Dec 23, 2012

On the eve of Christmas Eve, with 200 miles left to drive, and no mechanics available, my car broke down just outside Jacksonville, FL. This annual road trip started where I lived in Charleston, SC, included a halfway-stopping point at my best friend Ryan’s house in Jacksonville, FL, and ended at my parent’s house in Clearwater, FL. The phrase “Go Greyhound” crossed my mind, but Ryan had a better idea: “Soar Cessna.” Ryan had earned his pilot’s license, and offered to fl2y me to Clearwater in a Cessna 172. Pep Boys could take their sweet time fixing my car. I was flying home instead, without rip-off plane fares or TSA pat-downs. This, I thought, was the best car breakdown ever. The next morning, at the Craig Field hanger, a Cessna 172 waited for us. “Jacksonville Executive” signs were numerous, but Ryan cautioned me not to call it that. Calling the small airport “Jacksonville Executive” instead of “Craig Field” is like calling the town in “It’s a Wonderful Life” “Pottersville” instead of “Bedford Falls.” I stuffed my backpack, suitcase and tattered bag of Christmas gifts in the back. Ryan showed me how to properly inspect the plane. He started the engine, and we taxied to the engine check spot on the runway. Even with all these extra steps, it still involved less hassle and embarrassment than flying commercial. I got to keep my shoes on my feet, my laptop in my backpack, and carry soap containers larger than eye drop bottles.

On the tarmac, I read the plane’s official checklist, and Ryan executed the steps. The plane rushed forward, and the runway faded behind us. As we lifted off, I absorbed the view with clear skies and few clouds. We made a U-turn and flew over Jacksonville Beach. I recorded some of it on my phone’s low-quality camcorder. Like an easily amused child, I marveled at the “slow motion” effect it had in making the propeller look like it was barely moving. Our course took us south-southwest. Ryan took me for a short joy-ride the day before, but said he loved having an actual mission: Getting his best friend home for the holidays. I loved it myself, and the lack of any gusts or turbulence made it even better.

Ryan let me fly almost an hour. “Don’t chase the instruments or the GPS reading. You’ll overcorrect constantly,” he repeated many times. “Is the whole flight going to roll like this with you overcorrecting? The passengers are getting sick.” “Chasing the instruments” means looking down at needles and readings more than straight ahead where you’re actually going. It’s a little less obnoxious and dangerous than texting while driving, but not much. For the sake of said imaginary passengers, I picked a lake on the horizon, flew toward it, and barely looked at the instruments. Countless lakes and forests all slowly rolled under the plane 4,500 feet below us. I flew more smoothly, and Ryan’s impromptu flight coaching instantly became less sarcastic.

Ryan pointed out John Travolta’s house near Ocala, in a neighborhood with a unique Home Owner’s Association rule: Every resident had to own a plane. Nearly a mile up, things looked much smaller and the plane seemed to crawl like a tortoise. But our ground speed was 80 miles per hour. Far to the south, I saw buildings I thought might be a small town on a small lake, but quickly realized it was Downtown Tampa’s skyline. Near Crystal River, Ryan took the the wheel, and I switched to full tour guide mode. I pointed out the infamous Crystal River Nuclear Power Plant, four years inactive. Some so-called routine maintenance had weakened the concrete enough to put it at risk for becoming the next Chernobyl. I pointed out Weeki Wachee Springs, home of a locally famous mermaid show. Starting around New Port Richey, we followed the coast south toward Clearwater. A water color painting stretched out below us with blue background of water, green strips of barrier islands, and many white dots of atolls in the Intracoastal Waterway. I recognized these islands as Dunedin Beach, Caledesi Island and Clearwater Beach.

As we turned to the south-southeast, I spotted the Clearwater Executive Airpark landing, only two miles from where I grew up. Small planes flew over my parent’s house frequently, and recently our neighbor grumbled about the noise. She wondered why the same plane kept flying the same stupid path over our houses like a barnstormer. I knew now the “stupid path” was called a “touch-and-go,” a take-off-and-land flight drill flown in the shape of a huge oval high school track. I’m sure our neighbor would be thrilled to know my best friend’s hobby contributed to disturbing her afternoon naps. As we touched town, I realized how small the airpark was. My parents greeted us in the airpark’s double-wide trailer terminal. I had always wanted to take off and land here as a kid, and now, at 34 years old, my childhood wish came true two days before Christmas.