Chasing my shadow

It may have been falling apart – the cardboard and paper ripping at the seams and the ink slowly fading from its pages – but within it dwelled the memories and accomplishments of a young man striving to become a pilot. All of this I failed to realize as my grandpa’s logbook passed from his outstretched hands to mine just a few months before his death. From my hands, the logbook transferred to a dusty shelf in my room, where it remained for some time.

Grandpa's logbook
It looks like just an old logbook, and yet it’s so much more.

Looking back, I wish I had explored the stories hidden within the pages of the logbook the moment I received it, but, with college pulling me away, the weathered journal stayed at home collecting dust. And at that time, my grandpa was still alive and still sharing his stories. But about two years ago, when he passed away, the logbook took on a new meaning.

I never thought of my grandpa as my inspiration for becoming a pilot, but now I cannot separate my own pilot story from his. I do not know what it is exactly, maybe destiny, a divine call, or an aviation gene passed down through the generations, but after immersing myself in the stories written down on the logbook’s yellowing pages I discovered our inspiration to fly is inexorably linked. Drawn skyward by a fascination for aviation, we spent our youths doing all we could to learn more about our passion.

When we began our journeys as pilots-in-training, we were consistently driven by opportunities to challenge ourselves. Our passion for flying was also something we could not keep to ourselves, and our pilot stories often focus not on where we flew, but on with whom we flew. Initially, I may not have grasped the value of my grandpa’s logbook nor recognized the similarities in our aviation stories, but now I realize that our passion for flying, a passion that transcends generations, will always connect us.

At the same time I was given the logbook, my grandpa also passed along another keepsake from his younger days, an oil spout can painted with the word “Shadow.” Like the logbook, the can had seen its better days and was now covered with rust and chipping paint. But again, like the logbook, the little oil can also imparts a wonderful story. During his childhood, my grandpa was fascinated by aviation and as a result did everything he could to get closer to pilots and their airplanes.

So, during high school, he would hop on his bike and pedal to the local airport: Morey Airport in Middleton, Wisconsin. There – at the same airport where I would start my own flight training more than six decades later – my grandpa worked the line, fueling planes, assisting the mechanics, and, most importantly for him, bumming rides from pilots. My grandpa’s passion for aviation was insatiable. Endeavoring to learn all he could about flying, he so closely and consistently tailed pilots and airport staff that they gave him the nickname Shadow and gifted him the oil can that he later passed on to me. As his relationships with the pilot community continued to strengthen, my grandpa began to trade work for flight time, and, in July of 1945, he began his formal flight training.

Helmke grandpa
The inspiration for a future generation – not that this young aviator could have imagined it at the time.

During my own childhood two generations later, I often found myself looking up. Captivated by the beauty and seeming impossibility of flight, I, like my grandpa before me, wanted to learn more. And in the twenty-first century, I explored aviation in a very different way. I read voraciously, poring over any book I could find that mentioned flying. I spoke to pilots around my hometown, trying to draw myself closer to the aviation community by learning more about the people who live within it. And I used technology my grandpa never had, like YouTube and flight simulators, to virtually enter the cockpit and to discover the intricacies of flying an airplane. As I approached my sixteenth birthday, however, I knew it was time to take the next step and, in 2013 – on the same field where my grandpa had learned to fly – I began my journey toward my private pilot license.

Sprinkled throughout the pages of my grandpa’s logbook are notes that record his desire to challenge himself to become a more competent pilot. Figure eights, wheel landings, 720s, spot landings, turns around a pylon, landing on skis, and transitions to six different types of airplanes all serve as testaments to the diversity of his training. His willingness to challenge himself in the cockpit helped my grandpa to become a more responsible and skilled pilot, which did not go unnoticed by the rest of the aviation community at Morey Airport. Despite his young age and despite only recently earning his license, the airport’s owners trusted my grandpa enough to invite him to take part in a ferry mission to fly a recently purchased airplane from the Cessna factory in Wichita back to Wisconsin.

After earning my license in 2014, I also felt driven to continue learning and to become a more proficient pilot. Perhaps my greatest accomplishment toward this perpetual goal of self-improvement was earning my tailwheel endorsement in 2016. My time training in a J-3 Cub also allowed me to get as close to my grandpa’s aviation experience as I have ever gotten. As I sat in the back seat of the bright yellow plane, wind whipping through the open side door, I felt like I had been transported back in time. When I soloed the J-3, I realized the unique challenges my grandpa had faced during his own training years earlier, which took place almost entirely in tailwheel airplanes. Manipulating the control stick and seeing the wires tug on the ailerons, rudder, and elevators, I felt a sense of connection to my machine that I found extraordinary, but which must have been the norm for my grandpa.

Although our aviation stories are linked in many ways, I believe our passion to share the joy of flight with others connects us most profoundly. One of my grandpa’s favorite stories was of a flight he took in Northern Wisconsin with a friend, and this memory is recorded, along with countless others, on the pages of his logbook. On August 24, 1946, my grandpa offered a birds-eye view of the shimmering lakes of the Northwoods to someone he cared about, exploring the same airspace I would soar through 67 years later during my solo cross country, a story I recounted in an earlier article for Air Facts.

View from airplane
Giving someone a ride, and sharing views like this, is what flying is all about.

Inspired by the same desire to share my passion for aviation, I have made inviting others into the cockpit a defining part of my mission as a pilot. In fact, only a few minutes after passing my flight exam, I was giving my first ride, allowing my dad to experience the thrill of flight that his own father had enjoyed years earlier. And, as the hours accrued in my logbook, so too did the number of people who I took flying with me increase. Striving to emulate the warm welcome the aviation community had extended to me, I offered friends and family the chance to share my passion and to witness the beauty of our world from a third perspective.

Yet out of all the passengers who I have had the privilege of inviting to fly with me, one stands out. After serving in Korea and returning home to a growing family, my grandpa retired from the cockpit in the mid-fifties; that is, until he shared it with me six decades later. Although my grandpa may not have hopped into the plane with the same energy he had during his youth, the spark in his eyes told me his passion for flying still remained strong. The flight may have only lasted an hour, but it was decades in the making.

My grandpa may be gone, but his logbook remains. And although the collection of weathered papers can fit in the palm of my hand, the stories it contains could fill volumes. Stories of aviation fever, challenge, and accomplishment. Stories that link my grandpa and his years as a pilot to my own. And stories that have allowed me to realize that whenever I fly, I will be sharing the cockpit. Like the pilots and mechanics who called Morey Airport home in the forties, I too have a Shadow.

1 Comment

  • Alec, I too am an aviator with a shadow. My older brother soloed shortly after his 16th birthday, and later right after high school became a line boy at my uncles flight school. We had three uncles involved in WWII aviation, one as a B24 commander, another as a B29 crew chief, and a third as a gunnery instructor. My brother progressed through years of flight hours as a corporate pilot and CFI. I always had a deep interest in aviation, venturing to Oshkosh each year since the 1980’s. I finally got the time and resources to get flight training from my brother getting my private at age 62. After losing him to leukemia five years ago his wife gave me his multiple log books. He had accumulated 18,250 hours from Cubs to corporate jets. I spent some brief time listing the airports he had flown into from his logs. At barely halfway through just one large log book I had over 200 different identifiers on the list. Needless to say the remarks are a treasured history of a life in aviation. Thank you for sharing your story of being a “Shadow”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *