Left: taking off
Right: safe return
The red and white sticker on the dash of the helicopter reads: “Aviation Allows No Room For Error. FLY TO COME HOME.” That comforted and unsettled me. Really? Like I needed to know aviation leaves no room for error? The last time Dad took anyone to the airport and deposited them in a helicopter, it was my mom. She did not come home – not as she left. She departed the landing site in a body bag. What was left of her did. I wonder if they packed her charred camera and lenses in the same bag. Doubtful, but it would have been fitting.
As the young man in the movie, “Second Hand Lions” said of his two uncles who killed themselves attempting to fly their kit plane upside down through the barn opening and out the other side, “Well, sir, they went out with their boots on.” Those fellows had determined they were not going to sit around and wait to die in their old age. No sir, they would try anything that struck their fancy; you weren’t going to find them in bed shriveled up when they went. My mom went out with her boots on. The phrases, “in a tailspin,” and “crash and burn,” describe her last moments on earth – well, as she met the earth and her simultaneous demise. When I step into a helicopter thirteen months later, the message that greets me is “No error – come home!” I needed no reminder, but appreciated the message being ever present before my pilot’s eyes.
That eight hour drive to reach Houston the day before had some excruciating moments. My stomach started cramping. My mouth tried to throw up. My head started hurting. In response I said, “I’m doing this, if it kills me. Literally. My body is trying to get sick to keep me from going. Well, I’m jolly well going, even if I’m throwing up the whole time. This will not whip me! I will conquer this fear. I will not be subject the control of this terror. I will win!” And so help me, I drove on. I rested reasonably well that night, and woke determined, but unsteady.
Keeping my mouth tense but not gritting my teeth, I attempted to regulate my breathing and prevent it from becoming shallow and rapid. I dressed with trembling hands and eyes bugged open to hold back the moisture that may have tried to develop if left to their own. I joined Dad downstairs in the motel breakfast area and choked down a fairly balanced combination of foods. Protein for strength and endurance, fruit for healthy sugar and quick energy, and half a waffle for the carbs to take the edge off my nerves. Dad kept asking how I was doing and reminding me that I didn’t have to go up, we only lose money – no big deal, it’s okay to change my mind. I repeatedly replied that I was fine, I knew I could back out, but it was okay. I lied every time. I was not okay, but I was going up.
Dad and I loaded up and drove our respective vehicles to the airport twenty minutes away. It was a sprawling operation with many sub parts scattered about the periphery. Another ten minutes of wiggling and stopping found us at the correct office and hanger. A young man with a strong southern drawl greeted us. His name was David. He was seven years younger than me. And he was to be my pilot. I cast Dad a furtive glance. Really? I was about to hand my life over to someone not yet thirty years old? I leaned the back of my head against the brick wall and closed my eyes, forcing myself to breathe slow, while frantically fanning myself despite the moderate temperature in the room.
Dad and David discussed the flight plan – something Mom would have had prepared and printed out before she arrived. I listened, breathed, and fanned. Dad showed the David and I a particular junction about five miles from the photo shoot location, and haltingly Dad told us that was the location of Mom’s crash, in the pipe yard next to the service road for the highway. Still I fanned and swallowed, dry eyed, and feeling like I would start buzzing around the room any moment. Dad laid his hand on my back and asked if I was okay. I shrugged his hand off and said, “Don’t. You can’t be nice to me or I’ll loose it. Let me be tough.” He understood, and we did not touch again. We waved a lot, and motioned “I love you” with gestures and arms crossed across the chest.
The moment I put my foot on the frame and lifted myself into the passenger seat, all the theatrics inside me stopped. They knew that I had won. There was no way I would step out; I had crossed the line, I had passed the point of no return. I pulled the harness around my shoulders and the strap across my hips, and felt the cold metal in my hands as I listened to that click and slap of the buckle locking me in. The camera strap rested around my neck, securing it against an untimely demise from several hundred feet. The weight, texture, and monetary value of the equipment impressed itself on my mind. David started the engine and engaged the rotors. I smiled bravely and waved, clicking pictures of Dad standing in the hanger. At the instant we lifted off the ground, nose tilted sharply, Dad and I smiling and waving a bit too exuberantly…that is when it hit me: this is precisely how he saw Mom last – and I wondered how on earth he was able to let me deal with my terror in this manner. It would have been understandable for him to beg me not to go. But he didn’t – he played out the drama with me, pretending we weren’t both well aware of the potential (albeit unlikely) horror that could transpire.