Monday, April 10, 2006

Pie in the Sky

America is a great country! You don't have to be a John Travolta to own a plane. Ordinary people, average Joes and Janes, can with some studying get their private pilot license, buy a plane, and fly to Iowa for a family reunion or to Bahamas for a weekend of scuba-diving. Hundreds of thousands of little planes are available for purchase - new and used, historical replicas and real vintage things, planes that land on land and planes that land on water, planes ready to fly and planes in kits waiting to be assembled and even little helicopters.

Now, just as dog owners have dog shows, bikers have the Bike Week, and pumpkin growers have the Cirleville Pumpkin Show , the airplane owners and owner-wanna-bees have airshows and fly-ins. One of the most famous small plane shows is the AirVenture held annually in Oshkosh. Of course, that's in Wisconsin.

It would be really surprising if Florida did not have some kind of an airshow, right? I mean, we have everything else here (except for mountains, snow, and good-paying jobs). And so of course, we have the Sun-n-Fun airshow and fly-in held annually in Lakeland. AirVenture-shmareventure, our event even sounds cooler! Now, an airshow of this kind is not just an airshow. First, it lasts a whole week. Second, air performances with all the fly-bys, aerobatics, wing-walkers, precision flying, and such are held every single day of the week. Third, besides an airshow itself various exibits, classes, swap meets, and other events are held daily for everyone to enjoy.

Of course, Lakeland is 2 hours away from us. And the admission to the show is $30 per person once you get there. Neither Chris nor I are small aviation enthusiasts. So how come we ended up at the Lakeland Airport last Saturday and willingly paid $60 for something we had little interest in? It's elementary, my dear Watson! My father, who is a big general aviation enthusiast, drove all the way from New York just for this show.

My father used to fly little YK planes when he was young and impressionate. I have no clear idea as to what happened back then that effectively ended his pilot career, but I believe it involved some kind of a prank or probably even several that he pulled during his flight training. And so he got kicked out at some point. But, as they say in cheesy novels, the dream stayed alive in the young man's heart. Of course, being that my Dad lived in the Soviet Union, there was no way for him to fulfil his dream of flying outside a para-military flight school. And so the dream curled up snuggly in his cerebral cortex (or wherever these things are stored) and took a long nap.

It was awakened with Dad's arrival to the US, the land of unlimited possibilities. And it became particularly strong once Dad turned 60 and both my brother and I were semi-established on our way to that pie in the sky commonly known as The American Success Story. To make the long story short, the dream reared its ugly head and took posession of my Dad. He started spending long hours on Internet searching for good deals on planes and became a regular on eBay. He talked of FAA regulations, torque, altitudes and cross-country flights. He even started saving money. Of course, he understood his limitations, both financial and linguistic. So he set his sight low - on a no-license-required category of ultra-lights.

It would be a mistake to think that these things are cheap. Of course, compared to a Cessna, a $12,000 price tag is really a bargain. But let's not forget that $12,000 effectively buys you a motorized chair with a 5-gallon jerrican of gasoline underneath, a swamp-boat propeller strapped to its back and an oversized kite on top that keeps you from falling 500 or so feet to the ground. Of course, there are plenty of schools and clubs throughout the United States where one can pay money and experience a solo or a tandem flight on one of these things. But my Dad has been in the US long enough now to catch the ownership bug. And so he came to Florida to find an ultra-light of his dream. We followed.

The day we went to the show was hot, sunny, and very windy. After walking a bit around the ultra-lights, we left Dad and a couple of his friends and made our way to the airfield. There was but little time to spare as the skydivers drifted slowly on their canopies signaling the start of the daily airshow. As we tried to get closer to the stands, we passed a field of small planes parked neatly in rows with the camping tents taking the space between them. Just like on a regular camping trip, their owners were sleeping, snacking, sunning themselves, or in one case rocking in a hammock carefully hung under a wing. In short, it was very Norman Rockwell.

The closer we got to the airfield, the more crowded it got. Keeping one eye on a 11-plane formation flight, we passed by a showcase of military planes. It was a little bit weird to see people sitting under the guns of an F-15, hiding from the sun; children, excitedly watching the show from its wings; and a young Air Force pilot smiling good-naturadely while posing for a picture. It was weird because somewhere thousands of miles away another F-15 was probably executing a less friendly mission bringing fear and pain to both adults and children in its path.

After walking aimlessly for a little while trying to find some shade, we finally saw a patch of grass that was not only shaded by a wing of a small plane, but was miraculously unclaimed by anyone else. As far as we could see it had no trash or signs of spilled beverages or melted ice-cream either. We sat there and watched several great aerobatic performances for some time before my Dad called. He was done with the ultra-lights and was looking for us. After much confusion ("let's meet by a small plane, the yellow and red one") we finally found each other. Dad was very tired and sun-burnt. His leg was bothering him and he was limping more noticeably than usual. And so instead of returning to our seats, we tried to find something nearby.

Luckily, we were next to a row of YK planes that were flying in a show earlier. We stretched out on the grass under a red-star studded wing and watched the rest of the show. At some point the owners of the plane, two men from Tennessee, showed up and Dad started a conversation with them. The airshow was almost over. And of course, the best or at least the most impressive, was saved for last. We watched as the American newest figher plane, the F22-Raptor, took off, completed several fly-bys and performed some aerobatics. Finally it was joined by an F-15 and a P-51 for the final fly-by.

The show was over and everyone headed home. Most people shlepped to the parking lots. Ultra-light owners were disassembling their flying chairs and carrying the propellers to their trucks. The real planes lined up at the runaway waiting to take off.

On the way home we stopped to buy some freshly-picked strawberries. There are tons of strawberry fields in and around Lakeland. It is the heart of the strawberry country, so to say. For 6 dollars we bought a big cardboard box full of freshly-picked strawberries. And so, in a strawberry-smelling car, we sped up to I-4 in a vain attempt to beat its eternal traffic.

A big box of strawberries proved a bit too much for us. We ate the berries ourselves and force-fed them to guests, we gave them away to friends, and had them for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and occassional munch attacks. But there was no end to them. We even baked a strawberry shortcake. Days later we still had a couple of pounds of berries in the refrigerator.