Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional feature series written from the first-person about experiencing Albany County.
My stomach sank and panic clouded my vision as the small plane lifted off the Laramie Regional Airport field.
With the control stick rattling between my legs, my instinct to keep both feet planted on terra firma grappled with my fascination of all things airborne.
“Is everything good back there?” Laramie Flying Club President and bush pilot Chuck Denison asked over the headset.
Absentmindedly, I nodded. A moment passed before I realized Denison, who was sitting directly in front of me, could not see the gesture.
“Yep — er, roger,” I managed, unsure if he could detect the doubt in my voice.
My father was a U.S. Navy aircraft mechanic during the Vietnam War, and I grew up learning the anatomy of old war planes as we put together cheap, plastic models throughout my childhood.
When I was 6, “Top Gun” changed my life, and I spent the next 10 years dreaming of flying F-14 Tomcats. At 12, I joined the Civil Air Patrol and flew in my first plane. When I was 13, I filled a “doggie bag” flying over Guernsey in a C-130 Hercules. Two days later, I was medevaced from Guernsey to Cheyenne in a UH-60 for appendicitis, which luckily, I didn’t have.
As an adult, I’ve flown numerous times in both military and civilian aircraft.
And yet, each time I leave the ground in a glorified pop can, a sensation that something is terribly wrong courses through my veins and sits in my stomach like a bad taco.
An aviation psychologist, Denison said he loves taking people up in his Aviat Husky A-1B, a fixed-wing, tandem two-seater, bush plane made in Wyoming. So, when I asked for a flying lesson, he jumped at the chance.
A ball cap covered most of the bush pilot’s shaggy, pepper-colored hair, and aviator sunglasses hid his eyes, but the smile on his clean-shaven face was genuine and he answered my questions with a soft, patient tone.
Before takeoff, Denison walked me around his canary yellow taildragger, a plane with tailwheel-type landing gear, explaining the various differences between a bush plane and other private aircraft.
“These big rubber tires aren’t the best on pavement, but they are great for landing in fields and rough terrain,” he said, pointing at the Husky’s bulbous landing gear. “These wings are high lift, which increases visibility and gives us more clearance when landing in a rough spot.”
While Denison was laid back and wore muted colors, his brightly painted plane was angled aggressively skyward and seemed ever ready to leap into the wild blue yonder.
The two looked at odds until I read the lettering stenciled down the fuselage, “Come dance with the west wind and touch on the mountain tops.”
A line from John Denver’s “The Eagle and the Hawk,” the words tied plane and pilot inextricably together.
Inside the cramped cockpit, I sat directly behind Denison. Both seats featured a control stick, but thankfully, all the important gadgets were located in front, so I could focus solely on not crashing.
“To familiarize yourself with the stick, push it to the right to tip the wing to the right,” Denison said. “To the left, tips the wing left. Pulling back pulls the tail down, so it makes the nose go up, and forward will make the nose go down.”
Taking the stick
Once airborne, we headed west toward the Snowy Range and crisp wind whipped through the open cockpit window, erasing my apprehensions.
“We’ll dip down and get a closer look at Lake Hattie before heading south,” the crackling voice in my headset said.
Denison scanned Hattie for boats and other obstacles before taking us down and leveling off inches above the lake’s surface. Flying just above the rippling waves, I watched the landing gear, expecting to see the wheels bounce off the water.
An amateur fly-fisherman, I took a mental note of the lack of fish swimming beneath the pristine surface. I knew they must be there, but if I couldn’t see them as we skimmed the surface, I felt I could justify my inability to catch them.
After buzzing the lake, we tipped our nose skyward until we reached 8,000 feet.
“OK, it’s your turn,” Denison said, instructing me to take over the control stick.
Safe in the assumption my flight instructor had a strong will to survive, I placed both hands on the stick, believing Denison’s hands were firmly in place to prevent the fledgling aviator behind him from crashing the plane.
During a particularly sharp bank that resurrected the uneasiness in my bowels, the bush pilot became rather invested in a story — the contents of which escape me as I was more focused on the feeling our plane was at a right angle with the surface of the earth.
I wish I could recall the story, because it was at this point he started using two hands to describe some feat I’m sure would’ve been most memorable had I not just realized I was in full control of the Husky and the reason one window was filled with a view of clouds and the other was filled with trees.
Taking care not to over correct, I righted the plane and sighed relief when the horizon was reassuringly horizontal.
Following the Laramie River south, we dropped into Colorado and admired landscape few would ever have the pleasure of enjoying.
Denison explained the bush plane allowed us to fly in areas at low altitudes where most planes couldn’t. Indeed, despite the smooth air and cloudless skies, we were alone up there.
Although our flight required several more turns, I took them as subtly as if I was driving a school bus. While I might love watching daredevil pilots barrel roll meters above an airstrip, I fear I am not destined to join their ranks in the near future.
For most of the remaining flight, I did not dare indulge in the gorgeous aerial view of Medicine Bow National Forrest. Instead, I concentrated on the altitude indicator, a small globe on the instrument panel colored half blue and half brown, representing the horizon.
The indicator gauge resembled a child’s stick-figure drawing of a bird in flight, and my sole purpose was to keep that little bird level with ground.
“Keep us at 9,000 feet,” Denison said as we floated above the verdant valley.
Heading back into Wyoming, he instructed, “Run us up to 10,000 feet and level it off.”
The directions were simple, but the execution required calm nerves and steady hands — both of which I seemed to have left on the runway.
After an hour or so drifting over the mountains, Denison reclaimed control of the plane, and we headed east toward the airport.
“They say flying is the second greatest thrill known to man,” he said, pausing for suspense. “Landing is the first.”
I got the feeling he sensed my anxiety and enjoyed keeping me on the ropes.
“Every pilot learns to land out in a field, because they might need to,” he said. “A bush pilot might do it just for fun.”
Circling the airfield, Denison chatted with air traffic control before lining us up to land.
My gut twisted one last time when the plane slowed to a crawling 50 mph upon approach.
Because of the bush plane’s unusual landing gear, we could not plop down on the tarmac for fear of ruining the expensive tires. So, Denison landed a few hundred feet short of the runway before easing onto the taxiway and heading for the hangar.
With my feet back on solid ground, I was relieved but found myself gazing skyward, yearning already for another chance to defy gravity and face my fears.