|A Chance Vought F4U Corsair, at the 2006 Joint Service Open House at Andrews Air Force Base.|
I've been interested in airplanes as long as I can remember. I was interested even as a young child growing up in suburban New Jersey; two early memories come to mind, even after more than 40 years:
I grew up in the 1950's and 1960's, and when our family traveled, we traveled by car, not by airplane. Nevertheless, I got my first airplane ride as a youngster when we visited Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in upstate New York, just east of the Hudson River near Kingston. They had lots of old airplanes, some original, some replicas, including a replica of a biplane that was used to deliver airmail. The aerodrome pilots gave barnstorming rides in the airmail biplane, and my father sprung for the cost of a flight.
The plane had two cockpits, a rear cockpit for the pilot and a forward cockpit for passengers. The forward cockpit was big enough to hold multiple people, so my mother and sister flew, too. Since it was an open cockpit, the pilot handed out leather flying helmets for us to wear. This was the first time I flew in an airplane, and what a ride it was! The pilot took off from a grass strip and flew low over the countryside, then did some steep turns over the Kingston Bridge on the Hudson River. I remember the plane banking very steeply, and we all got giddy. At one point, the pilot took a toy balloon out from his cockpit and released it into the slipstream. He then circled around and attempted to pop the balloon by running into it with the propeller. We got an extra-long ride because he missed on the first pass; on the second pass, the balloon hit the wing and popped.
They still give barnstorming rides for anyone who is interested.
My next flight was years later, after I had graduated college and was working at my first job. I flew on a business trip from Newark, NJ to Dallas, TX, and got to fly on a Boeing 707. This was obviously the first time I had flown on a jet, since my only other flight was on an old biplane. I remember the 707 as being very noisy during takeoff and climb-out, and when the jet finally leveled off at cruising altitude the engine noise suddenly diminished as the pilot throttled-back. It seemed so quiet compared to takeoff I remember being concerned that maybe the engines had failed, or perhaps the plane had to return to the airport.
I didn't do a huge amount of business travel so I didn't get to fly very often, especially on someone else's nickel. What flying I did, I generally enjoyed. I remember one business trip down to Alabama where I deliberately booked a 727 flight that made multiple stops at rinky-dink airports, just so I could enjoy multiple takeoffs and landings. Those were the days!
As my interest in airplanes continued to develop, I began attending regional airshows. Some of the shows were at small airports, where they had propeller airplanes, vintage fighters, and other interesting flying machines. Every show seemed to have a DC-3, a well-loved classic airplane, still beautiful though the design is 70 years old. I saw another beautiful airplane on a number of occasions: the P-51 Mustang. Surprisingly small on the flight line, the Mustang was a smooth and powerful performer in the air. I once witnessed a flyby of a B-29 bomber, which lumbered past the airport looking like a shiny metallic dinosaur.
At one airshow, a guy walked out on to the runway and stole a Piper Cub, flying it away before anyone could stop him. The airshow announcer reacted with alarm as the obviously inexperienced pilot mishandled the airplane. Of course, this was actually the "flying clown" routine, and the announcer played along as the expert pilot feigned ignorance, at one point pulling up steeply into a low-altitude stall while waggling all the controls.
At more than one show, I enjoyed performances by the French Connection, a husband-wife team each flying a stunt plane in close formation through difficult aerobatic maneuvers. They performed together for nearly 30 years until one day, one plane clipped the other and both planes crashed, killing the couple (I did not witness the accident).
Living in the Washington, DC area, I got to attend the annual "Open House" at Andrews Air Force Base. They always had a very impressive static display of modern fighters and military transports, plus exciting flying demonstrations including the Thunderbirds or Blue Angels. At one show they had a C-5 on display, a truly enormous airplane. The huge transport was opened up at both ends (the nose lifts up and a ramp drops from the tail) so you could walk through the interior—it seemed as big as a subway tunnel. Nearby, you could walk under a B-52 bomber, crouching low to pass under the open bomb bay. Once underneath you could stand up and see where the hydrogen bombs would hang.
I had enough interest in airplanes and flying that I started taking flying lessons. This was in the mid-1980's when I was living in Frederick, Maryland, and I took the lessons at the local Piper dealership at Frederick Municipal Airport. I flew a Piper Tomahawk, which is a small lightweight trainer aircraft just big enough for two people (the student pilot and the instructor, who sit side-by-side under a bubble canopy). It was fun and I enjoyed it, although there were some drawbacks. I completed all my flying lessons, including soloing and flying three solo cross-country flights (one flight to Lancaster, PA, another to Easton, MD, and the third to Richmond, VA, landing at the international airport).
I never did get my pilot's license, though, and I'll tell you why. First of all, I was very busy with my job and had a hard time arranging flying time. It was hard to book weekend time (the rental Tomahawks were frequently booked solid), and it was not uncommon to wait a couple of weeks to fly then have to cancel at the last minute due to bad weather (students could fly solo only in the best weather). Plus, it was an expensive hobby, and it would only get more expensive if I progressed to a "real" airplane rather than a simple trainer. But the main reason is that I decided it was too risky. The airport at Frederick was very busy, and on weekends numerous airplanes would be flying around the pattern, the pilots practicing takeoffs and landings or just going for rides. There was enough air traffic at the uncontrolled airport that in my opinion, there was a significant risk of having an accident, especially for a beginner like me.
Perhaps I sound overly cautious, but I came to that opinion for a reason. On the very day that I first soloed, I had been practicing numerous takeoffs and landings with my instructor. After one such landing the instructor asked me to pull over. Satisfied with my technique, he gave me his blessing to go around the pattern by myself and climbed out of the airplane. I headed back to the runway and took off, all by myself for the first time. I climbed out on the runway heading then made the two left turns to reach the downwind leg, where I flew parallel to the runway. So far, so good; this is pretty exciting! At the proper point in the traffic pattern, I turned left on to the base leg, then shortly thereafter started the last left turn to line up with the runway for final approach. All of a sudden, a small airplane zoomed over the top of my canopy, close enough that I could see the individual rivets on the underside of his fuselage. Judging by the airplane's trajectory, the pilot had pulled up at the last instant to avoid a collision; his airplane arced over me then resumed its descent on final approach. To tell the truth, the near-collision happened so suddenly and so unexpectedly that I didn't even have time to get scared. Needless to say, I didn't see him coming. Luckily, he saw me and was able to avoid a collision, but only by a scant few feet.
I completed my landing and taxiied to the ramp, then shut down the engine and secured the airplane. When I rejoined my instructor, he remarked that I seemed to have had a problem with the other airplane. He didn't yell, he didn't even lecture, even though he no doubt witnessed the whole event (seeing his student nearly have a midair collision on his first solo flight). He probably figured that I had learned an important lesson that day—flying is risky and you can get killed, so you need to take exceptional care during all phases of the flight to be as safe as you possibly can. And when you make a left turn on to final approach in a low-wing airplane, the right wing rises up and obscures your view of approaching traffic. Therefore you need to be extra vigilant before making the turn, because you might not get a second chance.
I went on to complete all the airwork for a private pilot's license, but when my student pilot's license expired, I didn't renew it. Nowadays, I'm content to fly my Beechcraft King Air using Microsoft Flight Simulator.
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