Flight of Adventure

  Zero Three Bravo

by Mariana Gosnell

Alfred A. Knopf, NY 1993  ....   reviewed 24 October 1993 by David P. Stern


      The strange title is the registration number of a light airplane, a 1950 all-metal Luscombe "tail dragger" which took the author from Spring Valley, New York, to California and back again. It was a leisurely trip with many stops, because small airplanes lack both speed and range, and often wait for improved weather. In no hurry, Gosnell wended her way west through the deep South and returned by way of Idaho and Montana.

      This exuberant story, sunny and upbeat, is best savored in small portions. The author shunned large towns and busy airports, in favor of small airstrips, even grass strips. Short of fuel she lands at Oljato, on the Navajo reservation in Arizona: the strip is attached to an Indian trading post and the fuel pump (with a sign "beware of rattlesnakes") is locked. The Indian woman who runs the store tells Mariana that "Mr. Smith got the key" and would be back by nightfall. Nothing doing but wait, and meanwhile one learns a bit about Indian life and, after Mr. Smith shows up, about the history of the airstrip.

      Such stories are scattered here by the dozen. A meeting with the lads who tow advertising banners above the beach of Ocean City, Maryland makes clear how hazardous their occupation is. A bit further south she meets a retiree named Orville Wright who runs an airstrip (not the Orville, for sure); visits Jimmy Carter's home airport at Plains, encountering some remarkable lady pilots; talks to the proud owner of a fleet of restored WW II warplanes, also of a jet fighter; crawls into Carlsbad Caverns, the part not open to the public; and outside Phoenix, visits a housing development centered on an airstrip, each home with its own taxiway.

      And so forth, the list could go on and on. Among Gosnell's last stops is the tiny coal-mine company town in Kentucky where her grandfather used to live. No longer even on a map, its houses are mostly empty and decaying, and only a few old-timers can dimly recall the times she is trying to recapture.

      This story is mostly about people, in particular about the fraternity (and sorority!) whose members have soloed in small airplanes and kept up their love of flying. Gosnell, like Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen) had learned to fly in Africa, and she conveys well the thrill of solo flight, in particular in a small airplane flying low enough to observe the myriad details of the land below. If you have a friend who is a pilot or an adventurous young woman (or both), this book (now out in paperback) makes a perfect gift.

      The book appeared in 1993 and reads like a fresh adventure, but some hints indicate that journey actually happened long ago. In particular, while in California, Gosnell witnesses (quite by chance) the first man-powered flight of the "Gossamer Condor", which records say took place on August 23, 1977. Which means that much of what she lovingly describes is no more, that many of these grass airstrips might have gone back to pasture, with their owners moved, retired or gone forever. Perhaps, as with Gosnell's grandfather's hometown, the scenery she describes is just a memory. All that remains is this book, and it is one hell of a story.


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
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