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  • "If you'd have known him, you'd understand." Jon said, pausing before leading us to the back of the hangar. Stacked on the floor were equipment manuals, aeronautical maps and charts, even a retractable landing gear simulator box. "He'd do whatever it took to make sure that his students were as prepared as possible."

    Jon and his wife, Lynn, were friends of Cliff, the 94-year-old flight instructor and long-time airman who'd recently passed away, leaving a wife, two children, six grandchildren, six great grandchildren and an unparalleled 1968 Cessna 150, behind.

    It was Labor Day and we had flown 45 minutes south from Salt Lake to St. George to take a look at the aircraft. As aspiring student pilots, we ran the math a number of ways in search for the most economical option to obtain our private licenses. Buying a plane happened to be it.

    Jon pulled the aircraft out of its hangared slumber and into the sunlight where it anticipated our arrival. The yellow paint hugged smooth lines and beckoned us to take it closer to the sun. At the tail, a gloved hornet poised, ready to fight, ready to fly. I'd seen a number of personal aircrafts before but everything about this one seemed perfect – destined.

    Carefully, we circled the plane, checking the oil, gas levels, rivets and the prop, inspecting every nook and cranny, looking for anything that would lessen love and first sight, to no avail.

    It was time to fly.

    I hung back with Lynn, as Ted and Jon acquainted themselves with the avionics. Jon and Lynn owned several hangars, one, adjacent to the one they rented to Cliff, housed their '70-something grey Grumman. It was a beautiful plane, but far more intimidating than the cheery, yellow Cessna Ted and I were currently courting.

    Behind their plane, a giant aeronautical chart of the continental United States, covered in tiny pins, was propped up at the center of the back wall.

    "All of our adventures," Lynn remarked. The map chronicled every airport at which they'd ever landed, concentrating heavily on California and spanning out as far East as Tennessee. "We flew down to Mexico once. We worried we wouldn't have the gas to do it, there aren't really places to stop along the way, but we made it… And it was beautiful."

    Later, as we walked toward the airstrip to watch Jon, Ted and the little Cessna I'd come to instantly love, I asked Lynn what captivated her about flying.

    "Flying changes you. Suddenly, there's an entirely new dimension. It's no longer just forward, backward, side to side." She said looking up and out at the desert landscape. I followed suit, taking it all in. It was a little past 10:30, and already exceptionally warm. Except for Jon and Ted's distant buzzing and a few ravens "cu-cawing" in enjoyment of their own flight nearby, all was quiet and exceptionally still. "You know," she said looking back at me, "thousands of years ago, kings and queens in all of their prestige, never once got to witness the natural awes one does while flying." I liked that thought.

    Not long after, Jon came back for me.
    "Are you ready?" he asked.
    "Absolutely!" I was like a schoolgirl, giddy with excitement. It'd be the second time I got to fly a Cessna and I was ready as ever.

    Inside the cabin we buckled up and put our headsets on. Mixture rich. Carb heat cold. Prime engine. Throttle, open ¼ inch. Hold brakes. Master switch on. Prop clear. Start ignition.

    Slowly, I approached the taxiway. Right rudder. Left rudder. Brake. "Good." Jon assured me as we slowly made our way to the waiting position. We checked the ailerons, vertical and horizontal stabilizers and rudder one final time before Jon called out our aircraft, position and intention to approach the runway. All was clear.

    Lined up with the centerline of the airstrip, Jon opened up the throttle all of the way. "And we're off!" he smiled at me from the left seat. In the right seat, I sat where Cliff had, instructing his students. At 65 mph, Jon pulled the control wheel back and we left the ground.

    Once we reached 5,000 feet, the controls were mine. I flew over the old airport, above houses and hills and thought back to the last time I'd taken a similar flight, 14 years prior, above this same desert. Without me realizing it, Jon looked over at me. "You're grinning ear to ear! Did you know that?" he laughed. And I was.

    After what seemed mere minutes, it was time to head home. Reluctantly, I turned the control wheel right back toward the airstrip, stepping on the right rudder pedal as I did to coordinate the turn.

    On the ground, taking shelter from the sun in Jon and Lynn's hangar, Ted asked if there was any reason not to do it. I couldn't think of any; neither could he. We wanted to learn to fly – to escape, if only temporarily, the bonds of gravity – and this was the plane to get us there.

    Off to the side of their Grumman, alongside framed certificates and pictures of planes, was a much larger, sepia-colored photograph of a man in a captain's hat, at the controls of a Boeing 747.

    It was one of the most honest photographs I'd ever seen, a man in the midst of what he loved. I knew who it was.

    "That’s him right there, the legend himself." Jon said proudly. "If only you'd have known him."

    That man, the legend, was my great grandfather. I wanted to tell them but time, distance and complex family histories can get in the way of such things and so I kept quiet.

    If only I had really known him.

    I am not sure if you can get to know a man by acquainting yourself with his plane. But I'm sure going to try.
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