Among the hundreds of flights in my logbook, there are three flights, and a memory of my first airplane ride with my dad, that define my love for aviation and are the DNA of my flying soul. As I have I have gotten older, I’ve come to understand how these four flights, spread out over 30 years, have given me the love that I have for flying, and appreciation for the opportunity to have shared it with my parents.
I’m a general aviation pilot and now a part owner of a Cirrus SR20 and I can’t remember a time in my life that I didn’t want to be a pilot or be around airplanes. When I was about 8 years old (early 1970s), I discovered a small local airport named Zahn’s, located just a 10 minute bike ride from my home. [Editor’s Note: Zahn’s Airport was a private airfield in North Amityville on Long Island, New York. It operated from 1936 to 1980, eventually becoming one of the busiest general aviation airfields in the United States.]
Zahn’s was my first up-close exposure to an airport and airplanes, and I remember riding my bike there as much as possible and poking around the hangars and airplanes. There was no TSA or security chasing me away and I don’t remember a single time someone told me to leave. I was often welcomed by the pilots there and the airport became a playground on summer days that I could hang around to watch airplanes and talk to whoever would engage me about flying.
When Zahn’s closed, most of the aviation-related activity moved to Farmingdale (KFRG) a few miles to the north. This didn’t deter me from talking to my parents about flying and airplanes and how someday I was going to be a pilot. My grandparents lived close to JFK and my parents would often take me there to see the “big planes.” In those days, you could go right to the gates and I can still recall seeing my first 747 parked at a gate. My parents weren’t pushing aviation on me, but there was an implied interest. I just didn’t know it.
When I was about 15, my dad started to take flying lessons. Money was tight, but my dad’s desire to learn to fly was strong so he scraped together money whenever he could to take lessons. I asked if I could take a ride with him during a lesson and with his instructor’s approval I had my first airplane ride in the back of a Piper Warrior, one that my dad was flying. I don’t remember everything from that flight, but I have a clear memory of my dad in the pilot seat and his flying that airplane, and I knew that I would learn to fly. Unfortunately, my dad would get very motion sick on every flight and had to abandon his dream of becoming a pilot. At the time I didn’t fully understand how hard this would be for him and how much this flight would impact my life.
A few years later, I enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and I was fortunate to be stationed at Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry Point, North Carolina. During lunch, I could sit and watch the A6s and Harrier jump jets and often sit near the end of one of the runways to watch Marine jets come and go. It was during my time in the Marine Corps that I started to learn to fly at a local flying club and, as a young Marine who didn’t make a lot of money, lessons came sporadically. When I left the service and started to build a new life, flying took a back seat to school, career and family, but I would occasionally take a lesson here and there and never gave up on my dream. My parents were always interested in how my flying was going and Dad would always remind me that he gave me my first ride in an airplane.
Finally, the stars aligned and I was able to earn my private pilot’s license, and there were no prouder people then my parents, who were now living in Florida. It was during a visit in November 1997 that I was able to give my mom her first and only GA airplane ride in an old and reliable Cessna 150 at Merritt Island Airport in Florida (KCOI).
Leaving KCOI we flew down and around Cocoa Beach and over my parents’ home in Melbourne. Mom loved the shuttle launches so I had a nice surprise for her: a flight over the runway the shuttles land on when they return from space. Requiring special clearance and getting it, we were cleared to fly down the shuttle landing runway at about 100 feet. Mom had a great time and, as we returned to Merritt Island, she had a huge smile on her face. Later that evening, she was making phone calls to friends and family telling them her son took her flying.
When it came time to take my dad, we both liked the idea of flying to Vero Beach to tour the Piper Factory.
My father loved the fact that we flew in for the tour and told anyone who would listen that his son “flew us in” for the visit. As often happens in Florida, there would be some afternoon bumps and we hit some on the flight back to Merritt Island. The bumps caused dad discomfort and traffic didn’t afford me the chance to minimize turns. I was hoping to work out a straight in approach, which did not work out, but Dad never complained. When I looked over at him, I could see him turning pale.
We landed and parked and Dad was quickly out of the airplane, but he never got sick. My dad only spoke about how fun it was and how great it was to fly with his son. Later that evening, we reflected on the flight and I could see and hear his disappointment that he never finished his training, and yet he was happy to have flown with his son.
As with many GA pilots, time, family, money, and responsibilities often kept me from the cockpit. Mom got sick and passed away from cancer in 2006. The flight I took her on was the only fight we would ever share together.
I finally made a dream come true in 2013 when I purchased a share of a Mooney 201J. Around the same time, my father was diagnosed with early stage onset of Alzheimer’s. Anyone who has a family member, friend, or knows someone with this disease knows how hard it is on everyone. Dad was still having some good days and it was during Christmas of 2014 that I took my dad for a ride in the Mooney.
One cold late December day, Dad and I lifted off from Farmingdale airport and flew along the north shore of Long Island, around KISP’s Class C airspace, to the south shore of Long Island and back to Farmingdale. The winter air was smooth and, when I asked Dad how he was, he said he was fine. He made a point to remind me that my first airplane ride was with him and I chuckled and told him that I appreciated it.
As we approached KFRG for landing, we flew right over the old Zahn’s airport property, something that always puts a small smile on my face. The smooth landing was bittersweet and I knew this may be one of the last times we would share a flight together. During our time in the air, I realized that my father wasn’t going to get sick. It wasn’t just the smooth air and gentle turns but dad had lost that memory; he didn’t remember that he used to get sick and I guess his body didn’t either. This was both sad and a blessing and didn’t diminish the fact that he was fully aware of the flight and the moment.
I recorded the flight to preserve the memory and share with family and friends but to also hold onto for myself. Despite his illness, my dad still remembers the flight and continues to remind everyone that he gave me my first airplane ride. I’m glad he remembers that and I’m grateful that he allowed me to join him for that flight over 30 years ago. I’m also happy that I have shared with him a flying memory with his son, one he still can remember and still talks about. It’s our flying gift to each other.