One of the biggest news stories last year was undoubtedly missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. The Boeing 777 left Kuala Lampur International Airport on March 8 heading towards Beijing and in mid-flight disappeared from all radar systems.
Despite millions of dollars spent by various governments, no evidence of Flight 370 has been found to date. As expected, this has prompted numerous theories, from government cover-ups to the plane being sucked into a black hole. It has been deemed the “greatest mystery of commercial flight.” At this point, the only thing that remains of Flight 370 are a lot of questions.
Several years ago, my mother bought a toy helicopter at a yard sale for 25 cents. It was remote controlled, but difficult to maneuver, and the battery only lasted two minutes.
Still, every day my father tried to fly it, the cheap toy taking off in a crooked path and quickly crashing into the dog or the legs of the kitchen table, skidding sidelong across the linoleum. The sight of a man in his 50s refusing to put down a child’s plaything produced a lot of mixed conclusions in the household.
From the motivation that came from somewhere between finding a good Christmas present and ostensibly allowing my father to redeem his childhood, I bought him a model airplane. It was a Champ RTF, and although a beginner’s model, nevertheless the real deal.
It was bright yellow and sturdily built. The box had a young teenage boy in a checkered sweater holding it in his hand and smiling. The kid was irrefutably happy. This, I knew, was the plane for my father.
He wanted to wait until summer when I was home to fly it for the first time. I read the directions and learned how to charge the batteries. The lever went one way to steer it up and down and another to direct it right or left. Another stick controlled the speed.
After the first flight, the adjustments would have to be “trimmed” to make sure the controls flew the plane straight. I laughed at the bolded letters inside the manual that read, “If you panic or lose control during the flight, drop the handheld remote.”
One summer evening, after milking, we took the Champ RTF to the top of the hill and a field that was 40 acres across. Beyond that were woods and another valley. We leaned an old two-by-four on a cement block that would be the runway for the plane’s maiden voyage.
I handed the controls to my father. He waved me off – as is his habit of showing restraint when he is most excited. “You can have the first one,” he said. I was reluctant because it was his gift, but knew there was no point arguing.
The little yellow plane accelerated up the board and took off over the first cutting with a tinny buzzing sound. It gained altitude like any commercial jet, and in effect roared over the open land. Since the adjustments weren’t trimmed yet, however, it spun in a closed circle as it rose.
“Cool tricks,” my dad said.
I gave a nervous laugh.
I tried to adjust the wings like the manual said, but it seemed to have no effect. The plane continued to spin, and without my direction, climb higher.
“Wow, it can fly pretty far,” my father said.
I jammed the control lever one way, trying to curve the plane back towards us, and when that did nothing, jammed it the other way. I pressed the trim buttons on one side and then frantically the other. I tried to lower its elevation. The plane kept spinning, higher and further away from us.
“You should probably bring it back now,” my father said.
“I’m trying,” I said.
“Bring it back now,” he said.
He grabbed the controls and pushed down on levers. The plane was nearing the trees. He slammed the controls against his palm, wildly pressing buttons, and then thrust it back at me in panic.
I did the only thing I could think of: I dropped the controls in the grass.
The Champ RTF circled through the summer night, slowly, methodically. It grew higher in the sky and further from us, until it was over the forest and then only a small, spinning shadow. Eventually, there was no way to tell it apart from a real plane miles away or a bird drifting through the air. And then, as we stood there, it disappeared for good.
The search for Flight 370 was the largest and most expensive in history. They began in the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea, eventually expanding to remote stretches of the Indian Ocean. Currently, Australia has begun a $60 million project to scan the ocean floor of a 60,000 square kilometer area.
In a similar way, my father and I searched for the Champ RTF. We jumped into the pickup and coasted down the roads behind the woods, but admitted that it would take too much luck to find it in the ditch.
I walked through the forest, but already being dark, would have missed it if I passed by it. My father talked to the old man who owned the Christmas tree lot around there, and the latter promised to keep an eye out for it.
My father even called my uncle who lived a mile down the valley and asked – jokingly, but perhaps with some desperation – if there was a little yellow plane flying over his house. For weeks afterward, in silent moments, my father would turn to me and say out loud what he was thinking, which was always “Champ is gone, isn’t he?”
“Yes,” I would say. “Champ is gone.”
Looking back, we’re still miffed at what happened. Did the plane fly out of range of the receiver? Were the controls broken? Was it (and I gulp thinking) operator error?
The other part of the story is this: Because it was only a toy airplane, we laughed out loud. There was a moment of stunned silence as it disappeared out of view, and then we roared the hardest we had all summer.
For days the very thought of it would crack us up. It was a long-standing joke. Champ went from being a model airplane to being a moment, and perhaps proof that some mysteries occur even while you’re there to witness them. PDRyan Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.
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