Back in the Saddle on a Very Different Horse

A story of mentorship and life

My story in aviation is maybe also my life story in a way. When I look back, it was because a pilot looked at me and said, “put your bike in the back of the truck, we’re going flying.” That’s probably where this story should start.

I was a young teen who had just started driving when I found my way into a little trouble with the law. The result of that trouble was washing the cars for the sheriff’s department Monday through Saturday from 8 in the morning until 4:30 in the afternoon. Occasionally, I would finish early, get on my bike, and ride home… passing the airport. I always thought about flying but when I was a kid, that was a “rich man’s sport” and I wasn’t rich. So, I would wave at the planes taking off as I rode past the airport.

One July afternoon, the under-sheriff walked up as I was finishing the last car and asked if I was finished. I said “yes sir” and left to get my bike out of the maintenance shed. When I walked back around the building, the under-sheriff said “put your bike in the back of the truck, we’re going flying.” We got to the airport and pulled the high-wing plane out of a hangar (in my mind it’s a Cessna 150) and we got in. The flight was a blur; I don’t know ever feeling like that—ever! I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

Army Cliff
A ride in a helicopter led to a career in helicopters.

In late August, that same year, I had finished my penance for my past transgressions and was hanging with my friends at the county fair. The under-sheriff walked up to us and asked what we were doing. I said “nothing,” knowing full well my friends were not going to let me off easy on the “check-up.” The under-sheriff waved me over and took me to the California Highway Patrol helicopter, a Hughes 500. We spoke to the pilot for a minute and I was allowed to look around for a bit. And then it happened… the pilot looked at me and said “you want to take a ride?” Well, you could guess my answer. My life forever changed that day. (I also got to be the cool kid that rode in the helicopter instead of the former delinquent harassed by the under-sheriff.)

I became an Explorer Scout for the local police department and that following summer, as an explorer, we participated in a lot of search and rescue missions in Northern California. It was during these missions that I got to ride on the Army National Guard’s UH-1 Hueys. Those pilots may have been some of the best recruiters for the Army because I knew if I wanted to fly helicopters, this was my ticket.

The Army will give you every opportunity to better yourself, but you have to ask and be willing to work for it. I applied and went through my interview process with the help of my platoon sergeant. And then the waiting game. The application had to go to a selection board and if the board met their quota before your packet was looked at, your packet was held until the next board. I waited patiently and in my wait, was moved from Fort Polk, Louisiana, to Germany. It was while I was in Germany that I was accepted with orders to Warrant Officer School and Army Initial Entry Rotary Wing Training. It was happening, finally!

Flight school was tough. It was all about flying and learning to be a Warrant Officer and being in charge of everything and nothing all at the same time. It was about tactics and winning the next battle and the next war and the war we were already in. The stress was high, so you learned how to remain calm under pressure. And so there I was for the next 24 years, flying helicopters, most notably the UH-60 Black Hawk for the 1st Cavalry Division. People will talk about which aircraft is better and in the end, the best aircraft is the one you’re in.

The time came when I had to hang up my flight helmet and walk away. I thought that would be it and I would be happy and content with my journey. I moved to Huntsville, Alabama, and took a job still working with helicopters, but not flying. I got to talk to the soldiers in the field and help with troubleshooting issues. I got to be part of the team that designs the next generation of aircraft, but I wasn’t flying.

Then, some five years later, one May Saturday morning came along and the Redstone Arsenal Flying Activity had their annual open house. I thought it would be a good idea to take my new wife, my son, and bonus-daughter to the open house and put them up in an airplane. My wife, who was afraid of heights, passed on the flight and so I went instead. My son was in the front seat, with Lew (our CFI) and my bonus-daughter and me in the back of a Cessna 182. Wow, what a flight. We had a blast!

In 172
From Black Hawks to Cessnas. Why not?

When we landed, of course there were hot dogs, chips, sodas and cookies, and the kids were all over them, but my wife, she kept looking at me… And then she said it: “why don’t you fly anymore?” My response was simple: “I don’t know.” Suddenly, I had a flying club membership application in my hand—I was going to get my ASEL (I didn’t know what that was, just that was what I was going to get).

There I was (this had to happen somewhere in this story), a Commercial, Instrument-rated helicopter pilot, learning to land an airplane with Lew. What a patient man Lew is. I had everything under control—radios, navigation, everything—except that landing thing. For a helicopter pilot, the last things you do on landing is point your nose at the ground and reduce power. (Lew’s other student was a 737/C-17 pilot trying to learn to land a Cessna 172, if I remember right.) I remember I showed up a little cocky on that first day and then found humility.

In those five years, a lot changed in aviation. The electronic flight bags and all the other technology are making civil aviation easier and safer for single pilot operations but were very foreign to an Army pilot. My head was spinning and I had a lot to learn and relearn. Lew was the right guy to provide that mentorship and instruction.

That first flight with Lew was almost 400 hours ago. That first flight ever was over 3600 hours ago. I own my own airplane and am working on getting my Commercial fixed wing rating (I’m currently Private/Instrument/ASEL). It’s a whole “different horse” and a second birth to flying—and my wife is no longer afraid of heights. I didn’t get here by myself; I had mentors, some not even associated with aviation, guiding me and helping me along the way. I was just a kid in trouble and a mentor showed me a better way. Time to pay it forward.

5 Comments

  • Great article Cliff! You had me on the edge of my seat, reading on to see what would happen next in your life adventures. What a transition from Black Hawks to Cessnas! Thanks for your service, and many years of happy flying for you and your family!

  • Great article Chief! I live down in Mobile, but fly up in my Cessna 150 to Gadsden often to visit my dad. I have worked aviation med and other positions within the Alabama Guard for years. Some of the best pilots I know are my friends that fly 60s, 47s or 72s. They are quick to answer a million questions from me and fan the aviation spark as I advance through my civilian training. Thank you for sharing!

  • I love this story…mentoring. If all of us a bit more fortunate could just take the time what a difference it can make. Have been a prison volunteer and mentor for many years. All it takes is a little interest like the the sheriff in this story and what a difference it can make. I take many guys flying who may have never had the opportunity and young men who just need a bit of direction. Good on you and good on that sheriff!!

  • I can relate on so many levels with this.
    Very similar story and background. Troubled teen introduced to aviation moulded into an aviator, F-16 mechanic-College grad with CFII followed by transition to Army Pilot UH-60, CH-47 and now C-12 IP/IFE. Never would have happened without the great mentors I latched onto over the past 24 years. Thanks for sharing Chief!

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