Flying, or rather, piloting an aircraft is as alien to me as sailing a boat is, yet I enjoy reading about them both very much. I believe it’s due to them being a form of solitary freedom that appeals to me. Vicarious living at it’s best and easiest. I feel much safer on terra firma.
Airborne: Finding Foxtrot Alpha Mike (2019, Goose Lane Editions) is the author’s memoirs of his father, his love of flying and his cherished Smith biplane, known by its call letters, FAM. His father had instilled the love of flying early on in young Jonathan, so much so that he joined the Air Cadets and eventually got his wings. While his father flew all types of airplanes in Africa and Canada, it was aloft in his single-seat Smith Miniplane that he felt most at home:
My Dad logged relatively few hours in his Miniplane – barely fifty – but the effect those precious hours and minutes had on him were immeasurable.
Airborne is told in three parts: Ascent, Turbulence and Aloft, Alow. Ascent is primarily about his father’s early life in Italy, the development of the Smith Miniplane by Frank Smith in California, his father’s learning to fly as a means to alleviate boredom, and emigrating to Canada. Turbulence deals with his parent’s odd courtship, the author’s early life, his father’s business disappointments (and his escape by flying), and his premature death in 2012 at age sixty-six.
My father’s death hit me harder than anything else I’d faced in my life, before or since. After years of distance and difficulty, we had just started to build a new relationship. I was twenty-eight years old, on the cusp of starting my own family, and while his passing was by no means unexpected, I was not ready to say goodbye. Everything that followed happened so quickly and with such severity that I could do nothing but flip a switch and function purely on autopilot. A few months after my father died, after the frenetic pace of the wake, funeral, and burial had eased, and people stopped visiting or asking me how I was doing, I only felt cold and numb. I hadn’t mourned my father not yet, at least and now I was well beyond tears. My grief hardened. I began to feel guilty and angry. I felt I had failed my father in some way, and I needed something productive and meaningful to occupy me. Increasingly, my thoughts turned to Dad’s biplane, and I decided to track her down. So began years of work in aircraft archeology, self-reflection, and discovery. Using the phone book, internet searches, and some old-fashioned detective skills picked up during my years as a journalist, I pieced together the biplane’s story after we lost track of her. I worked backwards, too: pushing through cobwebbed memories to discover both the airplane’s and my dad’s histories before they came together. The journey has been both uplifting and crushing, often in the same moment. A guilt that will forever haunt me has spurred me on. But I needed to find a way to preserve my father and the airplane he loved so dearly— to give them both a measure of immortality.
The final section, Aloft, Alow is about the author’s life, his growing family, work, and finding time to fly his own Smith Miniplane out of Rockcliffe Airport outside Ottawa. Throughout the book, we meet many pilots that influenced both his father and himself, but most importantly, we learn what it feels like to fly a small plane. One would think it would be easy, but it’s not apparently. Neither is it easy to land, we soon discover! As a journalist, Mr. Rotondo has a way with words so he can truly convey the freedom and exhilaration he experiences while aloft in an open, single-seat biplane.
I am living my dream. I am flying the airplane I pretended to fly as a toddler, the same plane I heard all those stories about.
I am flying over unfamiliar territory, and the chart I reviewed prior to taking off gave a poor depiction of the landscape unfolding beneath me. I keep the airport within sight so as to not get lost. Well to the south, Toronto seems to rise out of the blue of Lake Ontario. Between Brampton and Toronto, I can clearly see Pearson International Airport and the aluminum cloud of airliners that swarm around it. To the west and northwest, the Caledon Hills climb away from me in a series of gently rolling waves. […]To the east and northeast, the landscape is a carpet of multicoloured farmer’s fields stitched together here and there by fence lines and roads. Above all this, the Smith floats happily, guided gently by my gloved hand. The hot anxiety of the takeoff roll and climb out has faded to a warm glow. I roll my shoulders back, wiggle my toes, and flex my hands around the stick and throttle.
Airborne was a pure delight to read, and while Mr. Rotondo does pepper the text with many technical aspects of flying and aerobatics (which a small plane pilot would appreciate), this would be no different than a sailor describing different manoeuvres or the various sails on his craft. Technicalities aside, this is a very well-written, thoughtful tribute to a father that was not always there for his family and who passed away too young but left a love of flying with his son that continues to this day. As for finding Foxtrot Alpha Mike? Mr. Rotondo does eventually track it down and it rests in a most astonishing place; one that you can visit today. But you have to read the book to find out where!
I’m adding Airborne: Finding Foxtrot Alpha Mike to the 2019 longlist for a “The Very Best!” Book Award for Non-fiction and First Book.
Airborne: Finding Foxtrot Alpha Mike by Jonathan Rotondo
Goose Lane Editions
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