CHESTER -- As a youngster in State College, Penn., Walter Striedieck used to watch the big red Stetson Reliant drop off and pick up the airmail.
The plane might as well have been a space shuttle flying to the moon for all the excitement it stirred in young Walter as he watched the All American Aviation plane drop and then pick up the bag of mail with a big hook extended from its underbelly. The accuracy with which the pilot, who was considered a hero to Walter and his friends, was able to hoist the bag off of the ground with the plane never ceased to amaze him, and before long he would help set up the mail bags for pick up.
However, Walter's "first inkling of the intoxication of flight" was at the 1945 Michigan airshow when he saw four P51 fighters flying overhead. That was also the day of his first flight. Walter remembers he "cried most of the flight then emerged from the small, single engine airplane with a smile and uttered the never-to-be-forgotten claim ... ‘Boy, that was fun.'"
A fever was born in Walter at the ripe age of 5 and he yearned to take to the heights.
Walter's older brother got a plane first and Walter began flying with him. He considered getting his pilot license but didn't trust himself to withstand the constant and sometimes turbulent motion that flying presented. He would sometimes become nauseous and this kept him from pursuing his dream of flying for a few years. However, when Walter began flying in a glider, his nausea went away.
Flying in a glider is like flying in the tiny cockpit of a balsa-wood plane. The glider is long with an even longer wingspan; and slim, with a cockpit that just barely fits the pilot and a guest. The glider does not have a motor and is towed toward the sky by another plane with a rope the thickness of one's thumb and then released with a shaky dip. The glider stays up as it rides the updraft of air bestowed by wind pushing toward mountain ranges and rising up. As long as the wind is right, a glider could stay in the air for hours and reach altitudes of 30,000 feet. Once the glider has been released from it's tow plane, a sense of peace floods those within as the sounds of the tow plane's engine fades into the distance and a quiet calm takes over. Only lacking the wind lapping one's face and the posture of flight, the rider begins to feel like a bird, gazing down on mountains, rivers, roads and cars the size of a child's toy.
Walter took lessons in State College and obtained both his pilot and glider license in 1979 and maintained them for years in the states and throughout the 10 years he spent in Germany, where he moved for work. He continued to fly as a hobby in Germany and built his own airplane while there.
One of Walter's most memorable moments in flying was when he ferried three single seat planes from Tucson, Ariz., to Berlin, Germany.
"(The) 14 hour flight from Goose Bay, Labrador, to Rekjavic, Iceland, was quite memorable as I flew into Iceland looking upon a flotilla of icebergs in a halo of turquoise."
Another crowning glory for Walter was when he reenacted Charles Lindbergh's flight into the Hartness State Airport in Springfield, Vt., to commemorate the 85th anniversary of his cross-country tour that celebrated his trans-Atlantic flight. He had invited Lindbergh's daughter, Reeve, to the event and she accepted. Walter also took her for her first-ever glider ride, something that surprised Walter considering how captivated both of her parents were by the engine-less planes.
Walter's glider is named the "Spirit of Anne Morrow Lindbergh" he says because she was more of an avid glider flyer than her husband.
These days you'll find Walter in the air almost as often as on the ground. He retired in 1998 and spends his days flying his glider or his single seat Piper Pawnee out of the Hartness State Airport in Springfield. The Pawnee is a former crop duster "preferred by glider people because it is slow, stable, and powerful with a 250 horsepower engine." Walter shares ownership of the glider, which costs between $60,000-$70,000, and owns the Piper Pawnee outright.
When he retired he thought that taking aerial photos would be a good way to ensure he'd keep flying and he began taking photos out of a helicopter before he bought his plane. He started his business by going door to door and trying to sell photographs that he'd taken of people's houses, pawning his wares like a gypsy. His business has grown since then and now he runs Above All Aerophoto, a name that gives credence to All American Aviation, the pioneers of Walter's love of flying.
Walter also teaches a week long summer camp for local kids -- including many from Windham County -- that is sponsored by the Federal Aviation Administration that is called ACE which stands for Aviation Career Education. The kids, who are usually between 12-15 years old, do lots of fun activities like taking glider and powered plane flights and flying in a P51 Mustang and a corporate jet. The campers also enjoy a trip to the Lebanon, N.H., airport where they get to see the FAA controllers in operation and have rocket-flying and paper airplane days on campus at the Springfield Airport.
Flying has captured Walter deeply as if, when he has a really good flight, he were "touching the face of God." The words come from the poem titled "High Flight" by John Gilespie Magee and are words he quotes often after having a particularly breathtaking journey through the heavens:
"Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, -- and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of -- wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air....
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew --
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
- Put out my hand, and touched the face of God."