Round engines and tailwheels: a tribute to my dad, Joe Santana

Like a lot of you, I grew up in an aviation family. My dad retired last year from American Airlines after 33 years and too many mergers and “right sizings” to count. However, my dad was an airline pilot for the purpose of feeding his true passion, vintage aviation. Through the years he/we have owned a couple of Luscombes, a couple of Bellanca Cruisairs, a couple of Piper Cubs, a couple of Pietenpol Air Campers, a Piper Pacer, an F-35 Bonanza, a Cessna 120, a Travel Air 4000, a Great Lakes 2T-1A-2, and a Pitts S-1S. He now owns a Bucker Jungmann, a Bellanca Cruisair, a Piper L-4 project, and we co-own a Piper Super Cub. As you can see, he has an affinity for antique, tailwheel airplanes.

Growing up, I have many vivid memories of spending time with Dad at the airport. Whether it was changing the oil in the Pacer, helping with a compression check on the Bonanza, or just washing the bugs off the Pietenpol after a picturesque sunset flight around the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, I learned a lot about flying and life in those moments.

Dad, Paul and author
Fathers pass on a lot of knowledge to sons, even when they don’t mean to.

My dad is also an A&P with an Inspection Authorization, so I learned a lot of colorful language while putting a new cylinder on an A-65 or after he dropped a nut that always seemed to be swallowed up by the concrete hangar floor. Seriously, where do all of those nuts go?

My specialty on maintenance projects was to crawl under the instrument panel and await further instruction. From my dad, I not only gained information about how airplanes work, I inherited his passion for them too. My wife says I talk about aviation like there is not an option of life without it, and I have to admit that she’s probably right.

My dad also served as my first flight instructor. He started me on grass in a Piper J-3 Cub, just the way it’s supposed to be. “Hold it off, hold it off, hold it off!” still rings in my head every time I enter the flare on landing in any airplane I find myself. We ended up not being able to use the J-3 for my solo and pre-checkride work, so Dad bought a Cessna 150 for me to finish my training in and then restore. My friend and I basically spent an entire summer in college stripping the paint off of that airplane. Again, my Dad was right by my side teaching and guiding my aviation journey.

You see, my dad did not allow me to do things “just OK.” He wanted me to fly and maintain airplanes with precision. He knew that if I learned it correctly from the start, my aviation journey would be easier and a lot more fun. Mainly due to that influence, I have had the privilege to fly 25+ different types of aircraft, mainly of the antique, tailwheel variety.

My dad also introduced me to some of the best pilots in the country, who regularly are restoring and flying Golden Age airplanes. While I still lived in the US, every summer we would take a trip with 10-15 other airplanes out to Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin for a week or two of fly-ins, flour bombing contests, hayfield camping, and hours and hours of sitting around airplanes late at night swapping stories (sometimes true) about the adventures of the previous year.

In those circles I learned about OX-5s, Warners, the history of Waco aircraft, why Mr. Pietenpol did not like the name “Bernie,” and on and on. I wish I had taken better notes, because some of that stuff is just not written down anywhere. It resides in the memory banks of guys like my dad, some of the last barnstormers.

Father and son
Now passing it on to the next generation.

Mainly due to his personal experiences during his airline career, Dad never encouraged my brother and me to pursue an aviation career. He always said to get a job that pays you well enough to go fly your own airplane anytime you want. I heeded that advice for 10+ years by working in the banking industry and flying and competing in my Pitts on nights and weekends. My brother tried as well, working in government jobs and serving in the Army Air National Guard as a Blackhawk pilot.

However, today both of us work as pilots, my brother as a flight instructor and King Air pilot and me as a missionary pilot for Mission Aviation Fellowship in Indonesia. We just couldn’t stay away; it’s in our blood.

While I’m not able to see Dad very often nowadays, it is because of his influence that I am doing what I’m doing. Through his example, he inspired me to love aviation and I have combined that with my love of service to be a part of the critical link for isolated people in one of the remotest parts of the world. The flying we do is some of the most demanding anywhere and I wouldn’t be able to do it without the discipline that my dad instilled in me even as a pre-solo pilot in the J-3.

Dad, thanks for everything. Thanks for pushing me to be the best pilot I can be, the helpful tips, the flying experiences that I will never forget, but most of all for inspiring the love of aviation within me. I hope your retirement years are filled with grass strips and radial engines. Save a seat in the Bucker for me.

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