It’s a brilliant bluebird morning at the airstrip just outside of Wanaka in Otago, New Zealand, where Peter Hendricks, my pilot for a 30-minute biplane flight, greets me. His walls are decked in aerial shots of double-winged flying machines built before I was born, and a photo of him posing in front of his prized planes. The image recalls a black and white picture of my grandparents arm-in-arm under the wing of their own Cessna. It also conjures a memory of the time my grandfather, a pilot, invited me to fly with him. I’d said yes, but chickened out seconds before climbing aboard.
On the tarmac in Wanaka, a red-and-white 1930s Waco crouches. The American-made barnstormers were rugged allies of postal workers, explorers, and businessmen, and the fleet’s jewel was the last open cockpit model, the Waco YMF, which is the type I’ll be taking off in, the only one in New Zealand.
The adventure had sounded great on paper weeks ago. But despite now looking the part in a one-piece zip up flight suit, bomber jacket, leather helmet, gloves and goggles à la Ameila Earhart, my heart drumrolls in my chest and my breathing is quick and shallow. I swing one leg into the cockpit.
“I can’t do it,” I say, lowering my spinning head. The giddy anticipation of a nostalgic flight in a piece of American aviation history is suffocated by fear.
I tell Peter about my 10-year-old self and the missed flight with my beloved grandfather, now soaring with a different set of wings.
He soothes me with an “It’s okay. You’ll love it. Don’t worry.”
Then I hear my grandfather’s voice in my head.
“Pretty Red, I’ll be right up there next to you.”
Deep breath. I pull the other leg in.
The propeller slices at the cold air at the top of the runway. The engine revs and I shake as we gather speed. Then we’re up, as if scooped by invisible hands and offered to the cloudless sky. No steep angle and push into the back of the seat. No strange hydraulic whines. Only muffled wind battering my covered ears.
Fear loosens its grip. Below, a quilt of patchwork farmland unfurls toward gold and green hills, and slanted rays of autumn sun streak the sapphire waters of Lake Wanaka. We glide over bays and dip right and left over uninhabited islands. Off the wing tip, the Southern Alps loom in the same spot near the horizon I’d seen the Southern Cross the night before. If heaven has a playground for rogue pilots and missed grandfathers, this is surely it.
I snap pictures that won’t adequately capture the sense of awe my grandfather must have felt each time he took off into the sky. I take a few of me in the side mirror, too. Goggles snug above the smile spread across my face. I want to show them to my grandfather and say, “Look, I did it!”
But somehow I think he already knows.