For those of us who fly, the appeal of being airborne energizes us and primes the pump that pushes us through ground school, flight training, and testing.
Should you make a career out of what most people think of as a rich man’s hobby, that education and testing never stops.
My interest in aviation started very young. I was profoundly influenced by a mythic character of almost super-human proportions.
In the early days of the space race, when astronauts were in the press on an almost daily basis, when speed was everything, when flying across the ocean in a jet-powered machine that could climb seven miles up, cruise at hundreds of miles per hour, while a pretty young lady in a sharp suit would serve drinks, I was fascinated by a C-119 pilot who owned the house I lived in.
As a young tyke, my father was the only pilot I knew and interacted with on a regular basis. In the eyes of a small, rambunctious boy with a fertile imagination, he was a god (small g).
While my friend’s fathers drove heavy equipment at a construction site, or an oil truck, or worked in the insurance industry, my dad would slide his 6 foot 4 inch frame into a gray/green flight suit covered in more zippers than seemed possible, motor off to Westover Air Force Base, and fly a big, noisy machine through the skies of New England.
To be honest, I know almost nothing about my dad’s flight training experiences. I don’t know where he learned to fly, or what he flew early on, or how he ended up in Arizona flying F-86s on a mission the pilots euphemistically called the Mexican Border Patrol out of Williams Air Force Base. That field is now known as Phoenix-Mesa Gateway.
I’ve only ever met one other pilot who was based there during those years. Funnily enough, he was standing on the float of an Aviat Husky just a couple miles from my house in central Florida. His name is Richard Bach, but that’s a whole other story.
I do know how my dad was introduced to flying, however. It was a two-fold experience and it fascinates me.
When he was a young boy in Daytona Beach, Florida, my dad used to cross the street with his mother, the inimitable Queenie Bell Beckett, so she could play cards with her neighbor, Mrs. Alison. Her son, John, was a pilot with the U.S. Army based in China. He was one of the regular Army pilots who replaced the Flying Tigers. John was something of a legend in his own right.
My dad played with a pot metal P-40 John had sent home to his mother. That began the dream of flight for my old man. A little boy playing on the living room floor can have some pretty powerful dreams.
Incidentally, I got to talk to John Alison once, late in his life. He told me that pot metal P-40 was broken when he got back stateside. I think I know who might have been at fault, but I’m not saying.
The second major event that turned my dad’s eyes skyward on a permanent basis came when he was 10 years old. My grandfather was a foreman at the St. Petersburg Times. He had a co-worker who owned an Ercoupe.
Hearing that my dad was interested in airplanes, he offered a ride, my grandfather accepted, and my dad got his first taste of what Tampa Bay looks like from on high in 1945.
By 1969 the Beatles had affected the entire western world, Neil Armstrong became a historic figure, and my dad was the most famous person I’d ever met. As a Pan Am pilot, he was one of the original jet-setters. New York, London, Paris, Rome, Tokyo, Rio De Janeiro — these were the places my dad spent half his time.
Newspaper reporters came to our house to write about this guy from the suburbs who traveled the globe as easily as most of us go to the grocery store.
When President Nixon flew to China, my dad was in the cockpit of a plane carrying Walter Cronkite, Barbara Walters, and a slew of others notables.
He was part of a crew that set a round the world speed record in a B-747SP (similar to the one pictured above), over the North and South poles.
And who signed the certificate from the Federation Aeronautique International attesting to that feat? John Alison, the former Army pilot and son of my grandmother’s card playing partner.
A pot metal P-40 and a quick ride in an Ercoupe started all that. From small things, big things truly do come.
I’m one of four siblings, and I am the only one of us who flies. I made aviation my career. But I have never been in an airplane with my dad.
Like far too many fathers and sons, ours has been a troubled relationship. The career officer didn’t care for having a long-haired guitar playing son with him in public. And the obstinate teenager didn’t react well to the constraints of a man who ruled every situation with the deliberate resolve of a former fighter pilot. We never got past that.
Captain Stu Beckett died Saturday night following an unfortunate accident in his workshop. He never went to the hospital, choosing instead to continue with his chores and hobbies until it was far too late to get him the help he needed.
We will never resolve the issues that kept us apart, and I will never get the chance to fly with the man who showed me how to fall in love with the adventure of flight.
Far too many fathers and sons struggle with a similar situation. We know life is a brief, wonderful gift that ends far too soon, but we don’t conduct ourselves as if we know that.
I lived with and was profoundly influenced by a super-hero of a pilot who I barely knew.
If you’re in a similar situation, brace for impact. It’s coming for you one day. Or better yet, change course. It may be hard. Heck, it may be impossible. But it’s worth the attempt.
I wish you well.