Bridge: Like his father, he knows the air

Guest writer Art Bridge made his first solo flight in 1967 with the same instructor who taught his dad, Arthur H. Bridge, in 1941. After tours in college and the Air Force, he raised a family and taught philosophy. He and his wife then went into the horse boarding and training business. He missed flying, so renewed his instrument rating and flew Angel Flight runs in Oregon and Washington. He now spends his days here in McMinnville, combining writing, walking, playing the cello, learning the clarinet and being a granddad. 

Knowing ourselves is a task for a lifetime. But knowing our forebears is a great help.

I am under no illusion that the old is good and the oldest is best, as some believe.

We hear it in the sobriquet given to our parents, “the Greatest Generation.” But our wiser self knows it’s not always the case.

We still need to know where we came from.

Truth is, my folks never thought of themselves as part of the greatest generation, or expected us to, either. Though veterans of the Great Depression and the world firestorm of the 1940s, they knew we had our own mountains to climb.

Sadly, they are not here to cheer us on today. It’s our turn now to cheer on our kids.

In retrospect, they were always a little astonished by what their children undertook. Their greatness lay in their humility, their ability always to be astonished and to celebrate.

This is where the project with my friend Chuck begins.

Chuck lost his dad in a KC-97 tanker crash in 1957. He was only 7, so has only wisps of memory for comfort and reflection.

He proves one is never too old to look afresh at one’s roots, to know his or her father and mother and see their influence living on in life.

Early in our friendship, Chuck told me a lot about his mom and a little about his dad.

He cared for his mom on a daily basis for the last three years of her life. One can only imagine.

He knew his dad less well. But he had a few stories and pictures about him, and a cursory Air Force accident report.

His dad had been a B-17 pilot in the European campaign with the Eighth Air Force. Anyone who knows aerial history can fathom something of this trauma and terror.

He, too, made his generation great.

In March 2021, Chuck said, “Art, if I could learn to fly, I might know my father’s spirit.”

I knew something about it from my Air Force career, and from the Beechcraft Bonanza my wife and I had owned. So I was willing to accommodate him.

For each flight, Chuck attached a photograph of his father to the panel before surrendering to the unique, indescribable experience.

Consider: Leaves are supposed to fall. Flying is like riding a leaf that carries you into the spaces where the earth becomes very large, finite, organic, multi-dimensional.

As a beginner, Chuck knocked on the door of the unknowing.

An airplane is like a musical instrument: You have to start by learning the scales.

Aviators, think about what you know and what you can do: maintain precise headings, altitudes and airspeeds; stay upright and oriented in the clouds; fly “stabilized approaches” most of the time; communicate with ease in non-towered and towered airports, with experience; do stalls and steep turns with some grace; and on and on.

The feelings of amazement, of risk in consciously choosing to elevate into the air, these all surged into Chuck between the engine runup and take-off.

We had briefed on “transferring controls,” “keeping one hand on the throttle,” and “looking outside most of the time.” We had talked about slow flight and go-arounds.

These were as meaningful to him as hieroglyphics to me.

In takeoff, Chuck learned that full throttle in an airplane is routine, though only used in an emergency in a car.

In slow flight, he learned that the engine gets louder. It labors. How weird is that?

When slowed, cars just stop and you pull over. When airplanes go too slow, they fall over and you have the earth staring at you in the windshield.

Surprise rolled in on surprise.

The pre-flight briefing on the ground can never equal the actual experience in the air. Again, take slow flight.

The horizon disappears, the airplane falls below the “power curve” and suspense hangs in the air.

The beginner can’t read the airspeed indicator, and asks, “What does it do? Where is it? Why is it important?”

He can’t feel the growing mushiness of the controls, and asks, “Why must I keep my inputs small and slow? What’s happening?”

In a car, kids may yell at their parents in their youthful impatience. But we never yell, or even chatter, in an airplane.

We all agree before taxiing: “No talking. If you see traffic, call it. Otherwise, a quiet cockpit. You OK with that?”

On our first takeoff, our airplane was jolted by a slice of horizontal windshear. Being slapped by an invisible giant served to shoot Chuck full of adrenalin and take his breath away. He did not yet have pilot instincts, that deep motor memory that lies beneath conscious thought.

I counsel, “Just relax the back pressure on the yoke; keep the wings level or a little tilted into the wind; control direction with the rudders; be patient. Breathe.” After all, the airplane wants to fly.

Chuck learned that he could both climb and dip the airplane, or roll into a turn without falling out of his seat. We did little more than fly square corners, practice slow flight and level turns in the air, fly back and forth over the farmlands of Oregon, and behold the beauty of the world.

With all this, Chuck learned that knowing about flying would make him his father’s friend. They now stand together with a depth of understanding that Chuck did not have before.

He can tell his grandchildren about his B-17 and KC-97 pilot father, and find words to describe his passionate heart and love of flying. We need to know our parents and other ancestors.

Now Chuck, like his father, knows the air. He knows the world from above, where it is grand, fragile and ineffably beautiful.

A postscript:

On Oct. 23, 2021, a trove of information arrived from the Air Force Historical Agency. Agency Historian Pamela Ives had been able to track Major Mellinger’s military history back to Korea and on back into the 1950s.

The agency expresses its reverence for the veteran by remembering and reconnecting through the generations. As a result, Chuck felt like he was watching his father and learning about his years of devoted service to the country.

An old Native American fisherman I met in Monterey once told me, “Art, even if we forget our ancestors, they are still with us. They’re with us even if we don’t believe in them.

“Forgetting them is like losing the rudder off your boat: She’ll still float, but will never make it to the shore in one piece. Without memory and her stories, we just drift here and there until we’re smashed.”

Knowing where you came from will help you know who you are.

In this project, I also learned anew, “Ask and it will be given to you. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you.”


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