Michael McCafferty - European Biplane Tour

Good Friends and Good Flying

Nangis, France

I awoke to the splashing sounds of cars plowing through the rain soaked streets of Paris.

It was a day like all the others in recent memory. The sky was filled with great swirling, billowing clouds, swollen with uncountable tons of water lifted up from the sea hundreds of miles away. All over northern Europe it has been raining for weeks.

No biplane pilot in his right mind would have thought to go flying on a day like today.

But, sometimes, if you want something badly enough, and believe it with your entire being, and simply move in its direction, and gently, persistently assume that it will be... it will be. Sometimes.

And if you assume that it will not happen, it almost certainly will not.

This then is the great magical mystery law of the universe. Positive thoughts can create positive events. Negative thoughts can not.

So if a certain biplane pilot wants so very much to fly, he must persist in visualizing and projecting a reality which defies all logic. He must hold in his mind a picture of perfect flying weather when all around him is the most perfectly UN-flyable weather as far as they eye can see.

I have a certain technique which I have used from time to time, and for reasons unknown to me now, I have not used for several years, but today I tried it out. I find a peaceful place, quiet and comfortable, and begin to think only of my breathing, how the air fills my body completely. Each breath I take I try to completely fill my lungs, far beyond what a normal, unthinking, breath would do. I breath in one long breath for a count of ten, hold it for a count of ten, release it for a count of ten, hold no breath for a count of ten. Then repeat. And repeat this process for perhaps two or three dozen times, until I feel a great energy rousing in my body. It is an amazing feeling which I feel no other way. When this feeling comes to me, I then think of the event that I want to happen, and I 'send' that thought into the universe, letting it go from my mind. Then I repeat the breathing process a couple more times, and then stop the process and go about normal life.

I can not say that the process is infallible, but I can say that many times the event which I have created in my mind has happened in reality. I have no explanation for how it works, but it seems to work more often than not. I learned about it from a book called "Psychic Energy", referred to me by a friend when I was going through some difficult times, about 15 years ago.

I worked through this process while still in bed this morning, the sounds of rain falling on the window of my hotel room in Paris. Then I got up, and called my friend Helene in Nangis, where my biplane was still hangared out of the rains. I told her it was my plan to come to Nangis, get a hotel room, and stay there for as long as it took for the weather to clear, and then fly my plane, even if just around the area. She told me about the rain there, but said that her husband Renee would be driving to Paris this morning, to deliver some papers to his lawyer, and he could pick me up and drive me back to Nangis, saving me the inconvenience of taking the taxi and train. What good news!

Sean stayed in Paris and planned a trip to Dublin for a few days to visit relatives and friends there.

Rene came to my hotel, and the rain was coming down even harder than before. On the hour long drive to Nangis, the rains increased, becoming angrier and heavier, hurling more and more ridicule on my plans with each mile we passed. But still I believed I would fly today, because that was the event I created in my mind. I had seen it, so it must be real.

When we got to Nangis, it was still raining, so we joined Helen and her father for lunch. But I could hardly eat. I was preparing, in my mind, to go fly. Still the rains came down.

When we left for the airport, just a few miles away, it was still raining, but I sensed it was giving up. When we arrived at the airport it was still raining, but I could see it would soon stop. When I walked into the hangar and saw my plane for the first time in a week, I was struck again by how lovely it looks, a work of art. My first touch of it was a familiar touch, and I knew that it too wanted to fly. The sky grew lighter, the clouds lifted higher, and it was now only very lightly raining. I prepared my plane and my charts and my checklist, and my mind. And the rain did indeed stop.

I pulled the plane out onto the ramp in front of the hangar and went slowly through the preflight inspection. This is always a very private time for me. It is the time when I look at, and touch, virtually every part of the plane which could possibly affect flight. At this time, I go into a semi-meditative state. I want to be alone.

And for this flight, especially, I want to be alone. This will be only the third time I have flown in almost three months. I need the practice. I want to do some touch and go's alone. I most certainly do not want to subject another human being to my imperfection at the controls. I am wishing I could fly away and practice at another field, but there is nowhere else to go. It is raining in all of France, only here it is not. I know the entire airport will be watching me.

And so is Renee. He is standing back about 20 feet, watching me preflight the plane. He is a professional pilot, an instructor, an Airline Transport Pilot, and he knows what I am going through right now. He does not interfere, he just watches. He knows better than to ask if he can go fly with me, but I can sense that he does. I am torn between my desire to fly alone, and his desire to fly with me. But I know how he must be feeling. I know how I feel when I see this plane. It draws you in.

"Would you like to fly?" I ask. And just ask quickly he is in the plane!

The first couple of circuits of the field were uneventful. I struggled to regain my comfort and smoothness with the controls, my landings were adequate but undistinguished. It was on the third takeoff I did that would make even an atheist speak the name of God.

We had just lifted off the runway only a few feet, and I kept the stick forward, staying low and level to build up speed. At the end of the runway I pulled back and climbed fast in a left hand turn, heading toward the downwind leg for another landing, when at about 700 feet above the field, for some reason, Rene looked up and back over his left shoulder and saw the other plane headed for the same piece of sky we were aiming for.

At this time, Rene was not operating the controls, but he is a professional pilot and an instructor, and he knew in that instant that if he had tried to explain to me that we had traffic at 9 o'clock high and on a collision course, that it would have taken more time for him to say, and for me to process and locate the bogey, and react, than we might have had left. So he grabbed the stick and yanked hard right, and pushed down. At that same instant I also saw the traffic, but we were already safely away. I took over the controls again, and landed behind the traffic which should never have been there in the first place. We got out and he talked with the other pilot to understand what had happened.

Rene knew the other pilot. It was the man who taught Rene how to fly! This other instructor was training a student, who had not set his altimeter properly, and that was the reason why their plane was so low as to be at pattern altitude. It was a simple mistake. Aren't they all.

Rene quite probably saved several lives today. But he didn't make much of it. He just did what he trained to do: Fly the plane, do whatever it takes to make the plane do what it must do under the circumstances.

It wasn't until much later that I reflected on how it was that Renee was even in my plane at all that day. Remember that I was determined to fly alone today. What came over me to invite him along? If I didn't invite him to come with me, would I have seen the other plane in time? Would I even have been so close in the first place? Impossible to say, of course. But Renee was there, and he did the right thing. Some people who have had similar experiences might suggest that my guardian angel was looking after me today, and may have whispered in my ear that it would be a nice thing to do to offer to take Renee for a ride, as a way of thanking him for driving me from Paris to Nangis.

Soon after I parked the plane, the clouds grew darker, and a chill returned to the air. I knew it would rain again, so we pushed the plane back into the hangar, and very soon the rains came again, even heavier than before.

It was enough flying for one day, under normal circumstances, but my spirit was saying "I have not yet had enough. Let's go flying again!" Looking out the window from inside the office, no one would have believed that it would be flyable again today. There was a full raging storm outside, the rain slamming down with a fury. It was only 4 o'clock, I thought, and it doesn't get dark until 10pm. We have plenty of time. And soon, the rains let up, and then it stopped. And the sun actually came out!

Once again we rolled open the hangar doors, and pulled the Waco into the light. This time, as I walked around my plane, checking it over for the flight to come, it was Helene who appeared, wearing a leather flight jacket, and a smile. "Are you coming this time?" I asked. But I didn't have to ask, really. Just a couple of hours ago she had stayed on the ground and watched her husband Rene play in the sky in this beautiful bird, and now it was her turn.

This time everything was perfect. Not "perfect" in the sense of the word that it went well, without flaw, but perfect in the sense of the word that it is inconceivable that it could have been better. There was NO wind, yet you could feel the perfection of the air. Each breath was like inhaling the cool clean sweet juice of life. The recent torrential downpour had scrubbed the air so thoroughly that nothing remained except the clearest, most extraordinary, crystalline ether. It was as if every local blade of grass, every leaf, every plant had just breathed its great gift of oxygen for my biplane to fly in.

Another pilot, Stephane Patrigeon, was standing by this time, watching me prepare the Waco for flight. He owns the red Pitts Special, a little aerobatic biplane, sitting in the hangar right next to mine. It's getting late, he has family waiting for him, he really shouldn't go flying right now, he says, wistfully. But the sight of my Waco, the perfection of the weather at just this instant, it's all just too much for him, and he pushes his Pitts out. A biplane pilot for sure, he has his priorities straight. A man could live the rest of his life and not have conditions this good ever again.

I did 3 or 4 touch and go's, each landing was so sweet and smooth and gentle that it was as if my guardian angel was still in the air with me, showing me how he lets down on his favorite cloud in heaven. Was I really flying this time, or was he? I would be bragging if I were to tell you that I made 3 or 4 of the best landings ever made by a biplane pilot, so I will just tell you that I had help from a higher power.

Helene was ecstatic about the entire flight. It was her first time ever in an open-cockpit biplane, and she loved the feel of the fresh air on her face, and the freedom of being out in the open. On one trip around the pattern, we flew through a little cloud which drifted into our way. On another circuit Helene saw a rainbow. Another time around she took this photo of Stephane in his little red biplane as he came flying close in formation.

Stephane in his Pitts Special

Here is another photo of Stephane's Pitts Special, with mine in the background. Stephane arranged the two planes very carefully and had me take this photo from just this exact perspective. Notice how his much smaller plane appears to be the same size as the Waco.

Pitts and Waco

When perfection has been achieved, more is not possible. So we landed one last time, taxied back to the hangar, tucked the planes away for the night, and Helene brought out a bottle of champagne for a celebration of life. We lifted our glasses in agreement: "Good friends and good flying".

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