En route

“Is the transponder supposed to say that?”

My eyes shot across the cockpit. Whap whap whap whap whap whap. The propeller bit the air. My dad was crunched into the right seat of the Cessna 172, knees bent into his chest, head cocked toward me. Stashed in the right corner of the instrument panel was our transponder—the 8” x 10” x 2” black box that transmitted our position to Air Traffic Control. It ran on the plane’s electrical system, the same power source as the radios and the flaps. We needed the transponder to fly into Class Charlie airspace, the wedding-cake-shaped extension of FAA-regulated atmosphere around our destination: El Paso International Airport (ELP). We needed the radios to make sure no Black Hawk helicopters or Boeing 737s turned our 1972 Skyhawk into an electric blue smudge in the sky. We needed the flaps to land the plane.

We were 40 miles west, 8,500 feet above the airfield. 21 minutes away if the winds held.

I saw my reflection whip across my dad’s aviators. Split-second crosscheck. His face was ice-cold. No expression. Whap whap whap whap whap whap. A message blinked on the black box:

Transponder failed.

En route

There’s nothing like a cross-country in a Cessna 172 to connect with someone.

72 hours earlier, my dad and I departed Coulter Field in Bryan, Texas, for a 1,348-mile round-trip trek to El Paso. I had been an FAA-approved Private Pilot for 41 hours. We took off at 8am in a plane that had spent most of its useful life tied down at an un-towered airstrip baking in the Texas sun-ray oven. We were 50 pounds shy of the maximum gross weight—stuffed full of fuel, hiking boots, granola bars, and golf clubs. Wheels up, course set, elevator trimmed for straight and level flight. Whap whap whap whap whap whap. Checklist complete.

It’s still something of a miracle that I ended up in the left seat. In mid-March 2020, as the world spiraled into coronavirus chaos, I was banished from Harvard College to finish my senior spring Zooming into poetry seminars from my childhood bedroom. The view from the ground was bleak. I did yard work between YouTube graduation speeches. I walked my dog around the same block at 9am every morning. On the really wild nights, I’d eat breakfast tacos for dinner and wax philosophical about the Lost iGeneration at the kitchen table while my dad checked email. Then I’d go to bed at 9.

Quarantine stretched out in front of me like the West Texas desert: endless, changeless, and empty except for the occasional Tex-Mex stop. It felt like a bad breakup with the best years of my life.

Then, out of the wild blue yonder, I caught the flying bug. I was moping around the house one day, recently returned from walking the dog, when my dad suggested I take a drive to the small airfield up the road.

“The airport?”

“Yeah, go take a discovery flight.”

“Discovery flight?”

“Yeah, go fly with a flight instructor.”

“Like, in a plane?”

“Yeah, here, take the keys.”

When I was a kid, I was all about aviation. My dad graduated from the US Air Force Academy and wore a flight suit to work for 20 years. I spent the better part of my childhood base-jumping across the United States—Tennessee, Colorado, Mississippi, Texas. T-38s streaked across the kitchen window every morning, and F-15s roared above the soccer fields every afternoon. I dreamt of trading places with those pilots. I built planes out of cardboard moving boxes and wrote poems about flying to the moon. I knew I would see the world above the clouds one day. I couldn’t imagine life any other way.

Then my dad switched careers from flight surgeon to civilian ER doctor. Nothing roared overhead anymore except the loudspeaker in my public high school. The sky faded into a mute blue backdrop for schoolwork and soccer practice. I gave up my last shot to be a pilot age 18, when I accepted early admission to Harvard and forgot about the Air Force Academy. The only glimpse I’d get of the left seat of a cockpit was on my way back to the coach cabin on the commercial flight to Boston. I let the door shut on any other possibility.

It hurt—letting my dad’s USAF contrails dissipate into thin air. But I wanted a liberal arts education. I studied English literature and won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford my senior fall of college. Four months after graduation, I was set to hop across the pond and start a master’s degree in history, basic training for a life digging through the archives instead of flying to the moon. No one in my family was an academic. My last year at college, my mom, dad, and I had gradually run out of things to talk about on the calls back home. I turned in my thesis mid-March and looked ahead to a pre-grad-school summer of reading for fun. Then, the day after the thesis deadline, COVID-19 hit Harvard.

And suddenly, I was back in Texas, stuck in coronavirus-limbo, pushed out the door by the USAF veteran who wore his flight suit to fight weeds in the backyard. Conscripted, I took the seven-minute drive to the airfield and the twenty-minute flight above the clouds. And I fell headset over heels.

View from Cessna

“I never wanted to come back down again.”

I was in the left seat, the instructor in the right, both squeezed into a Cessna 162. We slipped above the sticky morning at a thousand feet per minute. The airfield, the Brazos River, my house, my high school, the highway traffic—all of it slid beneath us, riding on the planetary conveyor belt buckled to the ground below. We rose above that toy factory, pistons pushing and pulling, a formula floating on composite wings. We leveled off at 6,500 feet, seven football fields above the scattered layer of clouds. The instructor trimmed the elevator and let me take the yoke. Left 30 degrees, right 30 degrees. Pitch up, push forward, one hand, light touch. It felt like engineered poetry. Fluent in three dimensions, held aloft by the fluid freedom of nitrogen molecules, tethered to human life by naught except the invisible radio-strands of other aeronauts sailing the unbound ocean of blue!

On the drive home I saw highways in the clouds. That night I stared at the moon for twenty minutes. It felt like seeing an old friend. After that, my poetry seminar, virtual commencement, daily dog walks, weekly Netflix parties, monthly book clubs—anything that kept two feet on the ground—felt boring. Real life was somewhere 6,000 feet above my head. I had touched it. I never wanted to come back down again.

My dad and I found a cheap airplane for rent and a retired-Marine-friend-of-a-friend to teach me how to fly it. Every day I’d wake up, down a cup of coffee, fly with my instructor, down another cup of coffee, read Federal Aviation Administration textbooks, and effuse about aviation with the mechanics at the airfield, my digital friends, my Australian shepherd, the grocery store clerks, the mailman, the cows grazing under the telephone wires across the street—anyone who would listen. My stack of fun-reading collected dust. When I wasn’t flying, or reading about flying, or talking about flying, I was listening to audiobooks about flying. David McCullough’s biography of the Wright Brothers. Saint-Exupery’s Wind, Sand and Stars. Jocko naval aviator podcasts, the Airline Pilot Guy Show, the Weather Channel. Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff.

My dad and I had something to talk about again. On the best nights, I’d walk through the door, throw off my flight gear, and knock back a few drinks with him at the kitchen table, talking about his Air Force days. The idiot in survival training who outed their group to the upperclassmen Soviet officers. The SR-71 Blackbird in the induction parade that punched a hole in the sky with its Pratt and Whitney engine. The F-16 dogfight that sent earth and sky tumbling like clothes in a washing machine. The night after I flew my first steep turn, I asked him what a made a good fighter pilot. He shook his head over the lip of his beer, “The right stuff, man. The right stuff.”

The Right Stuff is a 1979 non-fiction novel about the rise of NASA’s Mercury Space Program in the 1960s. It’s the best book by America’s best 20th century satirist, Tom Wolfe. In his signature psychedelic style, Wolfe nails the fighter jock specimen: those righteous single-combat warriors who clawed their way to the top of the Maverick ziggurat to do battle with the Soviet Integral. Yeager, Shepard, Armstrong. These heroes orbited high above the bipedal billions snagged by the surly bonds of earth, shot beyond the thermosphere by that unnamable combination of edge, ego, guts, grit, and gumption—that righteous stuff.

I soaked it all in through my headphones, burning up the asphalt between my house and Coulter Field. The altimeter keeps winding down… He’s only 21,000 feet above the high desert… Bango!—the chute catches with a jolt… He pitches down… He jettisons the chute… and the beast heaves up again! Wolfe wrote like he was in the cockpit with Chuck Yeager. He had the style of an English major and the swagger of a fighter jock, those knights-in-shining-metal who spent their days flying and drinking, drinking and driving, whipping and wheeling their convertibles across the California desert floor. They called every exploit—racing cars, taking shots, breaking the sound barrier—by the same name: proficiency test.

I flew head-first into the frenzy. Every training day was another step up the ziggurat of airborne elites. I called anything difficult or dumb or reckless—everything from a 100-degree cross-country flight to a 100-degree day in the yard—another proficiency test. My dad started calling his 24-hour shifts by the same name.

Mercury 7

For those with the right stuff, everything was a proficiency test.

SpaceX launched the Crew Dragon the day I soloed at an airfield built to train Cold War pilots. It was the first American orbital spaceflight in nine years, the first ever launched by a private company. I had graduated three days before. My dad asked me if I had ever thought about the Air National Guard. I talked to his old C-17 pilot buddy on the phone and started running the numbers in my head. How old would I be after I graduated from Oxford? How many years of training until I’d get a shot at the F-35? What are the terms of the Rhodes Scholarship, again?

A second Space Age had arrived—and with it, a second shot at the aviation family business.

***

By mid-summer I was flying solo every day. I flew at sunrise when I couldn’t sleep, flew at night when I didn’t want to sleep, flew in the afternoon when the ceiling finally burned above FAA minimums. Stalls, steep turns, S-turns across the road, turns-around-a-point. Each item off the training checklist was a step closer to the FAA check ride—and a step closer to getting my license, my official christening as a jock-of-the-skies private pilot.

But my days drinking and driving, driving and flying, flying and drinking, were numbered. Oxford would start mid-September. By mid-July logistical weeds were choking my time above the clouds. College accommodations forms, Confirmation of Acceptance Studies forms, National Health Service forms—the leagues of red tape between Houston and Heathrow was the stuff ATC dreams are made of. Throw in a pandemic and a 12th century bureaucracy, and you have a fail-proof recipe for a world-class headache. It didn’t help that I was having second thoughts.

Then there was the visa. Thanks to the logic of British bureaucrats, I had to have my fingerprints scanned and shipped to New York for processing before I could get my visa delivered through the mail. And the only UK office open more than two weeks before my departure date, across all 167 million acres of Texas, was El Paso, a city so far west it ran on Mountain Time. I could drive the 681 miles… But the thought of trekking ten hours there and back, on the ground, while the time I had left in American aviation ticked to zero, was unbearable. I had to fly.

The plan fell into place. The El Paso trek would be my first real test as a pilot. My dad would be my right-seat passenger. We’d make the trip a proper West Texas send-off: visit Carlsbad Caverns, hike Guadalupe Peak, play a few rounds of golf, knock out the visa appointment, get one last swig of Americana before jetting abroad. My dad would fly in a non-commercial aircraft for the first time since his Air Force days. We’d be two righteous single-combat warriors racing into the wild blue yonder to do battle with the British bureaucrats. All I needed was the license.

That was the first proficiency test.

The FAA examiner showed up an hour late. By the time we finished the two-hour oral test, angry thunderstorms had chewed up the afternoon. I called a discontinuance. We met at the airfield at 11:30 the next morning. The temperature throttled toward three digits, and gusty crosswinds whipped the windsock at speeds only a few knots below my personal maximums. I knocked out the stalls, ground reference maneuvers, and simulated emergencies, but by the time we turned back to Coulter Field for the landing, the crosswinds had picked up. I had never flown in winds this gusty before.

I turned left base to final, came in over the runway too high, and slipped to land the first touch-and-go. As I climbed out for the second circuit, the examiner lit up the radio waves. Wrong crab angle! Nose down! Right rudder! I had landed the plane within the FAA specifications, hadn’t I?

The examiner cut through my pre-landing checklist while we were on downwind:

“Land this one without flaps. You might have an electrical failure and lose power to the flap control. Happens all the time!”

No flaps? Nowhere did the Airman Certification Standards specify that a private pilot had to land a plane without flaps. It never came up in training. It never came up in The Right Stuff. Ten minutes from the finish, I became a test pilot. Turning left base to final, I didn’t trim the elevator up enough and came in too high, too fast. I had to go around. The examiner lit up the radios again. No way was I going to meet FAA standards in these conditions. I put the flaps in, put the plane on the ground, and called another discontinuance.

Left seat

The smile of someone who has passed their check ride.

We agreed to reconvene the next day to finish the last two touch-and-goes. Twenty days later, I still didn’t have my license. First the examiner was stuck in Denver, then he was stuck in Dallas, then he had his license suspended for a “routine complaint.” The clock ticked. If I didn’t finish the exam in the next ten days, I would bust the FAA’s 30-day deadline and have to restart the test from scratch.

My hands were tied with red tape. The license, the El Paso cross-country flight, the fighter jock dreams—all up in smoke. I’d have to drive to the visa appointment. The only plane I’d ever take my dad flying in would be the ones I made of cardboard in third grade. I blamed it all on the flaps.

Then I got a text from my instructor. A friend of a friend of a friend knew an FAA examiner from out-of-state who had a thirty-minute opening Wednesday, August 19, two days before my dad and I were scheduled to leave for Carlsbad. “Dear Lord,” I prayed, “don’t let me f*** up.”

The full-flap touch-and-goes took ten minutes. I drove home a private pilot. Forty-one hours after that, my dad and I were cruising toward Carlsbad.

***

The going was slow. Between the wind, the heat, and the ancient airplane, we chugged above the farm-quilted terrain at a blistering 110 miles per hour. This was the longest I had ever flown. The caffeine buzz wore off at mile 262. My back ached from slouching against the Styrofoam blocks I had set against the back of the seat, so I could reach the rudder pedals. My dad monitored our progress on an iPad. He passed the time telling military stories. The time a fighter jock inverted on final approach. The time he and two buddies outran a thunderstorm between Columbus and Birmingham. He shook his head with a smile. The right stuff, man, the right stuff.

My dad had never been a pilot. A refractive error in his left eye disqualified him from flight training in his third year at the Academy. Finance officer in the First Gulf War, logistics man at unspecified air bases in the Middle East, then medical student and flight surgeon. As a doc, he did all he could to keep the fighter jocks flying. They loved him for it. Took him on practice dogfights in F-16s, 400-mile burrito runs in Learjets. And here he was, 12 years later, clunking toward El Paso at a quarter of a respectable cruising speed, squished in a Cessna one missed inspection away from the scrapheap, daughter in the left seat, dad in the right. He shook his head the one time I asked if he wanted to manipulate the controls. “You’re the pilot in command,” he said. Yes sir.

By the time we crossed over from hot, dry, oil-rigged West Texas into hot, dry, oil-rigged South New Mexico, we were landing in air seven times thinner than what we had departed in. The eight runways at the Carlsbad Cavern City Airport dissected each other like two off-set Zs. A crusty FBO manager with a white handlebar mustache wrangled the golf bags out of the back seat. Ten minutes later, we drove a tin-can SUV due north up the Carlsbad main drag, dad in the left seat, daughter in the right.

We woke up at 5:45 the next morning and drove an hour south to Carlsbad Caverns. It was 12:30 by the time we emerged, blinking, from the sleeping city of stalactites, stalagmites, and bat guano. Next up: Guadalupe Peak: 8,750 feet in the sky. We pulled into Guadalupe Mountain State Park and took stock of the situation. 1:30, winds below five knots, temperature 98 degrees and climbing. 3,000 feet of elevation gain across 8.4 miles—an estimated eight hours of strenuous hiking. We had two granola bars and two water bottles between the two of us. The closest gas station was thirty minutes out of the way. I looked across the dashboard at my dad. He flicked on his aviators and grinned, “Proficiency test.”

We averaged twenty-five minutes per mile for the first mile and a half. I zig-zagged around the roots, rocks, and switchbacks like a jackrabbit. Every few minutes I’d wait for my dad under the shade of some arthritic desert foliage. He followed behind at a steady pace, chugging up the elevation like our Skyhawk’s Lycoming engine. We passed other hikers and made bets on who’d make it to the summit. The temperature jumped above 100 degrees. Our water fell below half capacity.

Guadelupe

Another proficiency test passed.

I passed the time asking my dad questions about his Academy days. I had to strain to catch his few-word answers across the stretching space between us. Was the Academy stressful? Yeah. Where did you go after graduation? The Middle East. Do you miss the Air Force? Not really. What was it like when you found out you weren’t pilot qualified? His steady pace rocked a bit. The flight surgeon gave him the eye exam junior year, he said. Walked into the room and broke the news, matter-of-fact. My dad, maybe ten months younger than I was at the time, felt his eyes well up in front of the refractive error. The flight surgeon glanced up from his clipboard. “You’re not going to cry about it, are you?” My dad didn’t. He spent the rest of his Air Force career slashing red-tape medical technicalities, so fighter jocks could stay airborne. We kept climbing.

“How are you holding up?” I called over my shoulder. No answer. Fifteen minutes later I called again, “How are you holding up?” A gruff reply came somewhere several feet behind me, “Don’t ask again. It makes me feel weak.” Water at a quarter capacity. 101 degrees.

I got to the top just before the five-hour mark, twenty minutes before my dad. When he surfaced over the edge of the summit, his shoes were splitting apart near the soles. Waterless, snackless, and burned to an offensive shade of pink, we sat down next to the vaguely phallic marble stone that marked Guadalupe Peak—the triumph of our righteous stuff. 2,667 feet above the surface. The desert stretched out in front of us, a sun-stained sectional chart of dried salt lakes, dust farms, and oil rigs. I patted my dad on the back. “You know,” I said, “this looks exactly like the view we have in the Cessna.” He blinked heavily behind his aviators, “Time to go down.”

Twelve hours later, we saw the same desert landscape from 6,000 feet higher in the atmosphere, fuzzed over by the plexiglass windshield of our battle-worn Skyhawk. 7:48. 89 miles into the 129-mile stretch between Carlsbad and El Paso International Airport, four hours and twelve minutes from the visa appointment that had sent us packing West. Time passed. My dad snapped pictures of the rippling terrain below while he monitored the iPad. I sipped hotel coffee and thought about how long it was going to be before I saw a world as barren, dusty, and free as this one again. The UK was getting closer every mile west we tracked—more real, it seemed, than that small marble plaque we humped 8.1 miles to see yesterday afternoon and now sailed a mile above this morning—

“Is your transponder supposed to say that?”

The black box screamed its death-threat in silence: Transponder failed.

Transponder failed. Right. Checklist, checklist. I fumbled around the left door pouch for my emergency procedures. The propeller bit the air. My dad watched in silence. Whap whap whap whap whap whap. I slapped the checklist onto my lap and keyed in a radio call to Air Traffic Control. “Carlsbad Center, Skyhawk seven-two-nine-nine-papa has a failed pfffffffft.” The radio frayed. “Uh, Skyhawk can you please repfffffft.” Keyed the radio, nothing, nothing. My dad held up the iPad. We were two minutes away from crossing into the Class Charlie airspace. We’d break the law to fly in NORDO, without radios or a transponder.

Checklist, checklist. I scoured the moving map for airfields outside El Paso. Nothing, nothing—there! Un-towered airstrip thirty miles south of the city. No avgas available. Maybe a mechanic. Almost certainly no rental car. I looked at my watch. 7:51. If we diverted, it was anyone’s guess if we could make the visa appointment in time. We want to make the visa appointment, right? Right. Sure. Thirty seconds until we crossed over into the Class Charlie. I prayed the Boeing 737s flying into ELP were watching their windows for traffic. We wouldn’t show up on their instrument panels sans-transponder. I handed my dad the iPad. “We’re going to divert,” I said, “but one last thing.” I ran my finger over the circuit breakers—bump. The alternator field breaker. I punched.

“Skyhawk seven-two-nine-nine-papa confirm landing on runway two-six left. Repeat two-six-left.” There! The voice of the controller rang over the radio waves like the trumpet call of God. I keyed in the response, “Skyhawk nine-nine-papa two-six ppfffffft.” The radios died. We were on our own. But we had our orders.

ELP

Is that the right airport?

“We’re going to land at ELP,” I told my dad. Four minutes later we started the descent. We had our runway. Bleeding altitude, picking up airspeed, all we needed was to find it.

My dad looked on in silence as I scoured the windshield, trying to make visual contact with two-six left. We had a two-in-three chance of screwing the pooch on this landing. El Paso International was sandwiched between Fort Biggs Army airbase to the north and Juarez International to the west. Misread the runway, and we’d either land in the wrong airspace or the wrong country. All I could see was dust. Where the hell was ELP?

I grabbed the iPad from my dad and drew a straight line from the end of two-six left across the map. I lined up with the painted white numerals. We were forty seconds from touchdown, 1,000 feet above the ground. We’d have one shot to nail the landing. If we tried a go-around without radios at an international airport, we’d be asking for a collision with a commercial jet forty times our maximum gross weight. I reached down the instrument panel to put in the first ten degrees of flaps.

Click.

Nothing happened. The switch moved, but the flaps didn’t budge. A cold shiver snaked through my gut and curled around my spine. The flaps were dead. They ran on power from the electrical system, and the electrical system had failed. The voice of my first FAA examiner rang through the headsets like a ghost over the non-transmitting radio waves, “You might have an electrical failure and lose power to the flap control. Happens all the time!”

I handed the iPad back to my dad and keyed in two words over the dead radios: “Proficiency test.”

***

Thirty minutes later, my dad and I were sitting at a corner table at Cuauhtémoc Café, two miles from the airport, eating breakfast tacos. Customers in cloth masks shuffled in and out the door. My dad pulled out his laptop and checked his email. I finished eating and stared blankly at the orange wall. I had never tasted better Tex-Mex in my life.

I had put the plane on the ground. By a stroke of favor from the aviation gods, the FBO was immediately south of runway two-six left. No need to navigate across a mile of spaghetti-noodle taxiways without ATC instructions. We called the mechanic. He’d check the alternator first thing in the morning. The FBO manager, a short woman in a sharp business suit, sorted out the rental car, and we drove two miles straight west to Cuauhtémoc. We had time to kill before the visa appointment.

There was a strange silence hovering over the tortillas and the plastic straws. My blood shot through my cardiovascular system faster than the Skyhawk on initial descent. I had never felt this buzzed, this invincible, this much like a hyperbole ripped from a piece of literary non-fiction. Was this the world outside the envelope? How could I ever go back to “real life” again? Was the person sitting across from my dad the same person who sat to his left 8,500 feet above mean sea level this morning? The same person who struck out West to go back East, who four months before this took a discovery flight above the clouds, who four years before that boarded a commercial flight to Boston? Was this the next step up the mighty ziggurat of that righteous stuff—or was it the highest I’d ever reach?

My dad closed his laptop and looked at me from across the table. He shook his head and smiled. “The right stuff, man,” he said, “the right stuff.”

We drove to the visa office, dad in the left seat, daughter in the right. He stayed in the car while I went in alone. I paused in front of the entrance, blood still rippling through the arteries. It would be too literary to say two worlds opened in front of me at that moment—an old world in the East and a young world in the West. Whose dream was it to go to Oxford, and whose dream was it to fly to the moon? Mine, mine twelve years ago, my dad’s, my dad’s when he was my age? Was this aviation thing destiny, or just some freak side-effect from a freak pandemic?

Two roads diverged from the highway above the clouds. One paved with undergraduate ambitions, the other with childhood dreams. Would the real Lauren please take the first step?

Those thoughts belong to the world of Tom Wolfe novels. There was never a doubt that I’d go to the appointment. The only question was who I’d be when I walked out the door.

***

Golfing

Not a bad way to kill time while the airplane gets fixed.

We spent an extra day in El Paso, finally putting the golf clubs to use while the mechanic trouble-shot the Skyhawk’s electrical system. Bad alternator, dead battery, loose safety wire. The money we saved renting a crappy airplane from a friend of a friend we promptly spent making the airplane significantly less crappy.

I called my instructor and recounted the triumph of the no-flaps landing. There was an awkward pause after I finished the story. He was waiting for the punchline. “Oh, you had plenty of runway to land that thing without flaps!” he said, “But glad you’re both okay.” I nodded, sobered. The adrenaline-shot shimmer life had acquired post-electrical-failure had already started to fade. “You may want to file a report with the FAA,” my instructor added, “just in case.”

After six hours battling headwinds in a worn-out plane with a brand-new battery, my dad and I touched down at Coulter Field. We crabbed into gusty crosswinds to make the full-flap landing. We were one day behind schedule. We yanked the golf clubs from the back seat and headed home in our black Tundra. My dad’s ER shift started in two hours. After he took off, I carried the one souvenir from the trip back to my bedroom: a poster of the Lockheed Martin SR-71 Blackbird. We had picked it up at the return fuel stop in San Angelo. It was a memento for the Oxford dorm room.

Thirteen days later, my dad drove me to the George Bush Intercontinental Airport. 5:30. Winds below five knots. It was the first time all summer that I was traveling to Houston on the ground, and I wasn’t the one in the left seat. We rode mostly in silence. The radio was dead quiet.

“You know,” my dad said, breaking the silence, “when we were up there, over the mountains, and the transponder failed,” he paused. I waited. “I felt a peace.” The engine hummed. “All the flights I’ve been on—the F-16s, the T-38s—and I would go down in a Cessna 172 somewhere in the middle of the West Texas desert.” He paused, smiled, and shook his head. “But I was okay with that. Because I was with you…” He trailed off and looked out the window for a moment. “And I was in a plane being flown by my daughter.”

My dad dropped me off at the gate. I grabbed my black suitcase and my backpack, with the luggage tags my instructor had given me. Lauren Spohn: Pilot in Command. The automatic doors slid open. I took the first step through when I heard my dad yell something behind me. “Hey!” I whipped around. He grinned, winked, and shouted two words through the open right window: “Proficiency test!”

I gave him a salute, walked through the sliding doors, and boarded the commercial flight to London.

Lauren Spohn
Latest posts by Lauren Spohn (see all)
35 replies
  1. Dale Hill
    Dale Hill says:

    You, young lady, have the Right Stuff! You also have a knack for writing in a manner that speaks to the reader with much more than what is written!

    Reply
  2. Phil Spohn
    Phil Spohn says:

    Great story Lauren!!
    You are an amazing writer, pilot and young woman.
    Keep your eyes open and breathe and you can make it through anything.

    Love you,
    Uncle Phil

    Reply
  3. Peter Millard
    Peter Millard says:

    Great story and great writing Lauren! As a Dad who taught his son to fly in our 172, I totally get the joy he felt being with you in the air. I have one question: what happened to the headliner in your plane??

    Reply
  4. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    Beautiful story!!!
    Thank you for sharing your passion… may you have a beautiful life full of many amazing flights!! And enjoy the precious times with your dad… I’m sure your parents are beyond proud!!

    Reply
  5. David Calvet
    David Calvet says:

    Very well written young lady! Live the dream. Flaps are sometimes not even on an airplane, ex. LongEze. You have the right stuff. Reminds me of meeting Alan Shepard at LAX in the mid 80’s. Enjoy the adventures!

    Reply
  6. Ann Shaver
    Ann Shaver says:

    Wonderful story, expertly written! As a one-time flight attendant, married to an ATP, you captured the joy of flying in an airplane similar to my husband’s plane. You added the agonies and ecstasies of getting your private license and your first flight as a licensed aviator. We both look forward to more stories of your adventures. My husband, Mark Shaver, shared your story with me. We both love it! Thank You.

    Reply
  7. Nancy Chafin
    Nancy Chafin says:

    Thirty-four years ago, my written exam expired worthless because my dad and I weren’t lucky enough to be forced to fly together. You told a captivating story and brought tears to my eyes as I remembered my own dad and the brief moments we were in the sky together. Keep going girl. Don’t stop!

    Reply
  8. Mike H
    Mike H says:

    Fantastic story coupled with even better writing. I am a fellow alum (Kirkland House ‘92) and feel a little sense of pride in knowing I share that with someone who appears to have such a fantastic view of the world. I’m a commercial pilot with an instrument rating and not done yet – I encourage you to keep going and get all the ratings you can whether you ever earn a dime from it or not.

    Reply
  9. Cynthia Williams
    Cynthia Williams says:

    Outstanding! Having a cup of coffee this morning, and have the good fortune to read about you and your Dad flying over…love the “across all 167 million acres of Texas, was El Paso, a city so far west it ran on Mountain Time”, will share with my Embry-Riddle students, as it speaks loudly about keeping ones eyes above the horizon of oneself so that one may see the infinite possibilities. Thanks for the read!

    Reply
  10. Thom Joseph
    Thom Joseph says:

    Lauren I am a retired Alaska pilot after 52 years. I live in Austin near my grandchildren and would be happy to have a conversation about getting started in AK. They need pilots now.

    Reply
  11. Mark Torre
    Mark Torre says:

    What an amazing, inspiring, compelling, riveting, moving and a lot more other “ings” this story was! I sent it to my two girls as a must read. Just wow! Congratulations young lady on your many successes and may you have many, many more. Thanks for sharing and all the best!

    Reply
  12. John D Flanders,MD
    John D Flanders,MD says:

    Please don’t ever stop writing Lauren! Don’t ever stop flying either. You’re such an awesome storyteller, with a gift to paint your picture in this reader’s head. Apparently, you are already in the process of joining the ranks of legendary aviation writers, I can’t wait to read your next story!

    Reply
  13. Luca
    Luca says:

    Great story, great pilot, great writer. Thank you for sharing. Since you’re obviously so thrilled by flying (like I was), may I tease you with the fact that there is a full line of airplanes built without flaps? All the high performance aerobatic airplanes (check out the Extra 300, the CAP 232, the Sukhoi 31, to name a few). Go google Patty Wagstaff, and her aerobatic establishment in Florida. And countless others (https://www.redbull.com/us-en/tags/air-racing). All the very best for your future as a pilot!

    Reply
  14. Lee Rayburn
    Lee Rayburn says:

    What a great story. I was very touched by the bond between father and daughter (I have 3 daughters).
    With young people like Lauren, maybe this country will be ok in the future.

    Reply
  15. Rehan Younas
    Rehan Younas says:

    Wow! I enjoyed every bit of this literary masterpiece. As a self-proclaimed writer, and budding aviator, the article was captivating and engaging the whole way! All the best on your journey and please, I would love to continue reading your articles, so do start a blog! Your writing is something to aspire to, and as you have described, also your ability to check off proficiency tests ;)

    Reply
  16. Peter T
    Peter T says:

    Lauren – I can only add to the accolades! I rarely re-read articles on AirFacts, but I’ve read this one 3 times. Wonderful writing – this piece was up there with the best of the aviation writers we all admire! Thank you! Keep up the great writing and great flying!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *