Flying little airplanes.
I’d wanted to learn to fly since I was a kid. Maybe every kid dreams about wanting to learn to fly, but I wanted it bad. I don’t know why, but it called to me.
My first airplane ride of any kind was in a Cherokee 6 into the Grand Canyon. When the pilot laid the airplane over on it’s wing and dropped into the canyon, I was done. I was riding right front seat and spent as much time looking at the instruments as I did at the scenery. It was just the coolest thing EVER. And from that day, I wanted to learn to fly.
My parents were not thrilled about it. My uncle Tom, for whom I was named, was killed flying little airplanes. He was dad’s big brother, and he sold Beechcraft airplanes in Van Nuys, California, between gigs as a trumpet player in LA. The story as it was told to me was that he was demonstrating slow-flight characteristics of a Bonanza to a potential customer when they were involved in a mid-air collision. Flying west into a setting sun, as I understand it, and the other airplane just didn’t see them. They tried to land on a golf course, and hit power lines coming down.
I never knew him. I was a year old when the accident occurred.
So when I was dating a girl who’s father was on the airport commission, and helping him re-build a Mooney Mite (like the one pictured here) in his basement, and complaining that my best friends dad was going to buy my friends flying lessons and there was no way my parents could afford it … he said “why don’t you go out to the airport and ask Ralph (the airport manager) what kind of deal you can work out”.
Barter had never occurred to me.
In the end, I wound up trading a days work at the airport for an hours’ free flying lesson. I pumped gas, mowed grass, talked on the radio, rented airplanes to people, and learned to fly over the course of a year.
Learning to fly little airplanes was different than anything else I’d tried to that point or since. And the hardest part was making that transition from flying to rolling … without bouncing. I’ll never forget the day Ralph said “taxi over to the building and let me out … then take her around the patch a couple of times”.
I can still see the runway as it rushed past, feeling the airplane come alive under my hands. It rotated at about 70, as I recall, because there was just not a lot of wing on the airplane. As I nudged back on the yoke, and felt her start to fly, the thought that went through my head was “well, I’m certainly committed now”.
I went 10 times around the patch that afternoon. I greased the first few landings, and then got cocky. At one point, I came in too high, too hot, and not completely under control. I landed the airplane about 20 feet above the runway, hit pretty hard, and bounced 40 feet back into the air. I had the presence of mind to firewall the throttle and get flying again. Shaken, I botched the next landing as well. I finally stuck one, and quit for the day.
I can’t tell you how much I felt like I’d accomplished when I got my license. The same instructor that had checked out my uncle Tom gave me my check ride. I really thought I’d busted the ride, but he signed my logbook, and gave me a license to fly.
I loved the freedom flying gave me, and the knowledge that, like scuba diving, it was something that set me apart. Made me different. something not everyone can do. I wish I could afford to fly again. I suppose if I took the money I’m spending on the boat every month and rented airplanes instead, I could.
I have stories to tell, and will. As much as marinas, airports are a gathering place for characters, curmudgeons, and liars. Since this is as much my personal journal as anything, why not record them here.
Watch this space …