Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Aviation Dreams

One summer day, as I wandered Ontario Place looking for friends I didn't find, I looked up and saw a small high wing aeroplane descend to the runway of Toronto Island airport. Out of the haze of my late adolescence, and (let's face it) too many intervening years, the memory looms absolutely clearly: the yacht harbour of Ontario Place, with its colour and movement, the bustle of the amusement park, and the quick path of the plane's descent. And I remember what went through my mind, as vividly as I remember the sights and sounds of the day. One day, I thought, I will do that. I will fly a small plane into Toronto Island.

It took me over twenty years to make the dream of flight real. Several years ago, as my wife studied for a PhD at the University of Michigan, I took the opportunity to learn to fly. I remember, as all pilots do, my first solo. Everything began as I had expected. My instructor wrote the necessary endorsements for solo flight in my pilot's logbook, then had me taxi to the flight school ramp, got out, and told me to fly three times around the airfield. As almost every pilot ever to solo has done, I quailed at the yawning emptiness of the seat beside me. And then, as I took off, something happened that I had not expected. In a revelation that truly astonished me, as I climbed into the sky, the fear stayed behind on the ground. I had wrestled with fear many times, usually fighting it to a truce. For the first time, I simply left the fear behind me.

Shortly after I earned my pilot's license, I had occasion to take my father to Toronto, where he had a presentation to give at a church. On a grey Sunday morning, I kept the promise I had made to myself more than twenty years before, and flew an aeroplane over Humber Bay, past Ontario Place, and down to the runway of the Toronto Island airport.

Since than, I have flown into the Toronto Island airport many times. I have flown there for family visits, and business. On one memorable Christmas flight, my wife and I flew from Ann Arbor with a friend and fellow student. We calculated that we had taken nearly every form of transportation that trip: car, bus, boat, and plane.

I have taken great pleasure in flying, and it has served me as well for business. I have flown to business conferences, and I have flown my wife on research trips for her academic work. Many other people do not use their dreams of flying merely to support their career; they make flying their career. The airlines we depend on for transportation, the air ambulances our very lives may depend on, and the many essential services aviation provides for agriculture and industry, all begin with someone looking up at the sky, and resolving that one day, they too will follow that road.

Yet the value of a dream does not lie only in its fruition. My dream of flight served me well in the twenty years I waited and worked to make it come true. Harry Chapin's moving song "Taxi" reminds us of the importance of holding on to dreams, and not settling for substitutes. In "Taxi", Chapin tells the story of a taxi driver who dreamed of flying in his youth, "took off to find the sky", and then, in his disappointed adulthood, settled for "flying" on drugs. My own dream of flight made the dream that Harry Chapin's taxi driver allowed to slip away very real to me. It also made the song and its message about the importance of holding onto dreams an important inspiration to me through easy and hard times. Dreams and goals, both large and small, anchor a life. It takes perseverance to make a contribution, and nobody can persevere for long without direction and a sense of what personal achievement means.

Some people, who find the Toronto Island airport a nuisance or an impediment to their desire for a park, have called for the government to close it. This will certainly lead to a debate on the merits of the airport. As we begin the debate, practical questions will probably dominate the discussion. We will have to address questions about the feasibility of operating flight schools in the proposed single runway "commuter" airport. We also have to ask whether two airports, both well outside the city, suffice for the transportation needs of Toronto business as well as the educational needs of local flight students.

As we address the practical questions, let us not forget the importance of dreams. In our haste to banish everything noisy and dirty from the environs of the Toronto waterfront, do we run the risk of putting the dream of flight literally out of sight and out of reach of the next generation?

No comments: