Wow — I'm Going to Be a Pilot!

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Those words have been said out loud or silently by just about everyone who ever learned to fly. David R. Long, a San Diego-based Learjet captain and CFII, is no exception. In this funny and touching article, Dave shares his memories of the moment in 1962 when he first realized that he was meant to become a pilot.

TrainingI was working as a disk jockey for a small radio station in Washington, Ind., where I grew up. And since my program schedule didn't start until 6:00 PM I had most of the day off. Now you have to remember that a small town has shall we say a limited menu of things to keep a 22-year-old kid entertained. After you visit the local teen hangout (Troy's Restaurant), and drag main street a couple of hundred times and drive by the swimming pool to check out the girls, there just wasn't much else to get excited about.

So one fine bright sunny day I decided to take a drive in the country. Nowhere in particular, but somewhere other than the all-too-familiar haunts that had fast become boring. Everyone else was working while I was off, and visa-versa.

I soon found myself cruising down an old dirt road, and suddenly something caught my eye. It was a beat up old sign hanging from a crooked post leaning at a precarious angle giving one the impression that soon I would be witness to its plunge to the earth having given up its fight to remain upright.

I turned down the road indicated by the faded arrow on the sign and at the end of the lane bordered by corn fields filled with remnants of cornstalks from last year's harvest. I came to an open gate that offered me access to what was to prove to be our county airport.

The office looked more like an abandoned shack but I could see from the open door that there seemed to be evidence of recent activity. The desk was cluttered with old flying magazines, papers, charts, and some funny looking ruler with a half circle in the center.

The couch along one wall was also laden with various aviation-related objects of interest. One of the arms was all but torn away with the stuffing exposed. I think the old hound using the couch for his bed might have had something to do with it.

A Guy Named Ray

I looked out across the field and strolling toward me from the one and only hangar was a middle-aged man wearing a hunting jacket and cap, the kind that had that distinctive red and yellow plaid checked design.

Must be the caretaker, I thought to myself. Where is the guy with the leather head gear that has those neat goggles and sporting a mustach and long white scarf? And don't forget the tall tan leather boots and a Charles Lindbergh style leather jacket.

"Afternoon young man," he said holding out his hand to me. "I'm Ray, Ray Clark. Can I help you?" "Hi, Dave Long, Nice to meet you, Yeah ... I was just driving around and saw the sign and thought I would come in to see some airplanes."

"Well, we got airplanes, Do you fly?" "No, but I would sure like to, " I said thinking that one had to at least be a genius and wealthy to ever be allowed to actually fly one, but I thought I would ask anyway.

"How much does it cost to take a ride in one of these things?" "Oh, five dollars oughtta do it, I reckon," he said." And so off we went to pick out a sleek fast fighter or maybe that big twin engine sitting at the other end of the field.

I followed him over to a small yellow airplane that looked more like a kite to me. It obviously was not going to be a fighter or bomber but this little plane was, yes ... covered with cloth? And looking inside I could see the frame! It was a kite! Just bigger ... but there were two seats and the familiar metal stick with a round wooden knob stuck on at the top. It was well worn and the seats looked more like part of the frame since the tubing forming the framework of the whole plane looked too thin for my comfort. But before I could say something stupid and reveal my total lack of knowledge he said. "Ok son. Before we take her up, we gotta check'er out. So we start by making sure the switch is turned off and the mags'r off and she's not going to start up on us when we check the prop."

We're Gonna Fly In THAT?

All of this was pretty exciting but I was still contemplating the fact that when he opened the "door," a term I use loosly to describe a very flimsy piece of metal and fabric with a plastic window that wouldn't slide anymore and made a loud bang against the struts that I'm sure stopped it from falling completely off. It was, of course, hinged with two coat-hanger-sized pieces of wire. Somehow that didn't seem to surprise me.

Yes, she was in fact an old 1944 vintage Aeronca "Champ" and this being 1962 made her a really "old" airplane. But I was so excited I didn't really care. All I was thinking about was getting in and going for my ride.

After he showed me all around the plane and explained what all those "flappy" thingies that had names I couldn't pronounce ... like "ailerons." We climbed in, and much to my surprise he put ME in the front seat! I also wondered where this "elevator" was hiding? It sure didn't look large enough to have a second story to it. And didn't boats have rudders? Maybe that was for when we had to land in water?

He didn't get in right away. He leaned in next to me and pointed to two little metal pedals and explained that those were the heel brakes and for me to push on them with my heels and hold them down. Then he pulled the stick back into my belly and said, "Now hold that stick back son, and don't let it come forward, and don't let go of them brakes while I start her up!"

First Flight

He reached over and switched on a switch that said "magnetos" to the off position, then showed me how to turn the switch to the "L" position when he yelled "Contact!" and gave the prop a turn and I'll be darned if it didn't START! I held the stick back so hard my arms hurt, and I though I would surely snap those tiny little pedals clean off their stems but as the engine fired and shook and rattled the plane sat there and vibrated like nothing I had ever heard before. I can still feel the whole frame vibrating with the engine sounding like it was about to shake itself from its mounts. It is a VERY distinctive sound and a feeling of sitting in something that seemed unworthy of the stresses it was encountering.

Ray climbed into the back seat, strapped himself in and yelled "Okay, ... I got it!" And with that he wiggled the stick back and forth forcing me to let go lest I move it or restrict him from moving the stick. I was relieved that he had taken control because he hadn't told me that I was going to do anything but just go for a ride. I had no idea that he never just took one for a ride, he made you hold the controls, and "feel" the airplane as we taxied and took off.

Talk about noise! The plane began to accelerate down the old dirt and grass runway which was as smooth as one could expect an old river bottom cornfield to be. The wheels made resounding bangs each time we hit a bump and it sounded as if the landing gear was being ripped completely loose. Faster and faster we went until he pulled back on the stick and we jumped into the air and the noise quieted to the sounds of the engine straining to climb.

I was breathless. I couldn't believe I was really flying! And then, I made the one mistake that everyone flying for the first time usually gets around to. "Hey Ray! What happens if the engine quits?" I yelled back over my shoulder as we were just clearing the line of telephone wires at the end of the field.

Ask A Stupid Question...

Suddenly, everything went quiet! I could hear the wind, the engine was no longer straining, and the nose of the plane was no longer pointing up to the heavens, but pitched dramatically down and I could see that we also were descending at a rapid rate, lower and lower toward the cornfield in front of us. The field had been harvested and only a few cornstalks were sticking out of the furrows but down and down we glided. Then Ray yelled, "This is what happens if the engine quits on takeoff ... we simply make an emergency landing straight ahead between the corn rows!"

"Oh!" was my weaker-than-normal response. (I'm sure the lump in my throat restricted the sound from actually coming out.) Then we leveled off just inches about the ground and I felt the wheels touch down throwing clouds of dust and pieces of cornhusks into the air. Ray pushed forward on the throttle and the engine again came to life as he held it on the ground for what seemed to be a mile before again I felt the stick pull back and we lifted safely off climbing noisily above the rooftop of the house at the end of the field.

I was absolutely hooked. Nothing I had ever done had ever been so exciting and so exhilarating! I HAD to learn to fly. No question about it, no matter what it cost or what I had to do.

I shouted back at Ray, "Wow ... Can we do that again?"

He pulled her up into a gentle left-hand turn and showed me how the plane banked and turned and climbed and descended and let me "follow through" with him even through a couple of touch-and-go landings, the last one to a full stop which he later said that I had actually done almost all on my own.

I climbed awkwardly out of the plane and I knew that I had just experienced something that I would never forget for the rest of my life.

Only Dollars Away

As we walked back to the office, I wanted to turn right around and go again, but it was getting late and I was due at the station in an hour so as we entered the office I asked, "How much does it cost to learn to fly?"

Thinking it was obviously more than I would ever be able to afford I was surprised when he said. "Oh, 'bout 15 bucks an hour, but you c'n fly half hour lessons if you want."

Well 15 dollars was still too much because I was only making 50 dollars a week before taxes and most of what was left went to pay for rent, gas and food, and an occasional date. "Guess I could give up women," I thought to myself.

I said, "Well, I just can't afford that but I sure would like to learn to fly someday." Little did I know that my life was about to change forever because what happened next was the most memorable part of that whole day.

"You did pretty good up there son, most people won't react so calmly when I demonstrate the 'emergency' the way you did and you really have a good 'touch' in an airplane. You actually landed it yourself that last time."

"I've got students that can't do that after several hours of training ... are you sure you haven't ever done that before?" he asked. I was sure he said that to everyone but later found out that it was quite a compliment and was also very true. Flying would become something that I could just "do." I "felt" the plane around me, when and where it was moving and how to control it seemed natural to me.

"Young man, let me ask you something."

"Sure!" I said. "What?"

"Do you smoke?" he asked.

"No, sir."

"Do you drink?"

The answer was the same. "Nope, don't drink either, can't stand the taste, too sour, tastes like medicine to me."

"Well," he said, "I hate to see a guy like you get away, so I'll tell you what I'm going to do. Since you probably would spend about two dollars a week on cigarettes, and maybe three bucks a week on beer, you're probably saving about five bucks every week. You put in the ten dollars a week and I'll give you a five dollar credit for not smokin' and drinkin' and give you lessons for ten bucks, whaddya say?"

It's 1999 and 5000+ hours later I can still hear those words and still feel the lump in my throat as I said "Yes, I will be back tomorrow for my first lesson. " I do remember thinking, "WOW, I'm going to be a PILOT!"

I soloed only four hours later and every time I fly I get that same lump in my throat. I hope it never goes away.