I parked my Dodge Shadow by the tiny western Ohio county airport near my parents’ house, where, in my mid-twenties, I still lived, my life going nowhere. I peered through the windshield at a small plane rolling down the runway.
Its wheels lifted off the ground and the plane rose higher and higher. Like a bird, soaring effortlessly above the earth, nothing, not even gravity, holding it down.
Freedom. How I longed to know that feeling. Watching the planes come and go was as close as I ever got. I came here every chance I could and dreamed of one day piloting a plane myself. What would it be like to fly? To not be afraid? To feel as though I could do anything?
But who was I kidding? No one I knew was a pilot. Certainly no women. Flying was something rich people did. I came from a feet-on-the-ground kind of family. We didn’t go in for wild flights of fancy.
Still, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. Flying had captured my imagination ever since one unforgettable day when I was five. I was playing in the yard and heard the drone of an engine overhead. I looked up. A little red plane was writing something in the sky. A large, graceful P.
I watched, mesmerized, as more letters formed, smoky white against the clear blue. P…A…T…T…Y. My name, written in the sky! This had to be a sign from God! Even after my mom told me the plane had written Pepsi, not Patty, I still felt it had been a message from above, a message meant for me.
I loved reading about Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. I think every book report I ever did was on a book about her. In fifth grade, when we were assigned to come to school dressed as a famous historical figure, you can guess who I went as.
In high school, on career day, I finally got a chance to meet a pilot. I mustered up the courage to walk up to the table where he sat and tell him of my dream of learning to fly. He looked at me, a chubby girl with glasses.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “But you have to have perfect vision to be a pilot. Plus, it’s nearly impossible for a woman to do this job.”
I lowered my head so no one would see the tears in my eyes and walked away, my dream crushed before it even had a chance to get off the ground.
I felt as if I lost something that day that I could never get back. My life since then had been a series of disappointments. I’d had to drop out of college for lack of money. The only jobs I could find paid poorly. I couldn’t even afford to live on my own. I wasn’t dating anyone. Was this all I had to look forward to?
I felt trapped, like a grounded plane hemmed in by thick, dark, depressing clouds.
Watching the planes take off and land at the airport, as I was doing now, was my only escape.
I closed my eyes, imagining what it would be like to fly. I pictured the horizon spread out far below me, a perfect, unencumbered view, the sky fading from blue to purple, then dark pink, the sun barely a sliver, sinking behind cornfields for the night.
It was an image I’d kept reliving from a trip to the Columbus airport when I was six. We’d watched the jets take off and land for hours and the sky looked just like that. It seemed to almost be calling me, the way the sea beckons a sailor.
Dear God, you know how unhappy I am. Help me feel your spirit inside me. Lift me up. Let me spread my wings and fly. I’d prayed like that whenever I came here but nothing changed.
I opened my eyes and turned the car for home. Maybe it was time to get my head out of the clouds and accept the fact that I was never going to be a pilot. If only the longing wouldn’t keep growing inside me.
That fall I went to a local festival. Way at the back, past the craft booths and the food stands, I saw a long line of people snaking across a field. A school was selling rides on a plane as a fund-raiser. A lovely little four-seater. Twenty minutes for $20.
I pulled two $10 bills from my purse. It didn’t matter that we’d just be flying in a circle over rural Ohio. To me it felt as if I were buying a ticket to paradise.
At last it was my turn. I was shown to the front passenger seat. I settled in and glanced at the pilot. Eyeglasses! He was wearing eyeglasses. He smiled. “Ready?” he asked.
“Ready,” I replied. We taxied across the grass field and the plane lifted off. I held my breath. The next moment, I was flying.
“Is this the first time you’ve been in a small plane?” the pilot asked.
“Yes, but I’ve always wanted to learn to fly,” I said. “I didn’t think I could because I wear glasses.”
“No, that’s not a problem,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun. It takes work. And time and money. But there’s nothing like it.”
He showed me how he kept the plane level with the yoke, while with his feet he controlled the rudder. He made it seem simple. Like something even I could do.
Too soon we landed. What the pilot said stuck with me even after I got back to my parents’ house. I’d never actually looked into what it took to learn to fly a plane. What was stopping me? I could only think of one thing. Myself. I didn’t believe in myself.
I checked books about flying out from the library. I learned that a pilot’s license required 40 hours of flight training: 20 hours with an instructor and 20 hours solo. I memorized what all the different gauges and controls were for. I read about other women who’d become aviators.
Still, there was one thing that held me back, one barrier I couldn’t get past. Flying lessons were expensive. I didn’t have that kind of money.
Then one day I was driving through the countryside a few miles south of where I lived when I came upon a small airport. How come I’d never seen it before? There was a beautiful grass landing strip. I saw a sign: “Introductory Flying Lesson $50.” Fifty dollars? I could afford that.
I wrote down the phone number. It took me a few days to build up the courage to call. A man answered. I said I was interested in the introductory offer. I figured it would be a few weeks before he’d have an opening. “How about tomorrow afternoon?” he said.
I told my parents what I was doing. They thought I was crazy. Flying was dangerous, they said. But nothing was going to stop me now.
When I got to the airport, a serious looking middle-aged man with white hair and a mustache came out to greet me. He looked like a cowboy. “You must be here for the intro flight,” he said. “Yes,” I said, swallowing the lump in my throat.
“Come on, then,” he said. He turned and headed toward the hangar. I followed him as we walked around the plane, a tiny Cessna 150, doing the preflight inspection.
“You take the pilot seat,” he said when he was done. My heart raced. The pilot seat! We climbed in. There was barely room for both of us. He showed me the switch to lift the flaps and the control for the throttle.
“Put your hands lightly on the yoke and pay attention,” he said. “If I say let go, let go. I’ll talk you through what I am doing.”
We taxied to the runway. He opened the throttle. “When we hit fifty-five knots, I’ll pull back on the yoke and that will lift the nose,” he said. The plane rattled and shook. The noise of the engine was deafening. We rolled down the runway, my hands shaking. My eyes were glued to the air-speed indicator.
The instructor pulled back on the yoke and the little Cessna lifted gently off the ground, rising toward the heavens, sending my heart soaring with it. It was all I could do not to shout for joy. I was flying a plane! It felt like a miracle.
“Now we’ll level off,” he said. “Pick a spot on the horizon and keep the nose level with that.”
I looked to where he was pointing. The sky was gorgeous, like a watercolor painting, fading from blue to purple, then dark pink. Just as I’d pictured in my dreams. A scene only God could have painted.
It took two years for me to get my pilot’s license. I could only afford to take a lesson every couple of weeks or so. Yet I learned something far beyond how to fly a plane. I learned to believe in myself. And that God loved me. That he would always be there for me. That changed my life.
I got a great job working behind the counter at a county airport. Met my husband. That message I saw written in the sky long ago had been meant for me after all.
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