Pilots really are made, not born… I’m proof

The canvas golf club bag I was carrying was pretty heavy for a lad as small as I was at that time. I was caddying at the local country club on weekends in order to pick up a little extra money. During the summer weeks, I would tie tomatoes for one dollar a thousand, some days earning as much as four dollars. A little extra never hurt, so the weekends saw me on the golf links. Dick Wenzel, who would remain a friend for more than sixty years, was caddying with another party of golfers that day, and my twosome was behind his group. No wonder! My golfers were a married couple, he to his wife and bourbon, she to bourbon, her husband, and a terribly gaudy wardrobe. Both were a bit tipsy, but they were having lots of fun, and the weather was truly fine.

I was standing where I shouldn’t be, smack in the middle of the second fairway, gazing up the Ohio River at a Stinson Voyageur as it descended toward the small Duck Creek Airport just across the highway from where I stood transfixed by the sight.

At first I thought the Stinson was going to make a landing on the small, grass strip, but the pilot only flew low across the field to drop a canvas bag of some sort from the open cabin door. I couldn’t believe it — I was watching a mail plane deliver the mail!

Golf caddies
Flying is fun. Golf? Now that’s dangerous.

The pilot climbed to turn east out over the Ohio River toward the West Virginia hills, circled upriver, and then turned south again to swoop back for another very low pass across the field. This time, I could see a line trailing out behind the plane, one that appeared to terminate at some sort of big three-pronged fishing hook.

The pilot continued to descend until the plane looked to be about six or eight feet above the green strip, then I saw him yank another bag from the ground with that dangling hook and pull the Stinson up sharply. Only later would I learn that this was the routine mail pickup procedure at this field, and that those pilots who still today tow advertising banners behind their little airplanes use the very same technique.

WHACK!

The shock of a driven golf ball striking the club bag I was leaning against woke me from my daydream. The ball had hit the bag, held in place with my crossed arms atop the club heads, just below my belt level. A sobering thought struck me: golfing was clearly more dangerous than flying around in an airplane. I knew right then that flying would be my world, though I had no idea how I was going to go about starting the whole process. I never caddied again, though, and I’ve never learned to play golf. Golf has always struck me as something of a dangerous undertaking.

Just after World War II, I used to watch returned U.S. Navy pilot Danny O’Neill flying off that same little grass strip. He flew an airplane the navy called an SNJ, the same model that the Army Air Corps was calling a T-6. Danny would slide grandly through town toward the little grass airstrip behind the wheel of his brand-new, bright red, Chrysler Town-and-Country convertible, drawing sighs from all the local girls. Jeepers! Did all pilots get that sort of attention? A dandy fringe benefit, I thought, if that were true. Turned out that it isn’t.

It wasn’t much later that a captured Japanese two-man submarine was displayed in my hometown of 12,000 residents. Strapped to a flatbed trailer, the tiny yellow submarine fascinated me as much as it thrilled my classmates.

But the thought of being a thousand miles from a place where one could actually touch bottom drew something of a dampening image. I reckoned I would avoid submarines and just stick to the flying, if I could ever find a way to get that activity started.

C-54
Not a bad introduction to the Air Force – too bad it was in the back.

It was years later that I found myself in the uniform of the United States Air Force. Not as a pilot, but as a passenger, boarding an aircraft for my first ever airplane ride. I was relocating from Great Falls, Montana, to Silver Lake, Washington, and my ride was an Air Force C-54, one of those four-engine jobbies that civilian airlines were then calling the DC-4. Douglas had made it, but I don’t think they expected this one to be quite so Spartan. No seats, only canvas webbing along either side of the fuselage for seating.

I was sitting on the dirty plywood floor when, through the open loading doors, sailed a thrown crash helmet and a parachute. Behind these implements came an Air Force Captain, stocky, blond, blue-eyed, and all smiles. You know the kind: crooked smile, even teeth, Steve Canyon in uniform. Once inside, he yanked the ‘chute off the floor, brandished it high above his head, and said in a loud voice, “I can see the headlines now: ‘C-54 CRASHES — ONE SURVIVOR.’” The panache of a real live single-engine fighter pilot, I thought.

The flight over the Rocky Mountains didn’t last long enough for me, since the entire time was spent in listening to the hangar flying tales of a genuine, in-the-skin fighter pilot.

The Air Force didn’t teach me to fly, though I was once scheduled for the OCS (Officer Candidate School) class that would later see me assigned to flight school. I learned that I would first have to re-enlist for six years, and I didn’t want to give Uncle Sam any more than the four years I had already signed on for. It hurt, but I passed on the chance.

The Air Force had sent me to Alaska for a two-year tour of duty. I was railroaded into that transfer, really, and all because I had chased a nosy lieutenant from the radar blockhouse at a small RADAR site in Montana, where he had no security clearance—and no real business—to be in the first place. As it turned out, he couldn’t have done me a bigger favor. I absolutely loved Alaska and all its empty grandeur. At the end of those two years, I took my discharge at Wright Patterson Air Force Base at Dayton, Ohio, and scooted right back to the Big Empty.

Having been a hunter and fisherman all my young life (it was sometimes necessary for us, if we intended to eat regularly), I continued to hunt and fish the great Alaska outback. Trouble was, the only way to get from here to there in that wild country was by air. This was it, then. I simply had to earn my pilot wings.

On October 23, 1955, I marched resolutely across the frozen ground adjacent to Anchorage Merrill Field’s east-west runway. I didn’t know then that it was more properly called Runway 6 or Runway 24, depending upon the direction a pilot would be pointed for either his takeoff or his landing. I was headed for the Operations Office – rather a grand term, in those days – of Safeway Airways, our local Piper aircraft distributor and flight school.

Merrill Field
Merrill Field, where it all began.

Inside a small lean-to attachment to the Quonset hut-shaped hangar was the flight office. And, inside that office, I got my first look at Mr. George Kitchen. I’ve called him George for six decades now, but I still think of him as Mr. Kitchen.

Robert Redford he wasn’t, but a pilot he certainly was. Affixed to one wall of his small office was a certificate of commendation from the Civil Aeronautics Administration, that Department of Commerce arm now known as the Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Agency. The commendation was for having safely soloed more than one thousand student pilots! That was the equivalent of ten thousand hours as an instructor, and I know George did a lot more than just mete out flight instruction to young would-be pilots. I knew, too, that he had trained U.S. Navy pilots before he returned to civilian life to begin training the one thousand young airplane drivers for which he had earned both the CAA’s gratitude and that certificate of accomplishment.

George gave me my first hour of dual instruction that day. Flying over a world covered in the flat white of a fresh snow, I was lost from the moment the wheels left the ground until the engine was shut down an hour later. Everything on the ground looked the same to me, except for the nearby Chugach Mountains, and I knew right then that I was never destined to fly. How in the hell did anyone up there know where he was? I was truly discouraged and downhearted.

By the end of my fourth hour of dual flight instruction, I could perform a two-turn spin – in either direction – and pull back out into level flight within ten degrees of a pre-determined heading. Oh – and I’ve never been lost again, by the way.

I would solo out on Friday the 13th in April of 1956, after seven hours of dual instruction. Personal finances would delay the private pilot’s license until the following year. March 4th, 1957, to be exact. In looking back, I wonder if I might not have scared the flight instructor out of his wits that cold March day: he actually forgot to sign my pilot log book!

Later, while flying alone to build up the required local flying hours before cross-country solo flight would be allowed, I would time my low altitude practice flights to coincide with the Alaska Railroad train schedule. The aging train would leave Anchorage headed for Seward, passing south and east on its way out of the city. It also traveled right through the low practice area. I began to time the train and to adjust my airplane’s speed to the speed of the train.

Alaska railroad
The perfect tool for practicing flow flight…

That way, I was able to carefully settle atop a boxcar with the main landing gear straddling the centerline of the car, riding along with the tail in the air and the two main wheels firmly planted on the top of the car. I don’t advise this sort of thing, but those were different days and Alaska was most definitely a different place. I don’t know if that foolishness added to my skill level, but it did boost my confidence. You can decide whether that added confidence was, in the last analysis, a good or a bad thing.

After passing both the written and the practical exams, and being awarded the private pilot license I had worked so hard to get, my friends seemed to crawl out of the woodwork, always needing a ride to some distant place. I was so busy I forgot that I was going to quit this foolishness, and by the time I had reached my 60th flying hour, something about flying changed dramatically for me.

I remember going to the airport one morning, carefully pre-flighting the little Aeronca, and then, instead of getting into it, I simply put it on. It was just like slipping into my favorite old jacket. The little plane seemed to fit me perfectly. From that day to this, I just slip the airplane on and go wherever I decide to go. The airplane has no choice but to follow along with me. It was a whole new experience. I’ve learned that not every pilot goes through that metamorphosis, but I certainly did.

At first, I certainly didn’t come naturally to flying. It was definitely an acquired skill for me, and, without question, not one with which I had been born. Truthfully, I wasn’t all that good at it in the beginning. In fact, I was sometimes so disappointed in poor landings or half-accurate spins or skidding turns that I had decided I would give it up right after earning my private pilot certificate. I just didn’t like it all that much. Still, I wasn’t about to just up and quit. My father never started a job he didn’t finish, and that sort of thing rubbed off on me. I’ll be eternally grateful for that.

Aeronca Champ
The Champ – first airplane and occasional bushplane.

I thought I had failed my flight test before I had completed my first turn after takeoff. The examiner in the back seat of that little 65-hp Aeronca asked me what the rudder was for, I told him it was to help turn the airplane. He shouted, “Take me back!” Then he explained what that control surface really did.

Later in the checkride, he asked me for a power on stall. I had determined to perform every maneuver in a very positive manner, so I added power, pulled the nose up, w-a-a-a-y up! The examiner took immediate control of the little airplane and told me I had just scared years off his life. “Let me show you a hammerhead stall,” he said. On the way up, he described to me the tragic effects of a tail slide in anything other than a military fighter plane. Only my stalls, spins, and skids boosted me through that checkride, I’m sure.

After I had “earned my ticket,” as they say, I realized that personal airplanes, like boats, are pretty much just big holes in the sky, and into which their owners throw large sums of money. I had to somehow earn the money to afford the flying machines.

I took the two oral and one written examinations that led to my licensure as a Territory of Alaska Registered Guide (later State of Alaska Registered Guide), and, over the years, have made just about enough money to keep my airplanes in the air—and to sometimes be able to pocket the little dab that was occasionally left over.

And, from that day to this, I have never looked back.

1 Comment

  • What a delightful and beautifully written story. Thank you! Flying in those conditions is unimaginable to me as an owner of an upgraded Beechcraft with multiple redundant systems and devices. Great reading, though!

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