I was a pilot. I owned a plane. Those were the days. You become a pilot for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is "12 O'Clock High", at least if you are my age. I gave up flying about 18 months ago and I miss it, but it was the right decision. I do, however, have some really good memories and stories to tell, and I think here lies my best audience.
Most people read pilot stories to find out about emergencies and crashes. I never crashed and only declared 3 emergencies (all worked out fine).
Two things about being a pilot stand out to me: The people you meet and the thrill of just being in control of an airplane. This diary is about the former.
When I first decided to get my license, I went to the place with the biggest sign on the airport. I was relieved of $500 and introduced to a nice-enough guy about half my age. We went flying together for about two weeks every third day. I learned almost nothing. His mind was on something else: getting an airline job.
Next, I went over to the smaller place on the field. I now had a logbook with about 8 hours in it. They took no money and introduced me to Jack. Jack had flown in Korea, I believe. He was about 70 and weighed about 135, soaking wet. He drank a lot of coffee. He smoked a lot of cigarettes. His voice was gravelly. He was generally grumpy. He was a great flying instructor.
The first day, he simply growled, "Go preflight the airplane; you know that much, don't you?" I went out to the plane, a ratty Cessna 152, and did what I thought was a pretty good pre-flight inspection. Then I stood there. 20 minutes later, Jack strolled up and started asking questions about the condition of the plane. I got about half of them right. He said, "OK, now let's learn how to do a pre-flight, 'cause I ain't setting my ass in your plane until you can do it right. This shit could kill us." 40 minutes later, I knew what was important to check on an airplane and what was nonsense. When I wiggled the fuel line, he said, "Well, you've proven it's on there tight enough, but you just shortened its life by a couple of years. Don't do that. If it's leakin' you'll SEE it. Don't try to break it!"
Halfway through our first hour in the air, Jack asked, "Which way are you going to turn to get us back to the airport, and how long will it take us?" I offered a vague answer like, "left; and about 20 minutes". He said, "Are you guessing?" I said, "Kinda." He went on to tell me that guessing is not an option in an airplane. You need to KNOW. Which means you need to remember stuff. He taught me to always check the clock or my watch before I took off and if I didn't trust my memory, to write it down. "That way", he said, "When you want to know where you are, you have a starting point: You know where you took off, you know what time it was - now you have to remember what your heading was when you left, you know what time it is now, so the opposite heading for roughly the same time will take you home. Simple, see?"
After our flight was over, Jack rescinded my solo flight privileges, which I had gotten from my first instructor. He told me to meet him back at the airport 2 days hence. We flew together in that tiny, beat up Cessna for almost 45 hours over the course of the summer. I became a pilot ("in name only", according to Jack) after my second attempt at the "Check Ride".
The Check Ride was given by the owner of the flight school, Spence, who was older, skinnier, and smoked more than Jack. If anything, he was grumpier. Now, the check ride consists of about an hour's flying and an hour's oral exam. The oral part went OK, I thought, but I made a huge mistake. The day of the ride was drizzling rain with an overcast deck of about 3,500 feet and visibility of about 6 miles. This, I knew, was technically VFR (visual flight rules) weather, so when he asked, "Given your current experience, would you fly alone on a day like this?", I answered, "Yes". Then he took me out flying. I did fine on all the maneuvers and airplane handling stuff. I even navigated to a nearby airport and demonstrated reasonably good landings in various configurations. On the way back to the airport, Spence pulled the throttle to idle at 3,000 feet and said, "You just lost your engine. There's a grass strip near here. Take us there and land on it." I stared at the chart in my lap, found the grass strip on it and then tried to figure out where I was in relation to it, all while slowing the plane to best glide speed. When I thought I knew (guessed) where to turn, I eased the old Cessna into a shallow turn to the left and started squinting out the windshield for a grass runway. Spence said, "You got it?" I said, "I think so." He said, "land the airplane." I protested that this was a private airfield and I needed permission from the owner to land. He said, "God damn it, this is an emergency, Wyckoff, land the plane!" As we glided farther down, I realized that what I had identified as a runway was a soybean field with telephone wires at the end. At about 500 feet, Spence shoved the throttle in and said, "Take me home, this ride is over."
Two days later, on a bright sunny day, I flew again with Spence. When the ride was over, he said, "I'm going to pass you on this test, but I want to know... Do you know what you did wrong on the last ride?" I said, "I couldn't find that airstrip." He said, "Partly... the main thing is that you overestimated your experience and skill and flew on a day you shouldn't have tried. That's poor judgment. Poor judgment is what kills pilots. You're not done learning. Go slow, fly on nice days. When the weather gets iffy, scale back your expectations. Be more cautious."
A year later, I went back to Jack and told him I wanted to get my Instrument License. He said, "Wyckoff, instrument flying is a thinking man's game and I'm not sure you fit the mold. I'll try if you will." I did, eventually get my instrument license.
I flew single-engine, 4-place airplanes for about 20 years. My first wife forbade it, and I went along. When I was divorced, I took up flying, just as my father and brother had. I was not a "natural" pilot, according to my instructor. But I practiced and practiced and I loved the whole endeavor. My now wife, encouraged me. After a long fall, winter and spring of struggling to master a Cessna 152, I passed my Private Pilot Check Ride with Spence at DuPage Airport in West Chicago. Spence was so famous that when he died, they named the Middle Marker for the new ILS "SPENC" after him. He failed me on my first try, so I took it again the next day and passed.
I was 40 or 41 at the time. My 3 kids had moved to Mobile, AL with their mother and I had promised them I would visit (from my Chicago suburb) every 6 weeks. I had done this for a year and a half, wearing out a Ford Taurus in the process and was determined to use my new airplane skills to shorten the trip and spend even more time with them. It would be an added benefit to "tweak" my former wife with my newfound skills.