By Greg Brown
“Big storm system coming in this morning,” said the briefer. “It’s already snowing in Denver.”
I peered out the window in disbelief. Skies were blue and temperatures hovered in the low 50s.
“When do you expect it to reach here?” I asked.
“Should be there within two hours,” was the reply. “You’ll certainly be staying the night.”
A young man’s dream had drawn our Flying Carpet from Phoenix to Colorado Springs. Since the age of 11, when he invested three weeks’ allowance to buy the application guide, my son, Austin, had longed to attend the United States Air Force Academy. Now, some five years later, his former high school classmate, Cadet Adam Keith, offered the tantalizing invitation to attend a day of classes there.
Three and a half hours by Cessna 182 took us from Sonoran Desert, over pine-covered plateaus and red-rock barrens, then through snow-clogged mountain passes at 12,000 feet, where Pike’s Peak defines the westernmost edge of the Great Plains. There, we were seduced by the mystical setting of the Air Force Academy itself, nestled against foothills of the Rockies, its cadets marching among jet fighters, past the famous chapel.
But most inspiring was the boundless and hopeful future written on one young man’s face, when I dropped him at the academy’s “Bring Me Men” ramp (since renamed). There, Austin shook hands with Cadet Keith, resplendent in knife-edged blue uniform and white dress gloves. The two left me for a day, chasing dreams only a young person can appreciate. It was a sight I’ll not forget, regardless of the path Austin ultimately follows through life.
I phoned Flight Service to inquire about our planned flight home, and learned of the approaching storm. I renewed our hotel room and then wandered the campus. Even more imposing than the famous chapel is the academy’s endless parade ground, spanning even under the campus buildings themselves, which rest on columns above the ground.
Also impressive were the hall and statue commemorating General Henry “Hap” Arnold, “father of the Air Force.” In one amazing lifetime, this man learned to fly at the Wright brothers’ school, led our Army Air Forces to victory in World War II, and crowned his career as first commanding general of the newly-formed U.S. Air Force in 1948.
More sobering were exhibits honoring academy grads who lost their lives or freedom in service of our country. Perhaps most personally touching was the photo of a young woman who was the first female graduate to die in a combat zone. Reminded that the
academy is, first and foremost, an institution for training military officers, I struggled to ignore the darker risks associated with my son’s glowing aspirations.
Before the first flakes fell, I had time to visit the academy airport, where cadets train in glider-flying and parachuting. Three runways support several hundred parachute jumps and glider flights each day weather permits. Enthusiastic young people rushing about the ramp reminded me how the infectious dream of flight drives us all.
By the time I returned to campus, wet snow blanketed the ground and burdened General Arnold’s statue, tiring his great figure and aging his earlier sunlit demeanor. I collected Austin at the ramp. On the wintry journey back to the hotel, he regaled me with tales of his day at the academy, along with the hopes and plans fostered there.
He also queried me about the odds of getting home anytime soon, since this was his first blizzard since moving to warm climates at the age of 4. With the storm raging outside, we spent the evening watching TV and pondering the fate of our poor airplane, huddled cold and forlorn on a snow-swept ramp.
The next morning dawned grey but optimistic, so we slithered on icy roads to the airport, warmed and dried the Flying Carpet in the shelter of a friendly hangar, and took flight through haunting mist rising from freshly cleared pavement. A few clouds still hugged the peaks as we entered narrow Medano Pass, where it pierces the 14,000-foot stockade of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Snow-slathered towers of rock leaned menacingly from either side over our diminutive Flying Carpet, with only azure sky to resist the powerful summits from closing overhead.
We barely had time to recover from that experience before reliving it again at Cumbre Pass, through the San Juans beyond Alamosa. Never have I felt smaller, nor more dazzled or awestruck than when we escaped the jaws of those passes into the high desert of northern New Mexico. I was more than a little surprised, after such a majestic passage, when I looked Austin’s way and discovered him leaning dejectedly against his window.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
“It may sound funny, but I’m a little depressed,” he replied.
“Why’s that?” I questioned.
“Oh, it’s just hard tasting life as an Air Force Academy cadet, and then returning to high school for two more years,” he said.
To break his funk, we tapped some iced coffee from the cooler, ogled for one last time the wall of snow-covered peaks behind us, and then toasted Austin’s future. (Just a very small toast, as we still had some two and a half hours left to contain it.)
“Well, I guess it’s not really a whole two years,” Austin volunteered, perking up. “More like a year and four months.” He sat silent for a moment. “I’m gonna work on that test study program when we get home, to help raise my score a few points on the SAT next month—for my academy application. Know what I mean?”
Author of numerous books and articles, Greg Brown is a 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].