Normal ??This week I flew once again. As I sat up there in my Piper Cherokee and gazed across eastern Kansas, I thought about how it looked just like it did before September 11th. For a moment I forgot about the fact that my number two radio was now tuned to 121.5 megahertz, the frequency that we are now requested to monitor in the event we are intercepted by military aircraft. It was not my first flight since the terrorist attacks on our country, but perhaps the first one on which I felt for a fleeting moment that things were back to normal.
For the first week after the attacks, we pilots who fly visually were grounded. Airplanes were portrayed in the news day after day as weapons of destruction. To me, flying has always been a thing of joy, and the bad press was disturbing. It didnít represent the picture of aviation that filled my mind. I began to fear that our freedom to enjoy the magic of flight may be permanently curtailed. Still, I was mostly patient and optimistic. Our president repeatedly asked us to get back to our normal activities but my precious playground in the sky was off limits.
Airspace in rural America where I live was soon opened up to us general aviation pilots. I didnít take to the skies immediately, but nonetheless felt relieved. Flying though the air with the greatest of ease is what gives me joy, but being free to do it whenever I want is what gives me hope. The airplane I had bought to free me from the restrictions of scheduling rental aircraft sat idle. I was at the mercy of tragic events a thousand miles away.
My first post attack flight came on September 27th. I was off to attend my daughterís graduation from radiology school. The preparation for the flight was much more involved than in the past. I had to determine what new temporary flight restrictions were present in the area and how to be sure I avoided then. The usually carefree takeoff into an open sky had been replaced with the ominous feeling of climbing into an angry sky. Though our destination was to the south, we immediately turned east to avoid the Kansas City airspace that was still restricted to us.
A few minutes later I had a moment to reflect. Instead of seeing the normal beehive of activity below us, with cars and trucks crawling along ribbons of freeway, we were over wide open farm land. Instead of shopping centers, neighborhoods, and skyscrapers, there were vast fields and lonely farm houses. Instead of other airplanes darting about the skies around us, the sky was empty and dead. Instead of air traffic controllers constantly chattering on the radio, we were tuned to a barren emergency frequency. Any sound from the speaker instantly grabbed my attention and prompted me to glance out my side windows, looking for a fighter jet off my wing tip. The familiar atmosphere where I had spent over two thousand hours during my lifetime had become an odd place.
I racked up several post attack firsts on that flight. Simple things, like calling approach control at our destination put my mind on alert. When the same old familiar replies came back, I was amazed at how they sounded so calm and normal. My emotions were still stirred. On the one hand, I had escaped the possibility of being grounded forever, but on the other, I realized that American skies were no longer the innocent playground they had once been.
Slowly but surely, more and more airspace was opened up. I had a new respect and appreciation for the freedom I had for so long taken for granted. I cringed as I heard of other pilots breaking the rules and abusing their newly restored freedoms. I began to have compassion for the public who had been saturated with fear by the mediaís graphic images of airplanes destroying property, life and our way of life. I hope they will soon come to understand that the airplanes they see overhead are not a threat, but a symbol of freedom - a symbol that terrorism did not win. To me, there is nothing sadder than a silent, sterile sky.
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