I graduated from high school in 1960, joined the Naval Air Reserve and crewed on Grumman S2F Trackers for ten years out of NAS Seattle (Sandpoint). We flew antisubmarine patrols off the coast of Washington and many training flights where I accrued 800 – 1200 hours. Over a number of years, I acquired my Private, Commercial, Instrument and Instructor ratings and accumulated 2,000 – 3,000 hours. After ten years, I left the Navy to obtain a commission in the National Guard and ended up in the Army Reserve. That is my basic background and now on to my first flying lesson.
My squadron, VS-891, was activated October 2, 1961, for a year after the Berlin Wall started going up. I was still in the Army Reserve when the Wall came down, which I never thought I would see in my lifetime. During that year of active duty I had the opportunity to take flying lessons from “Hal,” one of our pilots who had an instructor rating. We joined an Air Force Flying Club at Paine Field just south of Everett, Washington, and used their Piper J-3 with standard tires, not the big tires used in bush operations. I was able to rent it for $3.00/hr. wet and paid Hal another $3.00/hr.
We met at Paine Field one Saturday morning for my first lesson and after walking me through a thorough check of the airplane, he hand propped it and away we went. After spending some time doing basic airwork (turns, stalls, etc.) Hal said he was bored and took control of the airplane. First he tried looping the Cub, which did not work out as his 200+ pounds plus my paltry 115 pounds made the maneuver impossible. He would nose the plane over, build up airspeed and pull the nose up with full power and, somewhere near vertical, the plane would fall back out of the sky. It has been many years and I do not remember if the plane actually was on its back ever or just nosed over and went vertical the other direction. After trying that two or three times, we went on a river cruise.
We were north of Paine, north of Arlington, and pretty soon we were flying down the Stillaguamish River and between the trees that lined the river banks. We passed a gravel bar and Hal asked if I thought he could land on it. I replied that I had heard he had been a bush pilot in Alaska so I would not be surprised if he could do it. No sooner said than the power came off and we did a 180 and were on a short final to the gravel bar. We touched down and Hal added power to keep the tail up and the Cub rolling. When we reached the end of the gravel bar, he kicked the tail around, never quite stopping with the tail, never quite touching the ground, added full power and away we went, taking off with no difficulty.
We then returned to Paine Field, ending my first lesson.
I have thought about the flight many times over the years and wonder if we were really in any danger. I know the hazards of flying down rivers (unseen cables, etc.) and issues with recovering from unusual attitudes, but I can honestly say I was never afraid on that flight which may have been from youth, lack of knowledge, stupidity, or denial.
I do know what real fear is as I experienced it in an S2F returning from a patrol off the Washington coast. We were climbing out of Hoquiam in the soup, packing a load of ice and the pilot(s) forgot to turn on the pitot tube heat. All of a sudden I was off my seat, pressed up against the shoulder straps as the plane went into a dive, but that as they say is another story.