Thursday, March 12, 2009

Our Own Battery-Powered Sky King: Flying the Skies With Dad

Robin and Dad at the flying club on the one and only day she flew in his plane.

Airplanes have always enchanted my father and have thus been part of the life of my family since my sister and I were children. He was eight when Lindberg flew the Atlantic and he even got to see the Spirit of St. Lewis when it came to Birmingham later in 1927. My Dad learned to fly when he was in college, spent his war years building runways for airplanes (and asking pilots if he could go up with them "for a spin"), and then began his working life as an aeronautical engineer.

There was a 1950s TV show called Sky King, in which a rancher flew his own plane and kept the bad guys on the run from the air, and I'll always think of Dad as our own Sky King.

Mom wouldn't let him fly when we were young. For whatever reason, which we won't analyze today, she believes gratification should be postponed indefinitely.To his question of "why?" she told my Dad that she didn't want him to auger in and force her to raise "these two girls" alone. She made him promise not to fly until we were grown. Fair enough. But statistics show he was much more likely to die in a car accident on the ground.

Dad, Robin, the Sparky-K and Robin's childhood friend Keith. One day, when I can, I'll tell you more about Keith, who died when I was nine.

Anyway, while we were kids, Dad flew model planes, long before there were model plane clubs that made flying these toys a social event. You could say he was ahead of the curve. Or you could say he was a man who marched to his own drummer. Or you could just say he was a nerdy engineer who liked planes and, deprived of the chance to fly real ones, flew toy ones instead.

The Sparky-K posing under our clothesline.

The first one I remember was one he built himself that had a little gasoline engine. He called it the Sparky-K. Sparky was the nickname my grandfather gave me for reasons that I assume are obvious to my acquaintances and K was for my sister Kimberly. Until it was damaged in a slight landing mishap in a field adjacent to Stanford University--Sully Sullenberger wasn't available to glide her in--she was Dad's favorite toy plane for Saturday afternoon-after-the-chores fun.

You could have knocked us all over when my father, who has a very long memory, joined a flying club after he retired. At the age of sixty-nine he started flying real planes again. I guess my mother figured if he augured in at that point she would be left well-fixed indeed and, what the heck, it would get the old guy out of the house.

He and his flying club friends never went anywhere in particular when they took off from Moffet Field in Mountain View, California. Mostly they would just fly to another Bay Area airport, have lunch, and fly home. Once, when there was a whale stuck in the Sacramento River, he and a friend flew to Sacramento, rented a car and drove to the river to see if they could spot this Wrong-Way-Corrigan mammal-of-the-sea. It was all just fun for Dad. His hearing wasn't good, but he and his flying pals wore special headphones with microphones that amplified each other's speech and the voices of the air traffic controllers, so it was still possible for him to fly safely, even with his handicap.

I'm always up for an adventure. So one summer day in the 1980s when I was in Los Altos on a visit, I asked Dad if he and his friend Ollie would fly me to Carmel, where some friends of mine were staying. Dad checked with Mom and the trip was set. This was a rare time when my Dad's flying club plane was actually going to be used for transportation.

His aircraft, his checklist. Prepping for flight on that fateful day.

We got into the plane on a sunny morning and my Dad took the old battery out of his headset and put in a new one, just to be safe. He tucked the old one in his back pocket, ran through the check list, and off we went.

I must say I wouldn't recommend flying when the pilot is someone you know and love. For the first time in my life in a plane, I was scared to death. Dad seemed very fidgety, too, and when we flew over the Coast Range and then, briefly, the Pacific Ocean, I was sure I was going to have a heart attack. He kept squirming in his seat--not comforting, I must say.

Finally we approached the Monteray-Salinas airport and I heaved a sigh of relief. And then the pilot, my father, said a bad word . My father never says a bad word. This is not done in my family. This particular day, the bad word was damn! and since it was said as we made our final approach to the airport I put my two little hands together and told God I was very sorry for all the bad things I had done in my life and hoped he would, nevertheless, let me in to heaven when this plane crashed and we all died.

But we landed safely.

"Dad," I said as we disembarked. "I think it might be best in the future not to say "damn" on final approach and scare your passengers to death." He laughed and laughed. It turns out a funny thing had happened.

When he put the old battery from his headset in his back pocket he didn't think a thing about it. But as we flew over the Coast Range and the air grew a little bumpy, his old battery began making contact with his keys and all during the rest of the flight he had been getting repeated little shocks to his rear end. I guess as we were on final approach he got a big shock, not a flying kind of shock, just a battery-in-the-bottom kind.

It was funny. But, from that day foward Sky King flew without me. The crash of the Sparky-K was still a fairly recent memory, after all. I much more enjoyed admiring his flying prowess from afar. Very far afar.

When he turned eighty and could no longer hear at all, he quit flying. But he did not really quit flying. He went back to flying model planes and it was just a few years ago that my sister took some pictures of him at our old junior high, flying a remote-controlled plane someone had given him. You just can't keep a good aviator down. Just make sure to keep the 9 volt Energizer out of the pocket of his pants.

He's not flying anymore, but as recently as 2004 he was out launching his planes in the summer sunshine.

Subscribe to Robin Chapman News


Florida Beach Basics said...

good story - he has had a very interesting life! marge

Devon C. said...

very funny... I so wanted to go flying too, it's so much fun to fly in little plans. But if the passengers make the pilots too nervous it just won't work.

Robin Chapman said...

Wait a second! Just because he gave himself a hot seat, I'm not taking the blame for that!!! Anyway, I think its best he's not flying now. Eeek.