I never knew what answer to give when someone asked how long it took me to learn to fly. My first flight was with my uncle at the age of four, and I spent a lot of time hanging around the airport with a friend in my pre-teen years. A World War II BT-13 training plane was rotting away behind one of the hangars, and we spent hours sitting in the seats, moving the stick and rudder pedals, and pretending we were years and miles away.
When my wife went to work for a doctor who owned an airport and taught aviation ground school, I attended the course in 1969 and successfully passed the written test; but another year passed before I actually took a lesson—and even that was a single flight in 1970 from a dirt strip south of Tulsa. On my way to the second lesson, the gears in our car’s differential locked up, and that was the end of my flying plans for seven more years.
During my senior year of medical school, I spent 20 hours at a genuine flight school with a real instructor. I progressed through my solo flight and enjoyed everything but practicing stalls. The instructor was a believer in teaching spins (which not everyone agrees with), and it proved provident during a summer afternoon solo practice session when the Cessna 150 rolled over on its back and pointed its nose downward in a developing spin during a full-power departure stall. Recovery was simply a matter of reducing the throttle, leveling the wings and bringing the nose just below the horizon, pushing the rudder opposite the spin, and allowing the wing to reestablish lift and transition into level flight. It scared me, though, because it was not what I had expected; and I found that the rest of my life took priority for the next four years before I worked my way back into the cockpit.
There were four other pilots among our 16 residents, and much of the conversation in the lounge involved hangar flying as the pilots swapped tales. The senior resident became director of aerospace medicine for NASA in Houston. I later rented his hangar, and he and I would talk about long-range plans for space exploration—including multigenerational missions to the stars.
When three of us began to think about establishing an entirely new clinic, we decided that our corporation needed an airplane as well. We bought a slightly-used Cessna 182, and I resumed flying lessons.
The classroom was the two-seat Cessna 152, since the 182 was too big and powerful to use for basic training. Even the power-on stalls went well, and the new instructor was one of those who did not like to allow the plane to enter a spin. I don’t think he liked stalls any more than I did; we both felt that an airplane was meant to fly rather than lose its lift and flutter through the process of reacquiring normal airflow over the wing.
The time came in September 1981 when he felt I knew my required maneuvers and could communicate the answers to the oral questions well enough to take the flight test for the private pilot’s license.
The FAA examiner met me at the airport café over morning coffee. He proposed a hypothetical flight and watched as I planned the route, obtained the information on weather and airports along the way, and filed a flight plan. We each weighed about 200 pounds, and the plane’s full gasoline tanks would put us slightly over the maximum gross weight certified for the Cessna. He was pleased I noticed, and we both agreed that since the overage would be minimal, we would not need to remove the gasoline already in the tanks.
I preflighted the airplane, listened the current ATIS, talked to the tower, and taxied to the end of the runway. The takeoff was smooth, and he instructed me to cancel the flight plan for the distant city after he was convinced I had established the proper course and knew to watch for the landmarks while confirming our position with the navigation radios. We then proceeded to the practice area southwest of Tulsa and, after clearing turns, performed the basic maneuvers required to show I knew how to control the airplane in all areas of performance, including stalls with power off and power on. There was no spin.
Then the FAA examiner reached over and pulled the throttle to idle. Looking at me, he said, “You’ve lost your engine. Pick out a place for an emergency landing.” This was not unexpected since my instructor had done the same thing many times, and emergency procedures are a basic part of any flight examination.
I pushed the nose down to establish the best glide speed and began to figure out where I was. Looking at the ground three thousand feet below, I recognized the dirt strip where I had taken that first lesson eleven years before. It was almost directly below, and the only obstruction was the high-voltage power line nearby.
“I know this is a grass runway just below us,” I said. “I’ll just circle down and set up for a landing there.” He looked a little surprised, but he just nodded his agreement to try. The circling approach went perfectly, and I leveled the wings a half-mile from the end of the field on the correct glide-path. Normally, the instructor or examiner will push the throttle back in and power up the engine at about 500 feet when it is clear whether the landing will be successful. This time, however, the examiner just kept his hands in his lap, and I continued across the fence and onto the ground with a smooth roll-out.
“Nice job,” he said as I taxied back and took off. “Let’s go home. You know what you’re doing.”
It felt good to have a landing on the runway where I took my first lesson to seal the deal on my flight test. It gave life a circular completeness which unified the whole process.
As he filled out the temporary pilot’s certificate and the record of successful flight test, the examiner said, “A pilot’s license is a license to learn. You don’t know everything you will need to know, but it says you know enough to keep yourself out of trouble. Use it wisely, and congratulations.”
And with those words, he opened the door of the airplane and walked back to the café, leaving me, a newly-minted pilot, with a license to learn as I faced the joys and dangers ahead.