A Dream Fulfilled

November 4, 2009 at 10:55 pm Leave a comment

MEMOIR

 

When I was a young, growing up in Newark, New Jersey, I dreamed of what it would be like to fly and during the spring of 1969, that dream was fulfilled.
My father built model aircraft, which I immediately destroyed when I was a toddler. But I caught the bug and built models, both plastic and flying examples, as a youth.
That spring of 1969, I was a senior attending Oklahoma State University. For men my age, the military was a certainty. Vietnam was chewing us up and spitting us out whole, broken or somewhere in between. Since childhood, I had always loved airplanes, thrilled at the thought of being able to course the sky – free. As a freshman, enrolled in Air Force ROTC and eventually qualified for pilot training beginning immediately upon graduation. The exciting part of this acceptance was that I would learn to fly during my last year of college. I would learn to fly the Cessna 150 at an airport a few miles south of campus, taught by civilian flight instructors hired by the government. Since I had not yet learned to drive, I would need to catch rides with other future pilots to the airport. I made it to the airport that first day and met my flight instructor, a seasoned pilot, and began flight lessons.
Oklahoma is not a very forgiving place to learn to fly. One of the most unforgiving elements of the weather was the wind. My lessons were twice a week, at 7:30AM and 1:30PM, with the afternoon lessons were the most challenging. One day in particular, the wind was blowing at almost hurricane strength, or so it seemed as I rode to my 1:30 lesson. All the other instructors had cancelled their lessons, but my crusty instructor said, “We’re flying.” We walked out to the aircraft and I performed the preflight. We then climbed into the Cessna and I started the engine. Much to my relief, my instructor said that he would perform the takeoff. Instead of going to the taxiway, then to the runway, he gunned the engine and headed for the grassy area just beyond the parking apron. The airport at Stillwater, Oklahoma was an uncontrolled airport, meaning the tower could give weather advisory and what the current active runway was, but everyone landing and taking off were on their own.
Once on the grass, my instructor checked for other traffic and began his takeoff roll. The Cessna needed little distance to become airborne, and he performed a muddy field take off which requires even less distance. For this takeoff, you lifted the nose of the aircraft early and applied full flaps, after you left the ground you lowered the nose until you gained enough speed to climb. Once in the air, the only effect the wind had on the plane was in its speed; the aircraft was in its medium.
We did some training and then my instructor demonstrated a phenomenon that I will never forget. He set up the aircraft for slow flight into the wind. During slow flight, you lift the nose of the aircraft, and since attitude governs speed, your speed is reduced. Once he had established the attitude he wanted, he asked me to look down. The force of the wind matched our speed and we hung motionless. Next he lowered the flaps and brought the nose up slightly. Now we were going in reverse; the winds of Oklahoma were mighty indeed.
My training progressed and I was rapidly approaching the flight-training hurdle of my first solo flight. After six hours of training, you were expected to soon solo. I had been practicing touch and go landings for the last few sessions, then one beautiful Oklahoma morning it happened. After a few practice landings, my instructor had me stop the aircraft and he climbed out saying that I was ready to solo. In seconds my emotions ranged from joy to apprehension.
I pushed the throttle forward and began my takeoff roll. The Cessna 150 is a light plane and I was amazed how differently it handled with only one person aboard instead of two. I shall never forget the thrill of watching the ground drop away as I soared into the sky, alone.
Weeks later, I was to go on a solo cross-country flight. To this day, I have no sense of direction. During my solo cross-country flight my sense of direction, or lack thereof, became obvious. Now, when I’m driving and have spent some time wandering aimlessly, I’ll eventually pull over to find out where I am. You cannot pull over when in flight. The trouble first began when I felt my instruments were not performing properly and decided to go in the direction that my instincts told me was correct. BIG MISTAKE. Turns out, my instruments were performing perfectly. Soon there were lakes and towns that did not appear on the map I had strapped to my knee. I spotted a town with a water tower and flew low hoping the name of the town was written on its side; there was no name. I finally saw a small airport, and from the configuration of the runway, figured out where I was, which was way off course. I then followed the railroad that headed straight for the small town that was my destination. During my flight, my instructor radioed once to ask how I was doing. As I wiped the sweat from my brow I said, “Great.” A flight that should have taken one hour took me two and I’m sure my instructor never suspected a thing.
Once I arrived back at Stillwater, I entered the traffic pattern and the tower informed me that the wind had picked up quite a bit since I left. That was all I needed after this flight. To get some appreciation for what occurred next, let me tell you something about the runway. Boeing 707s can land on this runway. I came in on final and tried to line up the plane to land and managed to travel the entire length of the runway without making a landing. I radioed the tower that I was going around for another try. I made it on my second attempt. I parked the plane and opened the door, which was torn from my grasp by the wind. This helped my ego only slightly.
My 1:30PM lessons were always the most challenging due to the winds and also the thermals that developed during the hot afternoons. Flying over land was not a problem, but when crossing from land to water you encountered quite a buffeting because the water heated at a rate different from the land. Once, I was in the process of radioing the tower when I flew over a lake and my little aircraft was tossed by the difference in the thermals. My transmission was less than professional.
My 7:30AM lessons were more enjoyable. There was little wind and the air was like silk. These conditions allowed the sheer enjoyment of flight, when the pilot ventures from merely performing a maneuver to becoming one with the aircraft as it courses the sky and his soul glimpses freedom. One morning in the Oklahoma skies I had that experience. I arrived for my solo lesson and was soon in the air. The wind was calm. The first maneuver I practiced was a 360-degree circle over an intersection. This maneuver taught you how judge the amount of bank required in relation to the wind velocity. For the first time, my circle was perfect. I flew on with a sense of joy, solitude and peace. I felt that the aircraft and I were one as we flew over the flat landscape. Totally relaxed in the air, all my worries about school and my future just melted away. I did not want this moment to end. But soon I had to enter the traffic pattern and made a good landing. I taxied to the parking area, tied down the aircraft, and walked back into my life.
Almost immediately after graduation I entered pilot training. I went on to fly the Cessna 172, designated the T-41 by the Air Force. Next came many white-knuckled flights in the T-37, a small jet. I washed out of pilot training before that aircraft and I ever took to the Alabama skies alone. It has been years since I sat at the controls of a plane, but that morning when I truly experienced the pure joy of flight remains in my mind; that morning my dream was fulfilled.

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Introduction THE DAY KENNEDY DIED

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