What I learned from my father about flying – and life

My father, Gordon Bernstein, died 15 years ago at the age of 81 from complications of Parkinson’s Disease, first diagnosed when he was in his mid-40s and I was 18. He grew up in the Great Depression in Rochester, New York, graduated high school and learned to fly. After Pearl Harbor, he joined the Army Air Corps, becoming a 2nd Lieutenant and B-29 navigator. During the war years he married my mother Evelyn. I was their first child, born in 1944.

Spring Valley Airport
Spring Valley Airport was a great place to hang around (photo by William Schulz, Jr.)

After the war ended, my Dad found work doing full-time flight instruction at Spring Valley, a rural airport 30 miles north of New York City. My parents rented a small house near the field. I was barely three when we arrived, so these were my earliest memories. From our backyard I could wander along a path, through the wooded area that led to the airport itself. Incredible to think of now, but, yes, there was a time in this country when parents had little concern letting their young children wander about by themselves.

I hung around the airport like a mascot. Everyone knew I was Gordon’s kid. There always must have been dozens of eyes keeping track of me, making sure I was safe. All I knew was that my Dad was a really special person there, and I’d get to see him every once in a while. And no schoolyard jungle gym could match the opportunities in the hangar, to climb into old planes that would never fly again.

When I turned six, my parents bought a home about 20 miles from the airport. My Dad got a full-time job in the garment industry. Hard work, long hours, nothing that he wanted to do, but it paid the bills, put food on the table. He did continue to work weekends at the airport, instructing to bring in much-needed extra money, but that weekend work was a labor of love for him. Of course I’d do anything to come along with him, and spend the day hanging out at the airport.

At the end of the day, after his last student, sometimes there might be an opportunity to fly in the pattern with my Dad. By this point I must’ve been old enough to start reaching the pedals of the yellow J-3 Cubs used for training. Little by little I absorbed micro-lessons. By age 16, I was at a point where I could think about doing my solo and getting my license. In a way you could say I’d been in ground school my entire conscious life. But my Mother didn’t want that to happen, at least not yet. So I went off to college, figuring my Dad and I would complete what was necessary when I returned home the following summer.

Robert Bernstein
Finally a pilot, but never able to share it with his father.

Sadly, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s my freshman year. His flying life ended and I never did get to do that solo, with him stepping out of the J-3 as we had planned. In fact, 40 years passed. College, graduate school, marriage, career, family, all claimed their rightful priority until I was able to get my pilot license, only 10 years ago – six years after my Dad passed away. Since then I’ve built my hours and experience, added an instrument rating, reconnecting in a very deep way with my earliest memories, and to the things that my Dad taught me.

First of all, my Dad was an extremely quiet and reserved person. This meant he taught by example and action, with few words. He loved flying. I certainly didn’t need him to tell me that. It was obvious. Next, he approached flying with full concentration and respect. This was an enjoyable activity, but it was an activity that could kill you quick if you didn’t do everything right. By his example, I absorbed his attitude. Be knowledgeable, be thorough, but most important was to be in control of your attitude toward flying.

Here are two examples of what I mean. The first happened many times over, the other only once.

As a kid I hoped each weekend would bring good weather, knowing that meant an opportunity to go to the airport with him. So early in the week, I’d start pestering him, asking what the weather forecast looked like for the weekend. Each and every time, I would get the same, matter-of-fact, non-emotional response from him: “On Saturday morning I’ll get up and check the weather. If it’s ok, we’ll go; if it’s not, we don’t.” Period. Absolutely no emotion in that decision. No buying into the thought “let’s hope it’s good.” No investment whatsoever in the outcome. “If it’s ok, we go; if it’s not, we don’t.”

This attitude, about something I knew he loved to do so very much. How infuriatingly crazy was that attitude! But he never got exasperated when I’d ask yet again. Just the same calm, non-emotional response. I had no idea at the time what an incredibly valuable lesson he was teaching. You can love to do a particular activity, but you, as pilot-in-command, must set aside that desire, and discipline yourself to make decisions that are not influenced by the desire for a particular outcome.

The second example, the one that only happened once, occurred during a day-long cross-country trip when I was 14. It was summertime, and the two of us flew to Cleveland to visit a relative. On the way, we made a refueling stop at Oil City in western Pennsylvania. The airport was set in a poor, hardscrabble rural area. The airport owner had some kid about my age working as the line boy, refueling and checking the oil while Dad and I went inside for a Coke.

Low clouds
“If the weather is ok, we’ll go; if it’s not, we don’t.”

When we came out, the following things happened that replay in my mind with the players saying not a word to each other, as if in pantomime. My Dad comes out, and of course does an abbreviated preflight, checking first the gas tank, then lifting the engine access cover to check the oil. He looks and halts abruptly. He motions the owner to join him. The owner walks over, looks, and also freezes. The owner motions to line boy. The line boy walks over, looks inside the access cover, and visibly blanches. He had forgotten to tighten down the oil dip stick, which was just lying loose. If we had taken off in that condition, we would have had an in-flight emergency with an uncertain outcome. Continuing this wordless play, the owner looks at the line boy, points him to the exit: you don’t work here any more. My last view is watching this kid, my own age, dejected and walking away from a job that he clearly needed to have.

The lessons that I took away from this second example were clear. Life in general may give you lots of second chances. But flying is a serious business where there may not be a second chance. Here, more than in so many other facets of life, actions have consequences. Small mistakes can kill. And of course, don’t assume or count on someone else checking what you need to check for yourself. I never forgot what my Dad taught me that afternoon, and in my memory, he never said a word. It was hardly necessary.

As I grew toward adulthood, I was influenced by such examples from my Dad, without truly understanding how I was being taught and guided. For me, I guess it was simply like breathing in the air that’s around you. It was only many years later, with the maturity that comes only slowly, that I began to realize his impact, an impact that extended far beyond flying into so many other aspects of my adult life.

My Dad taught me well. Plan your flight. Be fully prepared, paying attention to every detail, because every detail is important. But be flexible, because a weather forecast is only that – a forecast. And when you get up on Saturday morning, see what the actual weather is. If it’s good, we go. If it’s not, then it’s time for another plan.

5 Comments

  • Gee, they were kind of tough on line boys in those days. But if you had taken off and lost the oil, it clearly would not have been the line boy’s fault, would it? The pilot is solely responsible, and that should have been the important lesson for that flight.

    In my early years, I was a line boy and don’t believe I ever made a mistake servicing an aircraft. I did neglect to reload the toilet paper in the restroom one day though. I didn’t get fired, but the look on the bosses face indicated that it was very possible. I definitely did not ever forget that chore again.

  • Robert,
    We are about the same age, with fathers whose lives were altered by the Depression and WWII, and who, I suspect, shared many of the same values and attitudes grown from hardship and shortage. Likewise, some of life’s most important lessons were passed down by example rather than lecture. Isn’t it fascinating how those life lessons translate so easily to the world of aviation? Thanks for telling us your story.

  • A pity about the line boy. Working in airport operations, a while ago we had a fellow drive a service vehicle into an airplane. No major damage, but did ding up the fuselage a little. When I went to investigate the incident the next day and wanted to interview the driver, his boss said “oh, you don’t need to worry about that guy, I’ve already fired him”. I couldn’t believe he had fired the one guy who would never make that mistake again, and replaced him with someone who couldn’t even tell the nose of the airplane from the tail!

    Nice story though, and am glad you’ve been able to carry on your Dad’s tradition. I’m sure there are a lot more aviation lessons learned from him that are engraved in your head (as with all of us who learned to fly with our fathers).

  • Regarding the line boy, yes, he was tough on him. This kind of thing is what has lead to the “just culture”/SMS movement. Having said that, I think it is good for people to know there are some things in life that don’t allow for a do-over.

    I appreciate the author writing about his dad. My father did not really support my childhood interest in aviation, and neither did anyone else in my family. I was pushing 40 when I took my first ride in a glider, one that led to a handful of ratings and a full-time job as a pilot and flight operations manager. I got my private pilot’s license about 6 months before my father passed away, but by that time he was too sick to fly. One of life’s little regrets.

  • Re: Line boy. Two schools of thought.

    1. Our mistakes are often our best teachers. He would probably never make that mistake again.

    2. When others’ lives become partly our responsibility, more accountability is required.

    Sometimes there are no clear and easy answers.

    Comment: Ultimate responsibility was the pilot who did a good preflight. We should all remember that the next time we want to take a shortcut or trust someone to do our job.

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