An Excerpt from Unlearning to Fly: Navigating the Turbulence and Bliss of Growing Up in the Sky

by Russ Roberts

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From the prologue and first chapter of Unlearning to Fly: Navigating the Turbulence and Bliss of Growing Up in the Sky

We pass nine thousand feet and get a jolt of turbulence. Bam! It surprises me. We’ve enjoyed a smooth flight over the ocean until now. Another bump comes. Blam! And then more, even stronger, jolts. Blam, slam, bam! Before I even have time for a breath, I’m tossed and thrown in my seat by violent turbulence.

My legs slam up against the bottom of the instrument panel of the single-engine Cessna Cardinal. The seatbelt gouges my stomach as my head hits the ceiling. I’m thrown back and forth between the fuel tank and the cabin door. I reach, with a somewhat out-of-control hand, to disengage the wing leveler. I now hand-fly the airplane, continuing to descend, hoping to get out of the icing conditions that threaten the airplane—threaten us.

We—the airplane and I—groan under the stress of the turbulence. The metal cables holding the fuel tanks in place twang under pressure, sounding like discordant strings from a fiend’s guitar. The fuel sloshes. Another crashing judder dislodges dirt and dust from the crevices of the cabin. I breathe it in and cough. One bump sends several nuts and washers flying to the cabin ceiling. Where did they come from?

Gripping the control yoke I strain to read the blurry instrument panel, which shakes in the violence. The needles waver, and my eyes can’t make out the numbers on the altimeter or airspeed indicator. Is the panel shaking or is it my eyes that shake? Hard to say. But with the jittering, I can’t tell with precision how fast I’m descending or how high I am now. The airplane is in a terrier’s mouth. Back and forth, up and down, blam, bam, blam! How can it not rip to pieces?

In my windshield-mounted compass, the card is bouncing in the liquid, making an accurate reading very difficult. But with the next crash of rough air, the card falls off its pin and wedges itself at a macabre angle inside the compass case. I can’t believe what I’m seeing. Magnetic compasses do not fail.

The compass had been the only reliable direction indicator in the airplane today. Over the trackless ocean, I really wish my compass hadn’t broken. It would have been a good thing to know what direction I’m heading.

Blam! The floor drops out from under me. My feet lurch up from the rudder pedals and then slam back down. Thud! Have my heels left dents in the aluminum? No longer robotic, no longer a part of the machine, my body now tenses, I swallow hard, my human frailty undeniable.

My dry, raw throat reminds me I’ve forgotten to drink since leaving the Canadian coastline hours earlier. But in this turbulence, there is no way to drink.

For a moment, I forget scanning the instruments and fixate on the dead compass and its distorted shape. It’s like I’ve left the thrashing airplane and am standing in a museum looking at a Picasso. 

No, it’s not a Picasso. It’s a Dalí. It’s like those clocks that drip and flow in his famous painting. Detached, I study the surreal art in front of me. And then—slam, bam, blam!—an invisible fist punches me back into the cockpit, high over the arctic sea.

A wave of emotion surges past the dike in my middle and reaches my neck. I swallow hard again, ignoring the rawness, fighting back the flood.

The wings, loaded with ice, claw to hang onto flight. The turbulence is nonstop and threatens the airframe. I’ve lost my compass and my directional gyro is unreliable, so I don’t know for sure what direction I’m heading. 

It seems likely that destruction will soon come from a structural failure or loss of lift. The airplane and I may soon float dead in the cold ocean below. With the strange time dilation and the duration of the problem, in a weird way, I’ve time to contemplate my situation. It’s the first time in my twenty-five years I’ve had this long to stew in my mortality.

My father, from a thousand miles away, speaks. Close to my ear, he says, “Well now, this is pretty dangerous. What are you going to do? Can we work out a plan?” He’s using his deep, smooth, flight instructor voice. He wants to hear my plan before he offers his own. In his mind, as always, his plan is the only plan.

Well, guess what? I know we’re in danger, and you, Dad, are not here. You can do nothing to change my course now. This is my fix, my life. It’s up to me alone to make the choices for my salvation or destruction.

“But I am here,” he says, now bellicose like he’s been hitting the bottle. “You’ve gotten yourself in a fine fix by not listening to me. Now you’re headed for a fall!

For years this man, my father, kept me safe, warm, and fed, even though security was often sacrificed amid the family-burning flames of alcohol. No doubt he gave me a great store of knowledge. Appropriate knowledge that I can always pull up and use. It’s true he taught me much.

But today I must push away many of his words. Many of his words don’t fit anymore. Many of his ideas are simply outrageous. Today I must unlearn to fly. Now is the time for my own critical thinking. Flying now—living now—I must unlearn many of the things he and others taught me by word and example. Things that for a long time I believed were true. Skills and ideas believed to keep me safe and alive...

From Chapter One:

The wooden house looks old. The white paint is dirty and crooked green shutters hang by the windows. Compared to our own house, though, it's a mansion. We step around some tools on the porch. “Come on in everybody!” Bob calls through the screen door. He’s in a sports coat with a tie. He talks with a cigarette in his mouth. His hands are full, the door held open in one and a cocktail glass in the other. Smoke hangs on the kitchen ceiling like low overcast.

I like the sound of Bob’s voice. I like everything about Bob. He’s an airline pilot. Airline pilots have the best jobs in the world. He is more than human as he walks behind the kitchen counter to pour drinks. His wife, Pat, comes over. She is a stewardess. Everybody at these parties comes from the airlines. That’s why the get-together is so exciting. It’s a gathering of royalty.

The long, narrow living room seems to go for miles, kind of like an indoor runway. They've pushed the furniture against the walls, and a couple of light-brown rugs cover the old wood floor. But, old or not, it’s wood, not beat up linoleum like the floor at our house. Bob’s floor looks rich.

I lean into the puffy skirt of Mama’s red-and-white dress. We walk over to Bob and the others in the kitchen. The kitchen counter serves as a bar. It’s full of bottles, beer with no labels and lots of whiskeys, many glasses, and an ice bucket. The grownups shake hands and say friendly things to each other. Pat comes over and gives Debs and me hugs. I squirm. Pat smells like a flower.

A few of the pilots see Pat bending over, and then, when they notice us, call out to Debs and me. “Oh, hi kids.”

“Hey, kids! Hello!” says Bob. “Want a drink?” People laugh.

It’s past my normal dinner time and my excitement does not mask that I’m starving. Pat sets a phone book on a chair for me at the round table in the kitchen. She gives Debs and me some Ritz crackers with ham and cheese, and juice glasses filled with ginger ale. We grin at each other. Snacks and soda before dinner! I know the word is hors d’oeuvres. It’s a fancy word and tonight, with my water-combed hair and a glass of ginger ale, I feel fancy.

The men at the kitchen counter talk about airplanes. They are all airline pilots except for my father. Daddy knows how to fly small airplanes, and he has a pilot’s license, but he works as a mechanic for Capital Airlines. Me? I’m already an airline pilot with a few details remaining. All I need is somebody to give me a job, an airliner, and a schedule. Except for a couple of details—little things like growing up and learning to fly—I’m already there.

Sharing my dream, Daddy wants to be a commercial pilot one day, too. Who wouldn’t? After flying my toy airplanes around the world every day, I can assure him it’s a great life.

I eavesdrop while I chew on the crackers...I don’t miss a word of it. I’m a pilot, too. I already have my own uniform and flight bag at home, both in scale for a three-feet-tall captain.

Pat comes over with two bowls of chili from a big beat-up metal pot on the stove. The grown-ups stand in groups, talking, eating a little, and drinking a lot.

 

Debbie and I sit quietly and eat, me listening to the men and Debs to the women. I see Bob wipe some spilled whiskey from his lapel, Pat straightens his tie. Volare plays on the Hi-Fi in the background. “Nel blu, dipinto di blu...

... My ears keep listening. I like the talk and the sounds of frogs and birds from Quiet Village playing on the record player. Now the men talk about guns.

“Feel this action. Nice and smooth isn’t it?” Captain Al says to Daddy, showing him the design on his rifle stock. Checkering, Captain Al calls it. They talk about how some guns have tight patterns, but some scatter out. A tight group is a good thing. All the men brought at least one rifle and their own ammunition to the party tonight. That’s how it goes at Pohick.

Too soon, Mama says it’s time for bed. She leads us to the guest room, at the opposite end of the living room from the kitchen. The grownups call out, “Good night, kids!” They sound louder and happier than before. They're laughing and sometimes shouting over each other.

The beds look huge and tall. My sister and I change into our pajamas, climb up onto the beds and crawl under the quilts. No story tonight—Mama wants to get back to the party. A kiss and out she goes.

The lights from the living room shine through the tiny gaps around the door. I hear laughing, loud talking, clinking glasses. The party is really going now.

I fall asleep. But loud noises in rapid succession wake me up. Ker-bam! Crack! Ping! It’s the sound of a rifle shooting and the bullet hitting the target. I hear the men’s laughter, deep voices, the tinkling of ice. A quiet pause. Then bang! Another shot. The sound is so loud, the shooting so exciting. I need to see for myself.

Debs looks like she’s sleeping. How can she be sleeping with this much excitement, this much good action, going on? I roll onto my belly and slide off the side of my bed. I reach up for the loose brown door-knob and turn it with care...

 

Do you want more? The memoir is available on Amazon and Kindle. An Audible edition is coming later in 2021.