Bethel, PA – On a late October morning like many of the weekends before, I was scheduled to attend an air show. I had not had a weekend at home in months and the decision to go to one more, was seriously weighing on me. Sitting in my living room with a cup of Joe, I could hear the lyrics of the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” ringing in my head. Do I have the energy for one more event?
As I stared down into my then empty cup, I thought about how I got to this point. I turned 50 this year, and as a celebration, I decided to hit as many airshows as humanly possible. After weeks on the road, I thought I had bitten off more than I can chew. The event in question was the Golden Age Aviation Museum’s Annual Pumpkin Drop and Fly-In. I have always enjoyed this event. The people are friendly, the country setting is beautiful and the pace is much slower than the usual high speed, jet fueled shows I had attended. After 14,000 miles traveled… what’s a hundred more?
Travelling so many miles, the mind has a way of going off into deep thought. That is how I coped with the passing of the mile markers. Being this was my half century mark, I cannot help but think about the lesson’s I have learned and continue to learn. I think of the people I have met and how we met. One of the motivators behind this passion called Aviation Photography, is that I have been blessed to have met many wonderful people. I am fascinated at how people’s paths intersect at that cross road called Aviation. This day and this event, would be no exception.
When I arrived, the airfield was bustling. For every aircraft that landed there were two or three preparing for takeoff. The first person to greet me that day was Golden Age’s volunteer and pilot Neil Baughman. We met several years ago at one of the museum’s Flying Circus Shows. Every time we would see each other, we would discuss the possibility of someday collaborating on an air to air shoot. For many different reasons, it never happened.
Enjoying the days seasonably warm weather, I roamed the field in a never ending quest for the perfect photograph. As the afternoon sun began its early fall descent, I was surprise when Neil approached me and extended the offer. The opportunity for the air to air shoot had presented itself. Fortunately, in this case, nothing ever goes as planned. I was then informed, that there was a change in plans to accommodate a special guest.
Years ago, the Golden Age Aviation Museum acquired a neglected Curtiss Jenny JN4D. After a seven year restoration, this aircraft, which hadn’t flown since the 1920’s, became airworthy and is now the center piece of the museum’s collection. While I am certain, countless other volunteers had a hand or finger in the process, this restoration would not have been possible without the contribution of the museum’s special guest.
When the aircraft was acquired, Mr. Ken VanBortel was the person who transported the wings of the Jenny to Grimes Field. Since the certainty of tomorrow is unknown, the museum staff wanted to show their appreciation to Mr. VanBortel by taking him up in the same the Curtiss Jenny he transported years ago. As the volunteers gathered to figure out the logistics of the flight, pilot Eric Lunger turned to me and asked if I would tag along with him in a 1946 Aeronca Champ and photograph the flight for Mr. VanBortel. I was only too happy to oblige.
As the Jenny was prepped, a small crowd of visitors, family and museum volunteers gathered around the beautifully restored bird. Mrs. Gloria VanBortel escorted her Husband Ken to the aircraft and looked on as he climbed into the front cockpit. Museum President Paul Dougherty Jr. took a break from pumpkin flights to take their special guest on this very special flight.
After a few swings of the propeller, the engine came alive and they took to the sky. Eric Lunger and I were not far behind and the Aeronca was soon in position to shadow the bi-plane. Paul flew the Jenny the way it was meant to be flown. The red fabric of this flying antique stood out against the fall colors of the country side, crisscrossing that Pennsylvania sky in a graceful ballet. Mr. VanBortel had a front row seat in a real life picture show. Eric followed Paul’s elegant banks and turns and ensured there was always a clear shot of the Jenny.
When I looked through my the viewfinder, I could not help but be overcome with emotion. It wasn’t because I was finally living a dream of mine, it was because as I looked through the camera I realized that I was the only person in the sky that could see Mr. VanBortel’s eyes. For those moments, I felt that Mr. VanBortel and I were connected like two lifelong friends. Zooming in was like pulling up a chair at the VanBortel kitchen table. When I whispered, to myself “look this way”, Ken turned to the left and looked deep into my lens. My index finger pressed the shutter release and the image was recorded forever. While I can always share with you the physical print, I can never convey the emotional feeling of seeing a man floating on a cloud. For those brief minutes the world was peaceful and the moment divine.
As we landed, I again thought about the lessons I learned over my now 50 years. During this flight, I was reminded of the most valuable ones. In life you need to get out of bed no matter how difficult it is and put one foot in front of the other and discover what the day has to offer. While you never know what you are going to encounter, you have a choice to go out and see who you will encounter. You just might find a person or persons who share the same passion as you do.
On this day I found a group of individuals that were united by their passion for aviation and banded together to put a smile on one man’s face. Life isn’t about us as individuals, it is about the positive things people can accomplish together.
The Golden Age Aviation Museum seems intent on maintaining those values as much as they are maintaining their vintage aircraft. People seem to gravitate to this. I know that it might seem cliché, but I believe that this is a magical place. A place where wonderful things happen. It is the aviation Field of Dreams.
I want to personally Thank Neil Baughman, Eric Lunger and Paul Dougherty Jr. for the opportunity and to Mr. and Mrs. VanBortel. I am thankful our paths crossed and blessed to have been welcomed to your kitchen table.
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