By ALBERT DYER
Before I was old enough to drive a car, my dad put the keys to his airplane in my hand and said to me, “son, if you can afford the lessons and the gas, here is the plane to fly.” Wow! How is that for incentive to a young teen?
That father/son talk took place in the early 1970s and the airplane, N5261B, was a 1957 Mooney. During the mid-1960s my dad, with help, rebuilt the wood wing, built and installed the metal tail section and then had all new radios installed just before giving me the keys. It was now a modern “fly anywhere” capable airplane.
He noted that a person shouldn’t have to make an ILS approach with a single old “coffee grinder” radio.
My dad bought that Mooney around 1961. I suspect back then it was easier for the average working guy to buy an airplane that was only a few years old. These days, where I live, a similar type airplane about four years old would cost a person more than two new houses.
Anyway, in time, I soloed, earned private pilot privileges, an instrument rating and even met the girl who was to eventually become my wife in that old wood wing Mooney.
Almost 40 years and a few more airplanes have now passed. And still there is an airplane in the family. Only now, I own an airplane with my dad.
The airplane is an older Mooney Super 21 we purchased a few years ago and it’s based in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, at Jack Bolt Field (KEVB). Did I mention that I live outside the Chicago area, about 1,200 miles away?
I am proud to own an airplane with my dad, even though it is a long distance partnership for me. At the moment, I want my dad to have access to the airplane anytime he feels like flying.
For me, the airplane is just another reason to go home for multiple visits throughout the year. I get to fly with my dad and also have a set of wings ready to go visiting friends. Moreover, I know this will be the last airplane my dad will own as he understands his limits.
When I fly with my dad, I remember how I felt with the keys to N5261B in my hand. I hope, after my dad calls it a career as “pilot in command,” that I will still be able to say to him, “C’mon dad, let’s go flying” and an airplane will be waiting a few minutes away.
I might have to get checked out in a rental airplane if the Mooney is no longer at KEVB, but we are pilots, the grassroots type, always will be, so a simple airplane will be just fine for us to fly. Our joy is sharing the flying experience, not the type airplane we fly.
Within the first days of being home on one visit my dad asked that, if I had time before I left, would I take his friend Jim Speer flying. I told him that I would. “We have common interests,” my dad said.
However, the weather during this visit had not been very good. Not nearly as bad as what most of the country was experiencing, but not “nice” Florida weather either. Rain, high winds, and low ceilings dominated most of my days while home. I didn’t get to fly much this visit and I really wanted to go flying with my dad at least once more before I left for Chicago.
This was not the first time my dad made this request. And, I’ll admit, I had been a bit resistant to do this for my dad. I didn’t know Jim, had never met the guy. Truthfully, I was just being a bit selfish with my time and the few days of good weather. Now, this last evening home, as I began to pack, my dad asked once again if I had had a chance to take Jim flying.
“No,” I said. “The weather didn’t give me enough time. And, I’d rather fly with you if the weather is better tomorrow before I have to leave.”
“Jim is a good guy, a good friend — you should meet him and fly with him. He used to fly,” my dad argued.
The first week of 2014 began with a polar vortex blast affecting three quarters of the United States. Thousands of flights nationwide were cancelled due to horrible snow storms and intensely cold temperatures, which seemed to overwhelm and paralyze travel over roads and air. Accordingly, hundreds of flights were also cancelled to Chicago.
Checking the Southwest Airline website early in the morning for my departure flight from Orlando (MCO) to Chicago Midway (MDW) later that evening, the flight was still being posted as “on time” non-stop into MDW. Secretly, I was hoping my return flight, like hundreds of other flights into Chicago, would get cancelled before I had to leave today.
Jim and I met at the hangar mid-morning along with a 500-foot scattered ceiling, winds at 12 knots, gusting to 18 knots. After 20 minutes of talking with Jim beside the Mooney — after the introduction, current weather conditions, overview of the Mooney systems and expectations of today’s flight — I understood why my dad wanted me to meet Jim. I felt an instant connection.
We decided to head over to Epic Aviation for a cup of coffee and give the low ceilings a chance to lift a bit more. Epic Aviation, besides being an FBO, is also a flight school that mainly instructs international students. Very young, professional looking student pilots were busy preparing for the day’s flights and seemed not to even notice us enter their “office.” I was wearing shorts, a T-shirt and cap and Jim had on a short-sleeved shirt and blue jeans. We sorta didn’t fit in with the crowd, you might say.
“Jim, what type of flying did you do?” I asked as we sat down in soft, over-sized sofa chairs to wait for the weather to improve.
“I flew for the airlines.” Jim said. “I flew in the military too.”
Just that simple was his answer. Not boastful in any manner.
Surprised, I asked, “What did you fly in the military?”
“I flew during the Vietnam War. I was active duty in Germany flying the F-102 Delta Dagger. After leaving active duty I flew the F-84 Thunderjet in the FWA ANG, F-100 Super Sabre, F-4C and E Phantom,” Jim said. “I flew with TWA for a number of years too.”
“Wow!” was all I could say as I collected my lower jaw from the carpet.
Jim flew the delta wing fighters! I built plastic models of these fighters when I was a kid. And here is a guy who actually flew those fighters, when your life depended on knowing all the capabilities of the aircraft, sitting right across from me!
Briefly, Jim told me something pertinent about each fighter he flew during his military career as our coffee slowly found the bottom of the cup.
“I have never flown a Mooney,” Jim then said. “I’d like to feel comfortable flying it from the right seat, so, would it be ok if I flew it awhile?”
“Sure!” I said.
Time was becoming a factor if we were going to fly today, and now, after learning a little about the type of aircraft Jim flew in his younger days, I really wanted to see that my flight into Chicago had been cancelled. I had so many more questions that I wanted to ask. So, before leaving Epic I checked once more my flight number on Southwest’s website. An “on time” departure was still being posted.
Jim and I headed back to the hangar to go flying. Completing the pre-flight check we slid into the seats. A pilot doesn’t get in a Mooney, a pilot wears a Mooney. It’s a “well-fitting” cabin. I talked about the Mooney’s systems once more, the takeoff and landing procedures, along with important airspeeds before I started the engine.
Once airborne and away from the airport traffic area, I gave Jim the airplane so he could get comfortable with the way the Mooney handles. Offering the controls back to me a short time later feeling satisfied, Jim asked, “how about doing some pattern work while I watch? Then perhaps, could I do one?”
“That won’t be a problem,” I said without difficulty after watching the past 20 minutes of Jim’s flying.
The controllers working in the tower did a very nice job sequencing us in with the other traffic. I did three takeoffs and landings talking through every setting change or visual check I made as Jim observed. The winds were still at 12 knots, gusting to 18 knots and just off the nose a bit, so the landings were not a “gimmie.” I had to work a little for nice landings.
“Your airplane,” I said.
The next takeoff, pattern and landing were Jim’s. I didn’t know how long it had been since he had flown any type of airplane, but his years of experience were evident. Jim was comfortable as he worked his way around the pattern.
Securing the airplane back in the hangar after an hour of flying, I looked at Jim, saying, “That was really good work up there. I hope you and my dad can get together and do a lot of flying this year. I think it would be great for both of you.”
After thanking each other for the time shared, I stood by the open hangar doors and watched Jim leave. I thought of that day as I began to close the hangar doors — the day when my dad gave me the keys to that old wood wing Mooney. I smiled. Those keys have sure opened a lot of wonderful doors for me.