Flying airplanes around America is nothing short of a royal blast. To get in your own plane, like getting in your car and going somewhere, and begin soaring above the traffic, the red lights, the cops, the crazies, and all the other gravity-grabbing lunacy is wildly exhilarating.
I'm glad I didn't quit my flying lessons like 7 out of 10 do. Contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing wrong with quitting certain things if your heart is not in it. But mine was into this.
Flying is something that comes fairly natural for me. Am I a natural? I may be. I may just be lucky. Since I'm writing this story, it must be both. But I can wheelie a motorcycle and shoot 3-pointers fairly well, I finished second in a pool tournament once, and I turned over the score-counter on the Galaxy video game twice at Bud’s Bar in Ridgedale in 1980. You may call me a hot dog. It wouldn't hurt my feelings. But some may say, after reading this, my judgement is not so hot. Yes, I look back and I may have to question myself a little, after buying and ferrying a $7,500, clapped-out 1962 Cessna 150 across the USA, coast to coast.
As small children, in the mid-60s, my brother and I would nail two large boards together and draw instruments into the wood, lay them out and sit on 'em in the front yard of our small suburbia home and pretend we were flying, looking down at the grass and imagining we were soaring above the jungles of Vietnam. His toy plane was always better looking with more defined instruments. I was his wingman. He was always the Captain. Well, his due diligence paid off - 50 years later, he's a freight dog, jet jockey. He's one of America's top Falcon pilots. He's flying the fastest non-military aircraft in the world. He was one of the first pilots cleared to fly after the Sept. 11 debacle, bringing in blood that was desperately needed after the terrorist attack. There was no doubt what he was gonna do. Me? I'm still searching. But I love to fly too - just a little slower than he does.
Chapter 1: The Start
In the beginning, God created man. But things didn't get interesting until man created the airplane.
With my private pilot ticket in hand and 56 hours logged flight time, I had my wings and a kick in my step. The year was 1994. I'd just scored my private pilot’s license after completing my training in Defuniak Springs, Florida, under part 141 rules, a stringent, military designed course syllabus that was formed during WW2. I started my training in Chattanooga, under part 91 rules, a more relaxed system, but about halfway into it I got sidetracked on something or another and decided to stop - not to quit, just to put it all on the back-burner for a while. I passed the written six months later and I fled to Florida after seeing an advertisement in a plane trader magazine: “Instruction - Aircraft Rental $35.00 Per Hour - Wet."
That was music to my ears. To theirs too. I was their only student. I was probably their only one for the year. Defuniak Springs is a sleepy little panhandle town - the wildest thing going on in this place is the Friday night fish fry at the Huddle House, so, it was the perfect getaway location to finish off my instruction - which in no way, at that time, was a given. I can laugh about it now. But after arguing and yelling at my check-pilot, during my final check-ride, I sure as hell was not confident on getting a license. In fact, I thought the ex-Marine drill instructor was going to jerk my heart out and shove it down my throat. Yes, I almost went MIA. We had a difference in opinion on my emergency decent maneuver. He said, "that's not good enough."
I said, "yes it was."
He paused, and said, “Do you know who you're talking to?"
I snapped back, “I heard you're some bad-ass Marine pilot, but I know I can fly this plane better than anybody. I'm the best damn pilot you'll ever see."
He paused a little longer, not believing what he just heard, and said, "By God, you must be insane. As of now, you've failed! But I do want to see all these great flying skills. Lets go back out cause I'm going to drill your ass like I've never drilled anybody.”
I said, "bring it."
Why I went off like the Muhammad Ali of the sky is a mystery. It’s not me. My desperation had turned into mania - maybe?
The feeling I had sitting in that C-150 cockpit, floating around 4,500 feet, knowing that I just blew it - damn horse feathers it twas - I might as well have just jumped out of the plane; there went a year or so in studying, a life-long dream up in smoke, and not to mention the expenses, and it comes down to this. I drew ol’ blood n guts, Sergeant Square-Jaw.
I knew my chances were slim. But I don't give up easily. Vegas wouldn't have given me 1,000 to 1 on passing. So, I had nothing to lose. I instantly dropped all my anxiety and I told the jarhead, "I got it."
It was dusk when we started back out to the practice area, and dusk goes by quickly on January 19th. There was an uneasy silence in the plane. We flew for a few minutes, but darkness arrived and we headed back to the airport to do some slow, soft-field takeoffs and landings. The pressure was on. But I'm a night owl - my luck started to change. Captain "Kid" flies better at night, I told myself. Kid is my childhood nickname - even my mom called me kid until the day she died in 2002. Time to make her proud. She already produced one pilot. Could there be one more? She'd like that. She loved aviation is much as we did. She was always on a plane going somewhere or another.
I'd never performed any of these required procedures at night. Hell, passing them in the day is hard enough. Do you know anyone that had a private pilot check ride at night? I don't believe that's in the book. But I'd gotten myself into this and I was about to prove to this old veteran that I could out fly anybody in the Country.
The show was on - and I'm the ringmaster. We did a dozen takeoffs and landings. The landings were so soft he couldn't tell when we were on the ground. Neither could I. My short field takeoffs would've made Jimmy Doolittle blush. But my steep slip-landings were something to behold ... he couldn't deny it. I was the best he'd ever seen. He knew it. I knew it. There was more silence as we were taxiing back to the hanger. The old veteran had a tough decision to make. Then, out of nowhere, through gritted teeth, he blurted, “I'm gonna pass you, I don't believe it, but I'm gonna pass you. But you don't know everything, and you sure as hell don't know how lucky you are."
I said, "I appreciate it, and I'm sorry I yelled at you earlier."
There was no response. And there would be none.
(Abridged excerpt from “On Duct Tape and a Prayer)