The Pilot's Lounge #36:
Letter from an Airport Kid
Last month, Rick Durden's touching column titled
Last month I told you I'd spent an evening here in the pilot's lounge at the virtual airport writing two letters. I wrote them after returning from a trip where I had seen, talked to, and briefly flown with, an airport kid, a kid who wanted to fly more than anything in the world. The experience had jolted me. It caused me to stay very late in the lounge, where it was quiet so I could think and write without being interrupted. In that column, I shared the first letter with you, the one to the airport kid. I said I'd show you the second letter this month.
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 and Dad,
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.
When 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 aviation.
...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.
Over 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 entities.
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.
There 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.