One of my first memories is of being a 3 year old standing in the doorway of the master bedroom of my parent’s home in East Hartford, Connecticut. My newborn sister, Suzann, was in my mother’s arms.
My dad stood by the closet, sliding his impossibly slender, 6 foot 4 inch frame into a flight suit festooned with more zippers and pockets than seemed possible. He was 26 years old.
Little boys tend to idealize and idolize their fathers. I certainly did. Not only was my dad tall and athletic, but he was also a U.S. Air Force pilot.
On the wall of our home was a certificate establishing his membership in the Mach Busters Club, issued by executives of North American Aircraft. While I was learning to walk, he was blasting through the skies of the American southwest in an F-86 Sabre Jet.
From my perspective it appeared my dad was Buck Rogers in the flesh. The reaction of friends, family, and neighbors to his chosen profession only served to support that belief.
When he went to work for Pan Am, flying Boeing 707s and 747s out of New York for points all over the globe, newspaper reporters started showing up at our house to take pictures of and write stories about the local resident who went to Europe and Africa as routinely as most of our neighbors motored across the Bulkeley Bridge into Hartford.
Hero worship rarely works out well, and it certainly didn’t between my father and me. He never understood the allure of long hair, casual dress, and why I would choose to spend my younger years as a professional musician.
For my part, I retreated and eventually rebelled against his rigid military ways.I was in my 20s when I began flying, about the same age he’d been when I first understood what he did and began to idolize him. But we didn’t bond over our mutual interest in flight. In fact, I was two years into my aeronautical adventures when a mutual friend told him I was putting about in piston driven aircraft.
We didn’t have the sort of relationship that fostered casual conversation or the sharing of personal ambitions.
My dad was not a fan of recreational flying. In fact, on more than one occasion he expressed open disdain for private pilots. It was his opinion we should not be allowed to fly at all.
Certainly he wasn’t the first airline pilot to express frustration with recreational pilots straying into his flight path or clogging up the airspace on a sunny morning.
That attitude didn’t do much to bring us closer together, however, what with me being a low-time, inexperienced recreational pilot who felt very sensitive to the antipathy of the most experienced captain I knew.
All good things come to an end, including the careers of pilots with four bars on their shoulders. They may have driven multi-engine turbine powered transports over every continent on the globe, but when the rule book says you’ve got to go…you’ve got to go.
With the end of his career in sight, my dad warmed to the idea of general aviation and recreational flying. He considered what sort of flying he’d like to do in retirement and which machine he might want to do it in.
In the end he chose the AirCam, an experimental amateur built twin that would provide him the opportunity to fly low and slow down the Connecticut River Valley, enjoying the freedom of flight in a way his F-86 and B-747 never could.
He bought the kit and commenced to build the airplane with his friend Bob, staging their construction out of the Bradley Air Museum, where he was a volunteer. After years of diligent work, they finished it in October 2016. The FAA signed off the project and issued an airworthiness certificate.
Spring of 2017 was to be the beginning of a momentous adventure. But not for my dad. Following an accident in his workshop at home, he died in January. He never flew the airplane he and his friends labored over and loved so much.
Today, and I mean literally, today, N101SB is preparing to depart Connecticut for its new home in central Florida. Being the only other member of the family with aeronautical leanings, it has become my airplane, and it carries a considerable quantity of emotional baggage that doesn’t show up on the weight and balance sheet.
My father and I never flew together. Not once. Since his funeral I’ve come to find he took a number of my boyhood friends for their first flight. He even gave my brother flying lessons for a time. I had no idea. By the time I was 14 we’d drifted too far apart and never came together again. When he died we hadn’t spoken in years.
Family can be hard.
The airplane is a machine. Although it is a profoundly important application of multiple technologies that have transformed the modern world, it is still just a machine.
Yet this particular airplane, this green and gold AirCam, is far more than that. At least from my perspective. It allows my dad and I to connect, at long last, in a way we never did during his lifetime.
I will be the one who gets to bring his dream to fruition. But you can bet I will be thinking of my dad when I do, and the rivets he pulled, the fabric he applied, the instrumentation he chose and installed.
It is just a machine, but the emotional weight of this machine is immense.
Aircraft owners often joke about merely being the caretakers of the machines they own. Their role is to preserve and protect it for the benefit of those owners yet to come.
That’s certainly the case for me, but I will also be preserving and protecting it on behalf of the original owner, the builder, my dad. And while I often think of my dad when I fly, and wonder if he would have thought I was good with the stick and rudders, I suspect I will have him with me every time I climb aboard the airplane he had the greatest sentimental investment in. The one he wanted to fly so badly. The one he ultimately built for his son, even if he didn’t know it.
Thanks dad. I’ll do my best to make you proud. It is, after all, your airplane. I’m just the guy who is lucky enough to fly it for a while.