by John Grinder

John Works up a Sweat at the Fly-InEveryone has a place in reality or in the mind named Paradise. For some, it's a place at sea level with a perfect sunrise where sky meets the water. For others, it's a technical climb, with the team, up a granite rock face to touch the high summit.

For me, it's that very private space at 2,000agl, mixing art and science into what we pilots call flying. And over Middle America, flying slow and in orderly little steps, Paradise is smooth green and wonderful as far as the eye could see.

Let me tell you how I found it.

In planning aerial travel I'm thinking speed and efficiency, Clinton was a long way from my usual haunts above the foothills and valleys of the Appalachians.  Being a text book "long cross-country", I again planned the text book route. The Sectionals and WAC's were all marked in neat "Direct To" logos, the fuel calculations were carefully planned to extract the maximum range, the GPS databases were programmed to the tee to fit the flight to the great circle route. But something more was slipping away again, and I almost let it go entirely, but this time someone stopped me.  I was on a short hop to my wife's hometown airport to test the course deviation accuracy of my GPS unit. I landed and called home just to let them know I had made it. When my daughter answered the phone she was shocked. "Dad!" she said, that was too fast! That's not you!  I bet you didn't fly around Mom's old house, you didn't fly around to the church where you and Mom got married, you didn't try to chase those trains that come out of that railroad yard next to the river. What's up?  She was right. What's up was, I was leaving something very important on the ground. The trip back home was quiet in more ways than one.

Back home at my desk, the Clinton trip was weighed down. Within my daughters words I began to recall a chapter in a book I had written, in my mind, years ago when I first realized the spirit in flying. I remembered something else too. Another book, another author: WIND, SAND, AND STARS by Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry "It is not with metal the pilot is in contact. Contrary to the vulgar illusion, it is thanks to the metal, and by virtue of it, that the pilot rediscovers nature."  "...the machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them!"

What had been slowly dissolving away in a small, almost indiscernible fashion, suddenly stopped, and took me by the hand and made me remember why I wanted to fly. Call it that sense of wonder or the joy of the newborn, but with whatever words are used, I went back to renew my journey west. And there they were, scores of places with names as rich and true as the farmlands under and around their runways. Defiance, Warsaw, DeKalb, Stark, and a handful of others now more that just points in a database.  I promised myself that these names would be more that just a deviation from the great circle route, but a chance to rekindle a dream.

To make sure I held my promise true, nature delivered scattered to broken layers at 3,000ft with slant range visibility 3-5 miles and a thunderstorm or two thrown-in. This was fair enough I thought, to think and to feel, to touch cold logic and warm emotions, to see America's heartland and not just flyover it to get to some other place. And I was more than satisfied with this deal.

So there it was, just as promised and more than that I had hoped for, the Land. Foreshortened in the mist, it took on a rich theatrical feel. This is Act One.

The green landscape opened under soft cotton cloud curtains to reveal a beauty that I had almost totally forgotten. The neat geometry of the roads and rails holding their towns in precise symmetry. Stilt legged water towers with the proud name of the town or industry emblazoned on its' face, standing sentry for the surrounding countryside. And even though you are hundreds of feet above them, there are the people of this land, who reach out and wave hello. Children swimming in a pond look up and wave. Farm workers walking from their trucks, pause and look skyward at the sound of the engine and wave back as I rock my wings in greeting. This is the connection, the bond, which says that even though we cannot see your face or know exactly who you are, greetings and welcome to our home. This is no idle sentiment or trite belief. The people of the Village of Knox, Indiana, Stark County Airport to be exact, extended that greeting to me with a friendliness that was palpable.

I had to land. Weather conditions were signaling that strong thunderstorms were awaiting me the further west I flew. Stark was a planned fuel stop, so now it became a refuge from the impending violent air. Another small Cessna working the pattern heard my call, and noting the situation, offered to vacate the pattern to allow me a straight in for 18, "so to get you on the ground and secured a little faster", I thanked him for the courtesy and took him up on the offer. At the fuel pump it was more of the same. The assistant manager of the airport was a bit startled to hear that Butler, Pennsylvania was my takeoff and that Clinton, Iowa was my ultimate destination and offered without the least of hesitation or cost, a space in one of their new hangers to keep this voyagers plane out of the cruel weather. What more needs to be said? But it did not stop with this gracious offer. I asked if I could stay overnight in the hanger because I wanted to get an early start the next day, weather permitting. He would hear nothing of the sort. Phone calls were made, keys were produced, and I found myself driving into town in a car the assistant manager "borrowed" for the occasion, to stay at local hotel with a "special rate" for airport business. "Just have dinner at the restaurant next door" he told me. "The room will come with the meal-I called Astoria and she knows your coming".  For the record, the meal was great, the room was clean, and hot water abundant. It was the perfect place to watch some of the most violent thunderstorms I have seen in a long while.

The next morning, under water washed skies and sweet smelling corn, I shook hands goodbye with many thanks and a promise to stop on my return trip. The westward progress continued into Illinois and the second act of this drama took the stage. I was near Chicago. 40nm to the north was the Metropolis.  I was flying at its fringes, but though the panorama is of a mechanical form, all grays, blues, and blacks it has a heart and soul, just as vital and real as the green earth only 10 nm away to the south. I know -I could see it and feel it as I flew over the refineries and tank farms along the Illinois River.

As promised by our electronic servants in space and on land, the dirty weather redeveloped. More thunderstorms and heavy winds barring the gate to the Mississippi River. Whiteside Airport became the sanctuary and a place for chance meetings. Sleep comes easy with soft chairs, a quiet room, and gray skies and as there was not much activity in the building, I soon succumbed. The muted voices of new visitors seeped through the partly closed door and not wishing to monopolize the comfortable room, I opened the door wide.

Washed out of the sky like myself came Martha and Ken Ortmann bound for the same destination trying hard to see through the weather and knowing well that we were all grounded for a while. After the introductions, their quiet time together, and the passing of the troublesome weather, three people looked up at the sky and the question was asked. Shall we go? And with conviction and a touch of finality, we went on. The finale was close at hand and like any good sermon or drama, the climax was simple but visually stunning.

Again the curtain clouds slowly moved up and aside, and the sun, high above the clouds, shone pearlescent rays upon the Mississippi River and the panorama below.  It was smooth air in the final steps through Paradise. And when I landed, I knew two things immediately.

KCWI Clinton Iowa July 2004

The warm greeting of "Welcome to Clinton" was flavored by the same touch of Paradise I had re-discovered. And most of all, as the poet-pilot John Gillespie Magee wrote, I had "Put out my hand and touched the face of God."

John Grinder
Butler, PA

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