The day my dad taught me the lesson of a lifetime

First of all, my dad (Harry Crystal) was the greatest mentor any son could ever have. He encouraged and supported my dreams to fly. Following in his footsteps would not be easy. Dad had done it all, from pilot to mechanic and flight engineer on a B-29. Thirty-three years military. Dad believed in keeping history alive and helped build the replica of the Spirit of Saint Louis for the San Diego Air & Space Museum. There is a plaque with his name along with all the volunteers who worked to restore the Spirit, which actually flew over San Diego, repeating history that will last forever. Lindbergh would have been proud – as I was – of my dad.

Crystal and father
Father and son, in the cockpit together.

The day I got my first charter job flying air tours in Hawaii, I remember being offered two different jobs: one flying a Cessna 402 and the other flying a Beech 18. I called Dad and told him of my choices. The voice of experience spoke. I’ll never forget his words: “Don’t miss the opportunity to fly round engines. It only comes around once in a lifetime.” I took his advice and was never sorry; to this day, whenever I hear the distinct sound of a radial engine, I can hear his words.

The Beech 18 taught me a lot – especially directional control on one engine. I made four single-engine landings in three years flying the 18. I remember Dad telling me that a radial engine (985) was self-changing oil, as it burned at least a gallon a day. As a young CFI, to fly a 10-passenger, 10,200 lb twin-engine 450 hp airplane, I thought I had a tiger by the tail.

Dad always seem to put on his mentor hat. I remember many times flying with Dad when he would stand there and watch me do a preflight and before we would fly he would say, “What did you miss on the preflight?” It was always a lesson because he always seemed to find something that I missed or needed to put more emphasis on. He would say, “Think like a mechanic – your life depends on it.” He put emphasis on understanding systems and giving an intelligent squawk to maintenance.

Sharing the adventure and camaraderie

Once on Dad’s 80th birthday, I got another lesson I will never forget and I love to share. I spent many years sharing our love of the sky with Dad in just about every type of airplane I ever had, from a Cessna 150 to an Aztec to a tailwheel. On his birthday, he wanted to go up in a yellow J-3 Cub out of Santa Paula Airport in southern California. His wish was my command.

I had a good friend who owned a beautiful J-3 Cub hangared at Santa Paula. I told my friend George it was Dad’s 80th birthday and he wanted to fly the Cub. George insisted I go up first around the pattern with him. I had never flown a Cub before, but had experience teaching aerobatics in a Citabria and had flown the Stearman. George rode around the pattern three times with me and we taxied back to the hangar.

I started to climb out of the back seat figuring that he would take Dad up. He said, “Where are you going? Take him up yourself; he is your dad.” It was the ultimate in trust as George never let anyone solo his Cub. Dad strapped in, grabbed the stick, and suddenly turned back the clock 50 years to when he first learned to fly. You can’t imagine what a thrill it was for me to share this moment with him.

The lesson of a lifetime was about to begin for me.

Crystal father
“The greatest mentor any kid could ever have.”

Dad took the controls, added the power, raised the tail and away we went. We flew out to the practice area and each of us did a steep turn and a series of stalls. We returned to the airport, where I did the first landing, then I gave him the controls. I remember Dad slipping the Cub to lose altitude. He actually did a better job of slipping than I did. As we were just about to land, I noticed a crosswind from the left and mentioned it. His comment was, “it’s from the right” and aileron in to the wind. I said again, “it’s from the left” and corrected to the left. Well, we danced down the runway like Bob Hoover: left wheel then right wheel.

Then Dad came around and did a falling leaf to a landing. Yes, he outflew his CFI son that day for sure.

Then the final lesson. It came at the end – which he never let me forget. We taxied back to the hangar, where he got out of the front seat and proceeded to talk to George. I sat there like a student pilot, looking around trying to find the mixture control to shut the engine down. Before long Dad walked back and said, “What’s wrong, son?” I said, “Dad, I can’t find the mixture control [older Cubs do not have a mixture control].” He proceeded to turn off the mags and shut it down.

His debriefing was, “Son, you are a man out of time and perhaps you need to take dual from your good old Dad.” Yes, that was a day I will never forget, and before he passed away at 91, his last words were, “Son, do you think you know how to shut down a Cub?” My answer was, “Stick around as I think I could use some more instruction.”

Dad’s parting words: “Don’t worry. I’ll be there when you need me.”

To this day, I can still hear him speak when I need him. My dad was the greatest mentor and best friend any son could ask for. I do miss him but every time I fly I know he is right there with me.

9 Comments

  • What a great story. Yes, I recognized his name from the Spirit restoration. It’s good to put a legacy with the name.

  • Thanks for your heart warming story, Bob. I was a rebellious teenager in high school but had my gyros properly aligned when I started taking flying lessons while in college in our family’s old Stinson 10A, which my Dad restored. Much of my flying was with Dad (a lot of ‘unofficial’ dual instruction while taking lessons with a CFI) who taught me a lot. Strictly ‘old school’ stuff. The last year or so of his life he depended on me and my medical in order to keep flying, as he had lost his. Now I cherish those memories and glad I got to fly those last years with Dad.

  • Great and touching story, and I’m so glad you shared it with us. I was fortunate to be able to share my own “dad” story here on Airfactsjournal and it has provided me and my family smiles and positive thoughts! Very nice job!

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