Words were flying
By COLLEEN M. DORSEY
coldor@npgco.com

When Gene Seibelís small plane is slicing through the air, he sees the world in an entirely different way.

From his birdís-eye view above, a grain elevator on the distant midwestern landscape appears like a "sailing ship on a wide-open sea of amber waves."

He sees the hill-terrained brown prairies of Michiganís Flint Hills as "chocolate chips on a giant cookie."

And ant-like objects inching lazily over a main thoroughfare below make him remember that itís a Saturday night and what heís observing is the "great American custom of cruising."

Because to this pilotís eyes, life, as glimpsed from his unearthly perch above - almost godlike in its perspective - is that much more sublime.

There are times when Mr. Seibel, having climbed up into "the nothingness of a clear blue sky," doesnít want to come down.

"I was disturbed by the realization that soon we must leave this calm, peaceful world and again join those on the ground," he writes in his newly published book, "Confessions of a Pilot" (Pad39A, $14.95).

At 49, Mr. Seibel, a St. Joseph recreational pilot, is a first-time author. But heís been flying for 24 years - the better half of his life - and itís a subject about which Mr. Seibel clearly is passionate.

"Confessions of a Pilot," a collection of first-person essays, weaves together his airborne adventures ó and misadventures, from nearly running out of fuel in the air to missing a runway upon landing and ending up in a muddy ditch.

The bookís main character is Mr. Seibelís small, fabric-covered 1958 Piper Tri-Pacer, the first plane he bought after receiving his pilotís license.

But the Tri-Pacer is not just a "plane" - no, a word that mundane could never be used to describe his beloved aviation companion - to Gene Seibelís awe-struck mind, the Tri-Pacer is his "electric flying machine."

He and the Tri-Pacer, nicknamed "Four Three Delta" for its last three call letters, have traveled together as far west as Phoenix and as far east as Atlantic City, N.J.; as far north as Oshkosh, Wis., and as far south as Acapulco, Mexico. Along the way, heís given countless family members and young people their first rides in a small airplane.

Mr. Seibel, a broadcasting engineer for St. Josephís KTAJ-TV, flies for occasional business trips. But he is more of a "weekend pilot," taking to the sky for joy rides through the clouds, sometimes with no particular destination in mind, other times to visit family and friends in Kansas or Missouri.

Mr. Seibel loves the feeling of freedom that comes with being behind the instrument panel, navigating a course through the air. Flying also gives him the chance to be introspective.

Though his wife, Donna, accompanies him on some flights, small planes are notoriously loud, making conversation difficult over the drone of the engine. So Mr. Seibel uses this quiet time to take in the scenery and get into his own head.

But of course, there are just as many moments that require his full attention, times when the weather or other forces put his piloting skills to the test. And itís these tests, these chances to battle the elements, that keep Mr. Seibel coming back for more.

"I am afraid a large part of current generations will never experience the real thrill of challenging the sky and winning," he says.

Todayís virtual video games try to simulate heart-pounding adventure, he says, but they can never compare to the way Mr. Seibel felt when he touched ground after losing visibility in the mountains of New Mexico or after nearly colliding with another plane in a mid-air accident.

"Yes, there have been times when thereís been a lot of relief," Mr. Seibel laughs.

But he always goes back for more. If itís been awhile since heís been up in the air, he gets itchy for another "fix."

Mrs. Seibel wouldnít say her husband is addicted to flying but "I have kidded him because he kept a picture of his plane in his wallet and in his office and not one of me. Now he has a picture of both me and his plane. Ö"

Mrs. Seibel doesnít especially love joy riding but she does like the fact that flying cuts in half a trip that would have taken twice as long on the road.

Still, thereís one downside for her: airsickness. Mr. Seibel still laughs about the first time he flew her to a nearby city for a dinner date and he had to dump a paper cup that was - uh, "filled," shall we say ó out the window while they were in motion.

His wife has been in the co-pilotís seat since the beginning, when Mr. Seibel was still a 25-year-old taking flying lessons from an older gentleman who owned a little Cessna plane.

It wasnít always a smooth ride.

During one of his first solo flights, Mr. Seibel became paralyzed with fear when he had trouble navigating and was running low on fuel. The incident shook him up so badly, he nearly reconsidered wanting to continue flying lessons.

But he did and when his piloting became better, he bought the Piper Tri-Pacer.

The long-legged, high-winged plane, sometimes called a "flying milkstool," sat two in its red fabric front seats and up to two in the backseat, though usually there was only one passenger in the back - Mr. Seibelís daughter, Becca.

"She grew up in the backseat of that airplane, always watching over my shoulder," he says.

So itís no wonder it felt like a death in the family when, after piloting the Tri-Pacer for 1,600 hours, Mr. Seibel lost her to a taxiing accident in gale force winds this past spring.

Though the plane could have been repaired, it would have taken months - months Mr. Seibel didnít want to waste.

"It was time to move on," he says.

Heís since purchased a 1966 Cherokee 180, another small plane but built to be a little heavier, more powerful and faster.

There have been other in-air mishaps through the years, though the results havenít been as tragic as the Tri-Pacer runway crash.

There was the time Mr. Seibel ran out of gas six miles from Rosecrans Airport and had to make an emergency landing on a farmerís field. That time, and others, heís had to call his wife to come bail him out.

But Mrs. Seibel says, "I donít really mind picking him up as long as there are no pieces to get."

Then there was the time he was flying home with his daughter to Albuquerque, N. M., where they lived at the time. It was a snowy winter day and visibility was worsening quickly as he plodded over the cloudy mountain ranges. He made a decision to turn back and ground the plane. It was a decision from which he learned.

"You can take more or less risk as a pilot," Mr. Seibel says. "Sometimes Iíve gone farther than I should have but Iíve learned from those times. Ö I think the most important lesson is to not let anything affect your decision making. You need to make a decision based on the facts, the weather."

Because in the end, a pilot is not a bird, heís a man at the hands of a powerful "electric flying machine," as Mr. Seibel is so fond of calling the airplanes.

Sure, Mr. Seibel can comprehend the mechanics and physics of flight. But each time his plane lifts up into the heavens after taxiing off the runway, it blows his mind.

"It still doesnít seem real sometimes."

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