This is the time of year I want to fly. Not just an airplane ride . . . I mean FLY. Free as a bird, all alone in the cockpit of a single engine aircraft like the Piper J-3 Cub.
Many years ago I dreamed of becoming a pilot. As a college freshman majoring in Aviation Technology, I took on a second part time job just to earn the cost of a one hour flying lesson every two weeks. Often today, when working in my yard on an autumn afternoon, I hear the faint buzz of a single engine airplane, lift my head and search the sky. Where is it? Is the pilot just a beginner heading out to a training area where the instructor will put him or her through their paces? Spotting the object of my search, my own mind begins to travel back in time. I can see it like it was yesterday.
Lined up on a narrow strip of blacktop in a yellow Cessna 150, my instructor by my side, I open the throttle and begin the takeoff roll. As we reach the breakneck speed of 60 knots, the instructor tells me to pull back on the yoke and we lift off. To me, the sensation of that first flight was exceeded only by the first time I went through the same motion – but alone.
Though I flew in two different types of aircraft during fourteen hours of flight training, my best memories are of time spent in a Piper J-3 Cub. This is a fabric covered two-seater first manufactured in the 1930’s with a 65 horsepower engine. The main gear is near the front and a small tail wheel is found at the rear for ease of turning. The seating is tandem and the pilot, when alone, occupies the rear seat to assure proper balance. Its controls consist of a stick located between one’s legs to control the wing and tail ailerons (God, I haven’t used that terminology in fifty years.) and petals to control the rudder. The throttle is a lever on the side wall hooked to a thin wire that disappears into the engine cowling. The instrument panel consists of a tachometer, altimeter, airspeed indicator, compass and an oil pressure gauge. One monitors remaining fuel with a wire stuck to a cork floating on a maximum of nine gallons of gasoline in a tank on top of the engine.
These are the simplest of controls, the most basic tools needed for the pure pleasure of flight. In contrast to the complex instrument panels of today’s commercial aircraft, with autopilots and back-ups to the back-up systems, this machine exists for the sheer joy of being able to sore with the birds.
On a sunny September Sunday in 1964 my flight instructor decided it was time to let me go. Alone. Solo. Unlike my first experience in a small airplane, this time the runway was a somewhat smooth strip of grass amid rows and rows of a farmer’s bean field. The West Bloomfield Flying Club had generously adopted me earlier that summer and stood watching as I turned and taxied to the runway’s end.
Trembling, yet sure, I lined up for takeoff. One last look at the assembled crowd of six or seven, then I turned my head to focus on the strip of land in front of me. There was no roar of the engine, only a hum that grew louder as I pressed the throttle forward. At 20 knots I nudged the stick forward, ever so slightly, and the tail began to rise. The takeoff roll continued and, at 40 knots, I began to pull back on the stick. The jouncing vibration of wheels rolling though grass ended as I lifted off the ground. A safe distance up ( I couldn’t help myself. ) I looked around in the tiny cabin just to be sure no one else was aboard. Then, grinning from ear to ear, peered down at the parting earth below.
One’s first flight consists of the time it takes to fly a rectangular pattern back to the runway you just left. So, moments later, I was flying in the opposite direction to prepare for the day’s real test. Bank to the right, then bank to the right again – I was on final approach. Ease back on the throttle to reduce airspeed . . . push the stick forward . . . just a little right rudder to keep the plane lined up with the runway. Ever so slowly I returned to earth. Then, a brief floating sensation just before landing. [NOTE: The owner of the J-3, beads of sweat covering his forehead, swears I actually stopped in midair.] Wheels touched down and the airplane rolled to a stop.
There’s a tradition among pilots to celebrate this particular event. As I exited the aircraft, someone walked up behind me, pulled my shirt out from under my belt and began to rip a long tear up the middle of the back. I didn’t know about the ritual and was, needless to say, very surprised. But, I still have that shirt. It’s hanging in a frame on the wall in our den. And I still grin from ear-to-ear every time I look at it.
Thanks for reading……………..