Living Your dreams

Published 3:03 pm Wednesday, January 3, 2007

I venture to guess that most people won’t live out their dreams. As the John Lennon song goes, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Not so for Jacksonian David Mars. He is living in real time. When he was young he fell in love with airplanes and he is truly living the dream.

There are many people I admire, but only a few who attain “idol” status in my universe. One is Albert Lyle, who at 69 moves on a tennis court better than I do, and I move pretty darn good.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

The other is David Mars, who runs his business (Mars and Steel on the I-55 frontage road), raises a family, and still finds time to be a bush pilot in Alaska and go barnstorming across the Midwest.

Mars loves to tell people that he soloed at age three, with his five-year-old sister in the passenger seat. The flight ended in a crash.

His father had gotten out to hand-crank the Piper Cub. Young David took the opportunity to exhibit his innate love of flight. In the split second that his father had spun the prop and started the engine, David had jumped to the pilot’s seat and goosed the throttle.

The airplane left the ground for several hundred yards before touching back down and cartwheeling into a ditch. Neither boy nor girl was injured but his eight-month pregnant mother was not amused.

I met David Mars at the Slobovia annual fly-in. Slobovia is a grass strip near Pocahontas where the hard-core pilots live with hangars for their birds next to their garages for their cars.

When David spent three years as an Alaska bush pilot, he would send me letters and photos. I would sit at my desk, loaded with debt, obligations, kids, responsibilities — the works — and pore over his words and think, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

There are a lot of pilots for whom a plane is a time machine. It gets you from point A to point B in a hurry, saving huge amounts of time. Speed is of the essence. But for David Mars, his 1929 Travel Air is a different kind of time machine. He uses it not to compress time, but to expand it — indeed — to travel back into it.

David Mars and a dozen or so other pilots of old, beautifully restored birds, set off across the United States, flying low and slow, resurrecting the lost art of barnstorming. The nation’s leading flying magazine devoted its cover story to David Mars and his troop of old-time barnstormers.

“It’s very Walter Mittyish,” he says. “I’ll leave work, dress in period clothing, sell rides and sleep under the wing.”

The barnstormers rely on their own uniqueness for publicity. Invariably, the local paper will write a feature story on the obsolete barnstormers who have come to town.

“People will always come out early in the morning just to see if we are really sleeping under the wing. I don’t like to get a hotel room. I am a purist in that regard.”

The barnstorming tour lasted three weeks and took 2,000 people flying.

“I have no navigational aids. I read a lot of water towers. We travel to the next town in the morning, sell rides from noon to sunset and then have our own hangar party late into the night.

Can I come? Please?

“It’s just like the old days when they created a lot of attention and then sold rides.” Nothing’s changed.

I am a pilot. It is my vice, my love, my addiction. It’s hard to explain. Maybe it’s the high altitude buzz. Maybe it’s the adrenaline rush of fear blended with excitement. Maybe it’s the thrill of moving from a two-dimensional world into a three dimensional world. I don’t know.

But pilots will always find each other at cocktail parties and they will proceed to run everybody else off as we talk ceaselessly about airplanes.

I have quite a few pilot buddies: Gaines Sturdivant, Billy Mounger, Sam Pooley, Kemal Sanli, Salil Tawari, Tom Parry, Julian Carroll and many, many more.

My mother is a pilot. My mother-in-law is a pilot. My brother-in-law is a pilot. My father-in-law is a pilot. My father was a pilot. That’s got to be some kind of record.

Most fellows get a sort of macho rush from being a pilot, but when both your mother and mother-in-law are pilots, it sort of takes the blush off the rose.

My dad used to call me a white-knuckled flyer, presumably because I gripped my handrest so hard it made my knuckles white.

I used to tell him I’d learn to fly when you could push a button and know where to go. Little did I know that I envisioned the GPS system two decades before it was reality.

When my father died, he left me his Piper Arrow. It sat in a hangar for two years gathering dust before I even looked at it. Then my father-in-law and Gaines Sturdivant shamed me into taking action. “You need to sell it or fly it,” they told me.

Then a pilot sent me a book on flying. I read it. Hey, I thought, this is more complex than I thought. I was hooked.

The heyday of private flying was in the 1970s. Today, it is almost a lost art, with about half as many pilots. Good cars, books on tape, cheap commercial flights and four-lane interstates have pushed small planes out of their niche.

But there is hope. The technology of flying has never been this affordable. It is gizmo heaven for high-tech gee-whiz avionics. A dozen new planes are coming to market.

Flying with Salil Tawari, he summed it up: As we looked down upon a beautiful sunset over the Mississippi River, he said, “You could be the richest king in the world 100 years ago, but you could never be doing what we are doing right now.”

Wyatt Emmerich

President, Emmerich Newspapers