Grounded

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A vintage 1940s J-3 Piper Cub sits on the tarmac at Sterling.

One hour west of Boston, past the Wachusett reservoir and the farms draped on rolling hills, down a tree-lined road with a stone arch bridge over a quiet, shaded creek, lies a little strip of tarmac in a big grass field, surrounded by the central Massachusetts forest. A dozen small airplanes sit on the cracked asphalt next to rusted-out hangars with oil-stained floors. This is Sterling Airport, and as you walk to the door, a big green sign greets you: LEARN TO FLY HERE.

The weather on this Saturday afternoon: clear skies, 50 ºF, over 10 miles visibility—more than enough to see Mt. Wachusett on the northwest horizon. It’s a spring day in February, and a beautiful one for flying. But the only thing up there now is a hawk, making lazy circles over the sun-beat tarmac, soaring on the rising air.

Inside the airport operator’s building, it smells like old couches, and three greying white men are sitting on them. Hangar talk. I pour myself a cup of coffee from the communal pot and leave a mental note to put a buck in the adjacent jar before I go. I sit down next to a tall, balding man with big glasses named Dan. He points to Richard, the man across the room who’s currently holding court. Dan lives 50 miles west of Sterling. Is he here to fly? “No,” he says. “Just came to talk.” He sits silently in his chair as Richard carries on about autopilots and air shows, and whether he’ll make it this year to Sun N’ Fun in Florida, and how you wouldn’t believe how much Oshkosh has changed.

Hanging on the wall in a row wrapping around the room and into the hallway is a flight school tradition: the T-shirts worn by student pilots on their first solo, signed with the date and the plane’s tail number. They begin in the early 90s and stop at 2007. One of them bears the slogan: “Sterling Airport: Grass roots aviation at its finest!”

If you take that slogan at its cheery word, then the grass has stopped growing. General aviation—that is, personal, non-airline flying—in the United States is in a nosedive. Rising fuel costs have rendered it an expensive hobby; as a mode of personal transportation, it hasn’t gotten any more practical, either. In 1980, according to FAA numbers, there were over 200,000 student pilots in the process of earning their private pilot’s license. In 2009, there were 73,000. The number of active pilots has fallen from 827,000 to less than 600,000.

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Even on a warm spring day, there can be more sitting around than flying.

I got my pilot’s license in high school, training at a small airfield much like this one, off the state highway in the south end of my northern Wisconsin hometown. When I was a kid, Popular Mechanics still published cover stories about flying cars. But today, the personal airplane seems like a thing of the past, not the future.

After me, the next youngest person in the room at Sterling is Renee, a woman in her mid-40s with brown hair and a lilting Midwestern accent. I ask how many kids are training here these days. “It’s…a reasonable number,” she says.”A lot less than a few years ago.” She glances at the rates written on the wall: $88/hr to rent the Cessna 150 two-seater, plus $45 for the instructor. It’s double what I paid growing up in Wisconsin. “Not many can afford it anymore.” She sighs.

When I was a kid, I heard the small airplanes pass over my yard every day. I always looked up. It wasn’t the freedom that I craved, the “tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds in footless halls of air” that John Gillespie Magee, Jr. immortalized in his sonnet “High Flight.” No, more than anything else, I wanted to fly because so that I could look down. I wanted perspective. I wanted to know what my house looked like from above—to find out where I was, to place myself amongst my surroundings. The year after I got my license, an internet company in the Bay Area launched a website called Google Maps. And eventually, I stopped looking up.

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Final approach to the grass strip at Sterling in a glider. Mt. Wachusett is just left of center on the horizon.

I remember to look up now as I walk back to my car. The skies are still clear; even the hawk is gone. From the south end of the strip, Mt. Wachusett rises from the treeline, seven miles distant as the hawk flies. On a good summer day, when the ground is warm, you can hop in a glider, get a two up to 3,000 foot, and soar all the way there to dance across its slopes and ridges on the uplift and glide back to Sterling—or so I’m told. Since I arrived, I haven’t see a single plane take off or land, nor heard a single engine fired.

But I’ll be back. I forgot to pay for my coffee.

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