In my dream Colonel Ramjet asked me, “Would you like to go up in one of our babies and soar with the eagles?”
“Goose the angels?”
“Son, we don’t goose the angels. Thunderbird pilots are gentlemen.”
Me? A reporter doing a ride-along in a fighter jet! I knew I was dreaming because Ramjet looked like Chuck Yeager, I was wearing a Bogart trench coat and, most importantly, I hate flying more than I hate county fair midway rides.
When I board a plane these are the four thoughts that go through my mind:
1) Would the stewardess be smiling if we were all going to die?
2) God wouldn’t let a nun die. Are there any nuns on this flight?
3) “Wilbur” and “Orville”? Those are names you can trust? Really?
4) How does “The Lord’s Prayer” go?
I spend every flight distracting myself from recalling the “Wile E. Coyote Effect,” the irrational panic, discovered by Professor Bugs Bunny, that arises when you suddenly recognize you are subject to the laws of gravity and plummet down into Warner Brothers Canyon.
During one cross-country flight I slept thanks to Valium. I dreamt I was a South American tree frog. It was idyllic until I lost my footing on the tree canopy and tumbled down, down, down to the floor of the rain forest. I cursed my fate aloud in a weird Kermit voice, startled myself awake at 30,000 feet above Earth, and, experiencing the Wile E. Coyote Effect a second time, I gasped, sucking so much air out of the cabin the oxygen bags dropped.
Passengers who had never heard a foul-mouthed South American tree frog curse stared at me in horrified disbelief. Mothers covered their children’s ears. I hid behind my book “Flying with Craven Muppets” for the next three hours.
“I love these air shows. I grew up on this base,” I said, hoping to connect with Ramjet. He handed me a stove pot to strap onto my head. “Ever serve?”
“No, sir. When my brothers came back from ‘Nam, they said I’d be killed first day out. By my own men. Ha!”
“Two of my men were killed first day out.” I gulped. Ramjet slapped me on the back, “Kidding, son! Kidding! Suit up, Chicken Little.”
I stepped into the polka-dotted clown suit and zipped it up. “When I was 16, I was in Civil Air Patrol, Colonel! Mercury Squadron. I piloted a broom. The O-Cedar 500.” Unimpressed, Sgt. Rock revealed no emotion. He handed me a pair of three-toed chicken feet slippers and a tricycle horn with a red bulb. “That’s for when you panic. The Gs can flatten your kisser like a pancake and make your eyes bug out. Meet Captain Lightyear. He’s your pilot.”
DreamWorks casting had pulled him out of an old memory. At O’Hare a decade ago I heard the strange sounds coming from the plane we all hear taxiing a runway. The mechanical whale songs, followed by wires pinging, then rotors grinding, accompanied by rampaging apes sorting the luggage below. Was that an essential bolt I heard falling off?
I should alert the pilot. I mentioned this to the passenger next to me who informed me he was a fighter pilot. Zoolander Lindbergh said, “There’s nothing to be concerned about. Nothing safer.”
As the plane took off at a sharp incline fluid suddenly gushed from out of the ceiling directly above me.
“Whoa! That’s unusual,” said Top Gun.
Alarmed, assorted crew members came out and frantically searched the overhead compartments for the source of the leak. “Here’s the culprit!” Captain Stubing said, holding up a uncapped water bottle. It tipped in the luggage bin when the plane lifted up into the sky. My loud assertions that it was jet fuel and we were all going to die were inaccurate. I hid behind my book “Flying Advice for the Spineless” for the next four hours.
Back at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, I ascended the ladder of the gleaming jet with the despair of a condemned clown facing the noose. The Wile E. Coyote Effect was back. The cockpit hissed open like a croc’s mouth.
Lightyear smiled and gestured at the seat in the back of the beast’s throat. “Hop in, Amelia.” Yellow chicken feathers sprang from my shoulder blades. Lightyear frowned. “Did you just cluck?”
I honked my red bike horn, bolted onto the tarmac, and flew like an F-16 across the flight line, leaving behind a trail of fluttering notebooks, pacifiers, lollipops, teddy bears and daisies. I sprang over the fence like the Six-Million-Dollar Mouse.
As I landed, a sonic boom startled me awake. Parked in my lawn chair in the shade of the wing of a B-52, and surrounded by my sunburned family, I looked up to see Thunderbirds painting a vaporous fleur-de-lis in the beautiful Tucson sky.
I whispered to my kids, “Man, wouldn’t you love to fly like that? I would.”