On Eagle’s Wings

“A place not yet touched by 9/11” in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

When the mood strikes and both the calendar and skies are clear, my children and I venture to the nearby Brandywine Valley Airport to catch a glimpse of the airplanes and helicopters in flight.

Watching these planes, my mind travels back to my own childhood, a time when a little boy could explore a major airport’s terminal and, with nose to window, gaze in wonder as the giant beasts ascended and descended more gracefully than seemed plausible. One moment it was here, a muffled roar later and it was gone, only to touch down in some far off place on the map taped to a child’s bedroom wall.

Peering through those glass walls overlooking the tarmac filled a child with awe. There, gazing eyes were close enough to read the plane’s numbers and admire each airline’s distinct detailing. Beautiful, slick beasts crawled along the tarmac, marionettes held captive by the air traffic controller above. “Which one was next?” the boy would wonder. Then, seemingly without warning, the tower gave word, setting a beast free. With engines blazing, it set off skyward.

Tarmac-gazing has long since disappeared, and along with it the spellbound eyes of countless young children longing for inspiration and adventure. Today, only those going off on the adventure itself get a glimpse of the tarmac’s beauty. Without a ticket, a child bids a relative farewell without ever seeing their plane lift off.

I imagine the ghosts of Wilbur and Orville Wright, having floated through security, standing in the terminal and peering out at the planes. Wonder must fill their hearts. Then, noticing no one else is doing the same, that wonder must turn to sadness. They look around, only to find themselves surrounded by hurried and harried white rabbits with eyes fixed on books, phones, and inventions beyond their comprehension.

All of which makes the quaint and quiet airport down the road all the more special. Here, a child can peer through and, yes, even sit atop the five-foot gate separating pilot from pupil. Sept. 11 hasn’t reached here yet, as this airport is more a playground for the weekend pilot (who once upon a time was a tarmac-gazer, I am sure) and a taxi depot for the anonymous wealthy and their equally anonymous chartered flights.

The scene goes like this: A car pulls into the quiet parking lot and, after exiting the vehicle, the driver proceeds to walk into the lonely airplane hangar. Within minutes an engine revs to life, controls and settings are checked, and the single-engine prop plane begins to meander out to the tarmac. I suppose there’s a quick radio conversation between the driver-turned-pilot and the controller inside. Something along the lines of:

“Hey, Charlie.”

“Morning, Johnny.”

“Good day for flying, eh?”

“Sure is. Anytime you’re ready, John.”

And with that the prop plane taxis down the tarmac, rounds the bend to the runway, and takes off.

Though not this morning. My 2-year-old boy and I wait patiently for any sign of life from the hangars, but hear none. The morning is deathly quiet, and perhaps the weekend pilots have taken the day off. After 30 minutes of inactivity, we return to the car.

It is then, having left the airport and waiting to turn out of the parking lot, that a single-engine plane soars into the air toward our right. We had missed the takeoff by seconds, and like that the plane was gone. Returning my gaze through the windshield, I find myself in wonder and awe at the sight before my eyes.

A bald eagle is perched atop the telephone pole across the road, looking larger than life in this suburban setting. Perhaps the beautiful beast was tarmac-gazing too.

I quickly pulled to the side of the road, parked, and together we crossed the street for a better look.

The scene brought me back to that September morning 10 years passed, when airports – and America – changed forever. I mourn the innocent lives lost that day, and the innocence our country lost in the process. The security theater of today’s airport, however necessary, has hijacked the awe and inspiration of humankind taking to the skies.

With my son in my arms, I gazed at our nation’s symbol and found myself grateful for its presence – and for this tiny airport not yet touched by 9/11.

It was at that moment three crows descended upon the eagle, cawing in unison and driving it from its roost. On silent wings, the eagle took flight and soared into battle.

I held my son closer. Once lost, innocence can never be reclaimed.


  1. Mike,

    I still remember the first plane I saw in the air AFTER 911 – like being that 2 year old and seeing one for the first time all over again.

  2. I’ll try to summarize. First, thanks for the prayerful description of your visit to the airport with one of your young ones. The punch line was that -a punch into reflective reality.
    When I was a little guy, I walked Peggy, my wire hair fox terrior, to the beginnings of Kennedy airport. The building process worked like this. Huge pipes (cir 4′ in diameter) dedged water and sand from Jamaica Bay (about three or four miles away) and deposited it at the furthest line of the proposed airport. As the sand built up and the water settled, the engineers removed sections of the pipes until the entire area was filled with sand. Clearly there many of these pipe lines working to dredge the sand. The sand lay there to settle for about seven years. One day Peggy and I visited the deserted area, Peggy walking ahead of me. Without notice all four of her legs broke through the quasi hardened sand and there she was, helpless; her body adhereing to the ground. In desperation, I flopped on my belly and crawled toward my friend for all seasons, grabbed her by the collar, turned and headed back to safer ground. Amen.

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