Coming down with the aviation bug: why me?

It is a calm, sunny Sunday afternoon, and I am at 1500 feet AGL in the old Chief, cruising south to the Shelbyville, Indiana airport, to practice short-ish field landings on their grass crosswind runway. Looking to my right, there is my regular flying companion, my late father, or my sense of him. I talk to him now and then, but he seldom answers, just looking straight ahead, pale and waxen in the way he was toward the end, but with a slight smile of encouragement.

Today, I want to ask him why aviation came to be such a central part of my thinking and my life, despite my never having made a dime with an airplane, or been an especially skilled pilot, or having grown up in a flying family. But he leaves me to ponder alone.

Hunter Heath family, 1920, with airplane
Texas, 1920. The author’s father is the toddler with the stylish hat. Clearly, there was no aviation safety officer present.

In the old joke, insanity is hereditary: you get it from your children. But in this case, my aviation insanity definitely came from my father. How he got it, I’m not sure, but there are clues. The oldest–and only–picture of my father with both parents and his two half-brothers shows him as a toddler in his father’s arms, about 1920, standing by a WWI biplane, remarkably close to the moving propeller. Did Dad catch the bug then? Or did he get it from Charles Lindbergh, who crossed the Atlantic when Dad was nine years old? I know that many boys of the era fell in love with airplanes then.

Was it in 1935, when Dad was in the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), standing in an Idaho fire tower with a Forest Service radioman, when word came that Wiley Post and Will Rogers had died in an Alaska floatplane crash? For certain, when WWII broke out, Dad tried to get into the Army Air Corps, but was rejected because he was 6 foot two and rail-thin. When he finally got a good job, assembling oil-exploration seismographic equipment for Schlumberger in Dallas, Dad started flying lessons in a 40 hp J-2 Cub, and got his private license just before I was born. After two forced landings (not a rare thing in the old Cubs and T-crafts, I am told), Mom said, “You have a child now, enough of this flying nonsense.” Maybe it was that, maybe it was just money, but he quit flying around 1942.

I’ve written here before about how our family car often turned in at the Lubbock, Texas airport after church, how I built rubber-powered balsa models of Champs and Taylorcrafts and Navions and F-86 Sabrejets, flew U-control planes, and how girls and motorscooters and cars ended, or perhaps just suppressed, that infatuation. But through all my growing up, Dad didn’t fly. On those occasions when he got us rides with friends, I always got airsick and usually puked. Perhaps that’s why I never asked for flying lessons as a teenager. There were no aviation magazines lying around the house, and airplane talk seldom came up at mealtime. We were not an “aviation family,” but there was something invisible going on.

Hunter Heath at age 13
Lubbock, Texas, 1955. The author in his 13-year-old Sunday Best, kicking tires at the airport. The public was welcome to roam the ramp freely and peer into any airplane.

Only after I’d left for medical school and my younger brother graduated from high school did Dad announce that he was going to fly again. Many years had gone by, so he took the entire private pilot curriculum all over, got a second license (How? Maybe FAA records weren’t very good in the 1960s!), and began flying regularly. I heard about all this by mail. Mom was a cheerful passenger, and they traveled all over Texas and up to see us in Minnesota. Dad was an early EAA member, bought a Taylorcraft fuselage and an engine, and began accumulating parts to rebuild the plane. On a visit to Texas, Dad took my wife, son, and me to Mom’s home town so I could record interviews with pioneer family members. We traveled in a C-172 on a windy, dusty, choppy day, and his 90 degree crosswind landing scared the crap out of us, though I later recognized how skillfully it was done. Afterward, I wrote Dad a letter explaining why I would never be a pilot. It was a great 9 years of flying for Dad, until he fell into ill health and died at 61.

I wrote here earlier (I Knew They Were Going to Die That Day) about how my father’s death motivated me to get my private license, then an airplane, then my instrument rating; how I met EAA founder Paul Poberezny and became closely involved with EAA, founding the aeromedical advisory council, and writing regularly for their magazine. All this seemed strange and wonderful and completely unexpected. Over just a few years, a loss-driven desire to fly had segued into a purple passion for “all things aviation.” I acquired new friends, found hidden talents, influenced a few things, got to ride in exotic airplanes (antique biplanes, a P-51, AT-6, T-28, B-17, and more). All these things poured fuel on the passion.

These things happened in the midst of a busy–consuming–medical research and administration career, so my aviation pursuits were squeezed into life’s interstices. Once-high flying hours declined steadily as professional commitments grew. A job change led me to sell my old Skyhawk, and a 60-75 hour work week kept me on the ground. Another job change yielded the same pressures, and flying stayed on a back burner. Fifteen years went by without much flying, except in the Great Aluminum Mailing Tubes. As retirement approached, I assumed that my flying days were over, but two key things happened: the coming of the Sport Pilot category, and receiving by email the trailer for a marvelous, romantic film, One Six Right. Late one evening, I viewed the trailer, and tears streamed down my cheeks. I watched it twice more, then went to my wife and told her that “I have to fly again.” The next week, I started looking for a Sport Pilot eligible airplane.

Aviation became a major life focus in retirement, with membership in two EAA chapters, gradually restoring the 1946 Aeronca Chief, reading extensively on aviation history, and spending endless hours thinking about airplanes, aviation people, the FAA, weather, aviation technology, and more. The purple passion returned in full cry. Strangely, though, I haven’t actually flown a great deal, partly because my fair-weather airplane has been down so often, but partly because the act of flying itself may not be the core of my passion.

So, I return to the question I posed to the familiar phantom in the right seat: how–why–did aviation became such an encompassing passion? It was not a constant in my life, no one was selling it to me, I didn’t have flying friends, the busy-ness of life made it inconvenient in many ways, it was expensive, my wife was supportive but not interested… What happened?

In a recent op-ed piece, “Too Late Gives No Warning. If You Have Dreams, Put Them Into Action Today,” Budd Davisson may have gotten to the core of my question. Writing about people who plan to take up flying “some day,” or “after I retire,” Davisson notes that “Not until they actually dip their toes into three-dimensional waters do they begin to realize that aviation is so much more than simply flying. It’s much more than airplanes. It’s a universe unto itself that is its own community and is ready-made to be a thoroughly fulfilling, cradle-to-grave lifestyle.” A community! A lifestyle! Things become perhaps clearer.

Hunter Heath's grandson at controls of Chief
Indianapolis, 2011. The author’s oldest grandson, Benjamin, at the controls of the Chief. He appears already to have that dreamy aviator look in his eyes.

In an effort to fulfill a dream of my father’s, I unwittingly opened a door into that universe of fascinating and welcoming people, machines, physics, weather studies, rules, companionship, community, adventure, and constant learning. I was asking the wrong question: the real issue is, why the devil did it take me so long to open that door? I do not regret one minute of time spent on aviation matters, nor do I regret a dollar of the many spent. My main regret is that I did not insist on flying lessons when I was a teenager, feed the passion, and share it with my father when we were both young. Oh, the years I missed! The airplanes we could have flown, the places we could have gone!

Instead, my clock is winding down, and my flying days are limited. However, I do not think hanging up the headset for good will douse the passion. Flying friends who need ballast, EAA activities, books, aviation films, and always learning will, I think, sustain me. Dear reader, take Budd Davisson’s advice: “Aviation is best lived if started young, but it’s never too late to start.” If you have the passion, feed it! Sadly, my son is not in a position to get involved, living abroad in an enormous, aviation-hostile city. But there are two grandsons who think Grandpa’s airplane is pretty cool…

9 Comments

  • Oh my God. I work for Schlumberger in Texas I am about to finish god willing my ppl and my baby is due in early March. Flying has been so difficult for me! I work 6 days and have 3 days off. On those days off I drive more than 5 hrs round trip to go to flight school. Cumulatively I have been doing it like this for more than a year on and off. Why do I keep going? Because I am afraid, if I don’t do it, that some day I would turn back and have that crushing bad feeling for no trying. I just hope that I can buy a plane as soon as possible and fly with my family until I get tired.

  • Oh, Sal! I hate to tell you, but you have the aviation bug, and it is probably incurable. But you’ll learn to live with it. Best wishes for completing your PPL, having a healthy baby, & many years of happy aviating.
    Hunter

  • Haha, too familiar! Getting sick as a boy flying with my dad and yet the flying bug settled permanently. I have been flying over half my life (turning 34 this year) and I love to fly with my two daughters to visit the beach and look at the seals, and who knows… maybe they’ll take me up flying at the age of 75 (as a did with my father last weekend). Great fun.

    • Mark, be optimistic about flying at PIC at 75. My former airplane partner is still flying “our” old C-172 in his early 80s. In the year of his 80th birthday, he took me out in the Skyhawk on a windy day that required two takeoffs and two landings with 90 degree crosswinds. His procedures were textbook-perfect; as I watched his technique, I wished it could have been recorded on video for teaching purposes. Stay healthy, and stay current!

  • Great story! Outside of my uncle who I only saw once every few years, I had no family members who flew. I’ve built umpteen model planes over the years and at age 40 began flying lessons. Life gets in the way, and ten years later I still only have those first 20 hours of lessons behind me. One of these days I will be able to get back to it, but until then, flying is constantly on my mind.

  • Have you ever thought of going soaring? No medical, many self-launch sailplanes capable of taking off under their own power. Even the older ships are still great to fly. I started in the 1950’s as a teenager, my Dad flew gliders/airplanes for his whole life. I did too until a few years ago.
    We still have a light-sport which I go up in off and on. Flying has always been a passion for me. I have power and glider ratings.
    Go find a gliderport! That’s a real sport different from power flying.
    Glad you were able to get back in the Air……a most special place to be! Enjoyed your article immensely.
    Toodie Marshall, High Sierra’s in California.

    • Toodie, thanks for your comments. Soaring was the first thing I tried when dipping my toe into aviation in the early ’80s. Took an introductory ride at the great Northfield, MN soaring field: puked (I wrote about the experience in “Soaring” magazine some years ago). Later, I joined a local soaring club, took a couple of lessons, and dropped out. Long story, but it just wasn’t my kind of flying, due to crew requirement, inflexibility, and lack of point-to-point ability. As for Light Sport, I have flown under that rule since its beginning. When I have to give up flying certificated or Experimental aircraft, perhaps I’ll give ultralights a try. They look like pure fun, and a ballistic parachute would lower the risk.

  • Wonderful story! As I read it, I was reminded of my introduction to aviation. When my father, a former Air Force enlisted man, took me to the South Bend Regional airport, rented a CFI and a 172 for an hour long flight over our city in the mid to late 70’s. He loved aviation, but could not afford the hobby. He passed away a few years later shortly after my 14th birthday. I never forgot that ride and the enthusiasm we share that day. Now, some 40 years later, I have begun flying hoping to get my PPL in a few months. I too will look to the seat next to me and picture my father flying with me full of pride and enthusiasm. Thanks for sharing your story!

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