Firsts Are Overrated. Just Forget Them


The idiot who first said, “You never forget your firsts,” would be the first person I’d keel-haul in my armada of firsts gone sour. Yeah, I remember my first love, a 1949 Cessna 195, parked saucily on the ramp at Teterboro Airport (TEB) in the late 1960s. Wouldn’t give me a nod with her nose so high in the air, ignoring my teen lust for her curvaceous tail resting oh I don’t care how I look on the ground, and a hint of radial-engine sex barely confined inside her bullet cowl. I’ve written about her before and admit that first rejections are never forgotten.

My first airplane ride was in an Air Force C-130 Hercules. Didn’t go well. Threw up and wasn’t invited back. My first flying lesson was in an Army flying club Cessna 150 and went about as well. I imagine the Navy posted orders banning me from its air fleet. But love conquers all reason, and after a year of not puking in airplanes an examiner took pity and handed me a pilot certificate. Then, like many a new pilot with no money—and no adult supervision—I bought my first airplane.

When I say, Stitts Skycoupe, what comes to mind? Likely nothing, unless you, too, were bottom-feeding in the 1970s used-homebuilt market. I paid $2000 for the tricycle-geared two-seater that resembled a shipping crate with stubby wings. Picture a Piper Tri-Pacer. Possibly difficult but now picture the Tripe before it reached puberty. That’s the Skycoupe, and soon I was an airplane owner with nearly 100 hours in my logbook, two grand in debt and a half-tank of 80-octane. There was no Skycoupe owner’s manual, and no one at Watsonville, California Muni (WVI), where I worked in the late 70s, had ever flown one, so the checkout was self-guided, as many California endeavors are. No problem. I was young, fearless and could figure things out in flight.

My first takeoff went well—most do. It was the first landing that drew attention, especially mine when I realized that just because the Coupe vaguely resembled the factory-built airplanes in which I’d mastered the art of landing nose-first at 90 MPH, this was a new experience. I crashed. Not a fireball, Action News crash, but I smacked the nosewheel so hard it bent the fork and sent me scuttling into the weeds. Luckily, when you screw up in aviation there’s always a crowd to amplify your shame.

Damage was minimal—the prop was untouched—so with a few sledge blows to the bent nose fork, the thing that tried to kill me on the first date was semi-airworthy. I, though, was not. Physically I was unhurt, but psychologically I was terrified of my first airplane and avoided every chance to fly. “Too windy … too cloudy … left mag’s cutting out … gotta do laundry … can’t fly on Guy Fawkes Day …” That last one’s a real thing in the UK. With excuses depleted I found myself on the ramp, surrounded by the same pilot lounge crowd that had rescued me from anonymous chagrin a week before.

I slipped with condemned man’s resignation into the airplane, wondering if Lindbergh had felt similar misgivings before launching at Roosevelt Field. Perhaps behind that Midwestern cool he wanted to scream, “Hey, guys, this idea of, like, flying alone for, like, a day-and-a-half across the North Atlantic without GPS? And, like, at night? It’s nuts! And I don’t even, like, speak French! Forget it; I’m so not going!” Doubt it. Plus, I doubt he sounded like a 13-year-old.

In George Orwell’s 1936 essay, “Shooting an Elephant,” the narrator succumbs to public pressure to—spoiler alert—shoot an elephant. “I often wondered,” Orwell wrote, “whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.” And therein lies the aeronautical rub pilots face, possibly more often than we’ll admit. Forget the usual gethomeitis lectures about seemingly rational pilots who press through thunderstorms with predictable tragic results. The deadliest foe is the fear of playing the fool who sits on the ramp when those with the self-proclaimed right stuff fly.

I faced an elephantine choice: Delay the flight because I didn’t know how to fly the airplane—a reasonable but socially lame excuse. Or, knuckle under to crowd pressure and take off to avoid the shame of admitting I didn’t know how to fly the damn thing. The FAA has a maxim for this sort of pickle: Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM), “a systematic approach to the mental process used by pilots to consistently determine the best course of action in response to a given set of circumstances.” And, given the circumstances, I decided to accept fate, shoot the metaphorical elephant and go. Yeah, exactly the wrong answer at any ADM sleepover.

As I closed the door a tall figure emerged from the crowd like Marshal Dillon at the climax of a crappy Gunsmoke episode where Dillon once again shows that a single shot after 52 minutes of dialogue with Miss Kitty mitigates conflict, which was why we 1960s kids preferred The Rifleman. Now, there was a TV western that consistently proved that any given set of circumstances could be resolved with a Winchester repeating rifle and a squinty gaze.

The figure approached; I could almost hear spurs tringling. It was Chuck Wilcoxon. Six-foot-something, he’d been a B-24 pilot in the Pacific in WWII and 30 years on instructed in anything with wings. He’d also built his own low-wing fighter that barely held his towering frame. I assumed he was going to offer to take the Stitts’ right seat—maybe dangling his legs out the door—and teach me how to fly it without crashing. Instead, he leaned inside and growled, “Slow the sumbitch on final and keep that nose high on touchdown.” Then, he closed the door and vanished.

Again, taking off is easy, but after lingering in the sky for an hour I knew I had to land and, as I wiped sweaty palms on my chinos and turned final, I saw Chuck in his mini-fighter, my wingman all the way to the runway, where I touched. Nose high. No crash. No elephant. I’d made my first good landing ever. In the haze of vanished decades, I can’t say if this next bit actually occurred, but as I rolled out I saw Chuck Wilcoxon, one of the true heroes in more than just my life, flash down the runway and victory roll that “sumbitch” homebuilt before climbing into the west …

Forty years later, I pass along Chuck’s advice to students whose first landings should remain on the runway with nosewheels intact. As for the long-ago Cessna 195? I’m still a little sensitive about that first love … but I’ve moved on.