Climbing into an airplane with the intent of getting airborne is an exciting endeavor. Even for those fortunate enough to have been doing this for years, it’s still a thrill.
Yet our emotional response to flight isn’t always positive or uplifting. It’s those other reactions that really make this journey through an aeronautical life a memorable one.
I started flying as a passenger at four years old. I wasn’t alone, or course. I was accompanied by my older and far more mature brother. He was five. There is a wonderful photo in the family album of us wearing goofy striped sport jackets and short pants as we walk down the steps of an Eastern Airlines transport at Gainesville Regional Airport in north Florida. I’ve flown to that very spot in multiple GA airplanes, and even earned my instrument instructor ticket there.
KGNV is thick with memories for me.
The heart connects us to some aspect of our aeronautical experiences. Like a golfer with meager skills and consistently embarrassing scorecards, there is that occasional moment of brilliance that makes the struggles of the fairway well worth the effort.
And so my story begins.
My first instructional flight was on Aug. 2, 1988. Islip Long Island. N32559 was and still is a Piper Cherokee. It lives in New Hampshire now. I live in Florida. We may well never see each other again. But on that first day, I was intimidated, nervous. Even a bit scared.
I wanted to fly. I knew that much. But I also felt like I had to measure up to the old man, who flew B-747s for the biggest, most prestigious airline in the world. He’d flown fighters when I was a baby.
Now, I was about to launch off in a propeller-driven four banger that was a stone’s throw from my dad’s base of operation – John F. Kennedy International Airport.
The weather didn’t make things any easier. It was lousy. Special VFR lousy. But my instructor, an eastern European of roughly my same age, with a thick accent and a strong desire to get paid for a scheduled lesson, called the tower, asked for permission to launch, and off we went. He walked me through the four fundamentals while I wondered where the hell we were and how anyone could navigate with such limited visibility.
It was not an auspicious start to my aviation career. In the first two months of my life as a fledgling pilot I flew three different types, with two different flight instructors, in two different states, and consistently felt about a day and a half behind the airplane.
I persisted and eventually reached my goal. Yay.
More often than not I write about people. For it’s people who fascinate and motivate me.
The machinery of aviation is often an afterthought. But not always. Some of that machinery is special.
N1927Z is a 1963 Cessna 150 straight-tail, fast-back and the first airplane I ever owned. It was a sad, long-ignored hangar queen when I found her. A few thousand dollars later it was a perfectly serviceable airplane that went to work teaching others to fly, hopefully with a little more style and grace than I displayed early on.
It’s still doing that work, although with a new owner and new students. I see it often and hear the call-sign over my radio from time to time. When I do it brings a smile to my face and a lift to my spirit. I’ve found that even an old airframe that was on the verge of being a discarded remnant of another time can be rejuvenated and find a new life.
Much like people, airplanes deserve a second chance. If loved and cared for they can do amazing things. That’s as true for airplanes as it is for their owners and operators.
Multi-engine airplanes threw me a curve during our early experiences together, too. As did taildraggers. Syncing up those props wasn’t easy in the beginning, and I’m perfectly comfortable telling you that my early pattern work in taildraggers included takeoff rolls and after landing rollouts that were less than arrow straight and considerably less comfortable than an afternoon nap in an easy chair.
Last week I flew a taildragger of a twin off over the horizon for the last time. Maybe not the last time I’ll ever fly a taildragging twin, but certainly the last time I’ll fly that one.
N101SB is a minor legend in my life. My dad built it with his friends Bob and Nick. It’s an AirCam. I’ve written about it before because it was my great pleasure and a true honor to fly it. My dad never got the chance. Having labored for years to bring it to life, he died before he got the chance to pilot it.
Over the year I owned and flew Big Green, I used it to introduce a wide variety of people to general aviation. Flying low and slow over the Green Swamp, perusing LEGOLAND from a thousand feet over Lake Eloise, or slipping into a green grass runway as the sun sets over the horizon – those are all things that tend to make an impression. A positive one.
It’s the kind of experience that suggests maybe this aviation thing is a bit more life-enriching than the average non-pilot might have realized.
The AirCam my dad built has gone to a new owner now, but the memories it provided me and my passengers will linger. As will the legacy of the guy who inspired me to learn to fly. Troubled as our relationship was, Captain Stu Beckett looms large in my psyche and frequently finds his way into my thoughts.
It was aviation that brought us together, literally and figuratively. Our hellos were often awkward, but this last goodbye has been somber.
Still, it is aviation that keeps us connected – whenever I fly, no matter what I fly, or where I fly it.