Wings of Desire

There is more than one way to fulfill the primal dream of flying

I dream of flying. I always have. Flying and war, oftentimes together. For me, sleep is not recreational: In sleep, I have become a fury inside a Fokker Dr. 1, the relatively slow German triplane that made the Red Baronfamous; I have done reconnaissance in a twin-engine flying boat biplane manufactured by the U.S. Navy in 1918, and taken on suicide missions in the Soviet-made Lavochkin La-5fighter as the German's drove deep into the Ural mountain range; I have leapt from a smoldering Apachecopter and been shot down during a rescue mission using a levitating platform of alien origin controlled (not very well) by telepathy; I have sought the end of the universe at speeds that left my bedclothes in shambles, and have risen with resentment against gravity. During my more peaceful nocturnal flights, I move without the hindrance of battle or craft, just the cool sensation of air rushing over my skin and the sight of my home, my block, my city becoming tiny and inconsequential. I swoop and roll out of pure elation. Nothing matters up here. It's an entirely different perspective.

"Isn't it badass?" says 24-year-old Sarah Lohmann, climbing inside the HH-60G Pavehawk. The dull, powerful smell of well-worn metal and mechanic's grease floods my nostrils. Quickly, before members of the 129th Rescue Wingof the California National Guard can see, I sniff an oily coil of rope hanging by the door of their combat rescue helicopter. It's a pragmatic, comforting odor.

"My dad used to smell like that," says a young man to my right, and I'm fairly certain from his tone that he wouldn't agree with my assessment of the scent memory.

The author and her instructor airborne over Mount Tamalpais.
Paul Trapani
The author and her instructor airborne over Mount Tamalpais.
The Fairchild Republic  A-10 Thunderbolt II.
The Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II.

Nine-year-old Bartlett Meyersslides behind one of the two M-60 machine guns mounted on the Pavehawk. He spins his baseball cap around, grips the gun in his fists, and fixes his father in the sights.

"A-a-a-a-ack! A-a-a-a-a-ck!" the boy screams, pumping his shoulders with the recoil of imaginary rounds as his father laughs and snaps pictures.

The formidable silhouette of Hanger One looms over the Pavehawk and more than 30 other aircraft -- everything from the B-1 Bomberto the F-117 Stealth Fighter to NASA's Space Shuttle Transport 747 -- which sit gape-mouthed and glimmering on the sprawling tarmac of Moffet Field for the inaugural Air Expoat NASA's Ames Research Center. Thousands of people weave in and out of the open-air martial carnival, climbing into cockpits, sitting in rescue nets, perusing souvenir booths, chatting with pilots, rifling through military grab bags passed out at recruiting booths, strapping into children's rides that simulate anti-gravity, and eating picnic food under the winged shadows of state-of-the-art military technology.

"I decided I want to be a pilot when I grow up," yells young Meyers as a bright red British Hawker Hunterraces across the skyline with a mind-bending roar. "Dad, I want to fly that when I grow up!"

The boy's father smiles and says conspiratorially, "Son, that plane was made in the 1950s. You can fly something much, much faster now."

Bonnie Tyler's rousing '80s hit "Holding Out for a Hero," which has been blaring out of the loudspeakers, gives way to the similarly rousing Chariots of Fire theme as the F-16 Fighting Falcon, a single-seat fighter whose speed and agility debuted with the destruction of Iraq's Osirak nuclear facility in 1981, takes to the air. At 700 miles an hour -- less than half of the Falcon's potential speed -- the aircraft darts across the sky with cool, silent, deadly elegance; then, moments later, the sky cracks in two, thundering and shuddering in the Falcon's wake. Onlookers gasp and clasp their ears as they grin at the might before them. Around and around the fighter goes, creating a cyclone of sound that seems out of sync with visual reality.

"It's like it's been dubbed for foreign TV," says Mark Curreri, laughing like a boy. "Man, I've always dreamt about flying! Sort of makes you believe you live in the most powerful nation in the world, though, don't it?"

The Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt IIgets in the air for the United States Air Force 10th anniversary "Gulf War Salute."

"During the Gulf War, the A-10s kept up a steady pace of four sorties a day for 98 percent of the duration of the conflict," exclaims an announcer as the A-10 roars across the sky. "Let's hear it for them!" The crowd applauds without hesitation, and the fighter comes in low, strafing the nearby runway where pre-positioned pyrotechnics erupt with a bulletlike retort. The A-10 circles back and drops several "missiles" that explode in red mushrooms of fire, leaving impenetrable clouds of thick black smoke. As the smoke clears, the A-10 comes in for another strike. I try to imagine myself on the receiving end of that bird just as a wall of flame erupts at least a hundred feet over my head. Even at a great distance, the heat is nonnegotiable, and the A-10 is gone before the smoke clears.

"I've dreamt about flying since I was 5," says 35-year-old Bodhi Kroll, unfurling his brightly colored hang glider on the top of a tawny ridge on Mount Tamalpais.

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