Wednesday, March 02, 2005


Talking airplane worth a flight of fancy

They say men can express only two emotions, humor and anger. That may be, but I know it’s hard for us to exhibit a full range of feelings, particularly when it comes to expressing love.

“Cubs on the Loose,” by NC-87881 as told to Lyle Wheeler, ($14.95 Amea Cottage) is at heart a love story, one which uses an old device to send its message of enduring affection.

Many are familiar with the old Miles Standish story, in which the gruff old soldier sends John Alden to tell Priscilla Mullins of the veteran’s love for her. That’s an example of using an intermediary to say something one may feel uncomfortable saying oneself. That of course backfired, as Priscilla and John wound up living happily ever after.

But Wheeler’s device, that of having his beloved Piper Cub describe the author’s love of aviation and infatuation with his airplane, is a successful variation on that old gimmick.

The book recounts the travels of NC87881 and two other planes on a barnstorming flight. The pilots wanted to fly the old-fashioned way, without navigational devices, and bed down in the grass under their planes’ wings, the way pilots did back when flying was considered rare and risky.

The pilots are referred to as humanoids by NC-87881, and come across as lovable, goofy beings who would be lost without the guidance and durability of the Cubs.

Sure, many of us are familiar with plots in which a machine is imbued with human qualities. There was the deservedly ill-fated and short-lived Jerry Van Dyke show, “My Mother the Car,” and the sickeningly ubiquitous Herbie the Love (Volkswagen) Bug.

But Wheeler is able to elevate that device, known as anthropomorphism, to a literary level that merits reading. He does so by first of all understanding what he’s talking about. Fantasy, in order to work, must be based on some very real premises. Wheeler, a veteran airlines pilot who retired as the senior pilot with TWA, does know his airplanes. From simple tasks such as maintenance to general aerobatics, he understands what he’s describing, thus giving the talking airplane meaning and context.

He keeps his plane’s meanderings within the confines of common sense, even as he invests it with the qualities one would appreciate in a good friend or loving wife.

Here’s an example:

“As I continued to taxi back to the ramp, I watched with envy as 726 touched down diagonally across the bug intersection of the two runways in the center of the field. She had absolutely no problems because, landing as she did, her crosswind component was almost zero. .. I hated to admit to her that my little excursion not planned…Thank goodness no one else saw my performance. How embarrassing.”

Laymen may have trouble understanding the above paragraph, but any pilot would appreciate it. Piper Cubs are like kites and, when landing one, the pilot must be cognizant of wind direction.

But even those unversed in the ways of the sky will understand the embarrassment that would be felt if one slipped or stumbled while executing a maneuver in front of one’s peers.

Thus, both the technical possibilities and the emotional reactions of the airplane make sense, allowing the book to be enjoyed by both aviation enthusiasts and laymen.

Wheeler started out writing columns for a defunct aviation magazine, in which he wrote as if his airplane was doing the narrating. The column outlasted the magazine. One day, after Wheeler went out to buy a $50 Coke (a joke among flyers who use any excuse, even going to buy a soda, as an excuse to gas up and take off) he was sitting in Arcadia relaxing when some flyers recognized his Cub’s call letters. Next thing he knew, the plane was being mobbed.

That reaction, along with encouragement from appreciative readers of his column, led him to write “Cubs.”

Yes, some may still think the premise is hokey. But, just as men -- and many women –often are unable to say I love you, so do many of us all too often surrender to the mundane and boringly practical. Wheeler’s Cub not only speaks of the love many who take to the skies feel as they break the bonds of earth, but it also speaks as if it were well-loved, with a healthy self-image and a concern for others.

Who’s to say that if you supply your engine, be it the motive mechanism of a plane, car or boat, it won’t return that attention by giving its last full measure to get you where you where you want to go? Sure, you increase the odds that the moving parts will continue to move well, but maybe there’s more to it than that. If our souls are as great as many of us think they are, who’s to say that some of that psychic energy is not transmitted to bits of steel and rubber?

Before you laugh, think of how many people name and talk to their vehicles.

Women know how hard it is to get a man to say I love you. Lyle Wheeler knows the language of love. And he knows it so well, he’s even taught an airplane to whisper sweet nothings over the roar of its well-tuned engine.

James M. Abraham, an independent book reviewer, can be reached at

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