A Flight in Time

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Kathryn Kennison, whose Magna Cum Murder weekend in October is one of our favorite conferences telephoned us last summer to ask if we’d like to go flying in a WW1 type bi-plane. YES, OH, YES!

So, after Magna Cum Murder, it was all arranged. On a cold, windy, gray Tuesday morning, we drove for what seemed like miles to a small airfield that Kathryn and Dick knew about, and there we met our flight instructor. He was a quiet man, had an incredibly long list of hours in the air, and took in stride our request to see what it was like to fly over war-torn France and the trenches as the pilots of the time had done. We discovered in the course of the morning just how good an instructor he was.

This aircraft, a bright yellow, was in fact very close to the planes of the day. Two open cockpits, two wings, and an instrument panel that consisted of about ten dials. A stick, not a yoke, and the pedals in the floor. The first thing we learned was how to walk around the craft and check out the critical areas that made the difference between a safe flight and trouble. And then she was rolled out and the adventure began. Dark clouds, promising heavy rain, loomed on the horizon as Charles took off. He came prepared for the day, in leather jacket and white scarf. Our instructor gave us the proper headgear.

Watching him take off was an experience for all of us, and an hour later, he was landing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Charles quite so speechless.

My turn. I’m not tall. We had to find a step stool for me to reach the wing. And then the next step, a little black knob of a step, was almost impossible. Not quite. But then I had to sling a leg over into the tiny cockpit, and slide down into the seat. It was tight quarters. And no parachute.

The motor catches and revs, testing it. Then full power, almost overwhelming in its feel. And a warmth in the cockpit from it. And we were bumping over the grass, just as the craft of the day would have done, but took off from tarmac. That moment when the plane lifts from the ground is incredible. You feel it too, with such a sense of lightness and grace that you are taken aback. And you are aloft…

We both had the stick in our hands for the entire flight, so we could feel each maneuver, and how the pedals were used to turn the aircraft in midair or let it slip sideways. And we could peer into the force of the wind over the edge of the cockpit. It was cold! But in summer you might feel the heat of the sun up here and the shifting breezes. Below the landscape lay before us like a map. In our ears, our instructor spoke quietly, explaining everything. Railway lines were pointed out. Fields where trenches would have been dug in long wiggly lines. A couple of silos that were like artillery emplacements. Trees where troops and snipers could be hidden. A lake which gave us a feel for what it was like to hunt for ships in the Channel, ferrying troops and equipment to France. We slipped down over it for a closer look, and then climbed. Took evasive action—but did no rolls. We turned back, finding our way back to base—the airport—and navigating by the land below as well as compass. Almost three thousand feet up. Amazing! And then we spotted it. The wind had picked up while we were up there. Charles came in on asphalt, because it wasn’t as strong as when I landed. I came down on grass because it would help us brake. The wings on both flights wavered as the air speed dropped and we settled toward earth. And then we were down, with a bounce or two before the wheels gripped. Running toward the office, I know I felt an amazing exhilaration, and I knew then what it was that made pilots of the day so in love with their experiences that they were willing to put their lives on the line. Now we know what that other pilot, in the famous poem, meant by touching the face of God. For us it was—unforgettable. And we have our first entries in our pilots’ logs. Our first lesson in what it was like to fly in the Great War, 1914-1918.

Caroline and Charles Todd.