Flight; Part 3, The License

It seemed I was always tense when piloting an aircraft. Never did I get entirely comfortable with it, which appears to be the difference between those who take to it like ducks to flight and ducks who’d rather paddle around the pond.

Jim Litster, my fellow student, seemed to prove the point as his passion for flying consumed his every idle moment. There were very few times I went to the Antioch airport that Jim wasn’t there either working or flying. He was so enthusiastic I tried to avoid him, which wasn’t easy unless it was skydiving day in which case he was busy. Not that Jim would ever consider jumping out of a perfectly good airplane; he just wanted to fly the thing, and eventually did.

In the meantime he often shanghaied me to be the starter for his 1946 Taylorcraft. Because it had no electrical system somebody had to grab the propeller and forcefully pull it downward, usually a number of times before the engine fired up. I wasn’t crazy about doing that. A large very lucky Saint Bernard dog who lived at the airport sported bald scars along his neck and back from walking into an idling propeller. Every time I touched that propeller I thought about those scars, and I also made sure just my fingertips peeked over the top of the propeller blade so a backfire wouldn’t pull my arms out of their sockets.

When I could run the gauntlet without Jim catching me it was actually a relief to climb into the Aircoupe and get off the ground. At the very least it took awhile for me to tense up again.

The next phase of my training concerned the filing of flight plans, cross-country piloting, and radio procedures for flying in and out of controlled airports. In order to qualify for a Private Pilot’s license those had to be checked off, and I found all this side work distracting from actually controlling the airplane, which kept me more than busy all by itself. I did okay, as a rule, finding and flying into small airports like Antioch, but the ones with control towers and multiple runways and planes taking off or landing every few moments were confusing at best, and at worst were…well, take my first solo into a controlled by radio, tightly monitored airport;

Fresno had two 7’000-foot-plus parallel runways numbered 29 Left and 29 Right, the reciprocals of which were, of course, 11 Left and 11 Right. Pilots have to know these things because the reciprocal heading is the direction that should be showing on your compass when you’re on the downwind leg of the runway, whether 29 or 11 in Fresno’s case. Even reading about that is confusing, don’t you think? No wonder it caused me problems.

Anyway, in the ‘60’s the California National Guard had a squadron of Phantom fighter jets stationed near runway 29 in Fresno and they held periodic scrambles—drills to see how fast they could get the squadron into the air and ready for combat. One of these, according to my Pilot Log, was held on August 14, 1967, and had to be aborted midway because a small plane, an Aircoupe to be exact, flew directly across their combat departure leg in apparent blissful ignorance, thereby endangering not only said pilot, but other traffic in the air, the Air Guard Phantoms, and quite possibly the entire city of Fresno itself.

To this day I don’t know how it happened except that I was so utterly preoccupied with headings and reciprocals and radio transmissions and whatnot that I ended up flying in the exact to-the-degree-opposite—the reciprocal—of what the controller was telling me to fly, and I don’t recall seeing any fighter jets. I do remember thinking what an idiot the controller must be because I was clearly holding the exact opposite compass reading of what he was yammering on about.

Sheesh.

Funny, how the mind sees things backwards now and then.

Funnier still how I was directed to park over by the control tower and to report thereto with my Pilot Log in hand. What wasn’t funny was the epic chewing out I received at the hands of the Chief Controller. It was awful. It was so awful all I can remember about it is that he was left-handed. Maybe I was expecting an uppercut. At any rate when he was finished he did sign the required line on my logbook on the condition that I leave, accompanied by an unspoken but strongly conveyed directive that I never return, at least in his lifetime.

And I never did, proving I can take a hint.

After that debacle I’ve always thought it was to my great credit that I did keep flying, although it would’ve been a long walk back home. And I believe the Fresno controller contacted Graham’s Flying Service in Antioch because after I got back they gave me three more sessions of flying into controlled airports with instructors before they let me fly into another one unsupervised.

And wonder of wonders, apparently in spite of myself, I passed the written test to get my Private Pilot’s License. That spurred me on, and I buckled down and flew every chance I got in the following weeks. The result was that on September 9, 1967, with 71 hours and 40 minutes of flight time, my Logbook surprisingly read ‘Pilot qualifications and preflight planning checked and found adequate for solo xc Antioch-Sacramento & return Alon A-2.’ For my FAA flight exam, see.

I returned to Antioch that same day stunned that I had passed and was now an FAA-certified Private Pilot ASEL, which was pilotese for ‘airplane single-engine land’.

It was a very near thing, and after I mistook a gravel pit for a drive-in theatre checkpoint, and then made my short-field landing on the last few yards of a mile-long runway, well, it didn’t take an Einstein to conclude that the whole shebang was a bust. I followed that sorry demonstration and more with a barely adequate landing back at Sacramento Airport, and after I slid the canopy open thinking the inspector would jump out and run for his life I got the biggest surprise of my life;

“That wasn’t very good flying son,” he said as he rustled through his papers, “but I’m signing you off on your license because you’ve got 72 logged hours out of Antioch, and that airport, in the foothills of Mt. Diablo and bordered with power lines is one of the most demanding fields in California. You have got to be much better than you’ve shown me today or you wouldn’t be here at all. Don’t make me sorry.”

With that he handed me my logbook, shook my hand and climbed out, forever to be enshrined in my own personal Hall of Fame.

I was so dang pleased with myself that when I got back I hopped in the Taylorcraft with Jim Litster, now that I was one of the brotherhood.

In name, anyway.

To be continued…