A DREAM OF FLIGHT
"Potomac traffic, Citabria six seven one, on final, zero six, Potomac." If Bob
had recited this mantra once, he had recited it hundreds of times. He was a
middle aged man of average build, with blond hair, highlighted with streaks of
gray, hinting that his age was a little more than his youthful appearance
suggested. Even as he spoke those words, he deftly guided the small,
rambunctious, green and white aerobatic airplane toward a rendezvous with the
runway. With his right hand clutched tightly around the control stick, he
thought how pleasant it was that the air was calm that evening. This place was
dangerous when the wind was blowing and he was tired. More than one student
pilot had come to the belief that those three little airport identifier letters,
VKX, really were an acronym for Valley of Killer Crosswinds. With even a slight
breeze, this place could become a pilot's nightmare. The low walls of this
shallow valley were perfectly positioned to create a veritable obstacle course
of shifting, invisible wind sheers that would knock you out of the sky in the
blink of an eye. You needed hair trigger response on the controls to land here
on a breezy day.
As the plane descended closer to the ground, he gently flared it keeping the
wheels just inches from the ground. Two seconds later there was a bump and the
bark of the tires announcing the successful completion of another flight. His
feet danced quickly on the rudder pedals now, keeping the airplane rolling down
the center of the runway until it was slowed to a safe taxi speed. Making a
left turn onto the next runway exit, he smoothly brought the airplane to a stop
beside the taxiway tollbooth. These were a relatively new addition to the
airport, part of a major renovation, they were installed a year earlier.
Pilots who regularly used the airport were given a Personal ID Number that they
would enter on the toll booth keypad before pushing their vending machine size
package of toll candy into the one inch by three inch slot on the booth.
Visiting pilots simply fed two $1 bills into the money slot. Nobody was really
sure why tolls were paid with packages of candy. Some had speculated that it
was given to the children that lived in the surrounding neighborhood on
Halloween. Others speculated that it was given as a charitable contribution to
local orphanages and retirement homes as a tax write-off for VKX Industries.
Some even sarcastically suggested that the airport management simply resold it
in the vending machines in the Pilot's Lounge. When Bob reached into the small
flight satchel he wore for his toll candy, he discovered he was down to his last
package. After he entered his ID number on the keypad and shoved the pack of
M&Ms into the slot, the tollgate collapsed into a slot in the pavement allowing
access to the taxiway.
While taxiing back to the hangar, Bob thought, "It's a nice evening for flying
and I'm not in any hurry to put the airplane away. I think I'll fly over to
Hyde Field and maybe go back up to watch the sunset." With that thought
churning in his brain, he rolled past the hangar toward the runway access. As
he passed slowly by each hangar, fellow pilots would look his way and give a
wave or a nod. Some were just standing around talking, others were busy
polishing the paint on their birds or making minor repairs. The whole scene at
the airport had somewhat of a Norman Rockwell charm.
He eased the plane to a stop just before the one-way tire popper grates on the
runway access ramp and commenced with the pre-takeoff checklist. He liked to
say the checklist aloud even when he was alone in the cockpit. An old habit
that he formed in the days while struggling to earn his wings. "Trim, set.
Altimeter, set. Heading Indicator, set. Transponder, set." He was ready to
go. A thorough check for traffic and then he recited another mantra. "Potomac
traffic, Citabria six seven one, departing runway zero six, Potomac." He nudged
the throttle gently and the perky little airplane began to roll. Once centered
on the runway, he opened the throttle. "One, two, three", he counted, "tail up!
One, two, three, I'm outta here!" With that he gave a smooth tug on the stick
and the plane leapt into the air with gusto.
When Bob arrived at Hyde Field a few minutes later, he watched as the traffic
sentry stepped out of his tiny shack when he announced his arrival on the
downwind leg. The traffic sentries were a new idea at Hyde and served a
valuable service. Even though the sentries were paid well by their employer, most of
the pilots felt compelled to tip them, for without their diligent work, landing
at Hyde would be a lot more dangerous.
Ever since D. Corporation was a victim of a hostile takeover by a major
shopping center developer, things had been quite different. The gravel pit had
finally been closed, new hangars had been built on the East side of the runway
and the aircraft tiedown had been moved to a new asphalt area where the old
runway once sat. The old aircraft parking area had been replaced by a row of
aviation oriented stores, restaurants, an aviation themed nightclub and a shared
auto/airplane short term parking lot. A new CVS store had been built where the
old hangars on the West side of the runway once stood. This new airport based
shopping center was an experimental project, the first of its kind anywhere.
The developer had planned the traffic sentries from the beginning to control the
flow of automobiles crossing the runway as they entered and exited the parking
lot. When Bob made his turn onto final, the sentry halted the cars in both
directions until he had safely landed and crossed the intersection.
Safely on the ground, he began taxiing through the parking lot in search of one
of the extra wide aircraft parking spaces. There was roughly one aircraft space
for every 40 auto spaces. He found one not far from the door to CVS and parked
the airplane. Going inside the store, he went straight to the candy aisle and
grabbed a handful of small packages of Gummy Bears. Though there had never been
any official word, it was common knowledge among the local aviators that Gummy
Bears were the preferred payment at the Potomac tollbooths. At the counter, the
clerk asked, "Are you flying that Citabria?" She had watched him land and had
been watching to see who got out.
"Yes," he said.
"How does it handle", she asked?
"Very well, it's a dream to fly," he said.
"I've always wanted to fly one, but taildraggers scare me to death, the way they
ground loop and all that."
"They're not bad, you just need to learn the proper landing technique. Do you
"I used to, I haven't been up in a couple of years though, not since the kids
"Well, if you start flying again, you should take up flying taildraggers."
The two continued for a few moments with small talk while Bob paid for his
purchase. With that, he was out the door and headed back toward the plane. The
sun was getting low in the sky now. If he only flew as far as Maryland Airport
and turned back to Potomac, that would give him enough time to admire the
sunset. Takeoff was nothing beyond the routine procedures. The traffic sentry
halted the auto traffic while he made his takeoff.
Returning to Potomac after watching one of the more spectacular sunsets of the
summer, he was struck with the beauty of all the improvements at the airport.
The new airport decorative lighting was on now. As he flew the downwind leg,
the lights on the clean, white split rail fence on either side of the runway
offered a sharp contrast to the darkness surrounding it. But the most beautiful
sight was the large water garden with the lighted fountains that now surrounded
the windsock. Gorgeous geysers of white, shimmering water blasting from the
cool, inviting blue glow of the pond. And that special touch that only modern
electronics can provide, one fountain bathed in a warm red wash of light that
indicated what direction the wind was blowing. At night, this truly was a sight
to be seen.
And as the wheels of the airplane once again barked their greeting to the earth,
something stirred in him, a feeling of discontent. Something was wrong. And he
awoke to find himself musing out loud, "Tollbooths at an airport! Yeah right!"