There were two more things I’d wanted to do for years…go hot air ballooning, and for a biplane ride.
Notice a theme? Yeah, going up, up and away comprised three out of four of my midlife crisis activities. I’m not sure what sparked my interest in aviation many years ago – a hint of romance, or danger, or combination of both…but it seems to be a universal need for man to “slip the surly bonds of earth,” as evidenced by the drawings of da Vinci to the first flight by the Wright Brothers…all the way to Felix Baumgartner‘s historic skydive in 2012, when he became the first human to break the sound barrier in freefall. And perhaps part of that need is that there’s a sort of peace to be found in the air, something that struck me later when I thought back over my first skydive. We’re so accustomed to being surrounded by noise and visual activity almost every moment of our waking lives, that at 15,000 feet, with just two men and myself falling at about 120 miles per hour, even then I was conscious not of fear, nor any sense of falling (something I don’t understand the physics of), just floating on a column of rushing wind. No distractions.
Plus, as someone who has struggled with her weight for most of her life, more often than not hating her body for its unwieldiness and, by society’s standards, unattractiveness, there was something especially freeing in that separation from gravity.
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I’m no morning person – a friend once told me that she was going to have business cards made up for me that read, “My friends don’t call before ten” – but I was in downtown Orlando before sunrise on that perfect October day in 2004, because an early start is necessary when you’re heading up, up and away with the good folks of Blue Water Balloons. And how lovely those brightly-colored and patterned balloons were, once the deflated bags on the ground were pumped with enough hot fuel. I climbed into my basket with two lovely ladies visiting from Ireland, our pilot (also Irish, who was dating one of their daughters), and the crew chief, and we lifted gently, seemingly effortlessly, and rose…free, weightless. It was fascinating to me to see how the balloon was actually operated, listening to the interplay between the two pilots. “I could do this,” I thought; “This wouldn’t be a half-bad way to make a living” – temporarily ignoring, of course, the fact that I can’t navigate my way out of a paper bag. While we didn’t go as high or as fast as I would have liked, I enjoyed the gentle peace of watching the world go by, our fellow balloonists at a distance, gliding with us, wondering if anyone on the ground was up and watching at that early hour, perhaps envying us. The world is quiet and distant in a hot air balloon. Folks were certainly watching on our way back, as we slowly dropped altitude while cruising through a residential neighborhood, coming out in their yards to wave at us. I’m sure they were used to it, but they obviously enjoyed it as much as we did, gleefully waving back.
Then we were touching back down as gently as we’d lifted off…climbing out to toast our success with orange juice and champagne, comparing notes and taking home our Certificates of First Flight. We’d kissed the sky…a perfect day, a perfect flight, with perfect company. I’ll always remember it fondly.
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From hot air balloonist to channeling Amelia Earhart…or at least that’s a little whom I felt like, seated in the cockpit of a 1941 Stearman PT-17 used to train WWII pilots, when I visited Preston Aviation two months later. This activity, at least, my uncle understood, being a former pilot himself, and I wished he could have been there with me, knowing how much he would have enjoyed it. The gracious Tim and Peggy Preston greeted me, and in no time Tim was rolling out the Stearman.
My first reaction: “Oh, she’s beautiful!” I’d had a thing for biplanes ever since I was a teen. How often I’d wished I was up there in the cockpit. Now I finally would be.
Seated and buckled in, the first thing I did was look at the control panel and think…”Wow, this is primitive.” Then: “Is this all that’s keeping us up here?” I have to laugh now, but it’s true. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I guess I’d subconsciously pictured all plane cockpits as incredibly complicated.
Feeling a bit nervous – this was a smaller plane than any I’d flown in, even smaller than the one from which I’d skydived – I fitted on my goggles and cap, the latter enabling me to hear pilot Tim as we cruised at about 90mph. I couldn’t help feeling a small link with the men who had sat where I now sat over sixty years before, almost as if I’d put my hand in theirs for just a moment, or recalling how I sat in my high school Aeronautics class so long ago, watching films of early flight, wondering what it would be like to be where I was right now. I wasn’t so sure I’d have the nerve to learn to fly one of these things after all. Most of all, I was impressed by the skill and courage those early pioneers of aviation must have possessed, in these marvels of engineering powerful enough to maneuver in the sky, yet at the same time, so exposed and vulnerable.
Back on the ground, I posed for pictures taken by Peggy, then thanked them both for the great experience. And just as quickly as that, my midlife crisis was over. In a mere handful of months and as many activities, I’d satisfied some underlying need which even today I can’t readily identify. “How did you know you were having a midlife crisis?” my coworker once asked me. I may never be able to explain it, but I’ll always be glad of two things – that I came out of it without breaking any bones or hearts, and most of all, that I chose to – and did – have fun.
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Now I want to hear from you! Have you ever flown in a WWII biplane? Would you? Have you had a midlife crisis? How did you handle it? Tell me your story.
I’ve said many times that I love the Internet, drawbacks though it has. I’m grateful for the ease with which it helps me connect with the world even as I’m sometimes appalled by how it’s used. Then again, sometimes I scratch my head over how it’s used. I hope you’ll join me here next week for one of those examples, in “But Doesn’t That Take All the Fun Out of Funerals?”
See you then!