It starts just below this paragraph. It is a letter I should have written
years ago. It is a "thank you" to those who helped me so very much
when I wanted to learn to fly more than anything in the world. I learned very
young that saying "thank you" was one of the basic rules of our
society, yet I put off doing it so for so long that some of the people
involved are dead and I can't find some of the others. I'm afraid I was the
typical teenager, taking much for granted, and perhaps was so focused that I
never realized what was done for me. Even though this letter is very late, the
experience with the airport kid made me realize that it was time for me to
express my thanks.
Dear Chris, Ross, Ross, Don, Newt, Everett, Ralph, Mom
In ninth grade, a classmate Chris Lebo took me to a meeting of an Air
Explorer Post where he said I could get go through private pilot ground school
for the price of the books. He and I went to Elliott Beechcraft (now Elliott
Aviation) at the Des Moines airport where the friendly management allowed an
Explorer Post to use its meeting room and private pilot film strips every
Thursday evening. Chris' parents and mine were good enough to give us rides to
and from the airport because we weren't old enough to drive. He and I spent
hours studying and quizzing each other on regulations, using the wind side of
the flight computer and how to read a sectional chart.
We progressed toward our private ratings at much the same rate and both
worked low-paying jobs to pay for our lessons. He worked late nights as a fry
cook (probably in violation of all sorts of child labor laws). Just before he
and I got our private ratings, his family moved to Dubuque, Iowa, where he
finished his training. He went to the University of Iowa and, to my intense
dismay, I lost track of him after college. Chris, I've tried to locate you,
but you aren't in the FAA airman database. Wherever you are, thank you for
letting me get started and for being one of the best friends a kid could have.
To my earliest instructors...
At the meetings, the group of us teenagers would sit and listen with
tremendous respect to a man who showed up every single Thursday (and it always
seemed blizzards arrived on Thursdays). He was a lawyer who loved airplanes,
flying and teaching people about flying. He had convinced his peers in the
Indianola Flying Club to support this Explorer Post. He was never paid a cent
for all of those Thursday nights when he taught us the basics of aviation, or
for the times he walked us down the stairs to the hangar and said, "Now
this here is that aileron that was just on the film strip ... see how one
moves up and the other moves down when you turn the control wheel?" He
sold us the Sanderson manuals, computers and plotters at cost and also
arranged for us to get flight lessons in groups of three, in one of the flying-club
airplanes. He was the one who gave me the practice test for my private
pilot written, reviewed my many errors with me at length, and then was
probably more excited than I when, some weeks later, when I came in with an
official score of 96. Ross Porter, on one level you lead a group of
supercharged teenagers through a private pilot ground school. On a deeper
level, you taught us that we mattered and you set an example of volunteerism.
I don't know how to thank you enough.
I think of the airport kid I met and the struggles he will have to learn to
fly, I find that I'm confident that there will be people to give him a little
lift when he most needs it. There are some very special people in aviation. On
those Saturdays when I got to the airport at 6:00 a.m. to take a lesson with
two other kids from the Post, the instructor from the Indianola Flying Club
would be waiting for us. He would give a lesson to the group of us in the club
Musketeer. Each of us would fly for a half hour and observe our contemporaries
for an hour. We learned the entire time. The instructor was wondrously patient
with us, looking past our youth and inexperienced exuberance and speaking to
us as adults and equals. We loved him for it.
On the day of my very first scheduled lesson it was pouring down rain, but
my father, a former Navy pilot, understood when I said I just had to go to the
airport and so gave me a ride. The instructor, Ross Martin, was there. He
somehow knew that even though the weather was awful, there would be two or
three kids out there. He didn't tell us to go home. He gave us a lesson inside
the hangar. While the rain beat against the roof, we learned to preflight the
airplane and then sat inside, taking our turn in the holy of holies, the
pilot's seat, as he explained instrument indications and control functions.
Ross Martin, you never charged any of us anything for the flight instruction
you so patiently provided 32 years ago. Thank you again for each and every
time you got up early to pass along your knowledge to us. I feel very lucky
that I ran across you about ten years ago and that we had time to talk. Of
course you didn't remember me. I was just one of the many kids that you
treated so well so long ago. But I'm forever grateful that I was able to look
you in the eyes and tell you thanks for all that you had done for me and for
the example you set. I learned that you passed away a few years ago, Ross,
and I wish I could still come by and talk airplanes with you. I'd like to also
let you know that I've tried to follow your example and give something back to
...and to some later ones
I could not solo the Indianola Flying Club airplanes because I could not
afford to become a club member. I had to look elsewhere for further flight
instruction. I found that the little airport in the town where some relatives
lived, Jefferson, Iowa, had some Cessna 150s in which I could get dual at a
price that was less (even with gasoline for a 130-mile round-trip drive) than
I would pay in my hometown. After a few lessons, I discovered that a
good-sized aerial application business was based there, so I applied for a
summer job. The owner, Don Monthei, had been around aviation for some time,
having run a CPT (Civilian Pilot Training) school when Franklin Roosevelt
called for more pilots before World War II, and following that time, started
one of the largest crop-dusting companies in the state. To me, he was older
than God. When I stammeringly asked about a job, he looked me up and down as
if he'd never seen me before and asked, "Are you willing to work long
hours around airplanes?"
Of course I was! That would be heaven. It was all I could do to get the
word "yes" out fast enough.
He looked me over again, and told me to show up as soon as school was out.
that summer, and three more, I had a total-immersion course in agricultural
aviation, where I almost came to worship the men and women in the business.
Don Monthei, who proved to have the softest heart in aviation inside one of
the toughest exteriors, and who always took time to tell me why he did
anything he did around airplanes. Francis "Newt" Taylor, the
incredibly shy, former B-24 pilot, who made his living as an A&P mechanic
and who was always willing to explain the inner workings on an airplane or
engine to an awestruck kid. Everett Benson, the slender and almost silent man
who became my flight instructor and who did his best to teach me to truly fly
an airplane rather than to drive it and who so impressed me when I stood with
an orange flag and watched him caress a spray plane through the sky as if it
were an extension of himself. Ralph Riedesel, the just-out-of-college ag-pilot
who was assigned to teach the new kid how to wave flags and mix chemicals and
who taught me that pilots were semi-gods and that airplanes were truly living
All of you were wonderful teachers, whether you knew it or not. Had I
called you a role model, you would have laughed at me. Some of you have passed
on, some I cannot find, and one I am fortunate enough to see from time to
time. But no matter where you are, thank you, each and every one of you, for
what you did to help me, and others as we struggled to learn about the sky.
Of airport kids, moms and dads...
The airport kid I talked to and flew with caused me to look back at myself
when I was that age. I remembered just how the desire to fly burned inside me.
I remembered listening to each airplane I could hear flying over my school and
wishing I were flying. I saw that kid and me, juxtaposed despite the years
between us, and I saw the thousands of kids who had ridden bicycles, walked,
hitchhiked, taken buses or commuter trains or begged rides from parents and
friends to get to airports, great and small, all the way back to that kid who
was there the day the Wrights first flew. We looked through the airport fences
and built model airplanes and read the small advertisements in the back of
"Popular Science" and wrote away to exotic sounding places for
information packets on aircraft that could be "built by anyone" and
flown for "pennies per hour" because pennies described our teenaged
finances. Many of us worked an incredible variety of odd jobs. We measured the
money we made not in dollars, but in fractions of hours of flying time. Some
of us were able to take flying lessons, painfully acquiring time, then,
afterward, reliving each and every detail of our flights. We read everything
we could so that we would be as ready as possible for the next flight, to get
the most out of every second because we had to budget so very closely. There
were those who rode public transportation from the inner city, changing trains
and buses until getting to the end of the line and then walking miles to the
airport. Those airport kids spent several hours just getting to and from the
airport for every hour they spent in flight. From all of us who were airport
kids, to all who extended a hand or a kind word or gave us an airplane ride or
some dual instruction or the training manual, thank you.
were those kids whose parents, out of fear, ignorance or overprotection,
forbade them from flying and who searched their souls for an answer and then
secretly learned to fly anyway. As a parent myself, I agonize when I am asked
for guidance by kids whose parents do not want them to learn to fly. I don't
have a ready answer. At some point in young man or woman's life, he or she
must make his or her decisions. I cannot recommend going behind the backs of
parents, but I can recommend saving every cent earned against that day when
the young man or woman decides it is time to be responsible for his or her
decisions and future.
I didn't find out if the airport kid I met had parents who would object to
him learning to fly. Over the years I've observed that how a kid's parents
react to his or her dreams of flight probably has more effect than any other
single factor in whether the dreams will be realized. The finances are
important, but not the most important factor, because a determined kid can
work and make the money to fly. Active support is not the most important
variable, because I've seen kids whose parents wanted them to learn to fly
never bother to do so. (I never did figure out that situation.) Active
opposition is too often the killing blow. Parents who are determined that
their child is not going to learn to fly are so often responsible for not only
killing the dreams of bright, thoughtful kids, but of crippling those kids'
abilities to ever believe that goals they set for themselves are even
important. Did you ever notice that the teenagers who become involved in
actively learning to do something, be it flying, riding horses or building a
model train set, rarely mess up their lives? Conversely, did you ever notice
that the kids who do keep getting into trouble have parents that have
repeatedly told them what they cannot do rather than encouraged them to do
anything productive, yet are willing to let them hang out with their friends
at the mall?
I was very lucky. Years later, I learned that my parents had spent many
hours discussing whether they were going to let me learn to fly when I joined
that Explorer Post. They didn't stop me, but they didn't cripple me by making
it easy. They made sure I had a way to get to the airport, but it was up to me
to make the money I needed to take lessons. Mom and Dad, thank you for not
trying to kill my dream but rather for helping me reach it.
After I finished writing the letter, I sat a little longer in the pilots
lounge and realized that what I had just written could be from any pilot I
know. None of us pilots ever came to be pilots all by ourselves. Every one of
us had help. It's not too late to acknowledge that help and then start to pay
back the debt we incurred. We can pay attention to those kids at the airport
and give each one a little help in reaching their dreams.
See you next month.