In conversation I’ve often referred to my Dad as “The Captain.”
Rank mattered to him and he worked hard for much of his life to attain that status. As a young guy he flew F-86s for the US Air Force. They said he was a captain and all the rest of us agreed.
Later he transitioned to the C-119, the so-called Flying Boxcar. In 1964 Pan American picked him up as a new engineer. Six months later he was flying right seat. It wasn’t long until he moved a few feet to the left and once again earned the title “Captain.”
I assumed this is how everyone saw my Dad. My siblings did. My Mom did. Pretty much all our friends and extended family members thought of him as a pilot first and foremost. That’s what he did. It’s who he was.
A while back Dad went on to whatever comes after being here on Earth. My siblings and I stood in a receiving line at the Glastonbury Funeral Home where we greeted a long line of people Dad had interacted with, many of whom I’d never met.
It was an interesting group of folks. A girl who works the counter at the local McDonalds came by, because my dad ate lunch there every day and she wanted to say goodbye. A former president of Travelers Insurance came, too. So did a few local and state level politicians. As I say, an interesting group of folks.
The grandchildren had worked with my mom to select a series of photos from my Dad’s life to decorate the room.
There was evidence of his flight to China in 1972. He was one of the pilots who flew the press when Nixon visited. There was a letter from former President Gerald Ford congratulating him on breaking the round-the-world speed record over the poles, which he did in a B-747SP.
And, of course, there was a large framed photo of a beaming 21-year-old fighter pilot, his helmet securely in place, with 60 years of future laying out before. His excitement and enthusiasm for the journey was obvious for anyone to see.
As the line of mourners passed by those photos, making their way toward my siblings and me, they learned something completely new about my Dad. He was a pilot. They had no idea.
For the last 20 years of my Dad’s life he worked with Habitat for Humanity on a regular basis. His specialty was rehabbing houses in downtown Hartford, Connecticut. Houses that were abandoned and run-down. Houses that were reborn, rebuilt, and now inhabited by families.
“I thought he was a carpenter,” they said. We heard that refrain over and over again. Friends he’d known for two decades were completely unaware “The Captain” had traveled the world, strafed the desert floor of Arizona and Nevada, looked down on the North and South Poles, and carried untold hundreds of thousands of people from here to there and back again in Pan American level comfort aboard B-707s, L-1011s, and B-747s.
He just never told them. Not a word. When he was done, he was done, and he apparently never spoke about his life in the air to folks outside our little network of friends.
My Dad rarely took anyone flying, either. My brother flew with him once or twice, in a rented C-172 out of Brainard Airport in Hartford. I was completely unaware of that until years later.
My Dad and I never flew together. Not once. He never invited me to fly with him, and he declined whenever I invited him to fly with me. I have no idea why that is.
While my Dad had a stellar career in aviation, his affection for aviation didn’t translate well to others. I’m sure he was a great mentor to the first officers sitting to his right, but outside the cockpit he rarely encouraged anyone to follow in his footsteps.
I have no idea why that’s the case. It seems entirely foreign to me to love something so much yet keep it almost entirely to yourself.
My Dad was locally cool. That’s undeniable. The reception line at his wake was four hours long, after all. That’s pretty impressive. But his impact on aviation, his great passion, is almost nil.
That saddens me. He had a lot of great stories to share, I’m sure. All gone now. Lost to the mists of time and space.
My Dad was not an Internet kind of guy. In fairness, the Internet wasn’t really in the public consciousness when he was actively flying. But even when it came along in full force, he didn’t use it to tell his story or share his enthusiasm for aviation.
Social media gives pilots like us — you and me — the ability to share our adventures, our passion, our experiences, and even some worthwhile cautions others might benefit from. We can stoke the fire in the belly of Rusty Pilots, and encourage the participation of wannabe pilots who haven’t taken the plunge yet. We can make friends with pilot in far off places, some of whom we’ll never actually meet. But we can still have fun, share our stories, and encourage the participation of others by using the digital world to our advantage.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re piloting a transport category turbine powered beast from one continent to another, or poking along at 60 knots and 500′ AGL in a J-3 Cub. Flying is flying. And flying is as close to actual magic as humans will ever get.
Tell your story. Share your excitement for what you do, whether it’s your career or just a hobby. Plot a course for adventure and take a few virtual passengers along whenever you can.
Get Internet famous and spread the good word about general aviation as you do it. You’ve got a phone within arm’s reach right now that can get you started.
Let’s do this.