by Fred Tribuzzo, Koehler Books – April 15, 2014
American Sky: Good Landings and Other Flying Adventures is the author’s journey from antiwar protester of the late sixties to the cockpit of the world’s fastest business jet. It’s the story of a young man going to work for a father and son who not only teach the skills for starting a Lycoming or Continental engine on a hot summer day, but provide the daily humor, courage, and wise-words to pursue dreams.
Whether attending a training session with a fellow pilot whose relative snapped the famous photograph of the Wright Brothers first flight, or listening to a grouchy cab driver’s pithy remarks before a long flight home, the author encounters people and random experiences as if they’re signposts of life. He learns that a teacher can often be a place, a stranger, a storm, the sky itself.
The world comes awake, and on the eve of starting flight lessons, a World War Two veteran will insist the author shun sailplanes and experience powered flight, the joy of driving straight up into the clouds.
In American Sky, events and people shift in time, and experiences blossom unexpectedly. Yet the influence of a mentor remains a visible, poignant anchor.
You know exactly what you’re doing, even if it’s the first time
That summer, a massive heart attack nailed my Uncle Gus in the month of August, exactly two months before his forty-sixth birthday. My aunt said a mirror cracked and a clock stopped at the moment of his death. Perhaps the leap from his body startled the world on his departure.
On the day he was buried, a cool wind haunted a cloudless blue sky. My father and I were at the far end of the yard, next to the garden. Closer to the house, my relatives stood and talked, holding their drinks, while the wind rippled their dresses and suits and blew their hair out of place.
I asked my father if my uncle had known of my flying lessons. He wasn’t sure. He couldn't remember. I had meant to call Uncle Gus, let him know that I was flying an airplane just like the one he had owned and given me my first ride in when I was fifteen, a Cessna 150, a two-seat trainer.
On the afternoon of my first flight, my uncle leveled the plane at altitude and set the power. He pointed to the horizon and the nose of the plane—the basic cues for maintaining an aircraft in level flight—and told me to keep it there. Briefly, I sensed the balance, the suspension of the plane between land and sky. However, when I banked the Cessna, everything went to hell, the speed picked up and I lost altitude. My uncle laughed, taking the controls, leveling the wings as he adjusted the power.
I mentioned that first ride to my dad as my aunt approached us. She wore sunglasses and her movements were deliberate and graceful. Her first order of business was the insurance policy. She and my dad talked for several minutes before she asked about my flying. I didn’t say much. Instead, I asked about my uncle’s years as a private pilot and the radio-controlled models he built in the 1950’s.
She shrugged and glanced about the yard, then at the sky. “Summer’s over today. You can feel it in the wind.” She looked at me and said, “Will you take me flying someday?”
“Sure,” I replied.
She reminisced about their flights to the islands in Lake Erie, and trips with another couple in a twin-engine Beech. “Gus’s friend would takeoff in all kinds of weather. But Gus never cared for that kind of flying. He hated flying blind.” My uncle avoided instrument flight, driving through the clouds, relying strictly on the gauges. His training was for good weather days, seat-of-the-pants flying. And the larger, more sophisticated aircraft like his friend’s, never held his interest, either, which was unusual in a field where most pilots dream of bigger and faster aircraft.
“He was a good pilot,” she said.
“He was,” I agreed and thought how attuned to the present he had been, the skimming of things, the ocean at his feet. He could sense the future as a distant wave before it took form.
“Your uncle knew you loved flying. He said you were suited for it; maybe to even do it for a living. That impressed him,” my aunt said.
Her dark hair blew across her face as she spoke. Instead of fussing with it, she turned slightly, letting the wind sweep her hair back.
“Maybe we have to believe that when someone goes so quickly, they see their children grown up in an instant, see accomplishments. I think God must give this. Before I walked over here, that’s what I was thinking.”
My dad said nothing. When she reached over to smooth down his lapel, he took her hand in his.
“This morning, I finally thought about his last couple of days,” she said. “When I lost him, all I could see was Gus and I as newlyweds, or the kids being very young. But when I got up this morning, I remembered how he raced around, visiting everyone he loved just a few days ago. He saw his mother twice. And he kept calling his friends, setting up dates for all of us to get together. But at night, he was anxious. He told me he didn’t want to sleep; that he felt fine in the morning with practically no sleep at all. Late at night, he’d walk, or sit in the backyard. He liked how the garden looked when it was dark and the neighborhood quiet.” Another gust of wind surprised my aunt, and she turned her face away from us. “And his last morning, he picked a bunch of things—tomatoes, zucchini, beans, peppers. When I got home, they were laid out on the counter.”
That evening, after most of the people were gone, I made a sandwich from the leftovers. After my snack I sat alone in the kitchen. When I got up to get a glass of water, I noticed the unwashed vegetables my uncle had picked only days ago. No one had cleaned them, and they looked beautiful and warm, resting on the white tile counter.