It is normal to think of the people or events that shaped our life as we grow older. They stay in our memory and we like to talk about them in social settings with close or even casual friends. (But don’t tell the same ones too often to the same friends. They will think you are getting old!)
Typically those memories are about the people or events that molded us into better people and added value to our lives. We don’t share the mundane things in our lives. We don’t even remember them. Nor do we share the bad experiences. We do remember those, but they cause us stress to think about. One of the great experiences of my life happened more than seventy years ago: my first airplane ride!
It was 1946, and I was almost twelve years old. We were living at 673 Desoto Drive in Miami Springs, Florida, just across from Miami International Airport, one of my favorite places as a kid. There was a second floor open-air observation deck at the airport. All I had to do was cross N.W. 36th Street and enter the front doors of the main building, then go up the steps to the deck. There I could look down on all the aircraft that were there at that moment, those parked waiting for passengers or unloading, those taxiing for take-off, and those landing. There before me were the DC-3s (civilian versions of the military C-47), the DC-4s and DC-6s, later on the Convair 440s and Lockheed Constellations. It was a great time and place for a kid who yearned to fly, who loved airplanes of any kind, especially the fighters of WWII. I’d go to that deck alone, day and night, never challenged. It was an interesting, innocent time, and the airport was very busy, airplanes and passengers from everywhere.
I don’t remember all the details, but local Kiwanis Club members chose me to attend an aviation training school for young boys. It was a collaboration between the Kiwanis club and the Civil Air Patrol. It was an unforgettable experience. We learned about radial engines, constant speed propellers, radio operation, control surfaces, navigation charts, the history of flight, and about flight itself. I clearly remember, all those years ago, that “when thrust overcomes drag, and lift overcomes weight, flight begins!” The class met each Saturday for most of the summer. I had to squeeze it in my routine because I also delivered papers on a bicycle route very early Saturday mornings.
Our graduation surprise was a ride on a Curtis C-46 Commando, a huge (to me) twin engine cargo plane which earned much of its reputation during WWII, flying supplies to Chiang Kai-Shek over the world’s most perilous terrain known as “the hump” in the China-Burma-India Theater. I stood under the wing of that airplane that day, excited and scared. It was a monster with a wingspan of more than a hundred feet and a body close to 80 feet long. It stood with its nose twenty feet high, angled up to the sky, a “tail dragger,” braced on two massive wheels under the wings and a small wheel under the vertical stabilizer.
We were lined up in single file to climb a ladder into the port-side cargo door and get aboard. While I waited, I saw a small seal which had been torn off a pack of Chesterfield cigarettes and thrown on the ground. I took that little scrap of paper up the ladder with me and went forward on a steep incline toward the cockpit. I took one of the starboard web seats. Such seats were lined along each side of the fuselage and faced the center walkway. I put the seat belt on and twisted around to look out the rectangular window which was just over the leading edge of the starboard wing. It was a great seat, but I was already too far off the ground! I remembered my grandfather telling me that he’d never fly. “I keep one foot on the ground,” he said. I turned around and began to concentrate on that little seal from the pack of Chesterfields!
As I “studied” the seal, I was aware of the engines starting and the plane coming to life. I concentrated on the seal even more, trying to put what was happening out of my consciousness. Soon we were moving slowly down a taxiway, then turned and came to a stop. The engines got louder and louder and everything began to shake. Then the power was reduced, and the brakes were released, and we began slowly moving forward, soon turning sharply left and stopping. Again the engines came to full power, and we seemed to be released from some giant hand! The tail lifted and we were no longer earth bound! I was tilted both up and forward, staring down at the seats across from me. There was a loud bang under the wings as the wheels retracted. We climbed and continued banking to the left. I forced myself to look out our starboard window and saw our wing pointed into the sky. Across from me, through the opposite window, the airport was below and to the left. I was definitely in the air but no more afraid!
We leveled our wings and continued to climb. The streets below seemed to slide by, and the causeways leading to Miami Beach came into view. We were permitted to release our seat belts, and we crowded around the windows. Except for the pilots and instructors, I don’t believe anybody aboard had ever flown before. Over a loudspeaker, our captain invited us to the cockpit to talk with him and the co-pilot and get a sky view of Miami Beach and the ocean. I got in line immediately.
The cockpit was huge, with duplicate flight controls and instruments in front of both pilots. There was a beautiful panoramic view up and down and side to side. Even the engines were visible. When I took my place between the two pilots we were just leaving the beach area and proceeding out over the Atlantic Gulf Stream. The pilots were probably not prepared for all the questions I had, but they treated me as if I were “one of the guys.” My cockpit time seemed way too short and I know much too long for the boys waiting their turn.
That complete flight lasted perhaps two hours because we circled over the ocean and then proceeded up the coast over Ft. Lauderdale. As we returned to the airport, I was intent on every move of the airplane, this time not out of fear, but out of a need to remember how the process was being accomplished. I knew what I wanted to be!
I flew many times again in my early adult years, mostly on military related travel. It was not until ten years after my first flight that I began pilot instruction from a dairy farmer who owned a Piper Cub (PA 11) and kept it in his barn in Palm Beach County, Florida. He taught me all the fundamentals of piloting, including all the stalls, slow-flight, cross-wind landing techniques, dead-stick landings, etc. He had an unorthodox way of teaching steep turns with 60 degree banks, certainly not done today. He used to round up his cattle using steep turns, not more than a hundred feet off the ground. Those are supposed to be learned at altitude, but I learned it his way! Before I soloed, however, he said he could not legally “sign me off” (approve me) for solo flight since he was not a certified flight instructor. (I don’t know whether he actually had a pilot’s license.) It wasn’t until 1978 that I completed flight instruction and became a general aviation pilot, eventually owning six airplanes, including a Cessna 310 and a Comanche 250, and logging hundreds of hours as a pilot in command. I don’t pilot airplanes anymore, but I’m still licensed.
I’m forever grateful to those Kiwanis members and the Civil Air Patrol for getting me started. I don’t see any C-46s anymore, but the one I flew in is probably yet flying, perhaps down in South America on cargo duty. I’d look her up if I had her tail numbers. She was a sweetheart. I won’t ever forget her.