Why I Learned to Fly after 9/11

Never stop gazing upon the heavens in wonder.

I arrived at work that beautiful late summer morning with the sun. The air was cool and crisp with the approaching autumn, and deep azure skies seemed to flow on for eternity.

I was 23. I had graduated college in the spring and was waiting for law school and my new job to begin in a few weeks. In the meantime, I was working part-time as a stocker for a wholesale food distributor. My job was to throw heavy boxes, help customers, and keep the shelves loaded with product. It was the perfect job for the time.

It was a quiet start to the day on Tuesday, September 11, and our morning truck arrived a few minutes 6:30 am. We quickly unloaded, leaving some time to chat with the driver. Despite our socializing, we emptied the pallets by the time the store opened at 8 am. So Bob and I stepped out back to have a cup of coffee in the clear morning air and watch the airplanes land.

Our store was two miles north of the approach path for runway 25 at Toledo Express Airport. Out back by the dumpsters, we had an unobstructed view of the arriving planes. Whenever we worked together, Bob and I liked to step out back and swap ridiculous tales.

Born in 1930, Bob was old school and impressive. At 71, with just one original hip, he was the hardest worker and clearest thinker in the store. He loved to talk of coming of age in the 1970s. Of course, by then, Bob was already 40-years-old, but you wouldn’t know it by his stories. He was like a very young Casanova, making his mark on the female world.

This morning, we basked in the morning sun, letting it warm our skin. The conversation was the usual nonsense that two old boys talk about to fill the odd, caffeine-infused hours in a day.

By 8:15, a few customers had come into the store, so Bob decided to go work on the floor. I stayed in the warehouse to reorganize the excess inventory we now had as a result of the morning delivery.

The warehouse was a long narrow room with tall floor-to-ceiling shelves on one side and the doors to the freezers, coolers, and floor on the other side. At one end was the garage door and loading dock and at the other was the entrance to the sales office.

I was running 18-pound cases of number-10 cans up and down ladders to reach the highest level of the shelves, which were at about 18 feet. I was up on the second shelf, moving cases of cans around when Ken, a sales manager, popped in.

“An airplane just ran into the World Trade Center,” he said.

“What?!” I said. “You’re full of shit.” In my defense, Ken was a prankster prone to making stuff up and trying to pawn it off as fact.

“No. I’m serious, man,” he said. Then he disappeared through the door into the sales office.

I chuckled at the absurdity of that statement and went back to the business of tidying up.

It must’ve been no more than five minutes later when Bob poked his head through the double doors from the floor. “You need to come up and check this out. An airplane flew into one of the Twin Towers.”

I dropped the box I had in my hands and clambered down to the floor. We walked to the front of the building. There were no customers in the store, and the only sound was that of Muzak and the freezers running.

At the front of the store, our manager and the cashiers were gathered around a 12-inch TV. The picture was a little bit fuzzy but clear enough. It was the World Trade Center. Smoke was pluming from a gaping hole in the side of the north tower.

Nobody was sure what was happening yet. The news was sketchy at best, so we did our best to speculate. Still, it was difficult to believe that what we were seeing was real.

A second object slid into view for a blink. Was that a plane? Then it slammed into the south tower, scattering flames and debris everywhere.

This was no accident.

We watched in abject horror as the buildings burned, feeling helpless.

The store was quiet. Our manager had shut down the Muzak at some point, and all you could hear was the dull hum of refrigeration. Outside, cars were sparse.

I had never experienced anything like this. My heart was heavy in my chest. It reminded me of the night cruise missiles began falling on Baghdad — “We interrupt this program with a special news update,” Tom Brokaw said.

And they cut to live footage of lights falling from the sky followed by explosions on the ground. I knew my brother, who was in the Army, would soon be advancing. He had been summoned weeks before to the desert, but he couldn’t tell us why. This much we assumed.

Now, I imagined people in homes and offices, bars, and at department stores huddled around television sets, agape and exasperated, breathless and waiting to see what was going to happen next.

Then the towers collapsed.

An hour or so later, I was standing out back by myself. The sky was that same beautiful azure and the sun was a warm reminder of the indifference of nature.

Life goes on. It must.

The quiet. Very few cars passed by, and there were no airplanes in the sky. No airplanes passing overhead, no contrails, nothing. The emptiness was unnerving.

Night fell as it always did, and I found myself at the bar with my brother. We guzzled cheap ice cold beer while he chain-smoked cigarettes. When the news finally arrived that my good friend living and working in New York City was alive and well, I lit a cigar.

All day long, I tried without success to contact my friend, but the lines were jammed. Finally, word had somehow gotten through that he was okay.

Here in the bar, the room was abuzz. A wall full of TV’s showed network programming while people swapped their pet theories. The President of the United States came on and the room quieted.

There was something soothing in that moment. It was a time of repose in an otherwise confusing and senseless day. And in that moment of meditation, of letting the mind ease a bit, I knew what I had to do.

It was time to fly.

When I was a child, I believed I could fly. In my dreams, I’d soar high over the Maumee River and dip down to buzz the big houses that stood along the riverbank. Angered homeowners would appear in windows shaking their fists at me as I effortlessly joined the seagulls floating on the breeze.

I plastered the walls of my room with posters that paid homage to all the great warbirds past and present. I had flying games on my computer and once tried to build my own rocket-ship. And yet, I had never truly flown on my own.

I had a litany of reasons why I couldn’t do it, everything from it’s expensive to it’s dangerous, and I have glasses, so I can’t fly.

But those excuses wouldn’t stand anymore. If ever there was a time to learn, it was now. So I hatched a plan that night and left the bar dead-set on making it happen.

I took me a few months to clear my first medical, but I did it. I read somewhere that you should get the highest medical you can get based on the type of flying you want to do. So, I applied and received a first-class medical, the highest you can receive. I wasn’t sure how far I wanted to take my flying, but I had a gut feeling that I’d go far.

The following March, as the midwest winter began to break into spring, I visited Toledo Suburban Airport for a discovery flight.

If you’re not familiar with the concept, a discovery flight is a tool for flight instructors to get you hooked on flying. What we do is we make you sit in the left seat and do most of the flying so you can take it straight into your veins. Once the drug is in, you can’t live without it.

That day, my instructor walked me through the whole gamut of experiences. From preflight to taxi and run-up to takeoff and landing, I controlled the airplane.

The flight itself was a mere 30 minutes in the air. We criss-crossed the city, looking down on my childhood haunts from three-thousand feet. From my perch, I was gaining a new perspective on the world. From up here, you could see great artist’s handiwork, and in those moments, the world seemed to make sense. I was so absorbed in the flying, moving through three dimensions, that I lost all sense of time. I was in what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a flow state.

Flow is the state of concentration in which you are completely focused on the activity you’re performing. Csikszentmihalyi’s research has revealed that human beings are happiest in flow. It’s no wonder then that, for people who love to fly, they are happiest when they are in the air.

Back on the ground, I was hooked. So I did the only sensible thing I could think of: I dove in headfirst.

I flew evening, weekends, and nights as I raced through the certificates until I finally arrived at Flight Instructor. But, like any other certificate, it was another beginning.

As a Flight Instructor, it is my privilege to enable the dreams of others. For so many people, learning to fly is something they put on their bucket list, something that they want to do before they die, but only if they have the time. They put it off while life unfolds, hoping to come back to it when things are more convenient.

The lucky few head out to the airport and give it a try. Some get hooked and go all in. Others taste that moment of pure bliss and receive all they need. Either way, to be a part of the process of achieving something they’ve carried around for years, that’s an amazing experience.

And, that is why I fly.