Winning My Wings

Writing :

“And so now I have no wings.  But my thoughts can go up (Jovinian and Roxaletta could not think).  My thoughts are instead of wings: but they have dropped with me now, as a lark among the clods of the valley…”

“Jack might have taken more notice….. if the albatross had not begun to light up. She did it in this way: First, one of her eyes began to gleam with a beautiful green light, which cast its rays far and near, and then, when it was as bright as a lamp, the other eye began to shine, and the light of that eye was red. In short, she was lighted up just like a vessel at sea”.  

Mopsa the Fairy.  Jean Ingelow, 1869

Appleton, WI, July 2019

I was looking forward to attending Air Venture at Oshkosh.  This was the culmination of my first year as Chairman of the Board of the General Aviation Awards, and this year’s award ceremony was slated to be the best in years!  And on my watch too!  I was proud of the Board’s accomplishments!!  The Board was pleased because after a gap of several years, GAA was finally back on the Administrator’s schedule and he would be doing a separate award presentation at “Meet the Administrator”, when he talked about the GAA to the assembled pilots at the airshow and personally introduced the year’s Honorees.  It was a huge deal, not only for the program, but also first and foremost for the three Honorees, who were all really excited about meeting the Administrator of the FAA.I was also really pleased that my friend Pamela, a former NASA aerospace engineer, was giving a talk on experimental aircraft at the airshow.  

There were relatively few women in aviation and Pamela was Anglo-Indian, a woman of color like me.  I was pleased that I had been able to get Pamela on the official speaker schedule!!  Further, while I had very much enjoyed last year’s show, it would be much more fun attending with a friend.  There would probably be a bunch of Flying Club types there and the Club’s Chief Flight Instructor would be attending. 

Pamela and I had booked round trip tickets to Madison on United.  An Embraer regional jet, so we would observe weight and balance procedures and have the more immediate sense of flying in a small plane that you got with regional jets.  The plan was to then rent a car in Madison and drive to our AirBnB in Appleton, Wisconsin, a twenty-minute drive from Oshkosh.  The long drive would be much less tiring with a friend.  The previous year I had flown into Milwaukee and driven myself to the airshow daily-nearly 100 miles each way.  It had been a long, beautiful drive through green farmland and bucolic landscapes, with time to listen to good music-Ombres Errantes, an album of pieces by François Couperin-I would now always associate Couperin with the airshow- but this time I would not have to be up at 5am and on the road by 6, and I would be able to stay late for the evening displays, which I had had to miss last year.  It would be a blast!  

A couple of days had gone by when I received an Email from Pam.  Our friend Newland, who owned an Eclipse jet, had told Pam that he was going to Oshkosh for the first time and would be delighted to fly us both to the airshow in the jet!!  This was better than amazing!!  I had copiloted this jet cross-country a couple of years previously and it was an amazing plane!  Capable of seating 6 but configured for 4, the small jet was one of the most energy efficient out there, had a top speed of Mach 0.7, and was a delight to fly.  Glass cockpit with all the latest avionics.  It was gorgeous!  And Newland was an excellent pilot, careful, cautious, not prone to take foolish risks, and good company.   It was obvious-we would go in the jet and even though we had both already bought tickets on United, they would keep until another time.  Both of us were pilots-Pam had her PPL and was working on her instrument rating-and I was preparing for my PPL check ride.  I had a lot of flying time and Newland would be happy to let us take turns copiloting.  It would be good experience for us both.  

All that remained was the weather and if the planets were aligned, we would be going to Oshkosh by private jet!

In the meantime, a Flying Club buddy, Madlyn, was also coming along.  So now the plane was full-that was 4 pilots in 1 plane….  Plenty of expertise to get us all to the airshow!  Madlyn was a NASA software engineer and I felt privileged to fly with three such excellent pilots, all licensed and all far more accomplished flyers than I was.  We not only got along well, but flew well together, which was essential for a long cross-country trip like this.  I, for my part, had asked the Club’s Chief CFI, who was well connected in aviation, if I could bring my friends to the various parties he was attending.  He extended invitations to our group.  

We agreed to meet at Newland’s hangar at a local General Aviation airport at 9am the morning of departure.  I arrived in good time and Pamela and Madlyn showed up within 10 minutes.  The huge hangar was open and there was the jet, parked inside.  Newland was preflighting and planned to be wheels-up by 10am.  The hangar was amazing.  There was a one-bedroom apartment with an upstairs at one end.  It had been professionally decorated and was fully furnished, and we could sit and relax there.  The hangar had room for at least four cars.  Before departure, we would leave our cars lined up inside, with the keys on each roof in case one of the jet’s co-owners needed to move them.  The hangar doors would be locked, and the cars would be safe until our return.  

I really thought it was high time someone made a reality show with an aviation theme.  It could be called “Hangar Life”.  Really, people had no idea…..

Newland attached a tug to the jet and slowly moved it out of the hangar.  He then connected a battery pack and loaded our bags.  Some of the luggage went behind the seats and a couple of cases between the seat rows for weight and balance.  We all went to the bathroom before departure.  Small jets don’t have loos.  He shut and locked the great hangar doors.  We got on board and put our seatbelts and headsets on and plugged the headsets in.  I sat in the back, since I had already copiloted the jet cross-country.  For the first leg of the outward, Pamela sat in the right seat as copilot.  Madlyn sat in the back with me.  

I had a book to read, “Rites of Peace” by Adam Zamoyski, about the Congress of Vienna, and planned to relax and enjoy the flight.  There were no lines, no TSA, no taking your shoes off or having your bags X-rayed. This is what I like best about General Aviation-that you can just get in the plane and go.  Newland started the left engine and we taxied out.  Pamela did a great job taxiing, they got to the runway, and Newland allowed her to give the twin engines full power.  We took off smoothly and were soon up in the flight levels on our way to Oshkosh.

I relaxed and read my book.  It was delightful.  Madlyn and I both had headsets so we could hear ATC and follow what was going on in front.  It was a smooth flight and a beautiful day.  There was no weather to speak of and we made good time to our first stop, a small airport in Nebraska.  We landed and the lineman directed us to the FBO, which was pretty nice.  I asked the lineman. 

“Hey, do you get a lot of jets landing here?”  

“Oh, we get loads of jets coming through!” he responded.  

I was skeptical, as it seemed quiet, though it was a largish airport.  We got out and went to the FBO while Newland put the plane away and took care of paperwork.  The plan was to refuel and have lunch here, then fly straight on to Appleton, the closest GA airport to AirVenture after Oshkosh itself.  

We were in the middle of lunch when Newland showed up, looking as annoyed as I had ever seen him.  The lineman had apparently made him park the jet the wrong way round, and Newland had had to turn the jet, which weighted over 6,000 pounds, manually.  I felt really bad that we had not been able to assist.  The lineman had brought a tug, but its contacts were not compatible with the jet.  So much for having seen lots of jets.  The lineman was obviously clueless.  

“Oh well – I think it was his first day on the job”, said Newland, ruefully.  “I should have ignored him and just parked the jet in the correct orientation to the prevailing wind.  Hopefully he won’t make such a basic mistake the next time a jet lands here”.  

We had lunch, refreshed ourselves and started on the final leg of the flight to Appleton.  This time, Madlyn took her turn as copilot and Pam sat in the back with me.  I had very much enjoyed the flight with nothing much to do except read, chat, and stare out the window.  There was plenty of leg room-far more than in a commercial jet, and the added stimulus of knowing what the pilots were doing and listening to ATC.  

Getting out of the plane mid-trip to stretch our legs and see a new FBO was a lot more fun than flying commercial and a great deal more comfortable.  It was more like commercial flying was before the introduction of long-haul flights.  In those days, planes stopped at major cities on route, you deplaned, sat in the transit lounge, investigated the airport, and got a sense of the world.  

We arrived at Appleton around 5pm.  The weather was sunny with a few clouds, boding well for the airshow.  We got out of the plane and walked to the FBO, which was much nicer than the one in Nebraska.  It was busier and there were free coffee and snacks as at most private FBOs.  The bathrooms were spotless and nicely decorated.  Newland had a fair amount of paperwork and had to put the plane away for the next few days.  We were going to be at the Airshow the entire week.  This would take a little time.

Why don’t you ladies get an UBER to the AirBnB and I’ll meet you there in an hour or so when I’ve put the plane away” he suggested.  This seemed sensible so we went outside and ordered up a LYFT.  While we waited, we chatted.

“Did you see the jet that landed right after us?”, asked Pam. “I think it was Saudi, and I am sure they are attending AirVenture.” 

“Yes – and I bet that huge Mercedes station wagon with the darkened windows that’s waiting over there is for them.” suggested Madlyn.  I enjoyed all this without comment.  It was very much a departure from the everyday.

After about fifteen minutes, the LYFT pulled up to the kerb.  Our ride was a large station wagon with seating for at least 4.  The driver was a middle-aged woman a little older than me, the oldest member of the group.  She was somewhat unkempt and disheveled, but I supposed that was from driving all day.  She had the kind of dead white skin that doesn’t tan at all and very swelled feet and ankles, her bare feet stuffed into worn leather moccasins.  She seemed pleasant enough and we all got into the station wagon, which set off to the AirBnB that Pam had booked for our week’s stay.  I sat next the driver and the others in the back.  We drove and watched the scenery.  After a minute or so, the driver started chatting – she was obviously a loquacious type and had much to say.

“Well, where are you ladies from?”

“From Los Angeles.  We are attending AirVenture”, I offered.

“Oh really?  Where in LA?”


“Oh, my husband and I lived in San Marino for years!” the driver offered.  “Then we moved to Massachusetts, and finally to Appleton.  To be honest, we didn’t like Massachusetts very much, but we love living here in Appleton!  My husband worked for years for a corporation that had its headquarters in Pasadena.” finished the driver.

I guessed her husband had probably worked for a technology or aerospace company spun off by Caltech.

Oh, which company did he work for?” I asked.

“The John Birch Society!  He’s been an employee of the John Birch for over 40 years!”

I nearly passed out with horror at being trapped in a car with this woman.  I changed the subject immediately.  How could this woman bang on like this about the John Birch with three women of color in the car?  

Doesn’t LYFT tell its drivers to avoid discussing politics with passengers?  What kind of moron was this?  Worse still-despite arriving in a private jet, with all the privilege that it implied, I had stepped right into this puddle of mud as soon as I got out of the plane!  Privilege was no protection at all from racism, ignorance, and stupidity.  Any privilege I might have had ended when the plane door was closed and locked.

“It must be because she thinks none of us has ever heard of it.  But I have, and the National HQ of the JBS is in Appleton, and this is my second run in with them”, I thought with some anxiety.  

My first run in with the JBS had been many years previously, with my then boyfriend’s mother.  To prepare me for my first meeting with his mother, always a potentially tense situation, he explained that his parents were “so conservative they had left the JBS because it was too liberal”!  I had heard of the JBS and had a hard time getting my head around this, but it was true and his mother had treated me with open racism.  My flight instructor had once commented that he and his wife had been horrified, on moving to Southern California, to drive past the former National HQ of the John Birch Society on Colorado Blvd in Pasadena!  Had they fallen among madmen?  The rest of the drive was tense, but the driver rattled on as if nothing was the matter.  

We finally reached the AirBnB and got out, me with a great sigh of relief.  Pam and Madlyn were curious.  “What was that all about?” asked Pam.

“Do you know what the John Birch Society is?” I asked.

“I know the name, but I don’t know what they do.” responded Pam, who was 42.

“I’ve never heard of them.” said Madlyn, who was ten years younger.

“They are basically a bunch of ultra-right-wing racist crackpots, if explanation were needed”, I said, and filled them in on the details.  Pam and Madlyn were aghast.

We entered the AirBnB, which was fantastic – a large house with four spacious, well-appointed bedrooms, a large living room with a piano, beautiful kitchen, a huge den, a pool, a large well-kept garden, and all creature comforts.  But some of the joy was dimmed.  What would the owners think of us, people of color even if we were all pilots, staying there?  Was the rest of Appleton as crazy as our LYFT driver?  We unpacked, took our shoes off, and relaxed.

An hour or so later, Newland arrived.  The plane was put away and we could look forward to a great week at the airshow.  However, first things first.  I told him about the LYFT driver.  He was horrified.

“Well, it sounds absolutely awful.  I am so sorry you had to experience that.  But here’s one way of looking at it,” replied Newland with a smile.  “You ladies flew here on a private jet and she is driving a LYFT for a living!”

That was true enough.  We all laughed.  Newland had pointed out that today, both Madison and Milwaukee were moving strongly towards the Democrats and away from the GOP.  The John Birch Society might be strong in small towns like Appleton, but they knew better than to show their faces at AirVenture, an airshow with a huge international presence.

I was disposed to enjoy the irony of these observations.  I would no longer let people like the LYFT driver make me feel small, upset me, or have any power over me.  I was a pilot and the Chairman of the Board of the General Aviation Awards.  I did not need anybody’s approval to feel good about myself.  I would be getting my wings soon, as my check ride was looming.  I was lucky to have the friends I did, and to have adventures like this one.  

Like Mopsa the Fairy, my thoughts were my wings.  I could fly the universe in my imagination as I had always done yet also fly a plane whenever I wanted.  One thing made me sad though.  I had come to the US hoping, naïvely perhaps, to escape the appalling racism I grew up with in England.  My experiences over the years cast doubt that this hope could ever be realized.  Racism periodically went underground and changed its guise, but it persisted, then, like 17-year cicadas, reemerged in a swarm of new forms.  

However, this trip had also taught me that I could triumph over it- laugh at its stupidity and ignorance-hire the racist like a servant and dismiss it after its job was done.  And now I had the support of friends and colleagues that I did not have at school in England. 

In the air, “I was a bird, and no net ensnared me”.  Flying high, in the flight levels or at any altitude, I could be myself, above “the mean things that crawl upon the earth”, and rely on the camaraderie, respect, and help of the community of pilots.  

A community bound into a vast network by radio frequencies, transponder codes, tail numbers, voices, and tracks on Flight Aware.  Because “In the air, nobody can see the color of your skin.” 

S. Narayanswami 2020