I don’t think the ink on my brother’s shirt had dried on the day that I flew in a small single-engine plane for the first time. New pilots traditionally rip away the bottom of their shirt after their first cross-country solo flight. That piece of fabric is signed and dated by the pilot and witnesses, and it is displayed on the wall in the flight school office. The shirt was almost as valid as the license that made my brother a bona fide pilot at 20 years of age. A few weeks later he would take me, his 14-year-old kid sister, and two of my friends for a ride through the clear winter sky in South Texas. I couldn’t wait.
My brother climbed in first, then I did. I was in the backseat with my friend, and her little sister sat in front. Seat belts were on and the giggling was non-stop.
“Clear!” he calmly yelled out of his window just before he shut it closed. The engine jumped to a start and purred like an enormous cat. My pilot brother checked all the gauges, knobs, and fuses that filled the panel, and he watched out the windows as he moved the wings’ flaps to make sure all was working correctly. I knew I was safe with him at the controls of what seemed like a four-seat winged car.
“Ready?” he asked. Ready? Of course, we were ready. We were ready to glide like seagulls, float like a big elm leaf, enjoy the ride like beautiful Arabian princesses resting on a flying carpet. “Yeah!” we answered in unison.
After taxi-ing a few minutes, we were poised at the end of the long runway. He pulled the throttle and we were off—up, up, up until buildings spotted the landscape like Monopoly hotels and houses. Clouds were so incredibly close—we could see them breathe for the first time. These bubbling creatures were not at all like the static painted white puffs we admired from the ground.
It was just like I thought it would be—gentle, fun, magical. Then he said, “Ready for some fun?”
I really don’t think he expected an answer. We were suddenly banked to the right—the tip of the wing pointing to the ground far below.
“Ahhhhh!” we screamed, gripping whatever we could—gripping as if that would keep us from sliding down the right wing to a deadly fate, smashed like an egg when it slides off the kitchen counter. Then he straightened the wings, and before we could catch our breaths, we were banked to the left. The left wing was now pointing straight down.
“Ahhhhh” we screamed again. I could hear the delight in his sinister laugh echoing from the front of the cabin. Once again, we gripped anything we could tightly, and we leaned as far to the right as we could. I thought we could straighten the plane by pushing our weight to the right side, but that didn’t work.
“Stop! Stohhhhp!” I yelled. And he finally did.
“Hold on—let’s try a stall,” he said.
“What’s a staaaahhhhh!” I saw the nose of the plane pitch up towards space, the back of the plane began to drop like a flying stone eager to return home. My hat came off my head and was stuck to the roof. I thought my stomach would follow. Fortunately, we pulled out of the stall in time.
“I’m going to be sick!” I yelled to the cabin. “And you don’t want me to do that in this STUPID tiny space!” I was angry now.
“OK, OK,” I heard him say through his big-brother howling laugh.
We landed just in time. I crawled out of the flying torture chamber and threw-up on the brown grass. As I was face-to-face with the beauty of the ground, I told him he was the worst pilot in the world.
A couple of decades later, I was once again a passenger and my brother was the pilot. This time, as the chief pilot for a large company, where he flew a King Air, a twin-engine plane with 10 seats. He was allowed to fly family members when there was room. I had been visiting Laredo and needed to get home to Houston, and my brother was flying a company official there. The elderly gentleman and I enjoyed a casual conversation at the start of the 90-minute evening flight. As we approached Houston, we came closer and closer to thickening, eggplant-colored clouds. The plane began to vibrate. We were entering pockets of turbulence, my brother announced in a calm but loud voice. The plane descended through fog and rain, tumbling and shaking, sometimes violently. I gripped the armrests and looked out the window anxiously seeking the runway lights. Just a few feet before touching down, we heard my brother throttle up and guide the plane back up, towards the turbulent clouds. The gentleman passenger and I held hands, gripping tightly as if we could squeeze safety from each other.
My brother’s head poked out of the cockpit again and he told us he could not see the runway and had done a go-around.
“I’m going to try to find a hole this time,” he said with a confident tone that at once soothed us until we fully realized what he had said.
“OK,” we responded, but he didn't hear us.
The second approach was more terrifying than the first, but we did land. I didn’t decorate the ground as I had when I was 14, but I came close. And I wasn’t angry with my brother. I realized how much he loved me when I saw the beads of sweat on his forehead and his heartfelt look of concern.
“Are you OK?” he asked.
I wanted to tell him he was an exceptional pilot and always had been, but all I could say was, “I’m so glad you found the hole, brother.”
Liz Stephens is a recently retired professor of literacy and technology. Before teaching at the college level, she taught high school English and journalism in Texas.