I was on the ramp at Denver’s Centennial Airport, preflighting the Flying Carpet for our long flight home to Phoenix, when the young fueler arrived at the airplane. Bryan was his name, and as he neatly topped the tanks without spilling a drop, I asked if he was a pilot.
“Workin’ on my commercial,” he said with justifiable pride. “One day, I’m going to be an airline pilot.”
While he serviced the tires, we talked about his flying, studies and plans for the future.
“Ever do any pleasure flying?” I asked, rolling the plane fore and aft so he could chase the tire valve inside the left wheel fairing.
“Yeah,” he answered. “There’s a girl I know in Ames, Iowa. Just got back from visiting her there last weekend.”
“That’s quite a trip,” I said. “What did you fly?”
“A Cessna 172,” he replied. “Took just over 14 hours, roundtrip.”
He then told me about this special girl, how they’d met at a concert, how she’s in Denver every summer, but he tries to fly out and see her once a month during the school year.
“Lots of instrument flying on that trip,” I observed.
“That’s for sure; I’ve learned plenty!” he said.
I in turn told him about my own long-ago flying romance, shuttling a much shorter trip back and forth between Champaign, Ill., and Indianapolis.
“It was great fun,” I reminisced. “And in the course of it, I tapped every friend I ever had and then some, to ride along and share the cost.”
As we moved to the other main gear, Bryan began telling me of his pilot friend, who shares expenses and flying on those lengthy Iowa trips. But my own thoughts had rolled back 25 years, to flights in the Piper Cherokee and Cessna 172 owned by the University of Illinois flying club. It was only an hour each way to visit my girlfriend, but it was often in challenging weather.
I remembered flying the landing pattern for Eagle Creek Airport, over a blue reservoir brimming with sailboats—and sneaking into “non-vis” dorms at Butler University to visit a bubbly, dark-haired girl with sparkling eyes and a knack for wisecracks.
On my first flight to Indianapolis, I couldn’t find Shank Airport, where we were originally supposed to meet. Turned out that although still on the chart, it had closed several months earlier. Somehow we found each other anyway.
Another time, we departed Champaign to take her home, but returned after takeoff due to snowy weather. Conditions were too slick for my old Chrysler convertible, so we drove her back in my roommate’s drafty VW bug with the hole in the floor.
We made other special flights together, to faraway places like Rochelle, Ill., for her brother’s wedding, and Madison, Wis. Then there was my embarrassing emergency bathroom landing, on the long trip from Champaign to Beloit in a Cessna 150—not so cool for a young man trying to impress his girlfriend.
“Hey,” interrupted Bryan. “Can you push the plane back a hair? I can’t reach the valve inside the nosewheel fairing.”
“Ever fly faster airplanes on that long trip to Ames?” I asked, seeking to continue the conversation and the memories.
“I did check out in a 172 RG, for my commercial,” he replied. “But after all, one objective is to get flight hours, so there’s no point in taking a faster plane.” He paused for a moment. “Besides, I don’t plan to be flying this little stuff for long anyway; I’ll be flying jets!”
By now, Bryan had almost finished cleaning the windshield. He asked a polite question or two about the Flying Carpet and how long it would take to get to Phoenix. Then he walked to the truck, stopping just before he got there to throw the windshield cleaner inside. But before getting in, he turned, as if by afterthought, back in my direction.
“Say,” he said, brow furrowed, as I hadn’t seen it during our brief conversation. “Hope you don’t mind me asking, but what ever happened to that girl?”
“That girl you flew over to see, you know, in Indianapolis.”
“She married me.”
“Great!” he said, suddenly beaming. “Because I’m hoping this girl will marry me, too!”
With that, he shook my hand warmly, climbed into the cab, revved up the engine and drove away.
There wasn’t time to tell Bryan what was going through my mind at that moment, and probably it’s just as well, because he’ll have to travel that airway himself to believe it.
But one day, I desperately wanted to tell him, 20 years from now, when he’s commanding a Boeing 777, he’s going to ease back in his seat, having completed the cruise checklist, and say to his young first officer, “You know, this airline flying is a blast, but did I ever tell you about the best flying I ever did?”
“No,” his young first officer will answer. “Was it one of those old Learjets you flew on your way up the ladder?”
“Nope,” Bryan will reply. “The best flying of my life was a 14-hour roundtrip I made every month during college, in a Cessna 172, all the way from Denver to Ames, Iowa, to see a very special girl there. And you know what?”
“She married me!”
Filled with those thoughts, I walked to the parking lot, from there to drive to a nearby hotel and pick up a dark-haired, sparkly-eyed girl, who by now would be done with her meeting and ready for the long flight home.
“Best flying I’ve ever done,” I thought.
Author of numerous books and articles, Greg Brown is columnist for AOPA Flight Training magazine. Read more of his tales in “Flying Carpet: The Soul of an Airplane,” available through your favorite bookstore, pilot shop, or online catalog and visit [http://www.gregbrownflyingcarpet.com].