How I got involved in aviation – and why

Airports behind locked chain link fences are not good for business.

In a few months I will turn 60. My love of aviation started over 50 years ago at the old Tamiami Airport in Miami. Here it was, soon after WWII and the Korean war, that many of the former military pilots were pleasure flying the surplus warbirds.

In order to keep them flying, these pilots had accumulated quite a collection of spare, junker planes to rob parts off of. Luckily for us kids, we were allowed to actually play in these old planes. The poor old cows in the pasture across the street didn’t stand a chance against five or six elementary school-aged pilots all making machine gun sounds as we turned the cows into enemy fighters.

Kid at airport fence

The point of entry for so many future pilots – but the fences are getting taller.

There were aircraft dealers at the airport as well. Even they didn’t mind when the anxiously awaited day came when the new year’s brochures came in, and each kid got one to take home and dream about which plane they would fly.

For fun on some Sunday afternoons, my father would pack us up and drive over to one of the observation areas at Miami International where we would sit for hours on the hood of the car, watching the planes take off and land. Everything from small Beech freighters to Super Connies to the newest jets. I was always partial to the Connies myself, the prettiest plane ever to fly.

However time and growing up got in the way. A few years later, we moved away from the airport area, and I found other pursuits: boats and girls.

After graduating from school, I entered the boat business working for one of the largest dealerships in South Florida. My love of boats was strong enough and readily available, so in the mid-1970s I started racing powerboats, something I did for almost 40 years.

All through this time I still dreamed of flying.

When others complained about having to fly to officiate a race, I jumped at the chance. It didn’t matter what plane, I was ready to go. Even though I loved aviation, the expense and time needed wasn’t on my side.

In the late 1980s, I moved my family to South Carolina. Here my passion was briefly rekindled by a chance to fly in a Ford Tri-motor. I met a number of pilots at the local airport (KRBW) and my family was invited to join them in their monthly get-together. Through some acquaintances, I even got to ride in a few small planes.

I had my eye on a local Ercoupe for sale and was thinking about maybe somehow coming up with some money to take lessons. Then a good friend, who had introduced me to the airport group, Richard, died in an ultralight accident. I turned my back on the thoughts of flying.

I retired from racing and officiating about eight years ago. This left time for other pursuits like spending time with my granddaughter.

Two years ago, our local museum had a silent auction fundraiser. One of the items was an airplane ride. “Nice deal,” I thought but nothing special. It wasn’t until the night of the event that I bothered to read the material. Airplane ride, your choice, two persons in a Cessna 195 or a single ride in a 1941 Stearman! Wow, now that was something. I didn’t even know someone around here had a plane like that. Of course I bid and won. But here was my dilemma: take my wife and go in the Cessna or go up in an open cockpit biplane. My wife voted. The Stearman won.

The day of the ride came a few months later. I met the pilot, Todd Givens of Ace Basin Aviation, at his own strip behind his house. Sitting there on the 1800-foot grass strip was the Stearman, the Cessna 195 and a 1947 Luscombe. I could take my pick.

We strapped in and took off over the short field, easily becoming airborne. Even though I had flown commercial hundreds of times and flown in small airplanes before, this was, well, different. We didn’t do anything spectacular. Todd even let me take the stick, although I was content with just flying and looking out.

As we crabbed in for the landing over the pond, I could feel the hot exhaust on my face and smell the fumes–smelled great to me. My wife said she knew she was in trouble when she saw the grin on my face on touchdown.

Stearman on grass

It’s hard not to get hooked on flying after a ride in one of these.

After parking the airplane, we took a few pictures then sat with Todd and his wife and talked aviation. I was hooked. This was the dream, the fantasy, I always dreamed about.

Turns out Todd was shortly going to take his checkride for his CFI ticket. I asked him if he had any students lined up. Not yet. I kind of left it at that and told him if he ever needed company I’d love to fly with him.

Then I did my homework. I looked at the costs involved. I checked out others’ opinions of him as a pilot. I asked about training at the local airport.

I have to say that the local airport is well run, has a great operations manager, Roger, and is a pleasure to visit. Something is always going on with biz jets coming in to the plantations, a sky diving operation etc. But what was missing was the small GA planes on the ramp. There was only one. No flight school. Only one plane for sale and no rental planes. Not a very inviting scene for someone looking to get involved in general aviation.

I talked to Todd a few more times and he invited me to fly with him in his Luscombe. After the first flight I asked him if he would consider me for his first student.

Normally I would go with someone with a lot more experience teaching. But there was something about him, his demeanor, his way with people. He is genuinely someone everyone respects and likes. And, as the months ahead would prove, he had the patience of a saint. He loves aviation and it is contagious.

Last summer, in the middle of my flight instruction, I bit the bullet and bought a 1959 straight-tail Cessna 172. It fit my wants and needs (although another 30 knots would be nice). In February 2013, I passed my checkride. Todd’s first student. I trained in the Luscombe and then transitioned to the Cessna.

Learning to fly and becoming a pilot was one of the best decisions I’ve made. I just wish I had done it sooner. My wife and I fly at least weekly, and my granddaughter loves to fly, but prefers Todd because he does whoopee dee doos.

Todd has turned out to be a very sought-after instructor. He teaches mainly tailwheel, but does flight reviews and tailwheel endorsements as well. He has moved the Luscombe to KRBW and hangars it there. So now we have a flight school at the airport. Roger helped move the local EAA chapter there as well. We also have a local CAP branch. So any given weekend it really looks like a GA airport! I guess it is the availability and accessibility to the airport and having a vibrant airport community that is helping things to grow.

KRBW now has a flying club and rental airplanes, with another coming shortly. There are plans for new hangars and some of us are going to try to restore the old WWII hangar for use as a hangar and Tuskegee Airman museum. We even have a Norden bombsight building being restored.

The airport management is proactive with an air and car show, our “Friends of the Airport” supper quarterly, Young Eagle flights monthly and other events through the year. For those who want to sit back and watch, the rocking chairs on the back porch are always available.

So the question is, “Is GA dead or dying?” I don’t think so. For someone from the outside looking in, GA is changing and evolving. There is demand out there; the question is how to meet that demand and get the word out. For me it was a silent auction. At another airport, who knows? I think the key is getting the younger folks involved through programs like the Young Eagles, but then the question is how to keep them going.

The other problem from where I sit is expenses, from fuel to parts and, in my mind, the somewhat archaic way the FAA works.

Keep airports open and accessible and reduce costs and I think GA will do very well. If the pilots at the old Tamiami Airport hadn’t allowed us to play in the parts planes, if they hadn’t taken the time to sit us down and tell us flying stories, maybe I wouldn’t have had the desire to fly all these years. One thing is certain: you’re never too old.

5 Comments

  1. Mark Fay says:

    Thank you for a story well written and inspiring.

    Anyone else want to fly? Go interview some instructors and get started!!!

    The biggest risk in life is never taking a risk

  2. Louis Sell says:

    I concur–well done Jeff.
    It highlights enlightened and engaged airport management. The aviation community must understand that today is a different world. We no longer have the large number of WW-II and Korean Pilots who then had the wherewithal (and G.I. bennies) to begin flying again. Refurbishing older airplanes, airport food fests and good old bull sessions in an comfortable environment need to be fostered. In other words, what my wife calls “the boys club”.

  3. Jeff says:

    We need GA airports to be accessible, welcoming. We need to re-kindle the magic of flight for future generations. Flying hasn’t changed, it is still a wonderful experience.
    At a number of different periods of my life I has someone who nurtured the curiosity I had. I was lucky in that regard. Even today I have a number of friends that I can turn to, to answer questions or just to encourage.
    One friend, Bob is an ATC and pilot in S. Fla., another Jim flies a ’36 WACO, and of course Todd. Without them I wouldn’t be a pilot today.
    But as we wall off the airports and build higher fences we are shutting out those very people we so need to reach. So we as pilots need to reach out, outside those fences and bring them in.
    Thanks for the kind words!

  4. Saeed says:

    1- how did you get into aviation ?
    2- can you explain how spoilers and flaps work ?
    3- do you think there should be a minimum age for first officers ?
    4- explain the term fly by wire ?
    5- what are pilot errors ?

    • Louis Sell says:

      Saeed:
      Schedule a ride with a person who will take the time to explain how to fly an airplane. If you are not “hooked”, buy a boat. Flying and airplanes are a black hole which you pour all your money into!
      As for how “Feathers” work, ask Peter Garrison or get a good book. The
      American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) publishes many good ones.
      Three Stripers age in the U.S. is now dictated by the FA&A. In part 121 operation they must now have a ATP Rating.
      Best I have heard is for the F-16, it was called the “Electric Jet”.
      Just hope all those electrons are going your way.
      Pilot errors are something all pilots do on any given day. With respect to gear up landings–there are those who have and there are those who will. I remember a doctor friend who was giving instruction in his Cessna (CEZZZZNA) 414. He did 11 landings, the 12th scraped a little paint from the bottom and took two cranes to lift it up so the “Rollers” could be extended.