This is a particularly significant article for me because it’s the first I ever wrote. I submitted it to the Editor of Private Pilot magazine who called the next day to say he wanted to publish the piece. The fact that the Editor was Richard Bach certainly added to my elation. So the next day, I quit my job at CTV National News and began my new life as a free-lance Aviation Writer.
Unfortunately, Richard picked the very same day to take a stand with his publisher over an article which Bach opposed. The Publisher refused to budge, so Richard – being Richard – quit on the spot.
That was the end of my writing debut (and the beginning of a very difficult year).
The article never did get published … until today.
So here, after a mere 40-year delay – copied from the faded, typed original, (on paper supplied by CTV National News anchor, Harvey Kirck) – is “The Dawn Patrol.”
(Note: Please remember, I was 19 when I wrote this… so, be kind.)
Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear (Episode 12) “Dawn Patrol”
Five O’ clock in the morning. I must be completely and absolutely out of my mind. Five O’ clock! I didn’t even know people were capable of waking at such an ungodly hour.
I stumbled out of the door of our house, “brain bag” in hand, and fiddled with the car keys.
The square on. Where’s the square key? It was here last night. It must be here. If I can’t find that stupid square key, my car will not move. If my car does not move, I will not move. And if I do not move, Des goes flying without me and I shall scream for I do not like getting up at five in the morning to go for a Dawn Patrol, only to be fooled by a dumb, stupid, ignorant key.
Key… WHERE ARE YOU?
I peel off down the street, watching the bedroom lights flicker on and hearing gross obscenities hurled at me.
Stupid key was in the ignition.
The roads are completely deserted. Nothing moves. Beautiful.
I hate crowds anyway.
The entire scene looks like something out of “On the Beach.”
Darkened streets. Empty stores, appearing to gather their bulk together as protection against the onslaught of humanity they know must come with the rising sun.
Turn left. In the country now. Car bounces on washboard surface of gravel road.
Ethereal shadows grow and dissipate in the car’s shimmering headlights.
Dead trees, burned out by lightning, seem to reach out for the car as it jostles by.
Turn right. There it is. Home. My airport. The place where I was born. In spirit if not in flesh.
Home … Buttonville.
I knew it. I knew it. He’s not here. The airport is completely abandoned – pitch black beyond the terminal. No runway lights. No taxi lights. Nothing.
At the far end of the field, a light suddenly flickers into life and begins turning in a circle.
That does it. I’m going home. The Airport is haunted.
“Hello. I’m over here. Come this way,” yells Des.
So he is here after all. Figures. I’m cold now and I just want to drive home, crawl back into my bed, and sleep.
Des Chorley stands next to his bird, polishing the windows and smiling ridiculously for five thirty … a.m.
“Good morning,” he beams. “Beautiful morning, eh?”
I want to strike him.
“Goomornin…,” I grumble back.
Deep terror is settling into my body. We have been sitting smack in the middle of the active runway for more than fifteen minutes, and I am waiting for the grinding crash as some unsuspecting pilot lands right on top of us.
“We’ll just wait till it gets a little lighter,” Des yells over the idling engine.
Can’t see the runway over the nose of the little Fleet Canuck.
Third wheel is in the wrong place – on the tail.
No control column. Just a stick coming out of the floor.
Knees already bruised on the insides.
The throttle suddenly goes forward … fuselage rumbles … tail comes up … and we can finally see the runway.
Stick smashes knee again. Noise gets louder. Stick comes back hard. Airport drops away…
The old feelings come flooding back the same as they do every time I leave the ground. That brief moment at the beginning of every flight where the miracle of it all brings me close to tears. The trees and the road racing towards you, only to drop away with the flick of a wrist. The glorious sensation in the pit of your stomach as the nose points suddenly upward. And then, finally, the glorious solitude of it all.
No Population Explosion up here (3.5 Billion below). Just me, Des, and his little old bird.
The world lies at our feet and, for all we know, we could be the only people alive on a desolate, deserted planet.
But this day, something is different. Behind us, the bulk of Toronto still shimmers with a scattering of night lights. Beyond it, the black void of Lake Ontario defies anyone to cross it.
But we bank now to the east, to the pitted and forested darkness of the Canadian Shield, where miles-high glaciers once covered the land for as far as one could see. And there, in the east, the sky has a weird and unearthly glow; an omen of something tremendously powerful arriving.
The orange glow fills the sky with colour, and the mind with foreboding…
The Sun is coming.
Beneath us, another miracle begins to unfold. The Sun, as yet unseen, has yet to warm the air. But the waters of the myriad lakes, ponds and rivers have held their warmth over night and now cover themselves with a thick layer of mist.
As far as the eye can see, bent tracts of fog shroud Ontario’s waterways … and the effects are breath-taking!
Des pulls on Carb Heat, eases back the throttle, and the nose dips slightly downwards. The fog reaches out towards us, then with a sudden blast of power, we skim across the top of the mist – our gear touching down on a curving, fairyland runway.
Des lifts the Canuck up a hundred feet and checks ahead for power lines crossing the river. All clear, so down again, the illusion of speed building, and as we follow the slowly curving river, I feel I am Captain of the world’s tallest ship.
A sudden blinding flash on the horizon demands our attention. And in the same instant, a long, distorted shadow appears on the mist below. The shadow is ours. The Sun is rising.
“Take ‘er up Glenn,” a disjointed voice murmurs, and the stick is suddenly in my hand as my feet find their way to the rudder pedals.
The small feelings of flight tingles my fingers and toes. Gently at first … back on the stick, and we climb away from our misty runway – up into a sky blazing orange.
On the edge of the world, not one Sun but four begin to rise – distorted by the curve of our global home.
Beneath us, long shadows race quickly across the landscape. Treetops burst into blazing colour, and only the valleys are black holes; bottomless and seemingly void of all life.
The effect of the giant, rising orb can be seen everywhere, as it slowly molds itself into one colossal, blinding star.
I level off a thousand feet up and gently wiggle my extremities to get the feel of the machine now in my control.
Beautiful. Far more sensitive than the Cessna 150 I am used to.
But then, I am a Canadian, flying a Canadian plane through Canadian skies … so it makes sense that we get along.
Gradually, the little Fleet and I get to know each other … gently, through simple turns, glides and climbs. And then passionately, with power-on stalls, spins and loops.
Des murmurs gently to his loved one throughout and she responds to his every suggestion. Although my hands and feet are supposedly guiding this bird through the air, I cannot help but feel that I am merely the link between this man and his machine.
To see the country the way it really is, you have to fly at five hundred feet. Any lower and things move too quickly to be properly absorbed. Any higher and you move into the ethereal Aviator’s world, where the only things that seem real are you and your airplane.
Cruising along over the Trent Canal at five hundred feet, the awakening world becomes very real. The earlier mist is burning away, the grass along the riverbank twinkling wetly from its dew.
And there ahead … a solitary boat, moving slow and easy down the middle of the river. Three black dots inside turn suddenly white as faces twist upwards at our approach. Our wings move up and down in welcome to our early-morning-friends below, and six arms wave upward in return.
In the next five minutes, the river traffic increases and we bounce from one side of the river to the other, waving down at our water-bound brethren.
The river narrows, the bush grows sparse, and as we bank around a sharp turn, houses and roads pop quickly into sight. The propeller disappears with the roar of sudden power and my weight is doubled as the nose moves swiftly upwards.
Eight hundred, nine hundred, and – there – a thousand feet, and once again we are legal.
The toy houses and buildings passing below seem so ridiculously small that you are sure you could reach down and rearrange them if you wanted to.
The tiny hairline roads of the little town are crowded with miniature cars that speed towards each other in a thousand, illusionary head-on collisions. The rectangular little dots take on the appearance of a race of suicidal ants, bent on destroying themselves by smashing into each other.
From up here, how absurdly dangerous those fragile machines look. How easy it is to imagine one tiny dot moving slightly off course, slamming into another, and destroying the even smaller lives they carry inside.
My head jerks up, instantly on a swivel. My brow is sweating. My hands are damp. My eyes search the sky in every direction. I lift up each wing and peer above me … but the sky is completely empty, the orange tinge rapidly changing to blue.
I laugh at myself and my sudden foreboding. On the ground below, the tiny dots still face sudden death, but here in the air, the sky is completely ours to enjoy … to watch … and always – always – to learn from.
“Peterborough Airport ahead, Glenn. Take ‘er down,” grins Des.
Ye Gods and little fishes! The moment of truth is at hand. The time has come to land a dreaded taildragger.
A normal circuit – I feel good. Carb Heat on. Increase power. Peer over your shoulder at the runway. (Hmm. First time I’ve landed in the right seat.)
Okay. That’s about it. Turn base. Power back. Wait for seventy … wait for it … wait … and – there!
Trim for the glide. Flaps down … Flaps! Where in the name of Zeus are the flaps? No handle. No toggle – Oh, yeah … no flaps.
Okay. Slip her in. Can’t see what all this taildragger fuss is about. Everything seems normal enough to me. Another “Hangar Tale” I guess.
Watch out! Here comes the ground … Back on the stick… back… Back … BACK …and …
WHERE’S THE GROUND? I CAN’T SEE A THING?
We’re down. Okay …
WHAT THE HECK?
WHERE’S THE TAIL GOING?
The engine suddenly powers up. A rudder is tromped on. The nose drops and a disaster is averted as the speed builds up again.
“Not bad for a first try,” Des chuckles. “We’re still alive.”
Insult is added to injury as Des performs three perfect circuits in a row; each one climaxed by the glorious feeling of “three wheels rolling” – “the only landing that counts,” grins Des.
As final proof of my total lack of flying ability, Des takes off and lands three times on the twenty-five hundred foot runway, completely in control at all times.
I have my license out, ready to tear it up, when I notices Des’ hands – glistening with sweat.
I put the license back in my pocket and get ready to try again.
I line up on final and trim for the glide. Take off was hairy. Nose all over the place. But I think I found the secret – you have to work your feet like you’re pedaling a bicycle, and then you can just barely keep control.
Okay now … over the fence … and … there – flare now.
Back on the stick. Left rudder. Right rudder. Back some more – WATCH IT. THERE SHE GOES! Full left rudder. Caught it. (Ha!) Back… back … BACK.
Thump. Crunch. Rumble.
We’re down. I did it. I Di- OOOPS! Left rudder. Right rudder. Brake gently … GENTLY …
The myth has been broken. I love this thing.
LONG LIVE THE TAILDRAGGER!
A nearby Orchard, unseen by its protective owner, “donated” two apples to our morning flight and we munch happily on the last leg of our trip.
I would have flown all day if I could, but I have a boss to report to, and Des is a boss who others (including my Dad) are hurrying to report to.
We say nothing on the flight home. Des flies … I fly … and most of the time, the Canuck flies itself.
Our radio crackles for the first time that day. Buttonville is awake now and there is a Controller in the tower to be reckoned with.
“Buttonville Tower, DQZ, ten east at two thousand, landing,” says Des.
“DQZ, cleared right hand downwind,” the radio replies … and we obediently listen and comply.
Des’ hand reaches for the bicycle horn he carries with him and gives two raucous honks at the Line Boys who scurry out to feed our little Canuck the liquid breakfast she has earned so well.
The brakes squeak one last time, then with a downward sweep of Des’ hand on her switches, the Fleet’s engine, shudders and dies.
“Rotten Morning, eh Glenn?” says my boss as I walk into our Editing Studio.
The sky clouded over as I drove to work, and a fine drizzle now falls from the sky.
“Rotten morning,” I say. “Rotten morning? Why this is the most beautiful morning since the world began. The sky is crisp and clear. The waters are deep and blue. The grass in the meadows is fresh with morning dew. Rotten morning? Man, you must be crazy.”
My boss stares at me, looks out the window at the falling rain, then back at me again.
A sympathetic look comes over his face, he shakes his head, then walks off.
“Must be working the kid too hard,” I hear him mumble as he walks off down the hall.
Watch for Episode 13 of Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear
“Bee Vee Air,” on Sunday, June 20th, 2010.
Abridged excerpt from Glenn Norman’s book, “Living On Stolen Time”
Due for release in the fall of 2010