When each of us begins our journey in the cockpit, we find fairly quickly that our instructor has a goal. Maybe we share that goal from Day 1, and maybe we don’t. It makes little difference.
The CFI knows that to become a real pilot — to truly manage the controls of a flying machine as Pilot in Control — we’re going to have to solo.
Some of us are thrilled when the day comes. Me? As I recall I was initially overcome by a wave of anxiety. When my CFI closed the door leaving me alone in the cockpit, I truly wondered if he knew what he was doing. I taxied away on Alpha at Hartford-Brainard Airport (KHFD) in Connecticut, headed for the hold short line at Runway 2, wondering what I’d gotten myself into.
I was excited, but nervous. It wasn’t that I felt I had to prove myself to my CFI, it was more that I felt I had to prove myself to myself. Which was true. My CFI would be safely on the ground as I pointed the nose of N29216 skyward.
The PA-28-161 was a wonderful machine. I’d come to be very comfortable in her. Yet, without my instructor, Keir Johnson, sitting in the right seat, the cockpit felt huge. Auditorium-like. I freely admit crossing the hold short line to venture out onto the runway was intimidating.
About 20 seconds after rotation that sense of anxiety and doubt was replaced by absolute euphoria. I vividly remember laughing. All by myself, scanning the sky, scanning a cockpit that was empty except for me. I was elated.
It was when I crossed midfield on downwind that my mood shifted again. I got focused. Really focused. There were tasks to perform. Procedures to follow. Running the pre-landing checklist on my own for the first time, without anyone to back me up, gave me a big ol’ kick in the butt. Pushing the button to talk to the tower without anyone there to correct my errors kept my attention. Do this. Do it right. First try.
I did. One touch and go later, I did it again. My third landing was a full stop. Keir was back at the FBO when I pulled in, shut down, and climbed out of the airplane. It was Oct. 26, 1988, when I put that milestone behind me. Satisfied with my performance, I had no idea how much more learning, training, practicing, and time-building was to come.
I also had no idea how small the world would become. Not small in a negative way. Small in the sense that so much of it is available to me now. Small enough that I would meet so many amazing people in such peculiar circumstances and experience such oddities of time and distance that it would entertain me for a lifetime.
A few years ago I found myself at Spruce Creek, a fly-in community that is truly unparalleled in its appeal to an aero-geek like me. I found myself in the office of a realtor. An office that has a hangar attached to it. The realtor took me to the hangar to admire the three airplanes he and his wife kept there. The centerpiece was a beautiful Waco biplane. He shared stories of his adventures in that airplane. Stories that were well worth listening to.
Off to one side of the hangar was a J-3 Cub. I noted the tail number was only six numbers away from the J-3 I owned at the time. We checked the serial number and found it was only five numbers ahead of mine in the chronology.
At some point this airplane and mine had been on the same shop floor being assembled, tested, and delivered to their owners. Now, here they were 75 years later, living less than 50 miles apart, hundreds of miles away from the factory where they’d been built. They’d both traveled the country, seen the sights, and been in the possession of many owners.
Imagine how many lives those two little flivvers had enriched over the years. They’re still doing it, too. As they will continue to into the next century, I’m sure.
Yes, it is a small, small world.
On March 14, 2020, I presided over an Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) Rusty Pilot seminar in Kissimmee, Florida. I suspect it will be the last one I do for a bit, but it was a good one, so I’ll remember it fondly.
During the break, half-way through the presentation, attendees got up to stretch their legs, as they do. Others toddled off to the restroom, while a small cluster came to the front of the hangar to chat with me. That’s pretty much the norm for these things.
While talking to two men, Dave and Bruce, I noticed one kept looking at the other with a quizzical expression. They appeared to be about 20 years apart in age, with Bruce being the elder of the two. Both are in more or less the same boat. They used to fly, but they’ve fallen out of currency. So, our conversation focused largely on the joy of past experiences and the allure of their aspirations for the future.
Apropos of nothing, Dave interjected to ask Bruce, “Were you in the Navy?”
Bruce nodded and agreed that he had been.
Dave followed up, “Where you stationed at…”
And that was it. Two men who had known each other decades ago, far from central Florida, had curiously come together in the same hangar, to resolve the same issue, with a remarkably similar drive to get back into the air.
It is a small, small world indeed.
After we solo and earn our tickets, most of us put some effort into finding flying partners. Folks we like and can enjoy the ride with and maybe even split the cost.
Now, in this odd time of social distancing, germaphobia for all, and work-from-home-itis, perhaps it’s a good time to review how small our world is. Reconnect with long forgotten aircraft, pilots, classmates, and friends. The Internet remains open, for now. The search isn’t that hard. The reconnection is often rewarding.
It’s a more efficient method than hoping you might stumble upon your long lost whatever in a hangar somewhere. Although, that happens too, as you know.
As for myself, I wonder where Keir Johnson is these days? I guess it’s time to find the answer to that question.