This essay is a transcontinental flight with several stops—from Harriett Quimby’s 1912 flight across the English Channel to the 1981 PATCO strike that nearly brought American aviation to its knees. In between we learn about a Tuskegee airman who became a POW and a bit about children’s books that deal with aviation.
In layman’s terms, there were only six airworthy Jennys in the United States; now there are five.
Bessie Coleman’s real life made her something larger than most Blacks and most women could imagine themselves to be, and her fictionalizing made her large life larger. Blackness had become something ultra-modern with Coleman, a meta-fiction, the mastery of fabrication, of image, for public consumption. She was the heroine of velocity. She ushered Black people into the age of speed.
My father was there, the photograph says to me directly. But he was also not there. Not only not visible in the photograph—which, taken from the wing, shows no hunched shoulder or flying cap to indicate the person pressing the firing button—but not there at all. Concentrating, yes; in fear for his life, yes. Supremely there, of course, while the shipboard German gunners sprayed flak at him and he dropped his powerful twin-engine airplane into a dive. But also absent, in a reverie.
As I write this essay, I am listening to Bird’s records. I love the inventiveness, the breakneck pace, and the flights of fancy of his melodies. I admire his daring and ingenuity, just as I do the Wright brothers’ daring and ingenuity: over a century after they occurred, it is thrilling to read accounts of their first successful powered flights.
This was what my relatives went through, this is what Ukrainians experienced every day: fear of the skies, of anonymous violence delivered imperiously from above, whether from planes, missiles, or drones, this overwhelming sense of powerlessness in the face of the unknown hand determined to smite you down.
Tomorrow I will drive thirty miles to pull out of a pole-barn hangar with peeling sheet metal siding a seventy-year-old, tube-and-fabric realization of my deeply embedded, retro dream, because for me and for the folks I most enjoy drinking a beer with, the soul is still to be found in flight and the machines that do it.
There is a delicate mixture of ego and humility that one looks for in an aspiring pilot. If the person sitting next to you does not think he can handle the airplane in just about any situation, if she does not look forward to increasing challenges, then you begin to wonder if the person is cut out to be sitting in the left seat of the airplane.
Flight, with its intoxicating blend of graceful beauty and adrenalizing daredevilry, was custom-made for cinema, which exults in movement—they are called motion pictures—and delights in vicariously transporting audiences to seemingly unreachable places.
By 1929, though, Archie League had crossed over to safety’s side and taken a job with St. Louis’s nine-year-old airport. Every day, he walked to the end of the Lambert Field runway with a wheelbarrow that held a deck chair, a beach umbrella for summer heat, a notepad, his lunch and, most important, two flags.
She floated, so to speak, on the higher echelons of fame and she had fun. In fact, her second book, written after her solo transatlantic flight, was called The Fun of It.
It was all safe as houses, and twice as fun—an opportunity of a lifetime, and powerful enough an experience that I still have a hard time overlaying it on my childhood dreams of flying in a Jenny. For now, let me say that on this day a complicated little freedom machine called the Jenny—built to aid warfare, at once fragile and powerful in its utility, and as beautiful as a moth in the daylight—transported me through time and space and let me return to people I love.
Before taking charge at Lambert, Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge held management positions with its later deserters, American Airlines and Trans World Airlines. Thus she has spent most of her career in St. Louis, riding the city’s swings between Midwestern pride and a Midwestern inferiority complex.