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Tucson Weekly No Fear Of Flying

Unlikely Hero Henry Kisor Puts The Joy Back In Flight

By Gregory McNamee

OCTOBER 6, 1997:  Flight of the Gin Fizz, by Henry Kisor (Basic Books). Cloth, $25.

I AM A deeply unenthusiastic flyer. I dislike turbulence, the aging craft that make up our commercial fleet these days, and, after a few minutes of forced conversation, many of the people I find myself sitting next to on those seemingly endless flights from one city to the next.

Who can enjoy flying when most of the news we read about aviation is so unremittingly bad? The paper on my desk has for weeks been reporting, for instance, how evil fortune has assailed the Russian MIR space station, its main computer having failed more than once and the craft itself having been sent spinning out of control after trying to dock with a cargo freighter.

Granted, that's hardly the stuff the average aviation consumer needs to worry about; but it's enough to make a person think twice about flying Aeroflot. More pressingly, the same paper has in the last few days reported that jet planes of various makes and sizes have fallen from the sky in Guam, New Jersey, Kazakhstan, and Nevada.

After reading Henry Kisor's exuberant, wonderfully crafted Flight of the Gin Fizz, I'm inclined to forget these greater and lesser tales of aviation terror. I'm now even tempted, if just a little, to board a plane with pleasant anticipation.

Kisor is an unlikely aviation hero, but a hero of sorts he is. A literate and literary journalist who writes and edits book reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times, Kisor faced a midlife crisis a few years ago. After reflection, he sized himself up as "short, fat, bald, and bespectacled" with "neither hope nor desire for advancement or adultery."

He is also deaf, a fact that made his decision to battle what his wife called "male menopause" by learning to fly small airplanes all that much more challenging. Having lost his balance organs and hearing to childhood meningitis, Kisor could neither use a radio nor easily execute some of the steeper horizon-dislocating turns that pilots must occasionally employ. Yet Kisor spent a year learning to fly all the same, earning his license after undergoing all the tests a hearing person must, and then some.

Certification in hand, Kisor then set out to retrace the route of Cal Rodgers, who crossed the country in 1911 in a plane called Vin Fiz, after a long-forgotten soft drink whose makers sponsored him. Rodgers had all the luck of a MIR cosmonaut; on a not untypical takeoff, his "airplane struck a chicken coop, killing several birds and smashing into flinders." He died in 1912 after crashing into the ocean off Santa Monica, California.

Rodgers, hailed nonetheless as a hero in papers across the country, was renowned for being taciturn. In truth, he, too, was deaf. Kisor's meditations on Rodgers's life, on the cultures of the hearing impaired and disabled, and on the shape of American life today form a substantial, and wholly satisfying, part of his book.

How Kisor reckons in flight with the fact of his deafness--he would never call it a handicap, and neither should any of his readers--forms another part of Flight of the Gin Fizz. He is, he hastens to tell us, not the only deaf pilot flying today; there are many others, and they face the largest opposition not from hearing pilots, who tend to treat anyone who can fly a plane as an equal, but from civilians--even those who boast liberal credentials. (There are also some 200 paraplegic pilots in the United States, Kisor writes, who have formed an organization called International Wheelchair Aviators.)

As Kisor guides us through the air over Illinois and Texas, Iowa and Arizona (he makes a memorable visit to Ryan Field, west of Tucson), we learn a great deal about many things--about overcoming obstacles and prejudice, about setting and meeting goals, about living responsibly while cultivating an adventurous spirit. We learn a great deal about flying, too, from how pilots approach weather systems and strange landing strips to how one should properly view an airplane "as a genuine instrument of liberation for the spirit."

Flying from coast to coast in a small aircraft taught Henry Kisor how to shed a few fears; that much is clear in his pages. His feat has also yielded a graceful and joyous book, one that should help many readers shed a few fears as well.

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