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!


TrainingMy flight training began in the summer of 1964. I becamefascinated with aviation when a college friend took me for a ride ashis first passenger after recieving his ticket from the U of IllInstitute of Aviation. The private pilots course at U of Ill at thattime cost about $430. At the time that might as well have been allthe 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 engineeringjob as a source of the needed cash. I called every flight schoolwithin a 30 mile radius of Chicago and found Bohl’s Flying Service atChicago-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. Noelectrical system; tachometer, compass, oil pressure, altimeter, fuelgauge & coordination ball were the only instruments. There was nostarter 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 thecockpit with the odor of old bird’s nests.

I was in heaven. Chicago-Hammond (now Lansing Municipal) was anall turf airfield with several airstrips in various directions tosuit the winds. I flew every weekend that I could, weatherpermitting. The entire project took me 18 months & 47 hours oftotal 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 lessonsmelling old bird’s nest from the “heater” and seeing your breath. Asthe lesson progressed you loosened your coat and mopped your foreheadwith your sleeve. In some ways, summer flying was better since youstarted 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 Iwas solo in 6.5 hours. I recall what seemed like endless hours ofshooting landings. Solo crosscountry was done by pilotage, deadreckoning, 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 notall line personnel knew how to do this.

One strange recollection: Wilbur Bohl would not allow anyone otherthan himself to check the oil. Apparently he had some bad experienceswith students leaving the oil cap off and had lost severalengines.

During the 18 month span of my training I got to fly in all kindsof weather from hot and dry to cold and snowy. Deep snow was handledby packing it down with a large tractor drawn roller. I have a fewlog entries of this “deep snow” flying. A full stall, stick all theway back landing was needed to prevent a “nose over”.

I also had an experience with some mud. I was flying dual with aninstructor one day when conditions were a bit muddy. I had landed andwas rolling out prior to adding power for a touch and go when werolled into a giant mud puddle at an intersection of two runways. Themud hauled us to a complete halt with the plane nosing up just shortof going over and then settling back down on the tail wheel. We werestuck tight and had to abandon the plane to walk back to the airportoffice and face the jeers of the contingent of airport bums.

In preparation for the checkride, radio work was practiced in aPiper Colt which had an electrical system & the requisite radiogear. I recall this machine as having a “brick like” glide incomparison to the Cub. The tricycle gear was a revelation afterlearning on the conventional gear Cub.

The checkride had to be done in two machines (Colt & Cub) tocover all areas. On the day of my checkride the field was so muddythat we had to take off and land on the gravel apron in front of thehangers. I was really sweating that day though it was cold (March1966).

After receiving my ticket I asked Wilbur how I could be checkedout for night flying (there were no lights on the field). One of theinstructors told me to meet him at the field on an appointed night. Iwas puzzled by this, but showed up anyway. When I arrived I was toldto join the instructor in his car. I assumed we were going to anotherlighted airfield. He drove out onto the turf pointing to a pile ofbattery lanterns on the back seat and saying “get out and set thoseat 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 amoonless night and pitch dark. The landing lights gave about 200 feetof illumination. The lanterns showed where the “weeds” were located.I lined up and took off into the unknown. I was told to fly away fromthe field for a bit & then return.

Flying over the field the battery lanterns could just be made outlike pinholes in a blanket. Using these and the landing light (whichdidn’t light the ground till it was awful close) I shot a fewlandings. The instructor signed my logbook and said I was now legalto fly at night. I never did fly from that field again at nightalthough about 1/3 of my total time to date is at night.