The Sonex Aircraft sales brochure promised a low cost, great performing, quick-building airplane. During the airplane’s five-year gestation period in my garage, which included regular check-ups by a technical counselor as well as the airplane’s designers, nothing unusual was noted. In November 2003 my Sonex was born faithful to the blueprints, the FAA signed its birth certificate, and I had an airplane that I affectionately named Metal Illness. Flight testing went well and I believed I had built exactly what the sales brochure had promised. But about a year after my first flight, with one hundred flight-hours logged, the truth of what I had built was revealed.
On an unusually warm February morning in 2005 I settled into the cockpit of Metal Illness and flew from my home in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to Rantoul National Elliot Airport in Urbana, Illinois. Rantoul National Elliot was known by thousands of airmen – including many of the famed Tuskegee Airmen – as Chanute Air Force Base. Chanute Air Force Base was one of many airbases closed in the early 1990s for budgetary reasons but before the colors were lowered for the last time in front of the base headquarters I drove to Chanute in 1986 to visit one of my Air Force buddies for a weekend. That trip took six or seven hours to drive in the cramped cockpit of a 1968 Triumph GT6, but on this particular morning Chanute’s now-shrunken runways appeared over the cowl of my airplane less than two hours after departing Oshkosh.
Some of the hangars and most of the aircraft on the base at the time of its closure formed the foundation of the Octave Chanute Aerospace Museum. Exploring those hangars and seeing the same aircraft that were on active duty during my visit in 1986 was eerie. Somehow, during the two-hour flight south, Metal Illness transported me twenty years back in time. Nearby I heard the low rumble of a V8 engine but I didn’t dare look. I was afraid I’d see my friend and I drive by in his Corvette-powered Nova on our way to his home elsewhere on the base.
My visit to the museum was necessarily short, as I had to beat the early-February sunset home. Arriving back in Oshkosh that evening I was anxious to check the memory card of my camera. Had I really flown from 2005 to 1986 and back in seven hours? The images were there. It was real. I had built more than an airplane – I had built a time machine.
My next experience with time travel in the nimble Sonex occurred in April 2006, when I flew to Lakeland, Florida, for the annual Sun and Fun fly-in. Unlike my flight to Rantoul this trip became a trip forward in time. As the sun and Metal Illness rose together into a clear Wisconsin sky on a chilly spring morning it never occurred to me that six flight-hours later she’d deliver me to a sun-baked ramp in summer. Anyone who may have been watching through the windows of the air-conditioned pilot lounge when I stopped for fuel in Cairo, Georgia, saw me quickly strip off layers of my flight gear – bomber jacket, fleece and sweatshirt – so I’d blend in with the locals and not attract attention to my time-travelling self. One week later Metal Illness reversed the process and in the span of eight hours delivered me safely back to April and Wisconsin, where I waited four months for the weather I had left that morning to catch up to me.
In July 2006 a clear spot on my calendar coincided with Minot Air Force Base’s nearly annual Northern Neighbor’s Day Air Show and I made plans to return, if only briefly, to North Dakota and the memories it held for me. You see, in 1983 the Air Force assigned a much younger version of me to Minot Air Force Base to put my recently acquired skills as a B-52 weapons loader to use.
I was nineteen-years-old then and enjoying more freedom – yet more responsibility – than any other time in my life. My days in Minot were spent defending the country and my nights and weekends were spent in typical G.I. fashion: Playing with cars (my Triumph TR6), drinking beer (mostly Moosehead) and chasing girls (most proved too fast for me). Airplanes were also part of the equation. I exercised my pilot’s license in a rented Cessna from Pietsch Flying Service, marveled at the B-52s as they worked the landing pattern with their peculiar nose-down climb attitude, and pondered the star-filled universe while watching F-106s ride the long flame of their afterburner into the night sky. Everyone who has survived young adulthood knows that the memories created at that age are carried forever. Some call them the “good ol’ days” and I’ve yet to meet anyone that wouldn’t go back and relive some part of that period of their life. My excuse to go back was the Minot Air Force Base air show.
On the Thursday prior to the air show Metal Illness and I departed Oshkosh at 5 P.M. for our evening’s destination – Fargo, North Dakota, three flight-hours away. We leveled off under a thin overcast at 6,500 feet and followed a flaxen sun toward the western horizon. We’ve all seen enough movies to know that time travel requires some type of vehicle, or pod, and a weather phenomenon to open a door to the other side. The sudden clearing of the sky twenty miles east of Fargo should have been my clue something was up, but I was too focused on the arrival and landing to give the weather change more notice than to welcome the additional sunlight. The 1985 courtesy car I was offered after securing Metal Illness at Hector International Airport for the night should have been another clue something was afoot.
A few blocks south of Hector International Airport is North Dakota State University (NDSU). In the fall of 1984, while stationed at Minot, I spent many weekends in Fargo with my girlfriend who was attending NDSU. Like most young romances it was destined to end but not before many lasting memories were created. After checking in to my hotel I drove to the campus to see if the memories were real or if I had only imagined them. I walked around the familiar campus, stood outside the dorm that served as my weekend home, and found that the memories were indeed very real. Were some of the fresh oil spots in the parking lot from the Triumph I drove in 1984? Time travel can leave one tired and melancholy so I returned to my hotel room and its poor cable reception and broken toilet.
Friday morning I returned to the Fargo Air Museum where Metal Illness had spent a restful night listening to war stories and other tales of high adventure from her temporary roommates, including an authentic Japanese Mitsubishi Zero. The day promised to be like so many other summer days I had experienced in North Dakota: hot and windy. Shortly after noon I taxied to the active runway and waited while two F-16s from the North Dakota Air National Guard’s Happy Hooligans departed in front of me. They took off with an explosion of heat and noise and quickly disappeared into the thin, sub-zero air six miles above. I requested a similar departure with an unrestricted climb to 35,000 feet, but instead was cleared for a right turn westward and a climb to 4,500 feet where the outside air temperature was still 94 degrees.
A strong headwind hampered my progress west so I made the best of my reduced ground speed by descending to 1,800 feet to do some sightseeing and play a game of “Find the Missile Silo.” I never spotted any silos but I found the crossroad on Highway 52, just north of Jamestown, where I ran out of gas on a drive home twenty-three years earlier and spent the night trying to sleep in a British sports car on a lonely highway next to a cemetery. I followed Highway 52 all the way to Minot, picking out familiar landmarks as I flew and noting that every cluster of trees on the Great Plains marks the location of a farmhouse.
After landing at Minot International Airport I taxied to a ramp from which I had flown in my previous life but that flying was in a rented Cessna, not my homebuilt Sonex. I picked up a rental car and placed a call to the officer in charge of the Northern Neighbor’s Day Air Show. He agreed to vouch me onto the base so I could take my own driving tour of the place I called home half a lifetime ago.
Driving past the auto hobby center/car wash I was sure I would have found part of the sponge I used to wash my car in 1983 if I had taken the time to look. I didn’t. I was afraid to. And what of my old dorm? Updates had been made in some areas: the large windows were replaced by smaller, energy efficient units and the dual-occupancy rooms I endured during the Cold War – with gang showers on each floor – had been converted into single-occupant rooms with individual bathrooms. It’s the new Air Force, I guess. However, the main entry was just as I remembered it right down to the 5th Munitions Squadron welcome mat and the beat-up, faded brown metal doors. Hearing those doors swing open and close unlocked another vault of memories for me. Downstairs in the recreation room the pool table light that once hung over a pool table now illuminated an exercise machine. And in the neighboring laundry room I found one of my socks in a dryer, so that pair is complete once more.
Just twenty-four hours earlier I was working and playing in July 2006 and Minot was two decades behind me. But that changed when I pressed the "start" button in the Sonex. Suddenly it was Friday night in the dorm and I was looking for familiar faces with whom to eat dinner, cruise the parks, and catch a late movie at the mall. And out on the flight line twelve of the twenty-four B-52s may still have had my DNA on their bomb bay doors.
When I left the base early that evening and drove back to the city of Minot I was glad to see Metal Illness still waiting on the airport’s ramp. She was my assurance that I had a way back to 2006. That evening, driving around Minot by myself, I learned a few things: memories are lonely places to visit alone and cell phones can bridge decades. I parked the rented van on a hill that overlooks the city of Minot and placed a phone call from 1984 to 2006. The sweet voice of my wife* answered. I felt caught between decades, between lives.
Saturday I returned to Minot Air Force Base with Metal Illness for the daylong air show. While engrossed in the experience of displaying Metal Illness alongside some of the greatest weapons in the Air Force’s inventory, a warm wind stirred the smell of hydraulic fluid, exhaust, diesel fuel and jet fuel with the sounds of generators and whining turbines into a potent sensory concoction that whisked me back to my days on that very flight line, loading nuclear weapons into the cavernous bomb bays of B-52s. I lingered in those memories, eyes closed, allowing long forgotten snippets of my past to resurface. The day was bittersweet.
Sunday morning I rose early to a clear sky and an unusually light breeze. Within thirty minutes of rising I had Metal Illness packed and prepped and the GPS programmed for my return to Oshkosh. I took off on runway three-one and made a left turn to the south. My plan was to locate a little pond called Rice Lake, south of Minot, but I immediately found myself in danger of entering a solid, low blanket of clouds. “Where did they come from so suddenly?” I asked aloud. I amended my flight plan and continued the climbing left turn to an easterly heading so I would remain clear of the clouds. I climbed eastward above a broken layer of clouds that swirled like the swift current of a stream around protruding rocks. The clouds slowly thickened and I chose to descend below them before I lost sight of the ground, thereby giving up the clear sky and smooth air I had been enjoying.
Though the cloud layer was only a few hundred feet thick, it was low and obscured the sky above me. Beneath the clouds I was in a strange world: a wispy gray world of muted light and muted colors. I’ve never enjoyed scud running – flying low over the ground to remain out of the clouds above – so I proceeded forward with a sharp eye for towers, a sense that the glow on the distant horizon was the edge of the cloud cover, and the knowledge that central North Dakota has no threatening terrain. I traced the western edge of the Devil’s Lake Military Operating Area southward and then took a bead on Jamestown, passing over mile after mile of water-filled craters and potholes with not a house in sight.
My flight path east took me well south of Fargo. Only their fading radio chatter and the passing landmarks on my map marked its presence. Shortly after leaving North Dakota, the clouds disappeared as quickly as they had appeared. I landed for fuel in Alexandria, Minnesota, under a perfectly blue sky. The date on the fuel receipt read “July 9, 2006.”
The weather and my Sonex had again worked their magic, combining nature with machine and bringing me back to the present. In the movies time travel happens instantly, often with stunning effects. In real life it took some time – two hours and forty-two minutes on this particular morning – and went unnoticed until I exited the aircraft. Behind me, to the west and into the weather, lay my past. In front of me, to the east and into the sun, lay my future, my family and my home. I continued eastward.
Go Into the Sun….
*We divorced in 2008.
An edited version of this article appeared in the October 2007 edition of EAA's Sport Aviation magazine.