“I’ll tell you an interesting story about him. When he passed his checkride, he gave me a $10 gift card to The Flame Room. And I used that to take my wife on our first date. I got the steak and she got the lobster, all for $10.”
Del H. was returning a call from a complete stranger. This random person had called and left a message on their answering machine almost exactly half an hour earlier.
My journey into aviation has been a long time in the making. I loved planes as a kid and always thought it would be awesome to be a pilot. The handful of times I’ve been in an airliner, I’ve loved it. That flip in your stomach as the plane rotates and climbs was always something I looked forward to. I knew that my grandpa (my mom’s dad) flew planes as a salesman for the company he worked for back in the 60s and 70s, but it wasn’t something he ever did with us grandkids. Unfortunately, he died in 2006 after a short battle with colon cancer, and I lost that opportunity forever.
Somehow in my mind I had gotten the impression that the only way to become a pilot was via the military, and I wasn’t particularly interested in that. So I set it aside and pretty much forgot about it. College was… interesting. I enrolled in electrical engineering and promptly changed my major after noticing that I didn’t seem to be interested in the same things that other EE students were. So for my second semester, I tried English. That was meh. I basically had only one class per semester that I cared enough to put any effort into.
By my third year, I finally came to the realization that I was wasting my time and money (and some of my parents’ money), so I dropped out. “Withdrawal” is the term the university used; I guess it doesn’t sound as harsh? Anyway, I went full-time at a part-time job I had held for less than a year, and officially began my adult life. A little over a year later, in January of 2008, I started dating a girl I’d wanted to date ever since I’d met her about two years before. Two and a half years after we started dating, we got married. Then came the house purchase. In 2012, our oldest child was born. Less than two years after that, we were holding each other in the maternity ward of the hospital, staring in disbelief at the stillborn body of our second child. We have had two more living children since then, with the youngest having recently turned four.
As many of you can attest, life can sometimes get in the way of your dreams, especially if you keep those dreams tucked away in a corner where even you can’t see them. The past couple years have found me struggling with the idea of not knowing what I wanted my future to look like. Try as I might, the only thing I could think of ever really wanting to be was a pilot. And all of a sudden, instead of immediately dismissing that long forgotten fantasy like I had always done before, I let the thought linger. I asked myself exactly why I couldn’t be a pilot—to which I replied that I didn’t really know.
So I started investigating. I sought out a few other pilots in the area and asked questions. I finally decided to take an intro flight. This discovery flight, as they called it, was done through an FBO at the airport in town. Upon rotation—my first ever in a small plane—I said something to the effect of, “Oh, that’s amazing!” to which the CFI replied, “Isn’t it, though?” And that was the exact moment I knew that I had found somebody else like me.
I talked with my wife, and we started running the numbers. What we found was encouraging: my career so far (still at that same company I started with over 15 years ago) and our fairly recent habit of solid money planning had put us in a good enough financial position to make this happen. In the middle of March, while the kids were off at my parents’ house for spring break, we went to the airport and talked to the head of the flight school. That conversation ended with a bunch of paperwork being filled out and us being sent home with a box of training materials in my hands and a smile on my face (and also the news that the flight school was going to shut down till the beginning of April because of this COVID thing that had started to gain serious mainstream attention).
Strangely (compared to, it seems, literally everybody else), 2020 was one of the best years of my life so far. My flight training began on April 4. I nearly aced the knowledge test on August 27, and the next day my wife and I celebrated our 10th anniversary. On December 5, I passed my private checkride. A couple weekends later, after some failed attempts to get the weather to cooperate with the availability of the rental plane for a first flight with my wife, I took each of our (living) children for a quick local flight. And right after the calendar switched to 2021, my wife and I were finally able to take a flight. Again, weather was an issue, so we didn’t get to take the cross country flight we were planning, but at least we got to enjoy some time in the air.
But here’s where the story gets interesting. A couple months ago, I opened up a Christmas present from my parents. It was a flat white box, approximately the dimensions of a regular sheet of paper and about an inch tall. Inside was a card and some other objects obscured by packing paper and bubble wrap. I opened the card to find a gift certificate to an aviation supplies website. Awesome! I had asked for that.
And then I started removing the other packaging, hesitating when I saw what looked like a logbook underneath. Had my parents really bought me a logbook for Christmas? Like, really? They know I already have one, right? Maybe this is an extra-fancy one that they want me to use instead? I mean, okay… I guess? Then I removed another layer of the paper and noticed that there were two logbooks in there, one of which had a pretty banged up spine. A possibility suddenly came to mind—could it be? I looked up at my mom in disbelief and half asked the question. She confirmed: they were (at least a couple of) my grandpa’s actual logbooks.
In total awe, I started looking through the pages. The first entry was, of course, of immediate interest: my grandpa began his training on June 14, 1963. It was a local flight at CID (now the Eastern Iowa International Airport in Cedar Rapids, Iowa). The airplane of choice was N6419U, the tail number assigned to (and since deregistered from) a 1963 Mooney M20C Ranger (listed in the logbook by its other name: Mark 21). The engine was a Lycoming with 180 horsepower. The class rating: ASEL, of course. There was 15 minutes of ground instruction and 1 hour and 5 minutes of flight time. The remarks were simple: Familiarization. And then it was signed legibly enough by Delwyn R. H., with his CFI certificate number listed afterwards.
The entire first page, including my grandpa’s first solo, was signed the same. As I continued to flip through this amazing book and its companion, I saw that particular name and certificate number a lot, even many years later. I had a harebrained idea to do a Google search for both the plane and the instructor. The plane I found, sort of: I believe it was Construction (Serial) Number 2166, but since the tail number was deregistered, I don’t know if it was still out there somewhere. I did find a picture of it, which was pretty cool.
Finding the instructor took a bit of, well, stalking. I found a possible match and kept digging until I came up with a phone number. So I called the number and listened to it ring. The answering machine (it was undoubtedly a landline) greeted me, confirmed that I had called the H. household and asked me to leave a message.
I obeyed: “Hi Del, my name is Keenan and I live down in –. If you’re the Delwyn R. H. who was a flight instructor back in the 60s, I think you may have trained my grandpa. If so, I’d love to talk to you about it. My phone number is —. If not, never mind, and I’m sorry to waste your time.”
Now, what would you do if somebody called you out of the blue and left that message? Would you call them back? Would you ignore it? Would you contact the police and have them throw this creep in jail?!
Del called back. Within the first minute of our conversation, after I had given him my grandpa’s name, he had not only made it clear that he remembered him, but he also remembered the tail number of the plane and the company my grandpa was working for! And then Del proceeded to tell me the amazing anecdote (see the first paragraph) about him taking his future wife out to dinner using the gift that my grandpa had given him. What a crazy thing to learn.
We chatted for a little while, and I learned a little more about him: how he was a flight instructor from ’63-’66, until he started flying for Ozark Air Lines and then with TWA. How he retired about 20 years ago and seems to be living happily with his wife in a house they built in a small-ish town less than 80 NM from my house. How he doesn’t have an email address (his wife does, but he’s “not really involved with it”), so if I want to get a hold of him again, I will need to call. I plan on doing so; in fact, maybe some day this year my wife and I will fly over there and I can take Del up for a ride (I didn’t confirm with him, but I got the impression he’s not current).
Until then, I sit here absolutely amazed with the aviation community. Although it’s clear that humans will be humans and disagreements about anything and everything large and small will never go away, there’s still this sense of acceptance and belonging. No matter who somebody is or where they come from, they’re welcome amongst the ranks of diehards whose families have been living it their whole lives for generations. All that matters is the shared interest in soaring through the skies. You people are awesome, and I’m so proud to be one of you!
Keenan Gehman began his long-delayed foray into aviation in late 2019/early 2020. With his private certificate in hand, he is currently working on his instrument rating and has plans to go commercial/multi after that.