Finally off the ground |

Finally off the ground

Derek Franz
Open Space
Derek Franz / Special to the Post Independent
Staff Photo |

Joe was not a great friend but he was my only friend when I started seventh grade in Berthoud, a sleepy train-track town in the flats near Fort Collins.

Until then I’d spent almost my entire life in Lyons, exploring the rugged foothills after school. I felt lost when my mom and I moved to Berthoud, and it’s a feeling I still associate with the squealing metal of railroad cars clacking around a bend in the middle of the night.

It didn’t help that I was a shy only-child who didn’t know how to make friends. Lucky for me, one of my mom’s co-workers had a boy who was the same age and had a common interest — airplanes.

Even better was the fact that Joe and his mom rented an apartment above a garage in a big barn that belonged to a pilot. Joe had already built a few remote-controlled airplanes with the man and was helping him rebuild a Stearman biplane. That garage was the only place I looked forward to all semester.

After keeping my head down each day at school, pretending not to notice the bullies shoving me around in the hallways, I would meet Joe at the bike rack and pedal to the hangar.

He showed me how to sew fabric tightly over the wooden skeleton of the plane. It was a tedious process with long needles and countless stitches. I could see why the pilot enlisted us to help in exchange for the promise of a ride in the plane when it was finished. But I loved it. I dreamed of freedom as my hands ran over the drum-tight canvass of the wings, knowing they would lift me off the ground someday.

An obsession with flight has filled me as long as I can remember. I loved airplanes so much that my mom let me watch “Top Gun” when I was only 5. I watched it over and over, never thinking much about the love scene or understanding the foul language until I was older. I just wanted to fly like the movie’s hero, “Maverick.” I got a haircut like the pilots in “Top Gun” and got the “aviator” jacket with all the patches. (Clearly, I was not the only little boy idolizing the movie because there were plenty of little jackets hanging on the store racks at the time.)

Anyway, that fall semester in Berthoud dragged on and was the most miserable time at school I ever had. Besides my poor academic performance, Joe picked a fight with a group of sixth-graders one day, which resulted in me getting punched in the face, and I never got to ride in the Stearman because the pilot crashed it before I had a chance.

All of it was for the best, though it took years to see it that way.

My mom and I moved to New Castle over winter break. I was terrified to start all over again at a new school, but — after another rough start — I finally met some real friends. I had to change schools twice more before I finished high school. Each time it got a little easier, and I had plenty of confidence by the time I went to college.

The ability to connect with people and make friends anywhere I go has been invaluable, especially in my career as a journalist where I have to interview all sorts of people and step out of my comfort zone often.

That’s exactly what I did last week when I stepped off the tarmac into a Stearman biplane at the Vail Valley Jet Center in Gypsum.

Gary Rower was among the first generation of pilots to fly the F-16 Fighting Falcon. He was an instructor and earned a Top Gun award, thereby making him a Top Gun pilot. These days he is a commercial airline captain and also performs aerobatic shows in his modified Stearman. He was in Gypsum for an airshow last weekend.

“I’ll take you for a loop and a barrel roll if you’re up for it,” he said.


Life really does come full circle — sometimes quite literally in an open cockpit, upside down at 160 mph.


— To read more about the aerobatic experience and see photos, go to and search “High in the sky.”

“Open Space” appears on the second and fourth Friday of the month. Derek Franz writes for the Eagle Valley Enterprise and lives in Carbondale. He can be reached at

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