I just wanted to fly the little airplanes at the little airport

I went to the airport when I was 16 and never came home again. That was the joke in my family. Between my sophomore and junior years of high school, while I was away working at a summer camp in the Poconos, my parents moved.

It’s not the beginning of a bad joke; they actually told me they were going to do it ahead of time and, at the end of the summer, brought me to our new house in Colts Neck, New Jersey. I was a bit devastated by leaving my entire world 15 miles up the road and starting a new school. Friends, teachers, teams, were all gone.

A couple of days after settling into the new home, it felt rock bottom. I had the end-of-summer blues and the future looked bleak. To top it off, on the first day of school a couple of kids tried to shake me down for my lunch money and I wound up in a fight, which of course I lost, and got dragged to the principal’s office. I had enough juice in my old school that neither of these things would’ve happened.

My mother went to ceramics with a friend whose husband owned an aircraft maintenance shop. I was taken to meet him at the local airport in Colts Neck, which was a little over a mile from my new home. We drove down the dirt access road between cornfields, and over a slight rise, a magical world appeared. There were grass runways and airplanes. An airplane took off. The scene was complete all at once and etched into my memory.

Airport road
A new world awaits at the end of that road.

The airport was a magnificent place. Stripped cornstalks swayed in the late-summer fields, runways of dirt and grass cut from them, at the intersection of the runways in the corner of a cornfield swiveled a ragged old, yellow wind T made from a discarded drone, two concrete hangars with gray doors weathered almost white sat on a slight rise, and a concrete hangar-office combination was set dead-center of the airport. And there were the airplanes, unknown, full of infinite possibilities. There seemed no end to the adventures this airport whispered to the 16-year-old me. It was the Hundred Acre Wood come to life. A thousand adventures would begin and end there. I was drunk imagining it all.

I looked into the windows of every airplane, stared at the dials, knobs and levers. I admired their lines and tried to connect names to the shapes.

“Why is that one called a Taylorcraft?”

“Because a guy named C.G. Taylor built it.”

“How about the Piper?”

“Guy named Bill Piper.”

“Stinson?”

“Stinson.”

That seemed simple, yet pretty unspectacular. I expected airplanes to shout excitement and mystery at every turn, including their names.

After a brief, “want a job,” my new boss gave me a ride in a yellow and white Cessna 150. It was the first time I’d ever been in an airplane of any size. This one had two seats. This was one of the magic machines.

The instruments and gauges twitched and hummed with the flip of a switch. The boss hollered “Clear!” through the open side window and I jumped a mile. The engine rumbled to life and gave the machine a little dog-wag as the prop ticked over. He wasn’t an explainer so I just watched from the right seat while he taxied, then ran the engine up and checked some stuff. With a lot of looking around, we pulled out onto the strip and in went full power. I watched out front, then my attention fixed on the little main wheel outside of my side window as it rolled through the grass.

The magic happened.

The wheel lifted out of the grass and I could see the shadow of the airplane tearing across the tops of the cornfield, getting smaller as we rose. It was as you would imagine watching an angel rise. Funny, I don’t remember much of the flight; I just remember melting into the sky, knowing I was transcending all that was past and now beginning to live my future.

From then on, I went to the airport after school every day, looked at every airplane, walked the airport grounds, and asked a million or more questions. On Saturday and Sunday I worked in the maintenance shop and after a couple of weekends I’d earned a flight of my own. I had no money, zilch. I just worked for flying time. The flight instructors were young and could see in my eyes the puppy-like desperation to fly. They took pity and a great young guy named Steve Reynolds offered to give me my first lesson. I owed him a car wash, but I knew he was just paying it back a bit, helping out the airport kid.

Colts Neck
Just a circle on a map, but an important place all the same. (Image from Paul Freeman)

Flight instruction was not very formal. Someone may have suggested I buy a Kershner manual, but for five bucks they may as well have suggested I buy an airplane. I didn’t have five bucks, and if I did, I would have bought flying time with it. So, I asked questions and the instructors and everybody else would sit and talk to me about flying, hour after hour.

And then I was flying. Steve was in the right seat showing me where all of the levers and knobs needed to be. He took off and at 300 feet I started to fly.

“Don’t stare at the instruments. Look outside for the horizon. Hold it at this angle for 70.

“Relax your grip. Keep the nose there for straight-and-level. Now, like we talked about, coordinate aileron, rudder and elevator for the turn.

“The nose is dropping, a little back pressure. Whoa, just a little, just ease it back to the horizon.

“Can you see okay? Maybe next time you can use a cushion.”

Utter embarrassment. At 16, I was only 5’2″. Luckily, I had five more years of growing left in me, but on that day I was a skinny little kid flying the airplane.

All too soon, we started a descent for the airport. I stayed on the controls for the landing. It was very important in my mind to be trusted enough to touch the controls while landing. Now, it seems similar to years earlier sitting on my dad’s lap thinking I was driving the car. I taxied to the tie-down area, and with a lot of coaching, a lot of power and a lot of brakes the wheels finally settled into the worn spots in the grass where they normally rested.

I was in a fog. Steve was debriefing, using his hand as an airplane as all aviators do, but stopped mid-sentence: “You can’t hear a word I’m saying.”

“Uh, no, go ahead.”

“That’s okay. We’ll get it later when the rest of you comes back to earth. Give me your logbook.”

“I don’t have one.”

Steve grabbed one from the showcase. “Got a buck-and-half?”

“No.”

“Well, when you get it throw it in the cash box.”

I stared at the entry: 1968, Sept 28, Cessna 150, N4061U, Colts Neck to local, straight and level, turns, climbs, glides, Steve’s signature with an official number and CFI-A. Flying time was .6.

My father picked me up to go home for dinner. I wasn’t old enough to drive, yet.

“How was your flight?”

I was in a cherry-pop, post-coital haze. Not that I had any idea what that was at the time. I managed to give him the details on the short drive home, but I couldn’t actually focus. My father gave what would become a familiar response to my flying exploits. A shake of the head and, “You’re nuts.”

That night, I couldn’t anchor into my old world. I carefully printed my name, address, and phone number into the appropriate spaces on the first page of my logbook, and for the hundredth time reread the entry of my flight. A logbook with my name, a log of my flights, more magic. I had a profound feeling of destiny with that book in my hand, a little embarrassed by the kid-scrawl that I didn’t realize I would never outgrow.

I didn’t have fantasies of flying fighter planes or big jets, I just wanted to fly the little airplanes at the little airport, surrounded by grass and cornfields. Being there, flying there, was a tactile experience. All of your senses were involved. I wanted that piece of aviation that was an integral part of the history of flight. Wood and fabric airplanes on a grass strip reached all the way back to aviation’s infancy. I just wanted to absorb all of that into my soul. The only fantasy I had was living my life in the present and dreaming about the next day. I couldn’t have been happier.

27 Comments

  • My first flight was at New London VA during an EAA airshow in the fall of 1972. We had lost our farm and my parents were getting divorced. It was a horrible time in my 13 year old life. Dad took us kids to the airshow and the highlight for me was an airplane ride in a side by side tail dragger. I always enjoyed watching machinery work as I was growing up on the farm. It was no different in the airplane. I watched the wing surfaces, the cables, and the control stick all move together to control the airplane. I realized immediately what was happening and quickly concluded that “I could do this”. In 1979 at age 20, living on my own and working in Richmond, I started flying lessons at New Kent airport. Over the next 18 months I accumulated about 28 hours and soloed. While I didn’t continue at that time, learning to fly built my confidence and honed my ability to make decisions and take action quickly. This character trait has served me well over the years. Flying lessons are a worthwhile activity weather you continue and get your license or not. In 2004 my wife and I signed up and took lessons together. We bought a Cherokee and I completed my check ride before Christmas. What a year that was!

    • We are so fortunate to have found the love of flying, a beautiful, tactile experience that enriches us. Congratulations on your license.

  • Astonishing. Me, too! Paul Willie ran Colts Neck back then, where I flew for my very first time in 1975. My late father was president of Brookdale Community College in Lincroft and I, having few hobbies, was a bit aimless. He suggested trying flying, as he had learned after WWII on the GI Bill. I took to it.

    The CFI he employed wasn’t a good match for me so we took our business to Deep Run which eventually became Marlboro Airport in Morganville. It too declined and it’s buildings were removed. You can still see photos of what it is now at that interesting site for abandoned airfields, many of which I contributed.

    Colts Neck airport declined and was bulldozed ultimately to make room for hideously expensive and massive McMansions.

    This was a fun article to read. I would like to correspond with the author.

    • BTW “Deep Run” was originally “Preston” as on the sectional excerpt, and the web site I mentioned was Paul Freeman’s.

    • I was there in ’75. I towed the Noxzema sign 7-days a week with a J-3 during the summer. Just in a 25 mile radius Colts Neck, Red Bark, Asbury Park, Preston, Jumping Brook and Hadley are all gone from my childhood. I remember Preston when Rhea Preston lived near the end of the (grass) runway and had his Champ parked there.

  • After reading this I went to my first logbook. My first flight as a student was in a Taylorcraft BC-12D that was built 4 years after I was born. The entry was dated 8/6/74. My flight was out of the owner’s grass strip in Palmy PA, Riegel Field. Even though older than you when I started flying I was equally mesmerized by the event. On a cool clear October morning, I did my first solo in that aircraft. I can still remember it as if it was yesterday.

  • Isn’t it a shame that more young people can’t have experiences like yours? I was in my forties when I started flight training, but the magic was no less impressive.

    • I’m sure. That love of flying, the visceral love, knows no age limit or any other boundary. It is dependent on someone having it in their soul. I’ve run across far too many young people that couldn’t be bothered to turn their head to look at an airplane. To each their own.

  • Your history is mine. My mentor was one of my paper route customers, who owned a Piper Cub and also happened to be the builder of our 1955 built subdivision. (real plaster walls, real wood floors, concrete poured with re-bar reinforcement, built fireplaces…high quality homes).

    My quiet pestering paid off and the day arrived. I was in a fog then and my memory of our half hour sight seeing tour is still a fog 55 years later. I remember take off, he showing me where he’d land this same plane further down the road next to the fourth hole at the golf course……get out and inspect how the construction on the homes was coming…and fly off. He let me take control and ascend and descend….I did a few turns…we did stalls………….it was and still is heaven. I too stayed 150/172 and now ultralight……..as in retirement I can’t see spending rental fee’s that I want to state: “Hey, since when has a 172 become a Ferrari?”

    • Keep on flying. I’m retired to an old Cub. My hangar feels sacred as a chapel on some days. Same as when I was sixteen: me and a Cub, some old rock-and-roll and a Coca Cola, rain or shine, flying, fixing or polishing.

  • Very interesting story Dan. Below is my story… check it out and telephone me…or better yet email me your telephone number and I will call you so we can ‘chat’ about flying, aviation, etc for ~5 minutes or so! Choices….”When Did You Know” – Joel Godston
    Born on July 4, 1934, living on Staten Island, when at the age of 9, I knew I wanted to be
    involved in Aviation. My parents helped me purchase a Thor model airplane motor…. really wasn’t much good…. would not run very well even on the motor stand I constructed…. built u-control model ‘high speed’ model airplanes… Graduated Curtis High School in February 1952…went to RPI to become an Aeronautical Engineer and in Air Force ROTC… Graduated… was in the Air Force pilot training class of 57-H…. First flight in a ‘souped up’ Piper Cub was on February 2, 1956…. Became a pilot after almost
    being ‘washed out’… flew B-47’s with an Aircraft Commander who flew B-17’s in WWII…. flew F-86H’s and F-84’s in the Mass. Air National Guard…worked at Pratt & Whitney, division of United Technologies, Inc. for about 40 years….. Now retired mentoring and ‘teaching’ aviation related subjects with elementary, junior, and senior high school students, and previously adults in Dartmouth’s ILEAD program…. Received the EAA Leadership Award in 2006, and in 2010 The Wright Brothers “Master Pilot” Award
    from FAA “In recognition of your contributions to building and maintaining the safest aviation system in the world, through practicing and promoting safe flight operations for 50 consecutive years”… Organized Airport Awareness Day and Young Eagle Rally at Lebanon Airport for 4 years and Dean Memorial Airport for 14 years… continued flying in our 1976 Cessna 182 to travel, and fly youngsters to become a Young Eagle, an EAA program chaired by Sully & Jeff, pilots of the now-famous US Airways Flight 1549 ditching in the Hudson River… My last flight in our 1976 Cessna 182 (N1408M) was in October 2011 and sold in 2012… VERY sad; but I had 55 years, 1,996 hours flying time with 1,762 take-offs and landings… much fun, challenges, excitement, and pilot-in-command time… In 2014 I became a ‘Ground Pounder’, member of EAA Chapter 26 Seattle, WA co-chairing monthly newsletter, “WIND IN THE RIGGING, belike”, and doing mentoring/seminars on many Aviation related topics with youngsters & ‘elderly’.
    Being in Aviation, EAA Young Eagles program (flown just under 400 youngsters),
    and mentoring youngsters has been, and is, a VERY rewarding experience.

  • What a wonderful story and writing, Dan! You should be a good pilot, but you also a captivating writer. Well done and thank you!

  • Since retiring in 2013 I have looked back and thought about how it could have been: My thoughts up through high school were to gave some kind of job while living on our 180 acre farm in Minnesota to support occasionally hanging out at some airport, maybe get a ride or putter on a ‘real’ plane, and see what else happens. In retirement, I am hanging around airports, helping with real airplanes, and seeing what happens to cast-off airplane parts as “art” (www.thefriggin.com). Between high school and retirement was the US Air Force (radar ops) and 43 years in the FBO business, Lear 24 and 35 co-pilot, charter pilot, corporate KingAir pilot, flight instructor, etc squared, way WAY outliving the original dream.

    • You never can get away from it if it is a true love. You’ve had a rich and diverse aviation life well-lived. Minnesota is one of my favorite places. My wife grew up in St. Cloud and I went to work for North Central out of MSP in 1978. I’m one of the last of the Ducks.

  • Wonderful story filled with happy times and memorable experiences. Your story was enjoyed by many people and brought them back to their beginnings and passion for aviation.

    • Excellent! Thank you. This just happens to be the girl from St. Cloud that I love. I’m thrilled that she read something I wrote about airplanes.

  • Dan, Thanks for your story!. I grew up in Howell NJ just south of Freehold and Colts Neck. I fell in love with planes when a kid taking a flight from Newark to Miami to visit an aunt. In 1973 as an AFROTC pilot candidate at Rutgers, I flew a Cessna 150 Areobat out of Millville NJ (near Solberg), soloed in 8 hrs and was in heaven. I remember exploring north-east-south-west a racking up heavenly hrs while the Air Force was paying. Vietnam ended, the USAF didn’t need any pilots, I went in the inactive reserve as an officer (but not a pilot). Fast-forward 1993….I hadn’t flown in years, decided it was time to get back (wife, kids, etc). I was working overseas, did a Recreational licence one summer in 3 weeks, and the PPL the next summer (another 3 weeks) when visiting the Jersey Shore (MJX). This was followed by an instrument rating in Morristown a few years later. I now fly out of Houston in a small grass-strip fun airport (Gloster Aerodrome, 1XA7) in my Glasair Sportsman. I take it to Tellride (TEX) and Miller (MJX) at the Jersey Shore as often as possible. I’m still in heaven, every flight is a dream. Not everyone understands my passion (addiction?), but those of us that have it couldn’t be happier!

    • An involvement and love of aviation makes life a lot richer. The freedom, flexibility and just the sheer joy of flight fills a part of one’s soul that is left empty in a lot of people.

  • My most vivid memory of the first flight I ever took in the left seat of a C172 was the initial 30 feet of separation from the ground when the instructor let me do the takeoff. “This is how easy it was to defy gravity?” I thought.

  • Great story .. Your a great writer makes you feel like your there with you.. To bad kids today never experience working for a ride.

    Well done.

    • Thank you so much. My experience is that with the computer generation has come a disinterest in all things mechanical. I brought a young man out to the hangar to show him my airplane and all he said was that it didn’t have any computers and that was accompanied by wary side-glances at the fabric-covered airplane. (It’s a 1941 clipped-wing Cub, so….) All of the maintenance shops are in a bind because no young people want to work as apprentices and the A&P schools are barely turning out enough fresh tickets to satisfy the airline’s insatiable needs. It seems no one wants to be a lineboy, either. Flying an airplane would require attention paid to something other than a screen and actual interaction with the world and nature about one. There are exceptions, of course, but far too few. The auto shops are screaming the same thing. We have morphed into a society that wants to live and work in their screens which doesn’t bode well for hands-on activities such as flying. I don’t lament it. I’m sure I’m viewed as an old crank who just wants to rattle around in his claptrap old Cub. So be it.

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