Cessna during the glory days – a test pilot’s daughter remembers

Editor’s Note: On the 40th anniversary of the Citation in 2009, Fred George of Business & Commercial Aviation magazine wrote, “Milt Sills and J. L. LeSueur strapped into the first Cessna Citation at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport on September 15, 1969, took it on a one hour 45 minute first flight and, in the process, helped change the course of Cessna’s future for the next four decades.” In honor of Father’s Day, Mary LeSueur Miller shares her memories of accompanying her father to work and the thrills and delights for a young girl witnessing the action in the Cessna hangars and runway.

Usually when a journalist is interested in something I know, it’s about a nuclear plant problem or the status of women in the Navy or an aircraft carrier launch delay. You get the idea. I guess I have experienced some interesting times.

Cessna factory
The Cessna factory was a hopping place in the early 60s.

I recall snippets. I was always Dad’s shadow, or if he was flying or in a meeting, I was with one of his (felt like “our”) many friends. Some lived near us and I played with their kids (I recall the Pughs and the Robinsons). Every single person at Cessna treated me like I was accepted. I was in heaven.

On breaks they even told me what they were doing, how they were building this or that part of the plane, or solving a problem with a cable or hydraulic. How many first graders got to hear about Bernoulli deciding that anything can fly when you take air from above it, from a Cessna engineer who designed jets to fly? There was no acting like I didn’t exist like I usually got at the grocery store or pretty much everywhere else. Little girls in 1962 were to be seen and not heard. And often not even seen.

My dad taught me to think clearly and taught me how he solved problems: math, engineering and whatever he thought I could learn. He worked after dinner at the table, pencil and dividers and paper with drawings and calculations about his sailplane, Cessna planes and jets, calculations on the Citation (before it was named Citation). He taught me how to use thinking and engineering tools like a slide rule and single failure analysis and fuel calculations.

When adult women told me to stop letting anyone know I liked math, they said, “You’ll never find a husband; boys don’t like girls who are good in math.” I thought, “I don’t need to be around anybody who doesn’t like me, so I’ll be fine.” Mom was upset a lot about that, but Dad sat me down on the back porch in first grade and said “God gave you a fine mind. That means you can use it”.

As early as I can remember, I loved the Cessna hangars. My sisters and I got grimy dirty out in the hangars or near the assembly lines, but nobody ever complained until one day Mom saw us when we got home. After that Dad would make us wash up at the scrub sink by the hangar “people door” before we would leave work. A big deal to clean up before going home, and adults were shocked that I learned to read and say the word MANDATORY! from that.

Jim LaSueur
The author’s father, a test pilot to the end.

The big highlight was one day when they were doing touch and go’s. I am pretty sure my sister was done with the entire idea right away and wanted to go back up to the tower or the weather information ready room indoors where it was quiet and calm and air conditioned. I was all about the hangar and tarmac and watching Dad and his friends fly. It was all in a day’s work for them. But I knew better: the whole show was just for me.

Dad’s friends let me watch from ground level one afternoon at Cessna, when I am pretty sure Dad was flying one of the planes doing touch and go’s, and I was (or my sister and I were) in the care of one of our friends. Dad called his job “being paid to fly the finest sports car on the planet.”

I sat on the tarmac. I can relive that any time I want. Just hit the replay button. I am five or six years in a grimy playsuit. Sitting on the warm, sunny, grassy gravel tarmac by the working runway, I see the entire touch and go pattern clear from one side to the other. I wasn’t on the runway but may as well have been.

The roar of jet engines on the flight line, watching our Dad’s friends and Dad do takeoffs and touch and go’s on the Cessna working runway. That wall of sound and stage show utterly and forever crushed whatever a rock concert could serve up a few years later in the 70s.

Think of it – no, feel it: bone-crunching base roar overlaid on the sublime soprano scream of an A-37 Dragonfly touch and go. And another one. And another one. Front row seats on the ground tarmac. All afternoon. My ears blew backwards and met each other behind my head. Ribs and leg bones and arms and fingers all shaking in a bowl of shimmering Jello air. Eyes rattling in my skull, my mind attached to one screaming metal Cessna Military Division A-37 Dragonfly after another checking off their USAF delivery requirements. Touch and go. Touch and go. Simple words for the finest show on the planet. Heavy metal doesn’t get much heavier.

See the miniature plane way up out there to the right, then larger and larger and then louder and bigger approach down the runway landing path, thundering metal roaring scream hurtles over the runway from stage right to stage left, touch-wheels-black-rubber-smoke-puff over concrete then give ‘er fuel and afterburners up and away crescendo blaring din of burning, thundering sun-glare sliver metal black numbers bellowing rocketing climb, racing left at 75 or 120 or whatever screaming roaring knots, out into blue Kansas sky. Wafts of the piquant aroma of jet fuel. Deep breath. Close eyes. This is home. I am home. Mind numb jet roar clears away to the left. Now look up right, quiet descends from the last jet, and here comes the next one way out there to the right on the path. It’s Dad or one of his friends. This is home. Washed away by another roaring jet. And again.

A-37
The A-37 could make quite a noise – the original “heavy metal” for the author.

And again. All afternoon getting a sunburn and later in the car untying my ears and couldn’t hear much of anything for hours. So what? Didn’t care. Worth it. Got in trouble for the sunburn; Mom had a hissy fit. Never was allowed to watch outdoors again. Drat. Had to be in the hangar or the tower or the offices or the ready room watched by an adult so I wouldn’t go outside to watch the show from the front row. It’s possible Dad got in trouble for that child watching touch and go’s. You bet Dad knew I was enjoying the show. But I was deaf for at least a few hours so it didn’t work to talk with him when he taxied in and told me hello, picked me up and put me on his shoulders. I waved to people from up there but couldn’t hear a thing.

That was very early grade school, perhaps kindergarten or first grade on a summer vacation that was a regular work day for Dad. No concert could touch that ever. Rock bands were just wannabe’s. Period. End of story. I was hooked on military machinery for the rest of my life.

After the Touch and Go Landing Show, pretty much every afternoon in nice weather until we left Wichita, I climbed up to the top of the huge elm tree in our back yard to watch the touch and go’s from there and watch Dad and his friends, and remember what the tarmac felt like. That tree was the tallest around and I could see much of the Cessna Military Division runways. If the wind was right, I could smell the jet fuel. Nothing matched watching that show from the front row, but it was good to see Dad whenever the touch and go’s were running. I know he wasn’t flying each time, but I knew he wanted to be flying whenever the planes were up, and that was enough.

Enough about touch and go’s.

Citation first flight
Celebrating the Citation’s first flight (author’s father is the pilot on right).

There was a day (in 1960 perhaps) that Dad and his test flight made headlines in the Wichita Eagle. Mom and I and Patty (my babe-in-arms sister) were called to drive to Cessna and go up in the control tower watching Dad’s plane as he had trouble with the landing gear. It was front page headlines in the paper the next day. I recalled my living through it pretty well even though I was young. I knew the tower guys and watching Dad from the tower was not new to me; however it was new to Mom and she was a total wreck. I was surprised she didn’t know any of the equipment or people in the tower because I knew a lot of the equipment (like the radars and weather teletype and flight plans, omni’s, etc.) and almost all the people in the tower and she acted like she had no clue. She had never been up to the tower and didn’t know anybody.

I told her that Dad said all the planes are designed to belly-whop once, and that he would be fine. The tower director knew me and nodded yes, but mom was hysterical. There were fire trucks standing by on the runway. Months before explaining touch and go landings, Dad had explained landing gear failures to me at the dinner table. He drew landing gear, fuselage and explained forces of belly-whop on the plane. He said pilots and designers prefer a stable belly-whop with gear up, into a wheat field, not deliberately on concrete unless you have a trained foam crew there. I was ok with Dad belly-whopping the plane, but hoped the landing gear would work.

Dad was the finest mentor I had. I repeated his words in my head, and lived his example of a great pilot, facilitator and engineer that he gave all through the rest of grade school, high school, college and in the Navy. His words of advice kept me sane through some pretty interesting times.

Small example: Dad teaching me about driving. What great test pilots know: if you are a pilot, fly the plane. No matter what the plane does to you, fly the plane. When you stop deciding to fly the plane, you aren’t a pilot anymore. You are called baggage. Yes, spoken like a test pilot.

Trailer wreck
Thinking like a test pilot: “fly it all the way to the crash.”

In 2010 when my truck and 24-foot trailer with my household moving goods started whipsawing me on a two lane highway, (apparently the trailer brakes froze) I knew the increasing whipsaw would put me in oncoming traffic if I didn’t control the cycling. No matter what I did to counter-steer, reduce speed, etc. after four increasing whipsaws, I knew I was going out of control to one side of the road or the other in a couple more cycles. The trailer was winning. I heard Dad in stereo: fly the plane. Yes. I decided if I was going to one side or the other, I got to choose which side. As it sawed me toward the right to the ditch, I chose the gutter-ball into the ditch on the right rather than oncoming traffic.

Then I felt Dad’s thought: keep the cockpit in front of the tail. Told myself, “Keep the truck in front of the trailer” so I speeded up and turned the wheel toward the ditch as it cycled again to aim me at the ditch, then I braked the truck as the trailer objected by trying to overswing, putting the truck-trailer into a slight curve so momentum would line it up into the ditch, trying to avoid rolling it into the ditch on its side. It’s ugly to roll a trailer. I wanted something that could be towed out, not lifted out.

I walked away. The truck was fine, and the trailer was totaled. The load suffered a few broken wicker baskets. Yep, Dad’s training was awesome!

Dad had talked with me about my fears for his dangerous job (which I learned from my mother), and he was real clear that he would likely die in a plane crash, sooner or later, because he was a test pilot. He said, “That’s one of the hazards of being a test pilot.” That’s who he was, and that’s how it worked. I could either be fearful like my mom, or understand how he lived to fly and be the finest pilot he could be.

However, he reassured me because he was one of the finest pilots around (yes, sounds like a fighter pilot to the core) and I need not to worry too much. He would not be going down in an aircraft without having done all he could to fly the plane, no matter what it was trying to do. I knew that’s the way it worked, and a man has a right to live his passion.

I’d like to say thanks to the many fine men who worked with Dad, and who treated me with friendly respect even though a child in tow with hangar grime on face and clothing is not your typical item on an aircraft flight line. Along with Dad, the teams of fine men working the A-37 and Citation, from assembly line to hangar to engineering spaces, were huge influences for my career in military engineering.

13 Comments

  • Lovely story well told. It is rich in the element that is often omitted in many aviation stories … the deep personal emotional element … so often included by writers like Gann and Bach and unfortuately missed by others.

    Jim G.

  • I enjoyed reading this and hope to see more of your writing (about the other things you’re asked about).
    Also I not that your name is spelled in two different ways here.
    Which is correct?

  • Possibly one of – if not the finest descriptive paragraphs I’ve ever read “Think of it….”. I felt like I was sitting right next to you on the tarmac.

    Thanks for the by far best read today. Please share more with us about your experiences!

    • Mark, I am glad I could take you back there with me – mission accomplished. Credit goes to Patricia who crafted my stream-of-consciousness recollections into a story with her editing; she is a communications genius. Thank you very much Patricia. As for the A-37s’ touch and go tarmac show, I don’t know if that was even legal to do, then or now. As best I can tell, the statute of limitations has expired, the results were a sunburn, my teeth got a free ultrasonic cleaning, I still have near-perfect hearing, and I take a frothing rabid stance on single failure design principles (it’s about the mission, the pilots and the planes, ships, whatever, low snarl); so you probably would have lived through the show also and Cessna need not worry (as their attorneys hyperventilate- the jump from that 15th story window ledge looks like the best alternative). If I could bottle and sell my childhood world, I could buy my own aircraft carrier. Mark, I am so happy you could relive it with me. It was a joy to recollect and write the experiences. Not every child had a jet jockey Dad and his fighter pilot friends and a friendly Cessna plant; It was a grand world I treasure and a joy to share- So happy you liked it. If Patricia will put up with me and if the Cessna attorneys survive, I will write more recollections.

  • Mary, thanks for a fine story about a long-gone time. Children probably aren’t allowed past the Cessna entry gate these days. I’m delighted you had the experiences and more so that you told us about them. To echo Mark and Lawrence, keep the stories coming.

  • Mary, thanks for a nice piece of writing. There are few aviation writers who can convey their experience as well as you have done. Readers take ownership of stories well told and are better persons for that. I hope you continue to find your inspiration and keep telling your stories.

  • I sold Milt the Cessna 402 that he bought “to carry the grand kids”. He was a lovely man and I spent time with him and your mom then.
    Great people and this is a lovely story.

    • I must thank you for that. I am one of those grandkids of Milt, and he did, indeed cart us around! I know I’m a couple years late in finding this article, but I loved it!

  • Mary, outstanding article! I remember when you first joined the military. You told me about some of the projects you were working on… Very interesting… I recall you were a brilliant engineer! Well, I have had the privilege of working on our nations space program for the past 32 years. I have often wondered about the exciting programs you worked on. I remember you couldn’t provide details at that time. Sorry I missed you in Texas last week, I was out of town at the time. I would love to catch up with you, email me when you get a moment… Thanks, Kevin

  • Mary, thank you for these memories. I knew your Dad when he spent time at Edwards AFB in California working with GE to do engine testing. He was a special person and I was very saddened to learn of his crash in 1974. It has been many years now but it is wonderful that you have such special memories of him.

  • Thank you so much for this article. Milt Sills, the other pilot in your picture, was my grandpa. I smiled the entire way through your memories of being in the hangars, because I have my own memories of him taking me with him to work. It was a number of years later, so those hangars were full of Citations by that point. I just love this.

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