Learning to fly before I can drive

It might be hard for you to understand how lucky I am, but I am certain of it at this very moment. I’m on my way to take one of my flying lessons. I am 16 years old and I started a few weeks ago at Colts Neck Airport near Freehold, New Jersey.

It is an absolutely beautiful summer day and I am on my way to the airport, on the last leg of the journey to get there. I want to etch this scene, this experience permanently in my mind. I don’t ever want to forget this day, this exact time because, even though I am still a kid, I am aware of the summer sublimity I am experiencing. I want to keep it with me forever; it is perfection in my mind.

It’s not easy for me to get to my flying lessons because in New Jersey you have to be 17 years old to drive and that won’t be for another year for me. My journey starts by walking from my home in Holmdel through a neighbor’s horse field to get to the highway by the corner of Schanck Road and Route 34 where I stick my thumb out and start hitchhiking in front of Molzon’s Tavern. It doesn’t take long. Somebody always stops and offers me a ride. Usually, I make it all the way to the corner of Routes 34 and 537 in Colts Neck, a little over four miles away. From there all I have to do is cut across the corner and enter a farm lane.

Road by fence
Not a bad way to arrive at the airport.

The sun is shining, the wind is calm, and there is a patchwork of those little puffy clouds set against an invitingly blue sky. In short, the air is delicious. I have been dreaming of this all of my short life and it is almost overwhelming as I contemplate it.

I am walking down a private dirt farm road just behind Delicious Orchards. When I first walked down this lane several weeks ago, a big dog came charging at me barking wildly as he approached. I love dogs so I extended my hand to him which he sniffed, licked, and then he walked by my side along the road lined with wildflowers and butterflies and the buzzing insects in air that is laced with the perfume of the different wildflowers. To me, it is all part of a dream come true. Walking down a country lane with a dog trotting along by my side escorting me to the end of the 2500-foot long, rutty, sometimes muddy grass runway.

It was always just a matter of fact to me that I would begin flying as soon as I was old enough. My father taught me how to fly model airplanes. I build and fly all kinds of them – free flight, U-control, radio control – and I love every minute of it. The biggest obstacle to flying real airplanes up until this point was my age. I had planned all along that, as soon as I could, I would get a work permit and get a job to pay for my lessons. That happened about six months ago: I got a job at Friendly’s ice cream in Matawan and I had enough money to start flying this summer after my sixteenth birthday.

Until now, most of my contact with flying real airplanes has been limited to reading about them. When I was in grade school, my class would walk holding hands, two by two, to the library where I would check out children’s books on learning to fly by Henry B. Lent. My favorite was Eight Hours to Solo. I must have read it four or five times over those years. Lately I have been reading, from cover to cover, Jules Bergman’s book, Anyone Can Fly. It’s about the steps he and his wife went through to earn their private pilot licenses. It is also chocked full of performance specifications on many popular aircraft. The Bergmans learned to fly in a Piper Tri-Pacer, and Wilco Aviation, the flight school at Colts Neck, has a Piper Colt in which I intend to get checked out in as soon as I can because it is cheaper to rent than the Cessna 150s that I am learning in.

Aviation books
When you can’t drive to ground school, this is what you do.

Now I have a copy of William Kershner’s, Student Pilot Flight Manual, and Acme School of Aeronautics’ Private Pilot FAA Exams, questions and explanations of answers. There is a married couple who is holding a night ground school course at Red Bank Regional High School but it costs 50 dollars and somebody has to pick me up and drop me off. I think I’ll just figure this stuff out on my own.

Colts Neck is a great airport for learning how to fly. It is stuck out in the middle of a very large corn field and has been around for some time now. Sometimes I get dropped off at the airport and there is a stop sign as you approach the hangars. This is because you are about to cross the short runway 14. Like any other stop sign you have to look both ways and then cross if you don’t see any traffic.

It is supposed to be a grass runway but you can’t tell it right after it rains. There is mud everywhere and lots of mud puddles, too. I quickly learn about soft field operations because the field is soft a lot of the time. There is an old WWII radio-controlled target drone mounted on a wheel axle and painted a faded yellow that serves as a wind indicator. I think the wind sock blew away. There is no control tower, which is a good thing, so a pilot has to become familiar with how to fit into the traffic on his/her own. Watch out for the gliders, too. If somebody leaves a master switch on, we just hand prop it. I hope to get a job here as a line boy if there is an opening someday.

All of the waiting and preparation have come to fruition as I walk along this road, dog by my side, on this perfect day. With sweet anticipation, the process that I have been waiting for forever has finally begun: I am on my way, and who knows where it will all lead as I jump the fence at the end of the runway and my canine escort wags his tail as he trots back home.

Bill David by airplane
A 16-year old in love with aviation.

It is just a short walk now past a half dozen or so little airplanes: Cubs, Champs, Cessnas and Stinsons that are tied down along the runway. I hop up on the old wooden porch and open the ragged old screen door to the office. Danny is sitting on the Coke machine; it serves ice cold bottles of soda. He is the senior guy around here. He was 18 years old when he got his Commercial license and he is still 18 years old and tows banners for Cecil. Cecil has Orville Wright’s signature on his pilot license. I’ll be going up with Rex today in 3110X. Man oh man, what a great day to learn how to fly.

Then, somewhere, I hear a faint noise way off in the distance. I begin to float upward, slowly at first, toward the surface and when I get there, I realize just how deep I was and I take a breath and look around. I’m in my motel room. Damn! It was my alarm clock. I gotta get up and get dressed – I have a sim session starting in about an hour. This will be the second to last check ride I have to take before I retire next year. I will be sixty-five years old then and will have 32 years of service at this airline but it seems like only yesterday I took my first lesson.

Boy, have I been lucky.

17 Comments

  • Bill, your story reads like poetry. You must have thought how fortunate you have been, not just to become a pilot, but to make a living doing something about which you are so passionate. Not many people are so lucky.

  • Great story Bill. You should continue on and tell “the rest of the story”. It is worthy of being published. I know of at least one 14 year old girl you made very happy when you welcomed her into your world and shared your knowledge for the last 6+ years.

  • Your story sounds pretty much the same as mine. I started off at Kupper airport in Manville, NJ. Only difference was, I took my first lesson on my tenth birthday. This is going back a few years. Cessna had some introductory thing going on way back then, for five bucks. You got a flight instructor, a fifteen minute flight, and a log book. I still have that ten page log book. A little tattered from age.
    I moved over to Somerset airport later on where I soloed and eventually got my private ticket. Very funny as I too needed a lift to the airport. I could fly a plane by myself, but couldn’t drive myself to the airport. Thanks dad!
    After that I went on to college and picked up all the remaining flight certifications to be a professional pilot. Then went on the get my airframe and power plant license as well.
    Now, at sixty two I’m retired, only I flew in the corporate world for my career, not airline.
    So you see, you and I are alike. Both having to have someone drive us to the airport to do what we loved to do, fly. And now, we are retired from what we loved to do.
    I only hope your retirement works out as well as mine has. Mine just started a few months ago, so it’s too early to tell for sure.
    Happy flying.

  • I imagine we all have something like this in the memory bank. My journey started when my work boss said “Sure, you can come in late tomorrow” and, at 59, I took my first lesson. But I was still really lucky.

  • Bill,

    So enjoyed you dream! I was on track for a similar experience. Wanted to solo on my 16th birthday which was on a Saturday so I could say I could fly by myself before I could drive. Here in California you could drive at 16, and on Monday I did pass my driver’s license, but no joy on the solo. I was doing badly on my landings. And when the instructor said, “Oh, you’ll probably do OK, let me see your paperwork.” I gave him my medical / student pilot license and said,” I didn’t get my radio telephone operators license in the mail, it never came”. Well he wiped his brow and said, “I can’t let you go without that!” Like he’s thinking, Thank God I don’t have to let this kid Kill himself today! Ha! We taxied back to the FBO, this was at Hawthorne in LA, and I was so upset that my long dreamed of goal was not to be. My friend who had driven me couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t get in the car to go home…just sat on a bench bawling my eyes out! Ha! I wrote a letter to the FCC whining to them about how they had caused me to not be able to solo on my 16th birthday. I got a letter back with certificate inside a previous letter sent back to them ‘Addressee Unknown.’ Huh? I then whined to the postmaster asking why this had happened and he said, Is your name on the mailbox?” And I said, “No, my step-dad’s name is but I get mail there all the time!” And he said, “You probably had a new substitute mail carrier that day and they’re trained to not deliver mail unless there is a name on the box.” The regular guy knew I lived there. So destiny intervened on my behalf with a bureaucratic glitch to keep me from possibly damaging a very nice Cessna 150! I was down on powered flight and turned my energies to flying gliders off El Mirage dry lake for the rest of the summer. Hi adventure for a 16 year old; auto towing a 2-33 with a beat up Chrysler 300 with no brakes pulling 3000 feet of steel wire across 5 Miles of dry lake! The next spring a coworker at the theater I worked at asked me to take him around to places to learn to fly. When we visited the place I’d flown out of at Hawthorne they ignored us. So we went across the driveway to Rose Aviation and this tall Texan instructor gathered us up like little chicks and I was hooked again. Soloed a few lessons latter in a pretty strong crosswind too…still 16, just not on my birthday and not before I could drive by myself. The experience started me thinking about how to find the silver lining in “What appears to be a bad thing but what is often a very good thing when looked at from 90 degrees to see what is really going on.”. A wonderful positive gift that has stood me well through these 50 years in love with Aviation since.

  • WOW ! After I got out of the Navy I had a neighbor who was trying to get his instrument rating and he flew out of Colts Neck. I used to go up with him as he flew under the hood. I got to know everyone at the field and when I wrecked my VW convertible I took some of my money and started flying. Shore Air was the FBO then, Duff Donald, a former AF pilot was the man. Paul Wille started Wilco after Shore Air sold out. My instructor was Dirk Tanis, a Purdue Aeronautical Engineering grad, and in a few hours I soloed.
    I remember Cecil well. He gave me a ride in his BT13 that he used for skywriting. He wrote “Go Torino Go” over the Daytona 500 one year and was one heck of a pilot. He had several planes including his beloved Bellanca. His super cubs pulled banners up and down the Jersey shore all summer.
    I also flew 3110X. It was an aluminum 150 with red trim. I flew it to what is now Reagan National to visit my sister and had a radio failure after contacting the airport. After flying a vectored triangle so they could identify me I got a clearance in. You can’t do that kind of flying today thanks to the events of 911 but back then you could.
    Colts Neck was a very busy place back then. Paul offered me a job watching the desk when everyone was out flying and to pump gas and clean windshields when the school planes needed it. I talked to Paul a few years back. He’s was still in the area and is involved with real estate in the Freehold area.
    They just don’t make airports like Colts Neck anymore. Or do they?

    • Rich,
      Yes sir, it was quite a place. I was so lucky to have experienced it. Dirk drove a VW bug, but it was really his wife’s. I think she was a school teacher. He checked me out in the Cub, and soled me in it on my first lesson. I did get a job there. Barry, Rex, and Elliot were my instructors along with Paul. Norm was the mechanic and Jack came by after he left. We called Danny, “the kid.” he towed for Cecil. I worked with Charlie, and Steve on the line. I saw Charlie at OSH a couple of years ago. I actually flew a trip with Steve about 27 years ago at the airline. Rex worked there too but retired about 5 years ago. Great memories for sure.

      Bill

      Bill

      • Hey Billy. I was happy to read your story. Captures the essence of a small grass airport experience. Some of the guys mentioned are still around. I retired 4 years ago off the A 330. Dont missthe flying but do miss the guys. Glad to hear from you and proud to have been your instructior.

  • Bill,
    Dirk’s wife was named Gay, and yes, she was a teacher. I’ve tried to find them but haven’t had any luck. I remember Elliot, it’s been so long for me that most of the names have left the memory bank. One I remember is Hank Traeger (Not sure of the spelling). He flew for World Air that was contracted to fly our troops to Viet Nam. I got to fly a charter with him in Shore Air’s Queen Air.
    Glad to hear someone else really liked Colts Neck too.

  • Bill,

    Your post took me back to the summer I soloed. It’s amazing how serene a small, rural field is. When you do hear something, it’s aviation related (e.g. another plane in the pattern, someone doing a touch & go). When other planes aren’t around, you smell the engine oil, hear the breeze impinging on the control surfaces during your preflight check… I’ll never forget it.

    One thing I always thought that year (and since), is I’d been better off learning to fly before learning to drive. Too many driving habits got in the way (e.g. pedals aren’t brake and gas, the yoke wouldn’t steer the plane on the ground, etc.). Of course, one can overcome those tendencies. But when you’re learning, they get in the way.

    Thank you, sir.

  • Bill
    Great story and memories of our early roots at Colts Neck. I remembered everyone you mentioned. I think I remember Joe Layton who worked for the post office that worked part time behind the desk. I also remember flying a trip with you on the B-737 many years ago. I’ve also enjoyed reading some of your other articles in the NAFI magazine.
    I’m retired from the airline but still flying daily as a Designed Pilot Examiner with the Orlando FSDO. Things have really changed and not always for the better. Having the kind of “grass roots” background we have is really special. We are all darn lucky!

    • Steve,
      Good to hear from you. I have the fondest memories of our time a Colts Neck. I wonder how many pilots, “graduated,” from there over the years? Thank you for your kind words. I am sure our paths will cross again.

      Bill

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