“N12345, traffic, uhhmmm. 345, there is traffic pouring off of KLAL, I can’t advise you. Keep your head on a swivel. Good luck and squawk VFR.” Gulp. I’ve never heard anything like that before from ATC. He sounded like he was wishing me luck on my climb up the stairs to the gallows.
Suddenly I was aware that my pontoons were only hitting tops of waves now and then. I looked back and down and saw water and spray dripping out from the pontoons. I eased off my back pressure to accelerate in ground (water?) effect, our parallel “V” wakes, then spreading apart behind. We were flying!
I picked up a great (non-paying, volunteer) gig as a pilot flying an old Cessna 182 looking for sharks along the beaches between Wollongong and Ulladulla, New South Wales, Australia. Wollongong is about an hour and a half south of Sydney and a beautiful part of the world, especially in summer. Unfortunately that beauty can be spoilt somewhat by sharks swimming around in their natural environment.
As we approached the Twin Cities area, I was in control of the aircraft and maintaining a heading towards my house as I enjoyed the view of that peaceful summer evening. Suddenly, I felt a slight vibration in the stick and told Scott that something didn’t feel quite right. He immediately took control of the N3N as the engine RPM dropped dramatically.
The words are few, just a couple notes in the logbook to help describe the events of a day that started with promise and ended with a belly full of carnitas and an airplane stranded on the ground. But sometimes even a few words can describe a meaningful adventure.
I know, I know – scud running is a no-no. Still, if you fly the Alaska bush, it sometimes seems as though it has become a way of life. During my time at it, we had precious few navigational aids. Contact flying and ADF needles were our fare. So, please cut me just a little slack for admitting to the following experience.
On Sunday, August 9, 1964, four summer graduates of Texas Technological College in Lubbock, came up with an irrational notion. Why not fly to a small town east of San Angelo, Texas, and have dinner at the world famous Lowake Steakhouse? The only pilot available turned out to be me.
I presented myself in the owner’s office, hat figuratively in hand. Perhaps he saw something of himself in the plaintive teen-ager standing before him, but for whatever reason, he took me on. He explained that he was unable to pay me any wages, but in return for gassing and washing airplanes and doing general chores around the office, he would pay me in flying lessons.
My second passenger, and my first cross-country as a private pilot, was Garin, a lifelong friend with whom I grew up. He and his family came up to Clover to spend the weekend with us so I reserved my favorite 172 for Saturday morning. The weather was beautiful, if a little bit warm, with some showers moving in later in the day as normal. I decided we’d make the short, scenic hop from EQY up to HKY to get some grub at the airport café.
It was the inaugural flight of a new service and the commercial pressure to make a success of that first flight must have been on Doug’s mind. In the event, it was later found he had been scud running though the hills of the Barrington Tops range near Dungog, NSW, en route Sydney to Taree. The terrain was dangerous and covered in mist and rain.
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.
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.
I like to think there are a handful of driving forces in my life. Family and flying are two of those and, thanks to a supportive family, I sometimes get to combine those. My jack-of-all-trades FBO/mechanic/pilot/instructor career choice often means that flying takes me away from the family, but during a special couple of days I got to share an airplane delivery trip with my nine-year old.
We drove down the dirt access road between cornfields, and over a slight rise, a magical world appeared. There were grass runways and airplanes. An airplane took off. The scene was complete all at once and etched into my memory. The airport was a magnificent place.
FAA inspectors are some of the few that are exposed to aviation’s “dark side.” None of my former corporate aviation coworkers had ever been out on a fatal accident investigation. Trust me, there is nothing that can prepare you for being out in the middle of nowhere looking at twisted metal (that looks nothing like an airplane) and the gruesome remains where a pilot and his passengers experienced their last moment on earth.
My search for a flying wing sailplane ended with the purchase of N86TX and its relocation to Hangar 115 in New Braunfels, Texas (my brother’s three-car garage). For the next several months he, with help from my cousin Rayford and my father Tom, did the remaining 30% of the work to get the sailplane to a finished state and ready for inspection.
Life sometimes takes you to places you never expect to be, and I recently found myself in Bandera, riding a horse at the Mayan Dude Ranch as part of a family visit to San Antonio. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was only 25 miles from Kerrville, Texas, the home of Mooney, and so many stories.
N5434A accelerated in her usual manner and soon I was checking airspeed looking for my 75-knot rotation point. Then, in the landing light, my heart seemed to explode as I saw a full line of deer spread across the runway from edge to edge and beyond. The turbo governor had already stabilized at full throttle travel, so with no additional throttle left, it was ground effect or nothing.
We’ve all got our stories as to how we got into general aviation. This is mine. I just started a bit later. OK – a LOT later than most. OK – virtually later than all other folks I have since met who fly. I was 56 when I started my flying instruction and 57 when I passed my licensing check ride. The key is, it doesn’t matter when or how you started – what matters is that you stuck with it and finished.
A short message… “If this is the Jay Miller who was Ray Tenhoff’s friend, would you please call me?” A phone number followed. Thus began – unknowingly for me at that moment – a closure that I had considered unattainable for just over 40 years. Four decades of regret were about to be erased absolutely and unequivocally by the kindness of a person I had never known.