Beneath the Stars

I’m not sure when I realized the depth of my love of flying but I got hooked early and it’s lasted a lifetime.

In 1941, my father was just barely twenty-two when he found himself assigned to be a tail gunner in a B-24 Liberator. The long-haul, lumbering, bomber was infamously known as the "flying coffin" because it was so difficult to handle—and easy to shoot down. Understandably, my dad never liked to talk about that part of his life, much preferring to keep that all behind him. But instead of playing stick ball at home with his pals, he found himself hunched over and freezing in the very back of the huge bomber, flying dangerous missions in the middle of the night. He wanted to leave those scars and psychological battle wounds behind. And he never hesitated to let us know he was one of the lucky ones who got to return to his family, miraculously making it through 25 perilous missions over occupied countries in the dead of night. But his stickball playing days would be over. 

When I was a kid, I’d press him to tell me stories about his exploits. His crew’s main missions were to drop supplies behind enemy lines, dangerously long flights, always at night where his lumbering B-24 Liberator was an attractive target. I remembering asking him if he always wore his parachute and he replied that it made for a better seat cushion.

Somehow through it all, he never lost his love of all things aviation and passed that passion down to me. My earliest memory of flying was in a Lockheed Constellation. The “Connie,” as it was affectionally known, was an incredible example of modern technology and with its curved fuselage and superb streamlining: it looked like something futuristic, exciting, and beautiful.

After the war, our young family, like so many others, moved to the suburbs. We were within driving distance to Idlewild, as JFK was known then. In the evenings, after a good amount of nagging, my dad would grab me up and head out to a desolate stretch of road by runway 22R. He’d park the old two-tone Chrysler under a row of landing approach lights, the red strobes casting eerie and ghostly shadows across our faces. We’d sit in awe as the huge 707s and DC-8s on their final approach, thundering over our heads so low that the car would shake and we could smell the jet fuel. It never even occurred to me that one blast of wind shear would set that beast down on top of us. But then as now, I had blind faith in those pilots and never worried.

These days when I fly, I’m the nerd who buys a window seat and leaves the shade up. Fellow passengers get upset with me. But I never understand why you would opt to watch a TV show when you could watch the spectacular array of the earth’s hues and heavenly cloud formations. Or watch lightning strikes from 35,000 feet up. Or follow meandering rivers for hundreds of miles, snaking through mountain ranges and skirting villages. I want to watch the ailerons trim, the flaps retract, the speed brakes pop up on descent. 

I had the incredibly good fortune to have flown on the Concorde five times, and it never lost its allure or magic. Because it flew higher than sub-sonic aircraft, I got to witness the curvature of the earth from 60,000 feet. To feel the heat coming off the tiny window, the interior of the plane warm to the touch as the friction at Mach 2 took its toll. To get pushed back into my seat as the jolt from the supersonic engines kicked in when the pilots were allowed to throttle up, safely out of human range. Where the thunderous sonic boom we created wouldn’t scare the population below—or the grazing cows in the fields. 

When supersonic wasn’t an option, I’d try to fly on the massive 747s. I’d sit upstairs near the cockpit, always asking a flight attendant if I could pop my head in to take a look. When they allowed me, I’d go in, completely and utterly in awe. The pilots, always appreciative that a passenger (who wasn’t a toddler being held by a parent) had an avid interest in what they did, would let me observe for five or ten minutes. On one delayed flight from Heathrow to New York, as we remained at the gate before being allowed to push-back, I asked if I could go in to the cockpit. When the pilots realized my rabid interest and love of flying, they let me stay. Push back, taxi, take-off! I was in heaven. And then, the cherry on the whipped cream: they invited me back as we approached the northeast coast of America, letting me stay with them while they landed the big bird on 22R.

Days gone by. Then September 11th changed the world forever.

Before hijacking, before on-board terrorism was in our lexicon, before TSA security check points and pat downs, before the palms of your hands had to be tested for explosives, before you had to limit your toothpaste size to 3 oz, before the madness, there was an innocent and beautiful simplicity to flying. The purity and solitude and freedom that Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote about in Wind, Sand, and Stars. The freedom that is still in my heart every time I fly. The pride and incredulous wonder I feel every time I look at the worn black and white photo on my wall of my Dad’s B-24 Liberator, sitting on the runway somewhere in England, revving its four powerful Pratt & Whitney engines, ready for take-off, ready to save the world.



Andrew Chinich, writer, producer, recording and performing artist, has written in various mediums and has had multiple stories published. 

Categories: Airplanes, Pilots

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