My father was a pilot. He did not fly professionally but it was one of his passions. I remember in the 1960s he would practice takes off and landings in a two seater Mooney, with me in the copilot seat, at Philadelphia International Airport. There was a thrill of seeing jumbo jets taking off before us as we followed behind them in our little plane.
As our family grew dad sold his share in the Mooney and bought a Cessna Skymaster, a funny looking plane with an engine in front and in back of the cockpit. Cessna called it a push-pull plane because one engines pulled the plane forward and the other engine pushed it forward. Dad liked the plane because it had the speed of a twin engine without the complications of getting a twin engine certification.
I used to watch every move my dad made as he flew, thinking that maybe in an emergency I could take over the plane if needed. It was wishful thinking. In the 1980s when I got accepted to graduate school, I had six months to kill before starting my MBA program. At the time my father was a part owner in a small airline. He suggested I work in the marketing department of the airline and get a few months of experience before graduate school and I accepted.
I knew that I did not know anything about the airline business and did not want to start the job simply as one of the owners children. I reasoned that everyone who worked a the airport either knew how to fly or repair planes. I decided that I would get my pilot’s license. A friend of mine at the time, Peter, was a flight instructor and agreed to have me come live at his house in Connecticut while he taught me, in an accelerated fashion, how to fly.
Before starting work at the airport, I spent a few weeks learning to fly. Peter was a good teacher and we had fun training and spending time together. I had been flying with Peter in his two seater Piper for a few days, maybe a week, when he told me it was time for me to solo. I was terrified. We were flying out of a small air strip in Connecticut and Peter got on the radio in the flight office to talk me through what was to be a series of take off and landings.
My first landing was terrible. I could not get the plane on the ground and the plane began to porpoise. Imagine a porpoise leaping in and out of the water. That was me in Peter’s little two seater plane. It was terrifying. Peter screamed at me on the radio to gun the engines and go around again and I took off for another try. As I flew around the small airstrip for my second landing Peter reviewed the landing steps with me over the radio.
I got control of my fear and my second landing was better and I successfully and smoothly got the plane on the ground. This experience and the days that followed were transformative. I was just beginning to emerge from the low opinion I had of myself and my capabilities growing up. Learning to fly helped me to learn how to manage through my fear to accomplish something difficult, even while I was scared to death. The experience of learning to fly was a great confidence builder. I did to on to get my pilot’s license in about two and a half weeks of intensive work.
I loved the freedom of being able to fly. When I started my job at the airport I regularly rented planes to practice and build up my hours. Having my pilots licence gave me the confidence to start the job and not feel just like the bosses son. I now spoke the language of pilots and felt a little more on equal footing with the other staff.
To build up hours I would rent a plane and practice. Early in my flying I decided to practice night flying. I headed to another small airport about ten miles away intending to practice a few take off and landings and return home. I saw what looked like a bigger airport than I imagined but assumed I had just misread the map and I landed.
As soon as I got close to the ground I knew I was in the wrong place. This was not a small landing strip but an enormous runway. I had landed at an air force base. Before I could take off again I was surrounded jeeps manned by MPs with guns. I was told by megaphone to follow one of the jeeps. I was escorted by three jeeps, one in front, one in back and one on my side to the base office. I parked the plane and was taken into the building. I had no sense of military command and knew I was talking to someone more senior but I had no idea who.
I tried to explain myself and was immediately slapped down verbally. I was young and cocky and I remember the person in charge saying to me, “Boy, you better wipe that smirk off your face. This is serious.” Then they asked for an owner’s card for the plane, which is not something planes need to carry. I explained that I was in a rented plane and that any paperwork about ownership was back at the airport I had come from. Before the let me go they called the airport where I worked to verify ownership and insurance. By the time I got back to my airport everyone knew what had happened. I could only laugh with them about my mistake.
A few weeks later I had planned a short trip to New Jersey to meet someone–all for the purpose of practice and building up my hours. I checked the weather and it looked good. But by the time I got to New Jersey the weather had changed and the cloud ceiling was dropping rapidly. I kept having to fly lower and lower trying to find the airport. I remember coming dangerously close to a radio tower — that’s how low I was, before finally getting my bearings and finding the airport. It was a terrifying experience. Years later this kind of weather is what killed John F. Kennedy, Jr., only he went into the clouds and with minimal instrument training, lost control of the plane.
The airport had one aerobic plane, a Cessna Aerobat 150 and an instructor that gave aerobatic lessons. The instructor was a wonderful woman who was a nurse by profession and gave lessons on the side. She was weathered woman in her fifties, pencil thin, with a deep voice from years of smoking. I liked working with her.
The idea of aerobatics seemed like a lot of fun and a way to build up my flight hours. I spent hours in the Aerobat practicing maneuvers with my instructor. Then finally I was permitted to go up alone and practice the maneuvers on my own. I remember we did loops, barrel rolls, spins, and lazy 8s. We could not fly upside down because the Aerobat did not have an inverted oil pan like more sophisticated aerobatic planes.
Finally I invited my father to go up with me. By this time I was well versed in all the maneuvers. Once we got to altitude, I began to execute a series of maneuvers, one right after the other. Dad sat there quietly and finely said, “Ok, I think I’ve had enough. We can go back now.”
I thought learning to fly would be a bonding experience with my dad, and it was to a small degree, but my father was not built that way. Typical of my dad, somehow he did not equate my flying a single engine plane on visual with his two engine Skymaster on instruments. He was still years ahead of me in training. Our relationship by this point was courteous and friendly, but never close.
When I started graduate school my flying slowed down and while I keep up my certification, I did not fly often. I did have a resurgence in flying when I moved to a small New Jersey town with my future wife about six years later. I began to fly again, take lessons, and build up flight hours in advance of starting my instrument rating.
I decided to take an accelerated instrument training course but struggled with the content and the arcane navigation we had to learn. As I raced to finish my instrument rating before my son was born, I took the FAA examination before I was ready and did not pass. After the birth of my son the demands of fatherhood, and also my wife saying she would not fly with me with our newborn son, had me stop flying.