The Experience


One quick downward swing of the wooden propeller and the motor is running, catching its breath and choking and coughing horse in the morning chill. Silence runs terrified before it and hides in the far corners of the hills around. Clouds of blue smoke wreathe for a second and are whipped away and the wooden blade becomes nothing more than a great wide fan, and it blows air back over us like a giant blowing on a dandelion and the sound of it over the engine sound is a deep west wind in the hills and valleys.

I can't see a thing ahead but the airplane; my passenger in the front cockpit and a wide cowling and a whirlwind blur that is our propeller. I let go the brakes and look out over the side of the cockpit into the big fan-wind giant wind and touch the throttle forward. The propeller blur goes thinner and faster and the motors sound goes deeper, all the while hollow and resonant, as though it were growing and roaring at the bottom of a thousand-gallon drum, lined in mirrors.

The old tall wheels begin to roll along the tarmac. The old tarmac, under the old wind, and bright old wings of another era and of this year, bound solidly together with angled old wires and forward-tilting wing struts of metal, all a painted butterfly above the chill of the Napa Valley vineyards. Pressing on the rudder pedals, I swing the nose slowly from one side to the other as we roll, making sure that the blind way ahead is clear.

What a very long way has come the dream of flight since the Wright brothers soared above Kittyhawk. None of the haughtily proud business like mien of the modern airplane hinted here. None of it, just a slow leisurely taxi, with the constant S-turns to see ahead, pausing to sniff the breeze and inspect a flower in the grass and to listen to the sound of our motor. A quite-seeming old biplane. Seeming, thought, only seeming.

This airplane seems docile and is as trim as a young lady earnestly seeking to make a good impression upon the world. Listen to the motor tick over. Smooth as a tuned racing motor, not a single cylinder left out of the song. A quick runup here at the runways end before takeoff. Controls all free and working properly, oil pressure and temperature pointing as they should. Fuel valve checked on, mixture is rich, all the levers are where they belong. All right airplane, let us see how you can fly. A discreet nudge on the throttle, a touch of left rudder to swing the nose around into the wind, facing a broad expanse of runway.

Chin strap fastened on leather helmet, flying goggles lowered. Throttle coming full forward now, and the giant blows hard twisting sound and fanned exhaust upon us. Push forward on the control stick and instantly the tail is flying. The runway fades into a black felt blur, and our craft is already light on her wheels. And suddenly the ground is no more, Smooth into the sky on bright silver wings, climbing, the motor thunders in its hollow drum, the tall wheels still spinning, are lifted. Listen to that! The wind in the wires! And now it's here all around us. It hasn't gone at all. It isn't lost in dusty yellow books with dusty browning photographs. It is here this instant, the taste of it all. That screaming in your ears and the whipping of a silk scarf - the wind! It's here for us now just as it was here for the first aviators; the barnstormers, that carried their megaphoned words across the pastures of Illinois and the meadows of Iowa and the picnic grounds of Pennsylvania and the beaches of Florida. A few minutes with the summer clouds, a few minutes in the land of angels. “See your town from the air. You are there, sir, how about taking the little lady for a joyride? Absolutely safe, perfectly harmless. Feel that fresh wind that blows where only birds and airplanes fly.” The same wind drumming on the same fabric and singing through the same wires and smashing into the same motor cylinders and sliced by the same sharp burnished propeller and stirred and roiled by the same flying machine that toiled so many years ago.

Find an old airplane and with a few pumps of prime and the swing of a wooden propeller you can push time around as you will, mold it into a finer shape, give its features a more pleasant countenance. An escape machine this. Climb in the cockpit and move the levers and turn the valves and start the motor and lift off into the great unchanging ocean of air and you are the master of your own time. Carpe Diem!


Paraphrased excerpts from Richard Bach’s “Biplane”