Doug Robertson has been fascinated with airplanes as long as he can remember.
His Uncle Eldo flew Curtiss JN-4 “Jennys” in World War I. Nearly nine years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked, he spent the war years building every model of aircraft used in the war, both by the Allies and the Germans and Japanese. He also built many of the civilian models of the time, including the Stinson Gull-Wing SR-10 Reliant, the Piper J-3C Cub, and the Rearwin Speedster.
He’d then “fly” the airplanes, using a long rubber band that came with the models.
“Little did I fully realize at the time I was picking up the aerodynamics of flight and learning what made planes fly,” he said.
He remembers clearly the flight that convinced him he had to become a pilot.
A member of the U.S. Naval Air Reserve, he had flown in the Navy R4D-8, TBM-3 Avenger, the Beech SNB twin engine, and P2V-5F Neptune patrol bombers. But it was a flight in the US Navy version of the Douglas Super DC-3 that changed everything.
“I remember that flight as if it were yesterday,” he said. “We took off in miserable cold winter completely overcast conditions, climbed to about 8,000’ where we broke out on top of white nubby cloud tops that stretched as far as the eye could see just below the welcome blue sky. Immediately, the cabin warmed from the heat of the sun through the windows and I thought to myself ‘Wow, I’ve got to learn to fly!’ And, so I did.”
He eventually returned to his home state of Minnesota, where he had a non-salary invited position at the University of Minnesota College of Medical Sciences, which involved one afternoon a week working one on one with an ENT specialist candidate for several years.
“After three years there I decided it was time to take an evening course in Aviation Ground School offered by the university, and felt that was all the time I had for classes. It was a three hour class one Thursday night a week offered at the University of Minnesota Flight Facilities at Anoka County Airport (KANE). At the 9 p.m. break the first evening, I was approached by a fellow with a clipboard. He was a part-time flight instructor who wanted to sign me up for flying lessons. I initially demurred, stating I only had time for ground school. (I did have three jobs). He looked at me as if I were crazy, stating that ground school was part of learning to fly and was incomplete without the flying lessons. I am forever grateful to him for changing my mind on the spot, and my first lesson was with him that following Saturday morning.”
In 1966, the university had six nearly new Piper PA-28-140 all-metal low wing tricycle-gear Cherokees. It cost him $14 an hour wet with an instructor, $9 an hour wet solo. He earned his private pilot certificate for less than $1,000.
“Those were the days,” he said.
He also remembers his first flight lesson “as if it were yesterday.”
“We had done a thorough walk around guided preflight, including engine compartment check and fuel drains for water or contaminants. I shouted ‘Clear,’ started the engine, taxied to the warmup area short of Runway 36, steering with my feet, which was novel, went through the instruments scan and mag checks all at my flight instructor’s direction, then taxied into position and hold after a clearing turn for traffic. The instructor reached behind me and gave me a blind flying hood to put on. I was instructed to advance the throttle (his hand was on it also) and follow him through on the controls, wheel and rudder pedals, while watching the instruments. We took off and climbed while I could only see the panel ‘under the hood.’ What a revelation! I performed turns to headings at his direction, climbs and descents and held steady magnetic course headings. At least, I was supposed to. There were some shaky moments where I over-controlled and ‘chased’ the compass needle and altimeter, but overall I thought it went fairly well. My instructor thought I did well and was more calm than the average student. Credit my long hours in the Avengers and Neptunes for that.”
“Then, he had me take off the hood and asked me to take him back to the airport. I had absolutely no idea where we were, of course. He pointed out various landmarks and I found I was at pattern altitude at the northwest corner of the field. Another revelation! I then flew at his commands and entered downwind, turning base and final and made my first landing by the numbers on Runway 36, while being talked through all the steps. It was a terrific sensation, but that first piloting experience was mentally and physically tiring. I think that is normal because you are pretty keyed up and there is a certain amount of tension, whether revealed or not.”
The national average to earn a private certificate in 1966 was 62 hours, he noted.
“I could only fly an hour or two each week and took 68 hours to get my private in Minnesota weather. That included 22.15 hours of day solo and 7.3 hours of solo cross-country.”
“I soloed unexpectedly on a clear January day when the outside air temperature was -11°F below zero,” he continued. “My instructor had to huddle in a plowed-out snowbank niche while I made three full stop solo takeoffs and landings on Runway 27.”
It was some months later, on July 11, 1966, that he took his check ride and passed.
It was soon after that he moved to California for a job at the Naval Missile Center at Point Mugu near Oxnard.
“Point Mugu had a flying club with their aircraft based at Oxnard Airport (KOXR), which I joined immediately,” he recalled. “They had about 10 or 12 aircraft in the club, ranging from Cessna 140s, 150s, a 230, Piper Cherokee, a Navion, and a Beech Bonanza.”
He would use the flying club’s aircraft for personal flights, including visiting his mother’s relatives throughout California. While he sometimes flew a Cessna 150, his favorite to fly on these trips was the club’s Piper Cherokee.
He also flew the club’s planes for business, flying from Point Mugu to Monterey to the USN Graduate School to use some facilities there that Point Mugu did not have at that time.
“I apparently set a ‘first’ by submitting an official travel claim using a private aircraft that the Travel Office didn’t have a pay category for,” he remembered.
He ended up accepting the automobile mileage rate, as his flight followed along California’s Highway 101.
He flew with the club until April 1968, when some concerns about the airworthiness of the club’s aircraft led him to drop out of the club.
Constant travel with his work, including aviation research, followed for the next 29 years, not only around the U.S., but also in Europe, Asia, and many Pacific islands.
“So, continuing to fly became all commercial jet passenger travel, and I simply couldn’t keep current with private flying. But, I achieved a long-felt personal dream of private flight without a mishap,” he said.
Although he stopped private flying quite a while ago, at 86 Robertson is still a member of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and the Experimental Aircraft Association.
“I have a very extensive aircraft library with many Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft and aircraft-specific manuals of the few aircraft models I have flown. Also many, many aviation books, including US Civil Aircraft by ATC numbers. Now, as a hobby I take aviation copyrighted photos uploaded in Airport-Data.Com, including the only photos on the web of N240R, adventurer Steve Fossett’s last fatal ride.”