will eventually manifest.
To eke out more value from the trip, my instructor and friend decided to also help me accomplish all of the instrument training requirements over that trip.
We planned the flight and on June 17, 2018. A passionate aviator and his instructor-friend took off from 06C, Schaumburg, Illinois, and headed to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Our route first headed southeast to Peotone VOR and then onto Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Then it was onward to Ohio State University Airport and then to Shenandoah Regional, in Virginia. The storm system enroute had us deviate southward for over 80 miles and delayed our arrival. We stopped to get fuel and dinner, which meant driving the FBO car to the closest sandwich store. The sun was just about to set. With the exception of night training flights, the required night cross country, or landings as part of the PPL requirements, I had never really flown in the dark. Here we were about to take off into the dark for our final leg to Elizabeth City, North Carolina, where we would stay for the night.
About 20 mins into the flight, the air traffic controller came on the radios advising us of weather on our route. The closer we got to Elizabeth City, the worse the storm system was getting. About 30 minutes from our destination, we were told that there would be severe storms at the field just about the time of our arrival. We didn’t have much of a choice other than to divert to a close-by airport. We chose Suffolk County Executive Airport in Virginia because it was really close to our present position, and also didn’t get out of our planned route too much. These are perhaps common experiences in aviation, but for me this was all brand new. It taught me good lessons. For someone who planned everything to the last detail, aviation brought up a new dimension: plan really well, but be prepared to deviate from plans as needed.
So here we were, headed to an unknown airport. We quickly briefed up the airport, its surroundings, winds, and available runways. We informed the Center about our intentions and made our way to the airport. Two important observations: airports look totally different in the dark; and it’s one thing to go airports that you are familiar with and totally another thing to go those that you are absolutely unfamiliar with. It had been a while since I had clicked the button 7 times to light up the runway, but the runway lit up. It was totally dark all around. Watching for animals on the runway, we touched down.
Taxiing on a dark airport where clearly the airport didn’t have much lighting was in itself a task. It was 8:45 in the evening. Parked safely by the small FBO building, we stepped out of the plane, made our way to the FBO. It was open but there was no one around. It was still very overcast from the storm that has passed a little while ago. At least from standing there, it felt like there was nothing in the vicinity at all. Cellular connection was weak but was our only way to know what the weather was at our destination. It would be 90 minutes before the weather would clear up at Elizabeth City.
Sixty minutes went by, so we got ready to leave. Starting up quickly, taxiing carefully, applying full power to get off the runway with the shortest roll so as to avoid any wildlife, we pointed the nose towards Elizabeth City and landed uneventfully around 11:45pm.
Here is where the next ordeal began. I had called the airport the prior week to understand where we should park and tie down. We tied up the plane and made our way out of the building. I began to look for taxi service companies. It became apparent that this was not Chicago’s O’Hare International or even 06C. There were two or three cab companies. The first one I called said they were about to close in 10 minutes and couldn’t take new orders. The second I called didn’t pick up. The third one took my request and told me a cab was on its way; 45 minutes went by. I tried calling the same number again twice to check on status. No one picked up. I finally got a message that they were closed for the evening! Now what…
The only alternative was to request someone from the hotel to come pick us up, hoping that they would oblige. After about 20 mins of trying the cab company number without success, I finally called the hotel. The individual who answered the phone was kind but said that he was alone at the desk and wouldn’t be able to come out. While on that call, the cab driver called and said he was on his way. Finally, after what seemed like eternity, we were at our hotel. A pizza delivery service satiated our hunger and we logged off for the night.
It was well past 1:30 in the morning. The day had been a long one. I was a little worn. As I fell off to sleep, images of visiting the Wright Brothers Memorial, walking around what was once home to vast sand dunes, flooded my mind. This had been a long-cherished desire and here I was on the verge of being there.
Up early, a quick breakfast and a cab ride to the city took us to many landmarks where the Wrights had been, had lodged, spent time at, or purchased materials. Elizabeth City was the last train stop for the Wrights. Everything they transported from Dayton, Ohio, made its way here by train, but then had to be loaded to a boat to ferry across to Kill Devil Hills, where they camped and experimented. The city is full of signboards indicating these landmarks. The experience is very nostalgic. Walking around, we stopped a quaint coffee shop and got ourselves some freshly brewed coffee before returning to hotel to check out and fly out to FFA, First Flight Airport.
Fuel, pre-flight, taxi and off we were for a short ride over water to FFA. The monument is visible from far away. We circled around the field and landed safely, then tied the airplane down and walked up to the monument.
The location is historic, has been preserved well, and gives the visitor a sense for the challenges that the Wrights would have to go through to live there and experiment with an idea that they had really no guarantee would even work. It’s hard enough in the current day to carry a model airplane to a flying field and perform a maiden flight, knowing that the plane has been built to spec and should typically fly without much effort. Being someone who has had to return back with a model plane that doesn’t fly well or didn’t start as expected or hit the ground on landing and had to be rebuilt—I know the feeling.
We spent most of the day at the memorial and got a ton of pictures. After all the walking and picture taking was done, I sat there quietly for some time, absorbing the ambience and wondering what it must have been like over a century ago. Before long, it was time to leave. On our return trip, we had to make it back to Charleston, West Virginia, before nightfall.
As we took off from First Flight, I glanced to my right on my takeoff roll, looking at the monument for sure, but remembering the monumental effort that led two seemingly ordinary individuals into the annals of history. Commitment, perseverance, and persistence were some of the words that ran through my mind.
We landed back in Elizabeth City, fueled up and left for Charleston for the night stop and then the rest of the trip back to Chicago the next day. Barring some weather as we got close to Chicago, the trip was uneventful.
For many, this would have just another trip, but for me it was a WISH FULFILLED!