Evolution of a Dream
Early Love Is Born
My earliest memories revolve around airplanes and flying. I have an unreserved and unwavering love for them both, a love nurtured and carefully tended for my entire life. My father was an amateur pilot who had many hours of flight time. The abiding magic of airplanes and flying dug deep into my psyche and I retain that fascination to this very day. The one thing that bonded my father and me throughout our years together was airplanes and flight. He filled my head with stories of his own heroes the dashing and brave pilots of World War Two. My dad was pre-teen in those wartime years, and here were men larger than life could ever offer. Men who threw themselves and their war machines across the skies of Europe and the Asian sphere, placing themselves in harm’s way to defeat the villainous Axis. I was supplied with ample reading material on The Flying Tigers of China, the Marine aces Dick Bong (who once looped the Golden Gate bridge then flew at low-level Market Street in San Francisco) and “Pappy” Boyington of the Black Sheep Squadron He started taking me to the local airport with him from a young age, where that near-obsession soaked into my bones and permeate my soul. I built dozens of models as I got a bit older, all planes from that war, the last
good war. I had the P-51 Mustang, the P-40 Tomahawk, the F6F Hellcat, the F4U Corsair, the P-38 Lightning and others. Those were my favorite Allied planes. I also built models of the German JU 87 Stuka and the Messerschmitt Bf109. Every one of them a great machine each a work of art to fire a boy’s imagination. Heck, wedrove to the nearest metropolitan airport just to watch the airliners come and go, parking at the end of the active runway so they fly directly overhead seeming low enough to touch. Even that exhilarated me.
Early Love Is Nurtured
In the Sixties, private aviation was still fascinating to a great many people; cars would line up along the highway that ran parallel to the main runway and watch the locals take off and land for the entire Sunday afternoon. Sometimes, there would be wonderful surprises such as when someone skydived onto the field or one of the gliders from an airport about forty miles to the west might touch down and need a tow to get aloft. The airport operator had an interest in helicopters, made repairs on itinerant choppers; he would often get out his gyrocopter and fly up and down the runway. One of the other pilots served as traffic control from the single-wide trailer that housed the office. On the walls of that trailer were displayed the shirttails of anyone who had soloed. That was the tradition then, to cut off the tail of the shirt worn while taking your first solo flight, write on it the name and date of that event. I felt privileged because I had access inside that fence that kept the regular people from mixing with the men and machines there. I was allowed to stand around the bullshit sessions, absorbing the rough humor of men, the cussing, and the talk of airplanes and flying. Pilots commonly use their hands a lot to demonstrate the motions of planes when talking about the machine, its capabilities, plus any aberrations a particular plane may have exhibited. I was mesmerized, I could not get enough of that stuff and so I continued to hang out at the airport.
Early Love fixed In Place
As I grew into my teens, there were many opportunities to hitch a ride with whoever was going up that day. Usually, once the pilot gained his planned altitude, he would allow me to take the controls and make some gentle maneuvers such as a slow turn or circling above our house. Not once did I see anybody from the air. But there was a heavy dose of magic in looking at the ground from over a thousand feet in the air. It is like the best map in the world and probably where my fascination and ability with maps derives from. Maps were extremely important even if you stayed in the local area, but more so when going cross country. Imagine fixing the real world below you with the static image on a handheld map. Unbridled joy for me.
At that time, several of the men who frequented the airport had flown for some portion of the Second World War and these were the guys I made sure to be around the most. On a bright Fall day, one of these guys, Buck Phillips, was putting a new plane that the Civil Air Patrol had purchased. It was designated
as a Citabria and had fuel injection which made it capable of doing aerobatics. I had been accompanying my dad and grandfather to airshows all over North and South Carolina and developed into a fan of aerobatic artists like Zack Taylor and Bevo Howard.
That day, Buck took a local pilot for a ride, one who had not been old enough to fly during the war, Ralph Adams. They stayed up for about thirty minutes, but when they landed, Ralph had a distinct greenish tint, not having the stomach for trick flying.
The rest of the crowd hanging around gave him a hard time, “What’s the matter, Ralph?” , “A little rough up there?”
“ If you think it’s so easy, let’s see you do it!” he barked back.
“ I wanna go!” I piped up. I’d have begged with no shame for a ride.
Begging was not required and I eagerly walked, nearly ran over to the plane, got strapped in behind Buck (the Citabria was a tandem two-seater, one person behind the other), and we took off. He sort of circled area until we were a couple of thousand feet up.
“Ready?” he asked over his right shoulder, and I responded, “Yessir!”. The horizon began to spin around as Buck went into a barrel roll, nosed the plane over so that we going nearly straight down and spinning clockwise. I laughed with delight as he pulled the plane out of a dive and went directly into a loop. I have never encountered an amusement park ride that offered even a smidgen of the thrills I got that afternoon! We proceeded to do snap rolls, more loops and spinning dive where he let me have the controls and talked me through it. I loved that man then and forever after that.
Landing a bit later, the guys gathered round to see how I did.
“He did fine, didn’t want to come down” Buck informed the crowd. This brought more kidding on Ralph who hadn’t left, yet; that did it for him and he left with a healthy curse. I was a willing prisoner of flying to a deeper extent than ever before.
A Dream Realized
I joined the AirForce straight out of high school as quickly as possible. Just over a month after graduation, I was spending an afternoon scrubbing the dorm floor with a toothbrush along with the rest of my fellow airmen. That would not have been so bad if I hadn’t remembered that my friends at home were going to see the Rolling Stones in concert that night! Oh, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune!
That is the tenor of early days in uniform, breaking the individual to the team attitude and service to a higher authority. That was only until we’d learned whatever career field assigned to each of us. Arriving at my first active duty assignment in the “real” Air Force, I learned that I could relax the military protocol somewhat. Even better, I learned that my airbase had an Aero Club that I could become a part of and take up flying again!
There I was taking lessons with my instructor in a small two-seater (a Cessna 150 with side-by-side seating) and studying in ground school on my own time. This study consisted of learning about weather, map and compass reading, along with using them to plot a trip. The coursework also covered some aerodynamics and a lot about aeronautical regulations and etiquette. This stuff was complicated even with my background and culminated with a written exam, which I passed. Next, I took my first solo flight when my instructor deemed me ready.
We flew from the airbase to a local non-military airport so I could practice touch-and-go maneuvers. An added thrill to flying from an Air Force base; we used the same runways as the jets — keep a good eye out and do exactly what the tower orders. After arriving at the local field, I simply flew a pattern around the airport, lined up my approach and landed without stopping, instead of decreasing the throttle I accelerated, taking off again. That is how to do a touch-and-go. I repeated the sequence a few times when my instructor, Bruce, advised, “Next time, pull over to the terminal and let me out. You solo today.”
As bad as I wanted this, I was caught by surprise, and managed to stammer out a “Yessir!”. So, here was go-time, the thing I wanted for most of my young life. Going through the necessary steps, I cleared with the tower to taxi onto the runway. Once in position, I checked all of my gauges for fuel, oil pressure, tachymeter, and the artificial horizon. Putting pressure on both rudder pedals and the brake, I pushed the throttle forward winding the engine up to develop lift once I released the brake. I began my take-off roll, going faster and faster when suddenly, I felt the plane lift up and ground seemed to fall away.
Every take-off is great but would never again feel like the first one that I controlled by myself; no other person there, I was solely responsible should I screw up, but I was also able to know a responsibility unlike any other. I did a couple of touch-and-gos before I picked up my instructor and flew back to the airbase. Fueling the plane, parking, and tying it down had to be done before I submitted myself and my shirt to induction as a pilot. Bruce signed off my flight log signifying I could now rent and fly one of the club’s planes at my leisure. I felt like bursting with pride. None of my friends in the barracks were involved with this and were suitably impressed.