The Young Eagle's program (YoungEagles.org) through the Experimental Aviation Association (eaa.org) has given over 1 million youths, between the ages of 7 and 17, rides in small airplanes. For some, the ride is their first ride in an airplane of any size. This would be Sarah's first ride.
It was summer in Port Angeles, Washington, located on the edge of the Pacific as it flowed into Puget Sound. Look across the water; those trees are Canada. The morning breeze off the ocean was strong enough to make white caps out on the bay. Cool enough to warrant a light jacket.
The terrain around Pt. Angeles
I invited Sarah's dad to come out to see the airplane, but Sarah announced, "I'll do it." She took my hand and walked with me toward the glider. As we walked by the other airplanes on the ramp, we talked about how they had nice colors, how they had different shapes or different missions. Some were designed for long trips. Some were great for flying into small fields or even a sand bar by a stream.
Then we got to the motorglider. It was parked out at the end of the line of airplanes so its long wings wouldn't block the other airplanes on the ramp. We talked about how the wings caught rising air. How the engine pulled us along. How her stomach would feel a little funny when the glider caught rising air and surged upward - just the way it was supposed to. Sarah would be one of the youngest passengers I had taken. The seating in the glider is tandem, one person in front, one in back. Since I can't reach the person sitting in back, I had tended to take older passengers. So, I was watching Sarah as much as she was watching me. If she seemed calm and predictable, she could come. If she seemed frightened or might need personal attention, she should go in one of the airplanes where she could sit next to a pilot - within reach.
We talked about how the control stick pushes the nose up or down, or rolls the wings side to side; the little yellow lever controls the engine; the big handle on the left controls the spoilers; things she could touch, things she shouldn't. The controls in the rear are connected to the controls in the front. So, she would see them all move as I flew the glider.
Quietly, somewhat seriously she said, "I'm really scared."
I asked, "Did you want to come out to do this today, or was it your Dad's idea?"
Her brows furrowed and in a serious tone she said, "It was my idea. They said there were going to be airplanes here today. They would give me a ride."
I smiled, "That's right! Well, maybe you're feeling excited. Being scared and being excited can feel about the same, sometimes." She seemed to ponder that.
We took our time. We touched the wings, the controls, the handles. There were all just cloth, wood and metal. All friendly. Nothing unusual.
I put an extra cushion on her seat so she could see out better, buckled her in and adjusted her headset so we could talk to each other. I finished the preflight. Got in. Buckled up.
Through the headset I asked, "Are you ready?"
"I think so. I'm still real scared."
Gently I asked, "Would you like to go back to your Dad? You don't have to do this. You should only go for a ride if you really want to."
With surprising firmness she replied, "No. I want to do it."
I smiled, "Ok. Are you ready?"
"I'll start the engine. Once it's running, we'll taxi out to the runway. I'll need to talk on the radio. So, just listen quietly. If you have any questions, save them for after we've taken off."
From the back came a quiet, "Ok."
"Clear prop!" I called out. The engine hummed to life. I've always liked that engine. It's not as powerful as one on a typical Piper or Cessna. But it starts easily. Every time. No problems. Good qualities for an airplane engine, I always thought. We taxied out to the run up area.
"Sarah, I'm going to make the engine go fast so we're sure it's ready for us to go flying." I advanced the throttle; the engine rpm exceeded the 2,800 rpm required to verify it would give us full power, then backed it down to an idle. We taxied to the runway edge marking and checked the pattern. No one was close to us.
"Are you ready to go?" I asked.
I announced our entry onto the runway and our departure. With the brisk wind, the glider seemed to lift off with almost no ground run. It's always great to hear the wheels and tires suddenly get quiet and know you're not touching the ground any more.
Gear up. With a good, stable climb, I reduced the throttle slightly to put a little less wear on the engine.
With the modest horsepower and the big wings, the glider seems to elevate. Sporty airplanes with big engines and small wings can leap off the ground at steep angles like they were kicked in the rear. Quite dramatic. The glider is slower, gentler.
"How are you doing back there?" I asked through the headset.
"Fine." But her voice seemed a little quiet and stressed. She needed to think about other things.
"Have you seen any whales yet?
"Whales!?" she perked up.
"Sure, they come right through here (pointing to the bay) from the ocean. Haven't you seen them?"
"No." She started sinking again.
And there it was - the Mary Washington, a wooden reproduction of a square-rigged sailing ship.
The Lady Washington
(with a decidedly, non-period motor boat enjoying the view)
"Pirates!" I called out.
"Pirates!?" Ok - now she was cooking.
"Over there! See them? Let's go take a look." So, we banked to the right, headed out over the bay and toward the Lady Washington. Within a few minutes we were circling the unsuspecting ship. I throttled back so we loafed around in lazy circles like a hawk in a thermal.
"Do you see any cannons?"
"I think I see some! Can they shoot us?"
"No, we're way too high. They could never get us. But we could drop water balloons on them. Do you have any back there?
"No." She was disappointed.
"I think you do. You've got tons of them! Why don't you see if you can get those pirates?"
Through the headset came the sound of giggling and water balloons hitting the ship.
"I think you got 'em! Good job!"
Looking for the next distraction I asked, "Do you live in town?"
"Yes, by the school."
"Let's go see if we can find it." So, we headed over Port Angeles. She called out, "I can see it! I can see my house. It's the white one down there. Can you see it?"
Hm-m-m....there were hundreds of white houses. So, of course I answered, "I think I see it! Is it the one with the dark roof?" Which was pretty safe because almost all of them seemed to have dark roofs.
"Yes! That's the one!"
"Ok! That is cool. In school next week, you can tell your friends you flew over your house!"
"Yeah," came a thoughtful, happy voice.
"Well it's time for us to head back."
We headed back to the airport. Checked for traffic. Performed our pre-landing checklist and entered the pattern. On our downwind leg abeam the end of the runway I dropped the engine to idle, changed the prop to fine pitch, lowered the gear and confirmed it was down, confirmed spoiler operation and started our descent. On base leg, I confirmed the landing gear was down and continued our descent to 500' above ground level. Checking traffic, we turned onto final, confirmed our gear was down and used the spoilers to overcome the wings' tendency to just keep flying.
With a thump, we were on the runway and taxied over to the Young Eagles hangar.
I climbed out and opened the rear canopy.
The old Sarah was gone. Now sitting in back, was a new Sarah. Smiling. Excited. Confident.
Making real eye contact with me for the first time, she smiled and said, "Wow!"
I helped her climb out and we walked back to the hangar. She marched up to her father and started to tell him all about it. Even he was surprised at the change in her demeanor. He looked up, smiled, waved and was dragged by his leader as they headed toward the car.
Many things seem ordinary. A trip on a commercial airline can seem much like taking a ride in a bus. But the simple act of flying, made real by slow speeds, over landscape you can relate to, enhanced by a clear canopy - is a different experience.
Back at the hangar, I looked at the line of youngsters and wondered who would be the next adventurer.
As I headed home the next morning, a low marine layer came in off the Sound,...
...lapping up against the Olympic mountains like a snow fall
Climbing over the layer, I flew back to Auburn in clear skies