Flight; Part 1, The Airport


Antioch, California, sprawls along the banks of the San Joaquin River some 20 miles before it drains into San Francisco Bay, and the nearness of all that water cranks up the humidity which, when it’s hot out, seems to crank up crankiness in general.

It was on such a day in the summer of 1966 that I drove out Lone Tree Way towards Mt. Diablo, hoping to get enough elevation to catch an errant ocean breeze. But what I found, just beyond the golf course, was the Antioch Airport.

Ah, an airport. Mr. Cranky left just like that, and I pulled over and climbed to the top of a small hill across the highway where I could see the whole works, as small and limited as it was. Airplanes and airports have always fascinated me, and I’d read a couple of books when I was in school that set me to thinking I’d like to be a pilot when I grew up. I shed that yearning pretty quickly after a few commercial airline trips convinced me that flying took place way too far off the ground to be enjoyable, but it was still fascinating.

An airplane was just taking off, larger than most small planes, trundling rather awkwardly down the runway with its side door off. Kind of odd, I thought, until I noticed the corrugated metal building alongside the taxiway sporting the words “Diablo Skydivers”. It was spelled in italics, which was appropriate since my thoughts shifted into italics too, the moment I saw it;

“Skydivers!” It needed italics, don’t you think?

“Wow!”

I watched that winged adventure spiral higher and higher until it was pertnear out of sight, and then four tiny specks dropped from it. People, by golly! Those little-bitty dots were people! Falling through the sky! I watched, mesmerized, until the chutes blossomed and drifted gently to earth.

I wasn’t aware, at the time, that that is the way you get caught up in things.

I went back to my car and drove into the airport proper, parking next to a building that identified itself as “Graham Flying Service”. When I got out I had every intention of walking over to the skydivers hangout but after two steps in that direction my feet turned themselves and walked me over to Graham’s Flying Service door instead. Sometimes, like when you see a bear in the forest, your feet know instinctively where their best interests lie.

A very pleasant lady behind the counter, whom I later came to know as Marty Graham, asked what she could do for me. Well, the sign on the wall behind her said “Flying Lessons; $10 per hour”, so I said,

“Flying lessons.”

“You’ve come to the right place,” she said, beaming, “Our instructor is in the back with a student right now. We could fit you in if you’d like.”

“Um well, well, sure!” I said with all the sincerity of a cornered felon.

And so began my somewhat reluctant flying career.

It started off OK. I went straight into the classroom that day and met my initial flying instructor and the student—Jim Lister, who also worked at Crown Zellerbach over in Towel & Tissue—and we all got off on the right foot, which was comforting. They were just starting the very first session of Ground School, which was mandatory before any hands-on flying. Fine with me, and since the timing of all this was so absolutely perfect I began to think maybe this was where I belonged after all. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d been mistaken, and I found Ground School to be interesting, enjoyable even.

And then we got to the airplane part of it. The introductory flights were in mercifully calm air, familiarization-type stuff stressing straight and level flight and gentle turns, but even then I didn’t care for the constant low-key rising and falling and yawing and twisting—sort of an unanticipated floating—that, although barely noticeable mentally, was very noticeable on the stomach level.

That all changed when we got to stalls. Stalls are entered by reducing power and pulling the nose up until the airplane quits being an airplane and becomes a brick. You’re in free-fall for a couple seconds until the plane picks up enough speed to start flying again several hundred feet later. I disliked stalls, very, very much.

According to my Pilot Log, which I’d been introduced to on solid ground and kept over the decades as a reminder of impulse buying, one of those stall-practicing flights was in a Cessna 150, which I recall vividly because a new instructor told me, after my white-knuckled turn at the wheel, to relax and have a cigarette. Which I did, foolishly thinking I could sit back and soothe my nerves. Then he—the concerned, thoughtful instructor in the right seat—slammed the controls to their farthest reaches and whipped the plane around in what is fittingly known as a ‘snap roll’. He was immediately sorry, but I think that was because my teeth had appropriately snapped off the filter and the lit end of the cigarette was rolling around somewhere in the cabin.

Word must get passed around amongst instructor pilots because there were no more aerobatics during my training, by anyone.

Jerry Graham, owner of the Flying Service by that name, gave me several lessons himself in one of his new Alon A-2 Aircoupes. It was a low-wing design so you climbed up onto the wing to get into the cockpit—I refused to call it a cabin because the Aircoupe had a sliding canopy—and you stepped into it like they did in the old WW II fighters. It was a sporty little plane and I found I liked the low wing because it blocked the straight-down view, which put me a little more at ease.

I don’t like surprises, never have, and Jerry Graham surprised me the day I landed the Aircoupe without any help. He slid the canopy back, hopped out and said,

“Take her around,” and slid the canopy shut.

I slid the canopy back open and said,

“What?”

“You’re ready to solo,” he replied, “make a couple touch-and-go landings and then come into the office.”

Well, we had a few words in which I insisted I was not ready at all. He insisted I was even though I’d exited the plane. Jerry finally shook his head;

“You have 13 hours of dual instruction and you can do it easily. I’ve soloed little girls after ten hours.”

I could see that was meant to shame me. Apparently it worked pretty well, because after a few minutes I climbed back into the cockpit and taxied out to the runway. Jerry was standing near the fuel pump giving me a huge thumbs up followed by a round of applause, so after my CIGARS checklist I pushed the throttle to the stops and away we..or I, rather,..went.


To be continued…