When I was a kid, back when my dearest wish was to be tall enough to reach the rudder pedals, I hung around the old Navy hangar at Ottumwa, Iowa. Yep, the Navy had a facility deep in the waves of corn once upon the time of the Greatest Generation.

This hangar was monstrous huge. Rafters thicker than I was tall, catwalks and catacombs twisting along the perimeter and high, high overhead up where the sunlight got lost. Bare cinder block rooms with cryptic switches near where the doors once hung, windows small and high up near the ceiling of wood and cobwebs, half staircases leading to more rooms of dust and sand and slate and the odd piece of chalk.

I spent hours up in those rafters just looking down fifty feet or more from the dark into the square pool of light defined by the massive half-open doors. The planes parked below bathed in the dim dusty light like set pieces for a play about to start in on Act I, waiting for the audience to settle in and the first actor to take his mark.

A polished Swift, a dusty Stearman, a Mooney Mite with flat tires, Dad’s old biplane dripping oil into a Chock Full-o-Nuts coffee can…,

… and the Champ freshly painted waited to roll out into another hot Iowa day.

Steeped in the smell of tar and creosote from above and the oil and grease and leather and sweat from below, I sat and dreamed of having legs long enough to fly my Mom’s Champ.

I knew that when the adults were done telling stories and checking weather and tossing the coin to see where we were off to, I’d be called out for and run along the catwalk, down the winding steel steps to the Balcony level and holler out, “I’m comin’!”, grab my helmet and goggles from the station wagon and wait for my seating assignment. Didn’t care where we were going or what plane I’d be going in… I was happy just to be going.

Most times, it was just around the patch with Mom or a hop to Oskaloosa with Dad to visit a farmer friend’s field, but it was sitting in that seat designed for a view of the world from up top and that’s where I wanted to be.

I got older after a bit (as will happen when time runs forward) and started pumping gas on the line, another airport, another state. Flying came more rarely, but I knew at the end of every work day, I’d get the lesson I was working for. Finally, at age 15, I got to solo a glider.

Just me and 30 lbs of lead sheet to make the CG work out all right. That first flight was seven minutes long.

I think I beat the tow plane back to the runway. Mom got a grainy Super 8 film of the whole thing with film to spare.

That next summer, I soloed an old Aeronca L3. And that flight wasn’t much longer but Mom was there for every minute of that one, too.

She watched me get my Private Glider, watched with crossed fingers while I took up my first passengers (my sister Erika, brothers Jim and Jon) and celebrated together a few years later for the Private Pilot license.

Now, 33 years and 16,000 hours later, she sits in the front seat of a plane I built while we fly in tight formation with a Stearman. This photo flight would yield a perfect picture of the two of us: her with a confident smile, me frowning in concentration trying to do a good job for her. It’s a picture that would make a national magazine, make me smile, make Mom proud.

(Photo by Gilles Aulliard)

She is always behind me supportive. My Stepfather Jon pushed when I needed the push, Dad out ahead showing me the way. Without them, there would be just another empty seat going somewhere without a kid or a dream looking at the world from up top.


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  1. My … does this Article ever bring back memories. I’ve had the honour of knowing the Bach family for a long time (coming up on 40 years!). I met Richard in 1970, Bette Bach (now Bette Fineman) in ’71 and the rest of the “kids” in ’72 (including the late, deeply-missed, Beth Bach who was tragically killed in a car crash). I’m also deeply honoured that Richard, Rob, Jonathan and Bette Fineman have all contributed pieces to Why Fly. And we sincerely thank Rob for donating this wonderful piece, along with its historical images. Keep ’em coming guys. We are truly appreciative.

  2. Very nice!

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