By Koutetsu An

Burger, Fries, and Contrails

“No.2 burger combo with large fries and a coke” 

J, my roommate and a best friend from college orders his usual and looks at me with the signature grin. J has unconvincing trust in this burger shop that their lettuce is fresher than other shops. I grab my own bag of dinner and we’re off to the local airport where we can see airplanes take off right in front of our eyes.

Eating burgers with J at an airport was our routine life. We both majored in Aviation, and just started our flight training in single engine airplanes. Even though we study about Aviation in classes and fly airplanes after school, we could not get enough of airplanes. This is why future pilots often spend our own free time talking about commercial airlines and drive up to airports on our days off. 

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Prescott Campus was located about 1.5 hrs from Sedona, Arizona and 2 hrs from Phoenix. 

Embry-Riddle was using PA-44 for Multi-Engine training.

An aircraft takes its position for takeoff on the runway. Few seconds later, the engines spool up and crosses my view right to left with a roaring sound. I was always fascinated by the airport full of aircraft activities. I then remembered, the same roaring sound of aircraft engines woke me up the same morning.
“Mornin!” J is staring at me in his pajamas sitting in front of his pc.
“What are you doing this early in the morning?” I was a bit irritated because I could have slept 5 minutes more if it weren’t for the jet engine in the room.
“I’m doing a flight from Chicago O’Hare to London.” That same grin stared at the computer screen which I see the illustrated blue skies and a mock up cockpit.
“Alright, have fun. I gotta go to class.” I sit up from the bed to get ready for my day full of Aviation lectures.
“Let’s get a burger after your classes tonight.” says the pilot in his pj.
“Sure” I waved at my roommate grabbing my backpack and earphones.

8 hours later and a full day of restless brain work from my classes, I returned to my dorm room just to find my best friend sitting still in front of his computer screen. 
“Don’t tell me you’re still flying that flight simulator…” I could not believe my eyes.
“Well, it takes 9 hours and 38 minutes from Chicago to London”
“…Can’t you just fast forward the time in between?”
“That just defeats the whole purpose of flying the sim. Wait, I have to descend soon. Then, we can grab a burger.” Then, he gives full attention to the joystick fingering the arrows on the keyboard. I realized at that moment that “lost for words” wasn’t just a saying because I lived to experience it that day.

My best friend and an airplane lover spent his entire day pretending to be a jet pilot. I can imagine a million other ways of spending his energy and time for a better cause, but that was J. Born with airplane in his hands, dreamt about becoming a pilot entire life. Here we are, sharing a small dorm room with 2 beds 2 desks with cockpit posters and a small fridge. I had my own dream to be a pilot but J was in a whole new level. Most of Aviation students are full of dreams just like J. Yet one reason or another, some drops out or never finish the flight training. The graduation rate is about 10% of the new class every year. 

We spent a lot of time at the airport, talking about flights we had that day or making jokes about the guys in the dorm. But it was the first time that I learned that J was interested in active air force.

“When I get my first job as a fighter pilot, I promise I’ll come visit Japan (where I’m originally from).” says J reaching for his fries.

“Great, that would be fun. But.. I didn’t know you were interested in fighters.”

“Yup, I’ll be the best one out there. My family would be proud of me. Wouldn’t you?”

“Well, honestly… I’m not such a fan of shooting something or engaging in war.”

“We’re able to have peace n quiet and enjoy these burgers because someone is out there fighting for our country. I want to be that someone protecting the people I love. You may not understand it because of the Japanese culture but I want to protect you, too.” I had my own theory of protecting my valuable things without the use of violence and I owe that to the country which decided not to own any active army after the WWII. Nevertheless, I’d root for my best friend’s dream to come true hoping that one day he may see the other side. 

Displayed Lockeed F104N at Embry-Riddle Prescott Campus.

Unforgettable sunset view from a training flight.

It was only a few days later that we saw a shocking news about terrorist attacks using commercial aircraft on the TV screen. All of flight training was suspended for a while after this news. Not a single aircraft was in the air across the entire country. 

“This is the reason why I’m going to flight for my country. No matter what you think, I believe it’s what I want.” says J staring into the TV. It seemed like I had lost my best friend somewhere in the surreal news event. I didn’t recognize the person in front of me. That grinning face didn’t exist anymore inside J.

15 years has past since our college days. J and I both had many turns along the way, but accomplished what we dreamed about in those days. I heard it’s been several years since A checked out as a fighter pilot. I had my own winding road and became a pilot in a charter world flying internationally. 

A and I met for the first time in a long time when we found out we’d be in the same city for work at the same time. We used to talk about our future and what kind of pilot we’d be back in the college days. Now we look back on those days and laugh. We shared our career paths until that point, and also talked about future plans. Just as we were leaving, J tells me that he’s decided to leave the air force. I was happy from bottom of my heart but simply just asked him the reason for his decision. 

” I may have fought for the people I love, but lost too many friends along the way.” I respected all of his choices and told him that I’d back up any of the choices he made.

“That’s good to hear. Let’s get a burger next time.” J had the same grin on his face as he walked away. With that grin, I felt like I got my best friend back at last. That same one I used to eat burgers with. 

It wasn’t a long time after that, that I heard a quick news in the FBO office. 

“President of the United States has claimed that he is retrieving army from the front line from Iraq.” Something finally settled within me that was bothering me for a long time.

There is still a hope for a world full of laughs that no one has to fight for. 

Blue Angeles at an Airshow