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25 years ago

January 31, 2012

January 28, 2012 was a typical day.  A typical Saturday on a typical winter weekend.  No birthdays, no holidays, no fanfare.  No big deal.

But the date sticks in my mind.  A couple of days earlier, I took a chance scan through my stack of pilot logbooks, including the thinnest, oldest one, which reminded me why.  On January 28, 1987 I took my first flight lesson 25 years ago.

I was at the Southern Illinois Airport, Carbondale, attending Southern Illinois University.  I was a freshman.  My major field of study:  Aviation – Flight.  I was beginning my first flight course–AF201, which, when complete, would bestow upon me the ignoble certification of  “private pilot”.

In those days, SIU had a large fleet of training aircraft–Cessna 150’s, 152’s, 172’s and 172RG’s.  The 150/152’s were humble little two seat aircraft.  Simple aluminum construction, ruggedly built, kind of frumpy.  They didn’t carry the cachet of a Piper Cub or the panache of a Stearman biplane–both of these quintessential trainers in their day.  Still, everybody at SIU started off in the C-150/152’s.  They served their design purpose as good, honest trainers of ham-fisted, doofus, fledgling pilots.

It’s a pretty vivid memory of mine.  Out I marched into the pale light of a late January afternoon.  It was uniformly gray and overcast, cold and windy.  I clutched my dispatch paperwork and aircraft key.  My ride for the occasion was tied down off to the side of the apron.  It seemed like 10 minutes just walking to her, certainly amplified by the cold that cut through my long wool overcoat.  Perched on three foot-tall rubber doughnuts, she was light blue with a little dark blue on overall white, bobbing gently against her tie-down ropes in the stiff breeze.   Small, black, 3 inch tall digits spelled out her entire registry, N4734B.  Just like the keychain.  “34B” was stenciled much larger on her vertical stabilizer as a way to denote her identification from afar.  Good thing too, because several of SIU’s 152’s had exactly the same color scheme.  Newby flight students needed all the help we could get.  Nobody wanted to preflight the wrong aircraft with windchills in the teens.  Not to mention the embarrassment of having to admit it to our flight instructors, all of whom we looked up to, desperate to appease.

I didn’t want to be anywhere else in the world that day.

My flight instructor, Scott, helped walk me through a truncated preflight inspection–the big stuff.  Wings, control surfaces, fuel/oil quantity and tie-down ropes untied.  There would be time to go into more detail later, I was told.  I can still smell the acrid scent of 100LL aviation gasoline, tinted blue for identification and astringent to the skin as it overflowed the fuel sampler and spilled all over my bare hands.  But unlike automotive gasoline, it evaporated quickly, leaving little residue.  Once squished inside the tiny cockpit, the aroma of atomized avgas, vinyl upholstery and body odor were pungent enough to recall even today.

With a whack, we slammed our flimsy doors closed.  I recalled my feet shaking so hard from nervousness and cold that the rudder pedals chattered.  I fumbled through completing (mostly reading) the Before Starting Engine checklist.  Scott would reach over me and move the various levers, switches and knobs for me.  I really seemed to just be along for the ride.  How would I do all this?  Although it was biting cold, I was now dripping with sweat.

The engine started.  We taxied out to the runway.  Instinctively, I attempted to use the airplane’s control wheel to somehow influence 34Bravo’s trajectory along the taxiways.  “It’s done with the rudder pedals and brakes” Scott intoned.  Ah yes.  I knew this, just couldn’t do it.  I’ll work on that, I told myself.

More stammering by me over the sound of the engine and the Before Takeoff checklist was complete.  Scott again on the radio, we were cleared for takeoff.  Wait a minute!  So soon?  Don’t we need to do more?  Haven’t we forgotten something?  Why is the wind shaking our little plane so much and we’re not even moving yet!  More noise, more darting and stabbing at the controls.  Shit, I’m doing most of this!  Scott’s not even touching the controls!  What kind of negligent instructor is he?

And suddenly…I was flying.  Me.  My hands–chapped, sweaty, brusque.  Defying all logic, that little 34Bravo was listening to me.  We climbed together into the flat gray sky.

So much has transpired since that day.  And although I work for the biggest airline in the world, I presently fly a desk.  From where I sit I can see windows off in the distance, but just buildings outside.  No sky, overcast or otherwise.

Back to those logbooks.  They describe over 10,000 hours of time aloft with clipped entries of time and place.  They mark the milestones of Private Pilot, Commercial Pilot, multi-engine pilot, Flight Instructor, Airline Transport Pilot, seaplane pilot, taildragger pilot, turbine aircraft ratings 1 through 9.  First passenger carried.  First cloud punched through.  First rancid, metallic taste of fear from a fatal altitude and the scare that came with it.  First glorious trip as an airline pilot.  First engine failure.  Whatever the tale of each entry, wherever I landed, I had dreamed of these days since I was 5 years old.

All beginning 25 years ago.  A quarter century.  Time flies, right?

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From → Flying, My Career

3 Comments
  1. Julia permalink

    It’s amazing how fast it goes. I am really enjoying reading your entries.

  2. Bill permalink

    Ack. You made me go look at my logbook. And realized that it started with sailplanes in Boulder, CO in 1984 and the last official time logged as a commercial pilot 4 years ago was giving a ride to a nice lady in a L-23 Super Blanik out of Black Forest Gliderport wave soaring just south of…Boulder, CO. Just never had a reason to look and put those two things together.

    Think how happy you made some other family who jumped at FedEx. They’re out there somewhere, saying thank you and your karma train is in motion, headed your way.

  3. The first time I took the stick *was* in a Piper Cub… and I learned quite a bit flying Stearmans (Stearmen?) and even a Tiger Moth. It doesn’t matter, though, it’s ALL magical! 🙂

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