One last flight

There is no news value in what you’re about to read. I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I was elevating a personal story to the rarefied air of a NewsCut topic. But it provides some background for why posting will be light here today and also closes the book on a chapter of NewsCut that occasionally surfaced here: the time I built my own airplane in my garage.

I wanted to be an airline pilot when I grew up, but the medical requirements back then were far stricter than today. I needed a fall-back career. Radio was my fallback career. Radio is fun. Flying is way better.

Once I learned to fly, however, it was obvious I’d never be able to afford an airplane and renting one was prohibitively expensive. It turned out, however, that the Twin Cities area is one of the nation’s hotbeds for the homebuilding of aircraft.

I delivered the St. Paul Pioneer Press every day from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m, for 10 years while working at MPR to raise some of the funds to get me going on the project, which eventually took 11 years to complete in fits and starts.

When people — mostly kids (mine and others’) — pitched in to help, they signed their name and left messages. The plane is a flying scrapbook of autographs, hidden away in the plane’s innards.

My father-in-law was pretty well disabled by Parkinson’s when he mustered up enough energy in 2007 to sign.

signature

He died almost two years later to the day. The signature is still there.

I flunked shop in high school and a guy tends to carry that sort of thing around well into middle age, I found.

So it was special when I watched a test pilot fly off with her on her first flight, preferring instead to stand with my wife and watch it go (photo above).

Living life while we can is a matter of expanding our comfort zones. I learned that from Daniel Alvarez, who paddled from the Northwest Angle to Key West and back (and is now hiking from the top of Europe to the bottom). He told me if you’re not nervous about something, you’re not going far enough.

He was referring to a dream I had to fly the plane solo across the country, to my hometown in Massachusetts,where the plane would meet half of the couple for whom it was registered: N614EF, the wedding date and initials of my parents in 1942.

I made that journey while a few of you old-time readers watched.

Dream fulfilled.

My mother, who turns 95 next month, is too old now to be able to get into the plane — the one regret I have. So I sat her on a bench at my hometown airport and flew a high speed, low pass, wagging its wings in salute, then taxied back by her, blowing kisses to the woman who revealed to me once that she wanted to be like Amelia Earhart and fly the world. Instead, she raised five kids.

10696470_10152729693959216_2387113328295905352_n

My dad died while I was still building the thing. On the rare occasions when we chatted on the phone, he’d always conclude the conversation by saying, “you be careful in that thing” and in the last few years every time he said it, he said it more softly. You have to understand the language of the Greatest Generation male to get the whole message.

But I was careful in that thing when I checked off another dream: flying the approach to Cleveland’s amazing Burke Lakefront Airport to watch a baseball game there with my youngest son.

Check

cleveland_approach.

My wife isn’t much of a flier, but she’d take the occasional short hop if there was something at the end of the flight worth seeing: the beach along Lake Superior next to Duluth’s Sky Harbor Airport, Madeline Island’s Fourth of July parade, a Trampled by Turtles concert at the Vetter Stone Amphitheater in Mankato, or a Brian Setzer concert in Redwood Falls (who knew we’d be stranded at midnight in Redwood Falls because all the motel rooms were booked by people fighting the bird flu epidemic?).

But for any pilot, the ultimate thrill is flying into Oshkosh for the ginormous AirVenture show, when Oshkosh becomes the busiest airport in the world.

Check.

I took the plane to various airport days around Minnesota. My excuse was a plate full of questionable pancakes, but the real reason was to let kids sit in an airplane, make airplane noises, and maybe get inspired to learn to fly someday, a vanishing dream.

IMAG0024

In Fairmont this year, a young man wanted a ride. He got a ride. Kids, and a lot of adults, don’t really understand how close, connected, and dependent on each other we all are until the world is viewed from a different perspective. Nothing explains that like seeing your grandmother’s house from the air.

fairmont

Each kid who got a ride left with a story to tell at school. They didn’t just fly in a plane; they flew a plane.

Women have been told for decades that they couldn’t fly. It’s for men. So girls always go to the head of the passenger line.

girls_fly

I didn’t get to do everything I wanted. My plan to follow a Lindbergh/Wright Brothers trail, from Little Falls, Minn., to Kitty Hawk, N.C., never got off the ground and probably won’t. But I sure can’t complain.

Some medical issues returned a few months ago, making it unlikely the Federal Aviation Administration will extend my medical waiver, which allowed me back in the air after being grounded a few years ago. So I sold the airplane early last month to a nice gentleman from Grand Rapids, Mich. I think he’ll take good care of it.

After trying for more than a month, there seems to be a weather opening to get it to its new home in Grand Rapids today. The weather is OK here, and the low clouds and lake-effect snow around South Bend, Ind., and Kalamazoo, Mich., are expected to lift enough to allow me to sneak in around some squalls, I think. We’ll know when we get there. And I think I can stand the cold for a few hours. We’ll see. I admit to being a little nervous about it, but maybe I’m just not going far enough.

You can watch my progress (or lack of it: I’ll turn around if the weather fails me) here.

In the meantime, talk among yourselves. Discuss the dreams you fulfilled, and the ones you might still get to.

The weather and Southwest Airlines willing, I’ll be back here writing on Friday morning.

[Update 7:33 pm]. Over Muscoda, Wis. Temperature: -17.
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Postscript: The Last Flight (Letters From Flyover Country)

  • BJ

    Darn pollen.

  • John O.

    It’s not pollen, BJ. Too cold for that. It’s dust.

    “Once you have learned to fly your plane, it is far less fatiguing to fly than it is to drive a car. You don’t have to watch every second for cats, dogs, children, lights, road signs, ladies with baby carriages and citizens who drive out in the middle of the block against the lights…. Nobody who has not been up in the sky on a glorious morning can possibly imagine the way a pilot feels in free heaven.” ~William T. Piper

  • Thanks for this story Bob…

    >>Discuss the dreams you fulfilled, and the ones you might still get to.<<

    You have actually fulfilled one of MY dreams: To become a pilot. I'm afraid I'm too old and too poor (too lazy?) to start down that road, but who knows. I've always loved airplanes and actually took the ATC test right before I became too old hoping to get to be around airplanes as a job, but they weren't hiring (my younger brother is a controller at MSP and will be retiring in a year or two.) Now I just live by one (MSP – My house is right by Lake Nokomis), and play hockey with ATC folks at their tournaments (which actually takes me all over the world).

    I'm sorry you have to give up your baby, but at least you had a chance to fulfill that dream of yours and brought us along for the ride.

    Now you be careful in that thing.

  • Robert Moffitt

    Julia’s photo of you and your bride is lovely, as is the story you shared with us today.
    Best NewsCut post ever?
    Check.

  • KariBemidji

    Bob, this is just lovely. Enjoy your time in the sky today.

    10 years ago, my grandpa died. He was a B-17 pilot in WWII, flew in Korea, almost went to Vietnam but had a heart attack instead. Flying was his passion, too. The morning he died, I had a dream that he invited us all to the airport in Alexandria. He told us he rented a plane and just he and the pilot would fly that day. He knew that his heart wouldn’t handle the ascent/descent but he wanted to go out in a plane. The plane took off and I woke up. My mom called me a few hours later to tell me he died that morning. Pilots are a rare bunch.

    Be safe.

  • crystals

    Whenever I get a little iffy with turbulence on big planes I imagine it’s my grandpa flying, thinking of all the small planes and war planes he flew through much worse circumstances. I immediately feel more peaceful. I’ll add you into my pilot rotation and remember this post when I do.

  • Joseph

    Godspeed Bob. Thank you for all your tales about flying and aviation — those are my favorite stories of yours. I wish I was as capable a word-smith as you, but I just want you to know this was the most beautiful post you’ve done, and gave me some tears this morning. May your flight be smooth, and may your plane be well taken care of by her new owner in Michigan.

    “Take my love
    take my land
    take me where I cannot stand
    I don’t care
    I’m still free
    you can’t take the sky from me.”
    -Ballad of Serenity, from Firefly

  • Anna

    God speed and fair weather, Bob.

    My father always had a fascination with planes. He got into WW II just a hairsbreadth late to go into the Army Air Corps training. It was his dream to fly a plane. He came close in a glider in Elmira, NY in 1984 during a fall colors trip with me and my mother.

    We went to the Osh Kosh fly in one year when my son was much younger. Dad absolutely loved the museum and all the vintage WW II planes.

    Whenever there was an air show in town or close to Baton Rouge, My dad was there. and I often went with him when I was growing up.

    Never give up, Bob. You’ll fly again. You’ll find a way. I’m as certain of that as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.

    Do turn around though, if the weather gets dicey. The weather can be a fickle mistress for pilots.

  • KTFoley

    Cold days make for better flying in the dense air, yes? Nevertheless, what your dad said. Thanks for taking us along on your journey.

  • Alex

    This really hit home for me. My grandfather is a pilot and recently has lost some power in his legs, making it harder for him to operate the rudder in his beloved Cessna 150.

    He hasn’t gotten to fly for a bit as he couldn’t get the physical necessary to operate it, and was looking into getting an Ercoupe, which is classified in the “light sport” category that doesn’t require a medical. Several attempts to buy one fell through, and now he can only wait until his 150 gets reclassified into that light sport category as well. In the meantime, he’s been a passenger with his airport buddies so he can keep going to fly-ins, but you can tell he really wishes he could be the pilot again.

    Godspeed and good weather, Bob.

    • Paul

      C150 won’t ever qualify for LSA, unfortunately – they exceed the maximum weight limit of 1320 by a mere 280 lbs.

  • Gary F

    Turn the flaps down on that aviator cap and I hope your goggles don’t fog up.

    • Gary F

      And the scarf is used to keep you warm and not just as an accessory to complete the look.

  • Keith P.

    Safe home, good sir.

  • Zachary

    Safe flight Bob!

  • CHS

    I had the dream of learning to fly since I was a kid. I even got to meet Bob in the hanger to talk flying and see the RV. I quickly ran into the reality of just how much it would cost to get licensed, and was forced to make choices. When dreams and responsibilities and kids are put together, the dreams always get put at the bottom of the list. That’s life sometimes. I’ve always found a lot of inspiration in Bob’s flying and in Daniel’s North to South (and back again) adventures, it’s always reminded me that you should always have a dream and keep after it, and that no dream comes into reality without sacrificing something and working hard at it. Also, taking that first step makes a big difference.

    Dream to be fulfilled: Sailing around the world. I’ve always had the idea of taking some time and sailing as long as I could, hopefully all the way around the globe. I’ve actually started planning and taking steps to make it happen eventually. The goal is to be able to leave the year my son graduates HS, and convince him to take a gap year to go with me. I just hope he thinks I’m still cool enough by then.

    • Kassie

      That’s an awesome dream. Good luck!

      • CHS

        Thanks Kassie. It’s daunting at times but surprisingly approachable if you have a reasonable tolerance for lacking creature comforts. Honestly debt is the biggest barrier to it. Luckily I was able to pay my way through college a good portion of the time, so my student loans are mostly paid off already, and will definitely be completely paid off in a few years. Aside from that my only debt will be the house, which is fine. My better half on the other hand has some massive student loans we’re trying to figure out a way to handle by then….

        • Kassie

          Get your better half a government job, pay the income contingent payment, then *BAM*, in 10 years, they disappear. Assuming the government doesn’t do away with that program.

          • CHS

            Yeah, I’m not too confident in the long term prospects of anything government related at the moment, whether that be programs or employment. It’s an interesting idea though, I wonder if she’d qualify.

        • Gary F

          Get a job on straight commission or go into business for yourself. Tough, but rewarding.

          • CHS

            Believe me, I’ve thought a lot about it, but golden handcuffs have me for a while. The health benefits alone are enough to keep someone in a job, but retirement matching and other benefits mean I’ll keep working for ‘the man’ until I actually buy that boat and give a middle finger as I pull away from the pier.

  • Joseph Alton

    Enjoy the flight, sir. Thank you for sharing.

  • joetron2030

    Safe journey, Bob. Thanks for sharing your dream with all of us here.

  • Randall Thompson

    Be safe, Bob. And if you’re ever down near Lydia/Jordan, come buzz our strip. I’m in the goofy stucco house across the road!

  • Rob

    Very cool and inspiring post, Bob. I’ve always dreamed of motorcycling down the Pan American highway, and then continuing through South America down to the southern tip of Chile. I’m in good health, pretty much debt-free and have been riding for several decades, but I’m also one of those people who is too used to living in their (fairly small) comfort zone – and am surrounded by friends and family who think that my dream is the craziest idea they’ve ever heard.
    Safe flying!

    • Kassie

      A very Che Guevara-esque dream. Go for it, it would be super fun and challenging.

    • CHS

      I agree with Kassie, you should totally do it. Bonus if it’s on a vintage bike, something that threatens breaking down but adds to the adventure.

      • Rob

        I love that idea. I’m thinking a ’60s-era BMW or a Triumph Bonneville might be good.

        • CHS

          I love those bikes, just bring some extra cans of oil with all the time. 🙂 Nice part about them is they are easy to fix if you learn them. I grew up on a 1957 Harley my dad had for a while, the precursor to the Sportster. Was a PITA to start, rode like a railroad tie, but man was that fun to ride and easy to wrench on.

  • Brian Simon

    Godspeed, Bob.

  • Aaron

    Bob, thanks for sharing this story. For three years my wife and I planned a trip to bike across the country along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route – over 2,000 miles from Banff, Canada, to the Mexican border crossing in Antelope Wells, New Mexico. Mountain bikes and gear were acquired, money was saved, we learned how to use bear spray, and we spent five days bike touring in the Sawtooth mountains in Idaho as a prep run. We had both obtained 3 month leaves from work, with the Trip set to commence in July 2016.

    Then, in January, I lost my job. It slowly dawned on us, in the midst of the scramble for a new position, that the Trip wasn’t going to happen this year. It’s fair to say we were, and are, heartbroken.

    We took a portion of the money we saved, and bought a canoe this summer. We christened it the “Antelope Wells” after what we imagined would be the final destination of a life-altering journey, breaking a tiny bottle of scotch over its bow. In September, the Antelope Wells took us through a week long trip into the Boundary Waters. Not the Trip we imagined we would be on, but a trip nonetheless.

    The Great Divide is still out there, and it’s still waiting for us. The dream isn’t dead – it’s just postponed. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/5bb60088b45754a6565a0da9ef0b6bb354fa389744b13e4e520c3b981d10101e.jpg

    • CHS

      Don’t let it go, ever! Hope you get to make it happen sooner than later. Good luck. (you should do a blog about the trip)

  • Jeff

    I reached out to Bob this fall as I was debating fulfilling my dream of pilot certification, long ago set aside as life got in the way. Unfortunately I was never fortunate enough to ride in N614EF since our conversation started just as the medical issue reared it’s ugly head again. However, Bob and others were successful in convincing me to go after that dream before it becomes impossible to do so. So that’s what 2017 has in store for me. My list of dreams is a long one but I guess none of them will happen if I don’t get started on one.
    Safe travels Bob and thanks for the inspiration!

  • Brendan K.

    Thanks for sharing, and good luck!

  • Justine Parenteau Wettschreck

    Thank you, Bob. I really enjoyed that. Good to hear your plane is going to a good home. A tough decision, I’m sure.

    I think you would have liked meeting Norman Surplus, a gentleman from Ireland who I interviewed a while back. He flew a gyrocopter around the world. He landed in Worthington for an overnight stop, and since there was no room at the inns because of a festival, I brought him to spend the night at my home. We spent the evening sitting around the campfire in our backyard drinking beer while he told me and my husband tales of an emergency landing in Saudi Arabia, a crash landing in a Thai lake, etc… He decided to make this journey because he had almost died of cancer.

    • CHS

      That’s a story that needs to get turned into a book or something.

      Maybe when Bob retires he can take a run at writing biographies….

      • Justine Parenteau Wettschreck

        Mr. Surplus is writing a book about his travels, I believe. He had cameras attached to Roxy, his gyrocopter, and a GPS locator so people could track him. Very cool set-up.

  • Veronica

    Looks like you’re still doing OK on your flight. Have a safe rest of your journey.

  • Carol S.

    This is such a great story. I remember you talking about that paper delivery job, and being amazed that you could do that and then come to work for another 8-10 hours. You taught me that when you have a dream, you do whatever it takes to make it happen. I’m sorry that piloting (not flying!) is no longer a part of your life. I’m sure that’s hard.

    Now, I wish I could just figure out what MY dream is so I can get to making it happen. I turned 50 this week; time is getting short for whatever it turns out to be…

  • linda

    Beautiful story, Bob. It “fits the rarified air of a NewsCut topic” perfectly. Thank you for sharing your passion with so many, freely giving rides and inspiration to us all.

    I used to ride and jump horses in my youth, but like other commenters, life made it less of a priority once college was completed. At the encouragement of my family, I’m back in the saddle again at an age nearing the double nickels. Each week as I drive to my lesson, I think about the nervous feeling in my stomach. I’m never quite certain where it comes from – maybe the terrible spills I’ve witnessed -and I wonder if this is really what I should be doing. Thanks to you and Daniel Alvarez, I’ll smile and keep “going far enough.”

    Looks like the flight is proceeding well. Godspeed. The new owner is a lucky guy.

  • joetron2030

    Based on the tracking data, I’m guessing Bob set down outside of Gary, IN for now. Probably weather related based on what he said. Almost there! 🙂

    • I needed batteries for my headset. So I landed to make a run to Walmart, top off the fuel tanks, evaluate the line of snow I could see to the north and come up with a strategy for getting through.

      • joetron2030

        Even more exciting than I could have imagined!

  • Tim

    Good luck with this and hope all goes well. It was a pleasure to read.

  • Paul

    SOLD!? Hard to imagine, what a decision to have to make.

    You are always welcome to join me on flights, Bob.

    Blue skies.

  • Susan WB

    This is a lovely story, Bob. Thanks for sharing it with us. I do remember the plane-building NewsCut days, and it’s sad even for us long-time readers to think those days are gone. I’m glad you got so many happy memories out of it.

    Dang, what am I going to do for heart-touching and uplifting stories when you retire?

    • I may build another plane, a slower one that I could fly without a medical waiver. It turns out, I just like building planes as much as flying them.

      • Susan WB

        That sounds like a plan! If you do, and you blog about it somewhere else, please let us faithful NewsCut readers know where to read about it, OK?

  • Gary F

    “He told me if you’re not nervous about something, you’re not going far enough.”

    Yup, well said.

  • Jay Sieling

    Lovely and meaningful post, Bob. Watching your progress. Be safe. Be well.

    In 2005 our family started a canoe trip at the headwaters of the might Mississippi. Our first leg was from Lake Itasca to Coffee Pot Landing. In the fall, with low water there were a few times we lost the main channel and had to back paddle out of dead end beaver runs. We made the second leg of the trip the next spring. That included a memorable swamping halfway into the trip, partly caused by our thirsty golden retriever Rosie. We’ve not been back on the river as kid’s school events and other trips took precedence. The nest is empty now and that goal to paddle to the Big Easy may still be accomplished. Even if it doesn’t, we have the memory of those adventures that took us the first 40 of 2550 miles.

  • Jim G

    We mortals must acknowledge that all things have a season. I returned to Minnesota and Wisconsin for commemortive deer hunts this past November. Enjoy your cumlative …commemortive flight today. Even though I am not an aviator I always vicariously enjoy flying along with you through the videos you post. Save the misty eyes for after the final touchdown.

  • Barb Gehlen

    Godspeed Bob. Safe travels and come back with stories to share with us.

  • Thank you for all your kind words. Arrived in Grand Rapids. It took a little finessing .

  • Jane Snell Copes

    Glad you got there safely. I wonder why you would not fly over Lake Michigan–shorter in miles looking at the map.

    • No place to land but the water if I Lose the engine.

      • Anna

        Glad you got there safely considering back here we are under a winter storm warning.

        It was lovely watching the initial flight of your beloved plane. Seeing it fly successfully and safely must have had you bursting at the seams with happiness and satisfaction.

        What a grand and noble accomplishment!

        Hope you’re staying put for a while. The weather is touch and go for flying or driving. Fit for neither man nor beast as they like to say.

  • Thanks cap’n! “Oh man, what a ride.”

  • flynaround

    Thanks for sharing, Bob. A bittersweet story. Hope we get to see you in Florida in a couple of months.

    David Maib

  • Nikki Tundel

    Thanks for writing this, Bob. It’s lovely and sad and so many other things. And it has far more value than any “news” I read today.

  • quick13

    “My airplane is quiet, and for a moment still an alien, still a stranger to the ground, I am home.”

    — Richard Bach, Stranger to the Ground, 1963

    Thank you for sharing your love of aviation and all the wonderful stories. Your plane could never be in as good of hands as yours but I hope it brings the new owner as much joy as it brought you and all your passengers through the years.

    “Sometimes things are bigger than you, and the best you can hope for is to keep your wings level and have patience and a little luck.”

    — Warren L “Wally” Simpson, a pilot with more than 75 round-trips ‘over the hump’ in WWII.

  • Doug Weiler

    As usual Bob a great read. I have always enjoyed your way with words especially when it comes to writing about aviation and your RV. I’m so glad you were finally able to deliver the airplane but I also know what a bittersweet journey it was. BUT… my right seat is always available!!!!

  • Slartibartfast1

    What a well-told yet bittersweet story Bob. Hopefully my fellow pilots who still live in MN step-up and offer you a flight or several in the future!

  • Engine shutdown, Grand Rapids. 2:50 pm CT (I stopped for an hour in Valparaiso to run to the store to get some batteries for a dying headset)
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/3540a5ef631f8f664386fc117e897131662dc336a0792de05b1bfc379a47067e.jpg