How I Learned to Fly: The Smell of Bird's Nests
The smell of bird's nests from the J-5's heater, cold weather, packed snow and mud on the all turf runway — but at least the price was right!
My flight training began in the summer of 1964. I became fascinated with aviation when a college friend took me for a ride as his first passenger after recieving his ticket from the U of Ill Institute of Aviation. The private pilots course at U of Ill at that time cost about $430. At the time that might as well have been all the money in the world since a semesters tuition was $100 & room/board was about $450 per semester.
I waited until after graduation when I had my first engineering job as a source of the needed cash. I called every flight school within a 30 mile radius of Chicago and found Bohl's Flying Service at Chicago-Hammond airport, Lansing Illinois to be the lowest cost at $8.00/hr solo & $11.50/hr dual.
The airplanes where Piper J5A cubs with 90 hp engines. No electrical system; tachometer, compass, oil pressure, altimeter, fuel gauge & coordination ball were the only instruments. There was no starter so swinging the prop was one of the lessons for students. There was a heater of sorts, but all it seemed to do was smell up the cockpit with the odor of old bird's nests.
I was in heaven. Chicago-Hammond (now Lansing Municipal) was an all turf airfield with several airstrips in various directions to suit the winds. I flew every weekend that I could, weather permitting. The entire project took me 18 months & 47 hours of total flying time.
I recall a great deal of sweating even when the weather was cold. One would be bundled up heavily at the beginning of the lesson smelling old bird's nest from the "heater" and seeing your breath. As the lesson progressed you loosened your coat and mopped your forehead with your sleeve. In some ways, summer flying was better since you started out with light clothes and were hot to begin with.
Perhaps due to the gentle nature of the J5A, things went swiftly. Take offs and landings were done in the second or third hour and I was solo in 6.5 hours. I recall what seemed like endless hours of shooting landings. Solo crosscountry was done by pilotage, dead reckoning, etc. since there was no radio gear in the Cubs.
I recall seeing road traffic passing me on one of these flights. You had to swing the prop yourself when away from home base since not all line personnel knew how to do this.
One strange recollection: Wilbur Bohl would not allow anyone other than himself to check the oil. Apparently he had some bad experiences with students leaving the oil cap off and had lost several engines.
During the 18 month span of my training I got to fly in all kinds of weather from hot and dry to cold and snowy. Deep snow was handled by packing it down with a large tractor drawn roller. I have a few log entries of this "deep snow" flying. A full stall, stick all the way back landing was needed to prevent a "nose over".
I also had an experience with some mud. I was flying dual with an instructor one day when conditions were a bit muddy. I had landed and was rolling out prior to adding power for a touch and go when we rolled into a giant mud puddle at an intersection of two runways. The mud hauled us to a complete halt with the plane nosing up just short of going over and then settling back down on the tail wheel. We were stuck tight and had to abandon the plane to walk back to the airport office and face the jeers of the contingent of airport bums.
In preparation for the checkride, radio work was practiced in a Piper Colt which had an electrical system & the requisite radio gear. I recall this machine as having a "brick like" glide in comparison to the Cub. The tricycle gear was a revelation after learning on the conventional gear Cub.
The checkride had to be done in two machines (Colt & Cub) to cover all areas. On the day of my checkride the field was so muddy that we had to take off and land on the gravel apron in front of the hangers. I was really sweating that day though it was cold (March 1966).
After receiving my ticket I asked Wilbur how I could be checked out for night flying (there were no lights on the field). One of the instructors told me to meet him at the field on an appointed night. I was puzzled by this, but showed up anyway. When I arrived I was told to join the instructor in his car. I assumed we were going to another lighted airfield. He drove out onto the turf pointing to a pile of battery lanterns on the back seat and saying "get out and set those at the edge of the runway where ever I stop". We set about 20 of these along each side of the runway.
Back at the hanger the Colt was rolled out (it had landing lights) and I fired it up to taxi out into the inky blackness. It was a moonless night and pitch dark. The landing lights gave about 200 feet of illumination. The lanterns showed where the "weeds" were located. I lined up and took off into the unknown. I was told to fly away from the field for a bit & then return.
Flying over the field the battery lanterns could just be made out like pinholes in a blanket. Using these and the landing light (which didn't light the ground till it was awful close) I shot a few landings. The instructor signed my logbook and said I was now legal to fly at night. I never did fly from that field again at night although about 1/3 of my total time to date is at night.