Most people have what it takes to become a pilot — some don’t
Several people in my southern hometown’s high school were interested in learning to fly.
Either the local Civil Air Patrol’s composite squadron — my chosen path for primary training — or the Reserve Officer Training Program (ROTC) provided relatively inexpensive and organized ways for interested teenagers and faculty to get hands-on experience with aviation.
Some who took advantage of those programs went on to have productive aviation careers. Some didn’t.
One guy, a year behind me in high school, seemed a bit geekier than average for those parts but the girls from his class in whom I was interested liked him. So I liked him, too.
We didn’t run in the same crowd, though, and if I hadn’t seen him with an instructor during his initial training, I would never have known he was taking flying lessons. After I graduated, I lost track.
At our 20-year reunion, he was there, all grown up. I reminded him of his early flight training and asked if he had earned his private. Sort of. Turned out he was an active-duty colonel in the U.S. Air Force, commanding some number of F-16 Fighting Falcons. He had flown combat over Iraq in 1991.
By that point in my life, I’d come to accept that there’s always someone with a bigger house, better-paying job, redder car, bigger swimming pool or cooler airplane. But that this geeky kid had turned into an F-16 jock was over the top, even for me. That we had gotten our initial flight training at the same airport didn’t help a bit. I expressed my admiration and continued to mingle with my former classmates, forced to contemplate the evils of gravity and time.
Another memorable flight student was the local high school’s assistant principal. He started flight training a year or so after I graduated.
There were two basic categories of students who knew the man well. One knew him through their involvement in after-school, extra-curricular activities: The yearbook, maybe the chess club. The other category knew him by way of his responsibility to ensure all students were in their scheduled classes.
It may surprise you to learn that, by my senior year in high school, I had evolved a rather casual attitude toward regular class attendance. One could say it clashed with the assistant principal’s, whose life mission appeared to be ensuring that regular attendance.
He was so serious about it that he often sat in his car in the parking lot to catch students without an appropriate reason to be off-campus. That would be me. One parking lot encounter was especially memorable, for both of us.
So we were acquainted when we ran into each other in the FBO office one day as I was returning from a flight. He was doing his primary training and I already had earned my private. He was suitably impressed I was ahead of him in flight training and never brought up the thing in the parking lot.
Some weeks later, I was back out at the airport and asked how his training was going. The reaction ranged from giggles to grimaces, along with shaking heads. The bottom line was he wasn’t training there any more and wouldn’t be in the foreseeable future. It took a private conversation with the flight instructor he and I shared to get the real story.
Seems his training had been proceeding well enough. He had soloed without much trouble, and was steadily accumulating flight time while preparing for the checkride. He’d also completed his dual cross-country. There were no real issues with his skills, but he was a little headstrong. Anti-authority we would call it today. Ironic for an assistant principal.
He had gotten far enough along in his training to set off on his long solo cross-country flight. By this time, he had graduated from the Cessna 150 I had started in and was flying a Cherokee 140. By all appearances, he would soon earn his private, but the long cross-country exposed his Achilles heel.
According to the instructor, his flight planning was fine. So was the weather, and there was nothing wrong with the Cherokee. So how he got lost and off-course was a mystery. It also was a mystery how he ended up over the adjacent state’s capital more than an hour off his course, or how he tuned the tower frequency and heard a controller yelling at him.
Instead of landing, of course, he pointed the Cherokee in a different direction, intending to return to home plate. Apparently, he got lost on the way back, too.
Whether by luck, skill, divine intervention or some combination, he managed to get the Cherokee and himself back to home plate. He was right over the airport. He had been aloft for five hours, without landing. Or refueling.
Presumably, he’d been switching tanks, though, so when the little Lycoming quit right over the airport, no double-secret fuel selector position or new combination of carb heat and throttle setting was going to restore power. At the end of his long cross-country, he had run out of fuel.
He still had to land, of course. Which he did, dead-stick, without damage to the airplane or injury to himself or anyone else. Did I mention that there was no real issue with his skills?
To the best of my knowledge and given the flight instructor’s determination, that was the last flight he made.
The assistant principal’s solo cross-country soon turned into one of the town’s little secrets, winked at and smiled about among those in the know.
Which pretty much is my reaction when I think about the parking lot encounter.