Flying With My Dad


Growing up, I had a pretty conventional childhood. In the northern Wisconsin of the 70s and 80s, that meant living in the country, dogs and cats, making ramps for our bikes in the driveway, Oscar Meyer bologna sandwiches for lunch, and a nuclear family of four that split into two soon after Ronald Reagan took office. But conventional childhoods are a myth. Every kid has some weird thing that distinguished their experience from everyone else’s. My weird thing is that I spent a lot of time in and around airplanes when I was young.

My dad joined the Navy after high school but couldn’t fly because of his eyesight. But sometime later, he got his private pilot’s license. In the 1970s, after bouncing around between two dozen different jobs and business ideas, he took a small rented airplane and turned it into a thriving freight and commuter airline called Blue Line Air Express. At its height, his company had 8 planes, a small fleet of cars and trucks, more than a dozen employees, and hangars at several different airports around northern WI. He and his employees delivered packages and people all over the tri-state area, from Chicago and Milwaukee to Minneapolis and Duluth.

A recreation of the logo for Blue Line Air Express.

And every once in awhile, I got to tag along. I remember one time in particular, we got up early on a Saturday, drove to a nearby town, hopped in the plane, and made it to Minneapolis, usually a two-hour drive, in time for breakfast. I’d go with him on deliveries sometimes; we’d drive a small piece-of-shit truck up to this huge FedEx hub in Minneapolis, load it full of boxes, and drive an hour to some small factory in a Wisconsin town and unload it. Once he had to deliver something to a cheese factory and my sister and I got a short tour out of it.

For family vacations, we would jump in the plane to visit relatives in the Twin Cities or in St. Louis. We flew down with some family friends to Oshkosh to attend the huge airshow. When I was in college, my dad would sometimes pick me up for school breaks in his plane. It was just a normal thing for our family, like anyone else would take a car trip. The only time it seems weird to me is when people’s eyes go wide after I casually mention that we had a runway out behind the house growing up.

Approximate location of the runway in the field of my childhood home. Imagery via Google Maps.

One of the last times I went flying with my dad, before it finally became too expensive for him to keep up his plane, we were flying into a small airport where he still kept a hangar. It was a fine day when we set out but as we neared our destination, the weather turned dark. You could see the storm coming from miles away and we raced it to the airport. The wind had really picked up as we made our first approach to land; I don’t know what the windspeed was, but it was buffeting us around pretty good. About 50 feet off the ground, the wind slammed the plane downwards, dropping a dozen feet in half a second.

In a calm voice, my dad said, “we’d better go around and try this again”.

The storm was nearly on top of us as we looped around to try a second time. It was around this time he announced, even more calmly, that we were “running a little low” on fuel. Nothing serious, you understand. Just “a little low”. There was a heavy crosswind, blowing perpendicular to the runway. Landing in a crosswind requires the pilot to point the airplane into the wind a little. Or more than a little…my memory probably exaggerates after all these years, but I swear we were at least 30 degrees off axis on that second approach. Just before touching down, he oriented the plane with the runway and the squawk of the tires let us know we were down. I don’t think it was much more than a minute or two after landing that the rain, thunder, and lightning started.

But the thing was, I was never scared. I should have been probably…it was an alarming situation. I’d been flying with my dad my whole life and he’d kept me safe that whole time, so why should I start worrying now? That’s what fathers are supposed to do, right? Protect their children from harm while revealing the limits of the world?

This story originally appeared on kottke.org.

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