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.
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.
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.
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.