Some weeks I have no idea what I’m going to write about next. And sometimes it’s so painfully obvious that it hurts. Such was the case this past Sunday.
The day started out well. I woke up in a great mood, excited that I was going to see my grandson that day. I had called my daughter the day before to make plans to attend the air show with her and her family. The air show is an event I have attended throughout the years with my children as they’ve grown up, and now they enjoy it (almost) as much as I do.
When I was young, my father did the same with me. We had a travel trailer and traveled all around the states with it. My dad loved cars, boats and planes, and took us to see many displays of some of the finest, and that included attending the EAA in Oshkosh before it was the cool thing to do.
Rows upon rows of endless planes in every variety, from very old to the latest technology. We’d walk for hours looking at them and not touching them, and enjoyed many aerobatics performances over the years. I grew to love cars, boats and planes (almost) as much as my dad did.
So I couldn’t help but think of him as I walked around the tarmac on Sunday, thinking how much he would enjoy it if he were here, and wondering if he was there in spirit, walking along with my daughter and her family. It was a nice feeling.
I noticed a woman with a large video camera interviewing one of the stunt pilots scheduled to perform that day. It was tough to hear the questions and responses over the wind, but I did hear him tell her about how privileged he felt to be able to fly the plane he was standing in front of and how excited he was to perform for crowd that day. He felt he was a very lucky man. He was very happy to be there and was looking forward to getting the children in attendance excited about aviation.
We walked along looking at the planes, sitting in some and chatting with the pilots. It was very warm on the tarmac and children were in all stages of whiny after awhile. Just before the aerobatics show began, a fire truck rolled onto the tarmac. While a warning sound beeped very loudly, four very large braces were pulled out from it’s sides and lodged against the concrete. The activity drew the crowd’s attention, and soon there was a circle of onlookers.
A very large American flag was pulled from the truck and attached to the bucket of the extension ladder on top of the truck. This took a large group of men, as the flag and the wooden beam it was attached to was very heavy. The wind was strong, and the constant gusts made flag wrangling a job and a half, even for such a fit group of men. Once the bucket of the ladder began to rise, the men helped the flag unfurl slowly so the wind would not take control of the process.
Once the enormous flag was about 3/4 of the way open, the anthem was played, which brought tears to my eyes as it always does. Afterwards, the flag was rolled right back up, much to the crowd’s chagrin. The firefighters must have felt it best to not risk losing those magnificent colors to the wind that afternoon.
The crowds’ attention then turned to the aerobatics show. Three pilots were flying that day, and the first went up and did some impressive tricks. No matter how many times I see those tricks, I am still blown away by the skill and stamina it takes to perform them. The second plane went soon after the first, performing even more daring and marvelous tricks. The clouds were so beautiful and surreal that day, it looked to me as if someone had painted them as a backdrop for the aerial performance.
The final pilot went up, in a plane so straight and slender it looked like a pencil with wings. The plane flew so fast that it gave the impression it was enjoying the performance as much as the pilot. I can’t even begin to imagine how many hours a pilot must log in the air to get to know a plane and it’s abilities and limitations before they feel confident enough to fly like this.
It was right after the moment I had that thought, that the pilot performed a maneuver that sent him hurtling straight towards the earth nose first, pulling up at what seemed like the last minute. Only the plane didn’t do that. Instead it made a small loop and continued to hurtle, nose down, straight toward the earth. My mind barely had time to consider that this was indeed a gutsy move when the plane disappeared, still plummeting nose first, behind the tree line at the far side of the air field.
Stunned for a moment or two, my shock melted into realization and the tears came. I couldn’t catch my breath. My daughter looked at me and began to realize what had happened too. The crowd was silent in that impossible moment. It seemed like we were all hoping we really hadn’t just seen what we knew we had.
EMS staff immediately jumped into action and about a half dozen different types of vehicles drove off to the far end of the air field. Within a few minutes the show was declared over and the announcer asked for people to please move to shelter, since there was an impending storm about to hit, and the planes needed to be moved to the hangars.
Even though the show was over and a light mist had begun to fall, no one seemed to want to leave. We all seemed to be wishing that there was some impossible way for that pilot to have survived that crash. There was no explosion on impact, no fireball, not even a trace of smoke.
I immediately began to pray a prayer that I would end up praying for the rest of the day. What happened up there? Was it wind gusts, a structural failure, or the pilot’s choices that made this terrible thing happen? What did the pilot say to the tower as it all began to go wrong? Was there even time for words? What were his last thoughts? I had a tough time wrapping my head around it.
After awhile, it dawned on me that I had never really seen someone die. And it didn’t sit with me very well. It disturbed me. It made me think of people who see death often and made me wonder how they handle it. I wondered about the pilot’s family and if they had come along that day or stayed at home, figuring it was just another performance. The thought broke my heart.
More than ever, it made me think hard about how you just never know when it’s going to be all over, and it will come in an instant for some of us. Seeing that crash was a life-altering moment for me. I will think about it for many days, if not years, to come. I will think about how lucky that man thought he was, and that he died doing something he really loved to do. I hope that thought will help me to remember to enjoy every single moment that comes my way and appreciate everything and everyone that touches my life, today and every day from now on. If I can do that, I will be very lucky indeed.
Originally published June 6, 2014