On May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh Jr., the finest pilot of his era, flew the 3,610-mile stretch from New York to Paris nonstop and alone. Without a radio, a sextant, or any modern instrumentation, in a single engine airplane of only 223 horsepower, he made history. He was 25 years old. On August 29, 1990, Dan Grote (that’s me!), mediocre student, avid reader, a stereotypical representation of the era, flew a 21-minute circuit around the patchwork of farm fields surrounding a 2,600-foot-long, east-west oriented grass runway approximately 50 nautical miles west of Chicago, Illinois, also nonstop and also alone. With no radio, only the most basic of instrumentation, in an aircraft with no engine and, therefore, no horsepower, he made the smoothest and most memorable landing he would ever make. He also made the local paper. He was 14 years old.
I’m no Lindbergh, but for 20 minutes or so one picturesque late summer, I, in my own adolescent mind, ruled the skies over northern Illinois. Although this solo flight was a first for me, there’d been many before me, and there would be even more after. Anyone, age 14 or over, with an appropriate amount of flight instruction, can do what I did. Ask any professional pilot; there’s a good chance you’ll find that the cockpit of a glider was their first step towards slipping earth’s surly bonds.
Ever since I’d been old enough to turn my head skyward, I’d been in love with anything that flew. A very Jerry Springer-ish family situation — starring a mother with undiagnosed mental illness, a father with a hearty case of alcoholism, and me: a child of divorce and, as I’d later discover, the adopted baby of the family — didn’t deprive me of plane-watching excursions to the local airport and airshows. Matter of fact, being raised by a single mom working several jobs and hanging out with Dad on weekends had its perks.
Mom would often use the public library as a babysitter which allowed me to feed my voracious appetite for books. And I’d spend weekends in various bars and V.F.Ws watching my dad get drunk and learning how to shoot pool and talk shit about women and politics and cars. Grown up stuff. My parent also encouraged me in my dreams of becoming an aviator. It was the same type of encouragement one gives a child who says he wants to become president, or a prince, or a movie star, but it was, nonetheless, encouragement. It was always given with a caveat that I wasn’t yet old enough, that I’d have to wait until I “grew up.” This not being acceptable to me, I set to looking for a loophole. I scoured the stacks at the library, I read Lindbergh, I read Saint-Exupurey, I pored over every aircraft encyclopedia, aviation magazine, or flight-related tome I could get my hands on—and I found it. A book on “soaring,” a book in which, at twelve years old, I discovered I was only a few years away from the first step of my dream. I studied the book as a novitiate studies his canons and crafted a fine elevator pitch for my parents.
“Mom, it says right here I can solo and get my student license at 14.”
“Dad, Mom says it’s cool if you’ll pay for it.”
“Mom, Dad said if we find a place that does it, we’ll figure it out.”
It’s much easier to play your folks against each other when one stays drunk all the time. Some phone calls, some pleading, and some well-played parental chess, and a date was set for my “Introductory Flight.” I soon found myself at a grass strip an hour and a half west of Chicago. Each end of the runway had a single-wide trailer alongside of it. One housed the “soaring” operation, the other a skydiving school. To this point, my version of an airport had a paved runway, a control tower chock full of skilled air traffic controllers to keep things orderly. Planes had engines, and people sure as hell were not signing up to voluntarily jump out of them. Completing my aviation culture shock was Ron.
Ron was in his late sixties. A shock of silver hair, a straw hat, a cow-catcher mustache, and a corncob pipe. He loved the Grateful Dead and was not at all averse to an impromptu display of his wombat dancing skills. He was almost gnomish and reminded me strongly, in word and deed, of Yoda. He would be my pilot.
“Here’s what you need to know,” he said. “We get towed up by a plane with a motor and, if the conditions are right, we can use thermals, which are rising currents of warm air to stay up. If you ever seen a hawk circling and holding altitude or climbing without flapping its wings, you’ve seen the essence of soaring. You want a joyride, or you want your first flight lesson?”
“My first lesson, sir.”
“Cut the sir shit, kid. I’m an old hippie who loves to fly, not a fighter pilot. Let’s go.”
And we did. We went around the trailer to where the flight school kept its two sailplanes. I’d later learn that this first craft, the ax we marched straight past, was called Grob 103—sleek and sexy—a two-seat, high-performance trainer, German made. By Germans, just like a Mercedes or a Heidi Klum: ‘nuff said. Apparently, the Grob was for joyrides. We ended up in front of a glider that looked like some sort of insect put on this earth to be prey for cooler looking insects. This contraption was called a Schweizer 2-33A, the most popular primary trainer in the soaring world. Not sleek, not sexy. Dependable looking, purposeful, safe. Made in New York. In America, by Americans; don’t let the German-sounding name fool you. Less Heidi, more Betty White.
After a quick walk around, I found myself strapped into the front seat of this utilitarian machine with Ron buckled in behind me. We were connected to a Bellanca Citabria, a sprightly 180-horsepower, single-engine airplane (At 16, I’d solo this aircraft as well) by a 150-foot length of braided nylon rope. This would be our ticket up.
“Ok, kid. Put two fingers on the control stick, lightly, and that way you’ll feel what I’m doing. Put your feet, lightly, on the rudder pedals and just follow my lead. Ready?”
Before I could answer, Ron had mashed the rudder pedals back and forth, signaling to the pilot of the tow plane to go. Off we went, into the wild blue yonder.
“Do me a favor. Let me know when we hit two-hundred feet, will ya, kid? You know what an altimeter is, right?”
Did I know what an altimeter was. Apparently, he had no idea what an aviation scholar (nerd) I was. The cars got smaller, the patchwork quilt of farm fields more defined and….
“Thanks. Remember this. If the rope breaks or you have some other type of in-flight emergency that requires a hasty return to terra firma, if you’re under two hundred feet, you land as close to straight ahead as possible. You don’t have the altitude to dick around, and you’ll kill yourself. If you’re above two hundred feet, you can make a 180-degree turn for the runway. Got it?”
I did. I got it. In no time at all we were at two-thousand feet, and it was time to separate ourselves from the tow plane.
“OK, kid. Reach in front of you, and pull that big red knob.”
I did and, with a loud “thunk,” the tow rope coiled away from the glider, which Ron put into a steep right hand turn and it was…silent. Just the barest whisper of the wind. Had I known what to think about all of it, I’d have had no problem hearing myself do it.
“OK, your airplane.”
I heard nothing that Ron had to say after that. I know he said a lot of things, I know I absorbed whatever it was he had to say. That initial flight and the year and a half of instructional flights that comprised my genesis from neophyte to student pilot went by in a blur of fear, confidence, and emotion.
August 28, 1990, was to be the day of my final lesson. One last flight with Ron, a final exam to make sure I’d become proficient enough in the airplane and the skills needed to pilot it in such a manner as not to kill myself or “bend” the airplane. That day never happened. Not in the sense that I needed it to. Not in the way that the 20-plus people that died that day needed it to either.
On Tuesday, August 28, 1990, a tornado ripped through Plainfield, Illinois, one of Chicago’s far west suburbs. My August 28 was spent huddled in a leaky basement with my mom. Wondering if whatever tavern my dad was inevitable as was tornado proof. Wondering if God was sending some kind of ominous message in that day’s storm clouds. I’d spent the last 18 months learning how to “soar.” To soar through the air, above my problems. There’s no eternally depressed mom with me at 2,000 feet. I can’t see my dad’s alcoholism or my own budding insecurities once I leave the ground. Who the hell was I to think that I could rise above what I’d been born into. Melodramatic? Yes, but isn’t everything when you’re a day shy of 14?
August 29 found me a year older and at the airfield. A quick, pre-flight walk-around inspection of the aircraft was completed, and Ron and I settled comfortably into what had become an old routine. As of late, he’d become more of a silent passenger than anything else. The take-off went well, but just as I was ready to call out “two-hundred,” as we’d passed our emergency landing decision height, I heard a solid “thunk,” and watched as the tow rope fell away, detached from our end and thought, “Shit.” Everything else was automatic – drop the nose, start my turn back to the airport, say a quick yet specific prayer, land the plane. It wasn’t a real emergency, just a test. Ron pulled the release on me, gave me my final exam.
“OK, kid,” he said as we pushed the glider back into position and waited for the tow plane. “You’re on your own.”
That was it. No motivational speech or words of wisdom. Just four brutally true words that would, as I see today, sum up my entire life. Ron taught me what he could about flying and left me on my own. My dad gave me a free subscription to a lifetime of addiction and left me to fly solo. Mom left me on my own to figure out the madness that would reside in me. The certain secret something that would leave me experiencing all manner of firsts. First kiss, first suicide attempt, first day of “treatment,” first night in jail. Even at forty years old, I find myself “on my own” facing a lot of firsts, but, on that August day, my first time at the controls, alone, I won. I did everything right. Everything made sense. Perhaps the greatest aviatrix Beryl Markham said it best, when speaking of the decidedly numinous aspect of flight:
“I saw the alchemy of perspective reduce my world and all my other life to grains in a cup.”
Dan Grote is an incarcerated writer currently residing somewhere in the federal prison system. He can be found using the “inmate locator” feature of the Bureau of Prisons website using his name and his federal ID# 22670-424. His work has previously appeared in the Haight-Ashbury Literary Journal.