What were your first words? Did your parents tell you? Mine were "erblane, erblane."
How about your earliest memory? Mine is of an airshow, probably in the middle thirties. Sputtering engines, exhaust fumes. A top-heavy biplane with wooden propeller taxied along the fence where my father was holding me.
Mostly I remember being close enough to see the detail of wire and wood. The spoked wheels turning, turning. I gaped directly into the pilot's face, goggled and grinning.
A clattering roar, then dust stinging my cheeks. Later my father pointed up.
It would become a childhood distraction, looking up.
War planes filled the skies of Southern California. My father had the most important job in the world. He worked on airplanes. Radios, gyros and bombsights. He knew all the military secrets of the sky. What my father would not tell me, I made up. I filled reams of fools-cap with B17s, the Flying Fortress, embattled but triumphant and P51 Mustangs, diving, guns blazing.
As a third grader, I would regale my schoolmates on the playground with technical specifications of the bombers and fighters in the U.S. arsenal. Horsepower, wing-spans, airspeeds.
Once my teacher overheard me. Miss White kept a straight face and asked me to give a stand-up report to the class. Two other teachers were invited. That began my speaking career. Before the week was out, I had solemnly lectured every grade.
Flying characteristics, tactics in the sky.
On the occasion of my tenth birthday, Dad took me out in the front yard and showed me how to work his Brownie camera but did not explain why. My mother stayed on the porch, holding my baby sister.
"Get in the car," he commanded, winking at my mother. She turned toward the house, unsmiling.
Then I knew.
My father drove to the Riverside Airport. A large man in coveralls strolled out of a ramshackle hangar wiping his hands with a work rag. He nodded to my father. The man was old enough to be my grandfather. His graying hair was well oiled and combed straight back. A pencil-line moustache graced his upper lip. My father handed the man five dollars and two gas-ration coupons.
Nearby stood the Aeronca Champion, its yellow fabric stretched taut, shaped by wooden ribs and frame. A red-orange silhouette curved along its fuselage. The Champ soon would become the main subject of my lecture series.
The man strapped me into the front seat atop a shop manual. "Call me Steve," he said, while shaking my hand. He removed his coveralls and straightened his tie, a metamorphosis of sorts. Steve was now a pilot.
He ducked under the wing and reached inside the cockpit for the magneto switch. Click. I scanned the instrument panel with unbounded wonderment. Through the windshield I saw Steve's hands grasping the propeller.
"Contact!" he hollered. Steve hesitated, then stepped around to confront me through the open side-window. "You're supposed to answer 'contact'," he said with mock gruffness.
"Contact," I said timidly.
"Not now, son," Steve chuckled. "Wait until I say it."
My father stood alongside the plane, arms folded, beaming. The engine caught and coughed. I watched the propwash whip his trouserlegs.
Steve hurriedly climbed into the rear seat. The sun blinked through the propeller blades. I watched the throttle lever move and felt the engine rev up. My father yanked on a rope to remove the wheel chocks. The Champ lurched forward then veered sharply. I gripped the struts on either side of my seat.
The afternoon sun warmed my face. I averted its glare and became captivated by the airplane's smooth tire rolling over the field just outside the left window, crunching stubble in its path.
"Grab the stick," Steve hollered. "Follow me through on take-off."
The pitch of the engine increased. I took hold of the control stick and felt Steve moving it about. The tail rose off the ground, exactly as I had re-enacted a hundred times with ice-cream sticks and pencils. Only, here I am -- inside! I returned my gaze to the landing gear wheel, now a spinning blur.
Suddenly the ground dropped away. The wheel stopped.
Steve patted my shoulder. "You're flyin'!"
Reality cannot as a rule improve on expectations. The first flight for a certain ten-year-old may be a singular exception. The initial sightings from the sky invested the experience with enough intensity to last many lifetimes.
There was something strangely audacious about that humble tire suspended motionless in the foreground. It and I were lifted higher and higher, exalted by the mighty effort of the engine. For a time, I trained my eyes just beyond the airplane's landing wheel to view the spectacle of fences, roads, houses -- familiar objects made meek by altitude and distance and speed.
Speed, however, was only in the sounds not the sights. Flight's biggest surprise for me was the unexpected slowing of things. Not a disappointment, exactly. Discovery can never be that.
Loud indeed is combustion's voice and shrill the artificial wind. Yet, the visual experience of motion diminishes with height above earth. I wondered at the effect during the Champ's transition from skimming along above the field of cut straw to climbing an invisible mountain of air.
That, I thought to myself, is something to talk about whenever I can find someone to listen.
It was the first thing I told my father when we landed.
"I thought we were stopping, but I knew we weren't."
My father boosted me out of the plane and held me for a moment.
"When we were coming back, I couldn't see the airport at first, then Steve said 'Right there, see it?' and I said I did and we turned and dived and went faster. I don't know how he did it but we landed and -- "
"Did you say thanks to Steve?" asked my father.
"Yeah, thanks. I don't know how you did it, but the ground just came up and whoosh! Next thing I knew, the wheel was bouncing -- "
Steve was already pulling on his coveralls.
"The Champ is the best airplane in the world, Dad. And when we flew over our house, we turned sharp, but I didn't get sick. Then we turned like this. I could see the Tackaberry's place on the corner and -- "
My father checked the small red window in the camera and smiled. "You remembered to wind the film," he said.
"The big pepper tree was only this big. Steve says, 'You're flying!' and I was. And I saw my school and the playground..."
We turned away from the Champ and walked to the car. My father kept his hand on my shoulder.
"Today," said he with a sigh, "you did something I have never done."
"When can I go up again?"
More than a dozen years would have been the answer. The picture I took of our house would hang in my room until college. It was blurry, barely discernible. Much like my recollections of childhood.
Except for that first flight.
Spare time meant reading aviation books, drawing pictures of airplanes and more airplanes. There were kits of balsawood strips, silkspan and glue. I spent countless hours poring over plans, cutting and fitting the fragile pieces.
Later I would dash outside, eagerly twirling the bakelite propeller on my fingertip, feeling the thump of bead-like knots that form along the rubber band inside the fuselage.
Release and observe and imagine. A few quick tosses and there would be repairs to make.
For the duration of childhood, aviation was my chronic preoccupation. I aspired to pilothood as much as any person I know. Everything else in life was parenthetical. Including sports.
Seeing me become increasingly introverted with my model-building, my father insisted that I get out of the house every day.
"Take your mitt," he would say.
"Don't slam the screen door," added my mother.
Before Little League, kids were on their own. No uniforms, no teams, no parents. We played "work-ups."
Four players take turns batting and running the bases. The rest play in the field. An out results in the fielders moving up and the runner being banished to the hinterlands. The catcher became the next batter, the pitcher became the catcher, and so forth. Catch a fly and you were immediately next up.
Sometimes a kid likes to play a particular position and negotiates with the others for permanent assignment to it. Thus, on a given day, you might have an "everlasting first baseman." A would-be Bob Feller would be "everlasting pitcher."
Weaker players wound up beyond the outfield, "shagging" for runaway bounders that slipped through the other players and into weeds or under bushes. Though not by choice, my position was "everlasting shagger."
Through high school, I continued to build models and fly them -- primarily for the benefit of my two younger brothers, of course. School came easy for me, especially mathematics and the sciences -- just what I would need to become a combat pilot. But there was a problem. I could not always read the blackboard.
Myopia, I assumed, was the consequence of too much close-up work. I stopped model-building forthwith and cut down on my reading. With each passing month -- and the onset of puberty, no doubt -- my nearsightedness became steadily worse. Even seated in the front row, I saw the teacher's chalk marks as a cursed smear.
My folks took me to the optometrist. Thick glasses gave me blessed visual relief. Shit, though. There would be no pilot's commission for me. With these eyes no airline would hire me either.
For aviation, my game would have to be work-ups, and my position? Everlasting shagger.
Picture Credit: Aeronca Champ 7AC by permission of Sills Aviation Services
Over the years, I have received any number of messages of appreciation for Everlasting Shagger. They mean a lot to me. Here is an example...From: Michael Kay
Sent: Wednesday, September 02, 2009 11:05 AM
Subject: Your first airplane ride...
That article flooded my memory with the sights, sounds, sensations, and smells of my own first flight. Mine happened later than yours though, sometime around 1972. It was in a 1967 Piper Cherokee 140, N9910W flown by a man that would become my step-father in a few months.
Like you, I idolized the guys at the airport for their ability to fly these machines and then return to that grass runway so gently you could feel the blades of grass tickle the tires before you actually touched down! I couldn’t get enough of it. If I thought there was even a remote chance my dad was going to “go up” I wouldn’t leave the house, hoping he may need a passenger. I got plenty of rides with him in all kinds of aircraft, tailwheels, retracts, slow ones, fast ones. I loved them all. However, the “Champ” was and still is my favorite.
Your style is very reminiscent of, in my opinion, one of the greatest aviation writers to pick up a pen, Gordon Baxter. For many years the first thing I would read when my issue of Flying magazine was delivered would be his column, "Bax Seat." It always made you laugh and cry at the same time.
My story in aviation continues. I was fortunate to have been taught to fly by the same instructor and at the same grass field that my dad used when he learned to fly in 1964. You see, my first solo was in the very same aircraft, N9910W, as my first ride. A magical and proud day, indeed! I also went on to learn the fine art of jockeying a tail dragger up and down the runway, the same grass runway. Today, I still fly from (you guessed it) the same grass runway, better known as “The Weed Patch.” Ninety five percent of my flying today is done in a 1946 Aeronca 7AC, “The Champ”. I still get a thrill every time I flip the prop on that little 65 hp Continental.
Thank you so much for the heart warming story!