The intimacy of the tiny cockpit of the single engine Piper Comanche was romantic and intimidating. The empty sky outside the window was only an inch from my shoulder. At forty-eight I was used to being in charge: single mother, head of household, a career woman living in Manhattan with staff in London, Rio and Hong Kong. Not today. Art’s soft blue eyes were smiling, full of excitement. I so wanted to be brave.
Art loved to fly. His voice exuded joy when he described cumulous cloud formations over Martha’s Vineyard or how he’d executed a tricky crosswind landing at Plymouth. “Honey, I can’t wait to get you up when the weather improves,” he’d say. That day had arrived.
On a sunny day in March of 1992, I shivered on the tarmac where the small plane was parked. Art, clipboard in hand, circled the rental plane doing a pre-flight check to manually test the flaps and the rudder. We’d been dating for only three months, although we’d known each other for eight years.
As I climbed into the cockpit, careful not to step directly on the fragile wing, I slowed my breath and silently chanted a mantra I used to steady my nerves. I wasn’t anxious on commercial flights, but this four-seater resembled an oversized toy. The taut orange windsock against the turquoise sky provided no comfort.
Headsets muffled the sound of the engine and allowed us to communicate as we taxied to the runway. “First lesson: sterile cockpit,” he said. “No distractions or conversation when I’m talking with the tower during takeoff and final approach, okay?” The plane shuddered as the engine roared to life.
Second lesson: don’t panic and grab the pilot’s elbow when air currents buffet the plane like invisible ocean waves. “Just a gust of wind, no problem.” I batted away the idea that he’d be better off with a girlfriend who would find this torture fun.
After we’d parked safely on the ground and deplaned on Block Island for lunch, I was exhilarated by the thrill of survival, turned-on by Art’s swoon-worthy performance, and proud of myself for not having wimped out. But I wished we could take the ferry home.
Years before our first date, Art had been my manager at a large financial services company. When he resigned to take a job with another organization, he suggested that maybe someday we’d go flying together. I’d answered with a confident, “Sure – that would be fun,” with no intention of ever taking a ride with a novice pilot. I really liked the guy and hadn’t wanted to hurt his feelings. My response seemed like a friendly way to say farewell, let’s stay in touch.
We exchanged holiday cards and occasionally touched base by phone for the next six years. The boundaries between us loosened. He knew I’d chosen to separate from my husband and was getting a divorce. As a friend, I asked his advice about financial negotiations, but we rarely talked about our feelings. I never mentioned that I was drinking myself to sleep most nights or that after twenty- three-years of marriage, I’d lost my sense of a future beyond the need to support myself and my son. I had no idea how he spent his time outside the office except for the hours he logged flying.
In the winter of 1991, shortly after he’d moved to Boston, we called each other on exactly the same day. I’d be there on business and asked him to lunch. He’d called to invite me to a holiday party that same weekend. I’d quit drinking by then, and the fog of divorce had lifted. I got a rush, imaging what we’d find, being together in a totally different context – no project plans, no boss/subordinate relationship, no barriers to discovering one another.
Soon we were spending every weekend together in Boston or at my apartment in New York. The trust, the respect we shared was based on years of working closely together– we didn’t need much time for the romance to take off.
After that first flight to Block Island, I believed that with effort I’d learn to relax in the right seat, but I didn’t. Weekends were our only time together, but also the only time Art could log hours in the air. Bad weather – we’d be grounded. I’d be relieved, but I knew that pilots had to fly often to keep their skills sharp. “It’s as much an art as a science,” was how Art explained it. No way I’d expect him to give up flying for me. I believed if you loved someone you wanted him to live out his dream.
We made flights to Montauk, Hyannis and Martha’s Vineyard. The destinations were great; the travel, always a trial. On a flight to Provincetown when the weather was gorgeous, we parked, changed into swimsuits and ate a picnic on the beach. Lying together on the warm sand totally relaxed, I drifted to sleep. When I awoke, the wind had picked up. We bounced in the air 3,000 feet above the ocean on the flight back to Boston while I willed myself not to cry.
Art quit flying about a year after we married in ’95. He hadn’t logged enough hours; work demands and efforts to create a life together got in the way. He never blamed me, and I didn’t apologize for the anxiety I couldn’t control. In sync in so many ways, we hadn’t found common ground in the air.
Then we retired.
I planned to write, but Art didn’t have a specific idea until a retirement counselor asked him: What were you passionate about?
Art renewed his pilot’s license and then earned an instrument rating. My pilot was back. He flew every week with his instructor if the weather allowed. Occasionally, on picture perfect days, I’d join him to witness his achievements. Flying challenged and energized him; his joy spilled into our marriage and enlivened us both.
Whenever a small plane crash made the news, my phone rang. Friends questioned how I managed my nerves while my husband was in the air. I’d get defensive, proprietary even. My anxiety in the cockpit had nothing to do with Art, a disciplined, highly skilled pilot. Safety always came first. I’d become a pilot’s wife with enough experience in the cockpit to defend the love one might have to soar above the clouds, untethered to the mundane, the trivial aspects of life.
Ultimately, Art found a purpose for flying as a volunteer pilot for Angel Flight. The non-profit organization arranged free air transportation for patients needing treatment far from their home and who, due to financial or physical limitations, couldn’t utilize commercial air travel.
Angel Flight provided the adventure he’d craved – to fly in and out of major airports, including up the Hudson River with stunning views of Manhattan and into remote airports like Caribou, Maine near the Canadian border. I proudly shared the expenses and supported Art’s efforts with my feet firmly on the ground.
Flying had become integrated into our lives and was part of my identity too, including the lingo, unique to us, always spoken with love and a smile. Sterile cockpit signaled a need for no distractions when transporting a boiling pot of pasta to the colander in the sink. Touch and go’s referred to drop-in visits at destinations we’d prefer to skip. And final approach was a subject we hoped would be many years in the future.
Art chose to quit flying at the top of his game when we turned seventy. My final flight with him was up the coast to Portland, Maine in a high-performance, technologically advanced aircraft with a glass cockpit, a Cirrus SR 22. The pilot was masterful; his passenger looked down on the white foam of the sea crashing on the rocks, in awe of the beauty they shared.
Janet Banks is a retired business executive and writer who is exploring the joys and challenges of aging in real time. Her personal essays have appeared in The Rumpus, WBUR’s Cognoscenti, The Silver Birch Press Blog and New England Memories. She has published in the Harvard Business Review and contributed commentary regarding career development to numerous publications.