Fly Like an Eagle

My plane was screaming down the runway...or was that me screaming. The little Cessna’s wings wavered and bounced slightly as we gained speed. My heart was pounding, and I stared out the window as the brightly lit buildings raced violently by creating one big bright blur. Pressed back into my seat, I held on for dear life. I could feel the wheels lose contact with the runway and my stomach dropped. Holy crap! My kid brother was actually flying this little contraption. In order to obtain his commercial pilot certification, Cesare had to complete a cross- country flight and, well, I was the only one who volunteered to come along for the ride. I peered out my side window watching the distance between us and solid ground, slowly increase. I focused on the horizon, on the patchwork of tiny homes that looked like pieces of a puzzle, and the intricate network of roadways that connected one side of town with the other. My beautiful Los Angeles. City of Angels. 

The little Cessna finally leveled off. We were on our way headed north flying at about 9,000 feet. The rattling had subsided to a constant hum and my active mind was soothed. At this elevation, I was able to get a birds-eye view of the landscape. Regal mountain ranges and rolling hills. Endless blue skies and puffy white clouds.  

Soon, I was glad to hear that we would be landing as we approached San Jose International Airport. It would be good to stretch my legs. There was a noticeable increase in chatter activity coming from the radio and I was surprised when Cesare said, “Okay, we should start looking for the airport.” 

“Looking for the airport? You mean you don’t know where it is?” I asked with an exaggerated yet sincere tinge of panic in my voice. He ignored my remarks as he scanned our surroundings. I looked down at the map strapped to his leg and half expected to see one of those caricature maps you get in an amusement park with a big red dot that says You are here and, hopefully, an exaggerated airport illustration nearby with cartoon planes flying in and out. 

I looked out the cockpit window, hoping my wide-open eyes would increase my sphere of vision, frantically scanning the blue skies, wondering what the hell I was looking for. How would I know if I saw it? Would there be a big neon sign somewhere with big letters spelling AIRPORT? Perhaps a Las Vegas style intermittent blinking arrow directing us? Maybe a Jetsons-type hologram? Airport, left at the next cumulus. But Cesare remained serious and professional. Maybe if we followed another plane, I thought. But there was no other plane in sight. Where were all the planes? This was supposed to be an international airport! San Jose International Airport, that’s what the map strapped to Cesare’s leg said. What kind of international airport was this? Where were all the other jets? Where was all the activity?

Finally, Cesare pointed slightly northeast, “There it is.” My eyes followed his index finger, but I still could not see anything. There was no big neon sign. No arrow. No blinking lights. Nothing! Trusting that Cesare knew what the hell he was doing, I held on for dear life as he steered the little plane in that direction.

We landed safely and picnicked on PBJ sandwiches while we fueled up for the return flight. Before long we were amidst the clouds again and were headed back home—this time, buffeted by heavy turbulence. Air pockets caused our little plane to lurch sideways and bounce up and down as if on an aerial roller coaster. Rocking and rolling. 

“That’s Magic Mountain down there,” Cesare said, referring to Six Flags Amusement Park, where there were actual roller coasters. I looked over at the gas tank gauge. I’m no pilot but the gauge looked awfully like the one in my BMW and the arrow bounced just above the red range.

“Uh, Red Baron, aren’t we running a little low on gas over there?” I asked, pointing at the gauge in question.   

“We actually have two gas tanks so don’t worry. We have plenty of fuel to make it back to the Van Nuys airport safely.” I peeked over and located the second gauge, which also appeared low although outside the red range. 

“Worst case scenario, we could always land on the freeway,” Cesare said, pointing to the Golden State Freeway below. 

My jaw dropped open, and I peered out the window at the freeway. “Land on the freeway?! Are you crazy?”

“No, it happens all the time.”

“It does not happen all the time or I would have heard about it.” As I looked down once again at the gridlocked traffic below, I felt a strong urge to smack Cesare upside the head.   

“I’m just saying that in an emergency situation we would land on the freeway before crashing into those mountains over there.” 

“Okay, somehow hearing those words from the captain’s mouth does not comfort me! I hope you work on your communication skills before you join the airline…schmuck!” 

For those who have never had the opportunity to fly on one of these tiny flying machines, let me just say that it is truly an adventure. To have one flown by your kid brother makes it unforgettable. Truly priceless. There is no movie or in-flight entertainment or decision to be made as to what’s for dinner, so you surrender to the freedom of the open skies, you bask in the beauty, and the vastness of blue all around you…and you bond. 

There was no need to land on any freeway. Cesare successfully completed his cross-country flight, obtained his commercial certification, and went on to become an airline captain. And although Cesare is now gone, these are the images that play in my mind as I board my scheduled flight and soar through the skies.



Rossana G. D’Antonio is the author of the memoir Tailspin: A Memoir about Flying and Crashing, Grief and Blame, forthcoming in summer 2025. The memoir is a quest for answers about the true cause of the TACA Flight 390 tragedy, which claimed the life of her brother.

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