October 04, 2014

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This is about life up high. A Brit rapscallion and mischief-maker gossip columnist, Peter McKay, recently diverted from type and wrote about how great it is to pilot a plane. (He’s taking lessons and has flown solo.) I’ve always been told that piloting a motorcycle and a plane is about the same, and the rascal is a motorcyclist. His build, looks, and accent are far more suited to riding on two wheels than piloting an airplane—that role is more consistent for a Cary Grant type—but I am being snobby and writing like McKay, cattily.

Reading it, however, brought back pleasant memories but also a tragic one. When my little girl was 19 and at UCLA (that’s a university in Los Angeles, for any of you unfamiliar with places of higher learning) she informed her mother and I that she wanted to learn to pilot a plane. I lost my temper and threatened to cut her off for life, but she nevertheless went ahead, ignoring my wishes as she always has and always will. Then the big day came for her to fly solo and the mother of my children took my son and flew to El Lay to witness the great event. I met with a Colombian chap up in the Bronx and took to my bed. Everything went fine until the time came for my daughter to land after having stayed up for about 20 minutes, but as she made her approach she saw her mother jumping up and down like a crazed teenager in front of Elvis, so she gunned her two-seater and took off again. My son was so embarrassed he too ran off.

“His build, looks, and accent are far more suited to riding on two wheels than piloting an airplane—that role is more consistent for a Cary Grant type—but I am being snobby and writing like McKay, cattily.”

Lolly got her certificate and all that, and I was happy she did, because coming back to Gstaad from St. Tropez about 15 years ago on a private charter, I noticed the pilot was overweight, wheezing, and sweating profusely. We were flying over the Alps, it was getting dark, we were being bounced around, and he was alone in the cockpit. So I ordered Lolly to fly as copilot in case the poor man died at the controls so we wouldn’t end up crashing on some snowy peak. Mind you, everything turned out fine, but my little girl did not pursue a flying career after that.

My favorite airplane is a Pilatus, a Swiss-made wonder that can take off and land on a postage stamp. It is a single-engined turbo prop with six or eight seats and room to stand up straight. A couple of years ago, flying to London on a Pilatus for the Spectator readers’ party, I again hit bad weather over the Alps. Once at Old Queen Street I asked my low-life buddy Jeremy Clarke if he wanted me to fly him back home so he could impress his rural working-class friends, as he calls them. Jeremy thought it a brilliant idea, but then the deputy editor gave us a very expensive whiskey, we both got crocked out of our minds, and we ended up in some pub nearby. Jeremy, I think, got lucky with a woman who had passed out behind the bar. I went on to Loulou’s and met up with a dizzy blonde who was as sexy as she was unsteady on her Manolos. (Two male friends from the Spectator will confirm this tale.) The next day, flying over the Alps, I felt so awful I almost prayed that we would crash.

I took my first flying lesson at the University of Virginia in the year 1955. I did not follow up, but 25 years later the Crawley brothers came down to stay with me at Bruern Abbey, and suggested we learn to fly. There was an air base nearby, and a flying instructor. Andrew Crawley was a natural, as was Randall, little me bringing up the rear; but the stuff that had prevented me from getting a license back at Virginia—instruments and navigational skills—reared its ugly head yet again. In September 1987 the brothers rang me and asked if I could call Gianni Agnelli in Turin (I was in an Athens hospital, having suffered a heart attack) for an appointment in order to show him some paintings they were selling.

I never got through, the boys didn’t wait around, and as they took off from one of the worst airports in Europe they crashed and burned alive. I see their children now and then and we talk about the brothers, two great athletes, incidentally.


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