Flights of Fantasy


There is a smell and sound unique to small airports. The smell of fuel and oil and the sound of puttering engines filled the air as I walked toward the little yellow plane. I stopped for a moment to admire a mint condition Beach Stagerwing and to express my admiration to its owner. I had seen the plane many times before and the feelings of awe and envy the beautiful machine engendered in me never seemed to fade.

The Aeronca stood waiting. Securely tied down, it shuddered slightly in the occasional gust of wind that blew across the tarmac as if anxious to take to the skies.

I watched as an aging but still elegant Stinson Stationwagon lifted off and thrilled to the thought that I would soon join it in the pleasures of flight.

After a careful preflight of the Aeronca, I untied the ropes holding the plane to the ground. The tiny craft seemed to quiver in joyful anticipation. I made sure the wheel chocks were in place and that the rope holding them together could be reached from the cockpit. After satisfying myself that the magnetos were off, I pulled the prop through several times to make sure oil was getting to all the critical engine parts. Leaving the upper propeller blade in the "Two O Clock" position I returned to the cockpit switched on the ignition and opened the throttle slightly. A couple of strokes on the primer and the engine was ready to be called into life.

Making one last check of the wheel chocks I returned to the front of the plane, braced myself, pulled the propeller and quickly stepped back. The engine sputtered and coughed and began to spin at a leisurely idle. Returning to the cockpit I pressed the toe brakes and pulled the rope holding the wheel chocks, lifted them into the cockpit and secured them to their sockets on the door.

As I taxied to the active runway I exchanged waves with the few other pilots that were either returning from their first flight of the day or were readying their planes for their own personal adventure in the sky.

It was still early so there was no waiting in line for the run-up area so after a complete check of the engine, magnetos, carb heat and the various gauges, I surveyed the landing pattern and approaches. Seeing no one, I taxied into position for takeoff.

When I opening the throttle all the way the engine began to tug at the plane. It was as eager as I to take to the air. I released the brakes and the plane began to roll toward the distant end of the runway. At about 20 knots I eased the stick forward, the tail obediently lifted and the plane picked up speed. At 45 knots, I gently pulled back on the stick and the nearly sexual sensation of takeoff sent a thrill though my being as the ground fell away. Flying, once more I was flying.

Leveling off at ten thousand feet the Rolls Royce Merlin, producing a bit over a thousand horsepower, was loafing at less than sixty percent of its rated capacity. I set the big four bladed prop to maximum RPM and pushed the throttle all the way forward. The manifold pressure rose to over 30 pounds as the supercharger rammed more and more air into the hungry engine and the propeller pounded the atmosphere. I watched with satisfaction as the airspeed passed 350 and began to approach 400 knots. I pulled back on the stick and pointed the nose at the sky. The plane effortlessly assumed a rate of climb of over eight thousand feet per minute. The Mustang is a magnificent airplane.

At thirty-five thousand feet the F104's J79 turbojet engine was making a throaty growl and I could hear the compressor whine as it forced reluctant air into the burners. Little whirring sounds filled the cockpit as various motors performed their various tasks. I closed my helmet visor and set the suit pressurization system to full automatic. With my left hand I released the latch on the thrust lever and pressed it forward to ignite all four stages of the afterburner. There was an explosion of power and the sensation was like being rear ended on the freeway by an eighteen wheeler. The vibration started at the base of my spine and rose to the top of my skull as the plane roared through mach one in vertical flight and toward the outer darkness.

The solid rocket motors, having completed their task, burned out, were released and drifted away. I watched as the sky, visible through the front windshield, faded from blue to indigo to black. And I found could pick out individual stars against the velvet background of space. Still the giant engines greedily drank their diet of thousands of pounds of liquid hydrogen and oxygen every second as we gained the speed necessary for orbit. Three gravities of acceleration held me immobile in my seat. Finally, MECO, Main Engine Cut Off. The silence was nearly deafening. Then, weightlessness, external tank release, and we floated at over seventeen thousand miles per hour two hundred miles above the European continent.

We adjusted our path with the OMS engines and soon were on an intersecting orbit with the space station, our ultimate destination. After removing our pressure suits, folding up the seats and putting them away, we were ready for our ten-day stay in a realm that only a privileged few have ever seen.

I had several hours with little to do but watch as the map of the earth rolled by beneath us. Every ninety minutes we were rewarded with a sunrise, sunset, brightness of day on the earth below and then the dark of night. We could see the lights of the cities on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States and later the glow of Sydney and Melbourne as Australia swam below.

The payload bay doors were open now and I could look out the rear facing windows at the reason for the mission. Great and silver and intricate was the crew section of Selene One, the first reusable lunar transport ship. When we reached the space station, this section of the vehicle would join its other components and under the tender mercies of skilled craftsmen, would soon be completed and ready for its maiden voyage.

About eight hours after launch we could see the space station in the distance. A vast network of girders, solar panels, and pressurized modules. In another hour, we were "station-keeping" off the primary access node and ready to dock. It was nearly time for me to go to work.

After the customary struggle to get into the EVA suit I crawled through the access tube to the S1 crew section. I closed the airlock doors, performed a series of pressure tests and we were ready to disconnect.

As the countdown proceeded, I was able to verify that all of the S1's systems had survived the trip and the crew section was ready to be moved to its new home. The Crew Section had it's own small propulsion system, suitable for maneuvering during the final assembly process. There was a series of clanks and clunks as the holdown clamps were released and I activated the nitrogen gas thrusters and gently lifted the Crew Section out of the STS payload bay. When the last of the umbilical connectors separated and all the indicators were green, I began the freeflight tests of the systems.

Smooth as silk, the vehicle took to its intended environment as if it had been born in space. It was easily maneuvered to the docking station where the final assembly would take place. The space-suited assembly crew was busy connecting cables and lines to the Crew Section before I was out of the pilot's seat.

Other modules had arrived on previous shuttle flights. Power, propulsion, communications, and the payload bay, all had been connected together and lay waiting for the Crew Section Module.
The next nine days were the busiest I have ever spent. Every time the assembly crew would make another connection or assembly step, full systems tests had to be performed. This meant that I spend most of my time on the bridge of Selene One running simulations and tests and pouring over manuals and diagrams. As each module was connected, the tests became more complex. And then each night I would return to my tiny cubicle on the space station. My little room had a special luxury, a window. Through it I could watch the Earth as it rolled past. Sometimes I would spend nearly an hour watching the spectacle before falling to sleep only to be awakened eight hours later for another day's work.

Finally, the completed ship hung in space off the assembly area. Except for the dozen or so cables connecting it to the space station, it looked almost anxious to begin its voyage. The first mission would take the initial components of a lunar base including the pressurized habitat and the emergency return to orbit vehicle. These would arrive on subsequent shuttle flights and would complete the provisioning of the S1.

All too quickly, it was time to return to Earth. As we bid our space station crew friends adieu and returned to the Shuttle I took one last look at the Selene One. In less than six months, if all went well, it would set out on its maiden voyage to another world and Man would once again set foot on the Lunar surface. Would I be one of those chosen to go? I had not been selected for the first mission but there would be many to come and I could and would live in hope and stay prepared for the possibility.

As the pilot maneuvered the Shuttle away from the space station and readied the systems for the deorbit burn, we looked for the last time at the place that had been our home for the previous nine days. Soon, as we orbited tail first, the OMS engines fired and we began our descent. Not much to notice at first but the slight change in our velocity meant that the lower part of our orbit was well within the atmosphere. Twenty minutes later, we could hear the beginnings of the scream of air on the heat tiles. Belly first we plunged, a flaming arrowhead, into the sea of air. Soon the acceleration began to build but this time down was toward the floor of the cabin and not at our backs. After several minutes and the shedding of over sixteen thousand miles per hour of velocity, we leveled into ordinary flight and began our long glide to the final destination, the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The wheels chirped in a perfect three-point-landing and feeling very prideful, I took the next turn-off toward the tie-down area. Frank was still working on his Beach Stagerwing and Fred had his head under the cowling of his Cessna 170. His old Ford was parked next to his plane and a bumper sticker proclaimed "If it ain't a tail dragger, it ain't an airplane" Nothing on the ground had changed, but I had changed in the way that flying always changes me. I shut down the engine, ran through my post flight checkout, and stepped out of the plane. As I pushed it into its parking place I could see the moon. It was racing ahead of the Sun and looked like an archers bow with its invisible arrow pointed directly at old Sol's heart. As I looked at it I thought "Someday, maybe in the not so distant future, men will walk on those desolate sands and look back at the earth and see how beautiful and fragile our home is."

As I tied the plane down Frank looked up from the work on his Beachcraft and said, "How was it?"

"Wonderful" I said.

He gave me a knowing look and said, "It always is."


The End