Life is made up of achievement, failure, frustration, fulfillment, ecstasy and agony: and in my 84 years I have both sampled and sometimes dwelled too long in every one of them. That is as it should be. I would find it impossible to say which among the thousands of joyful moments, hours, and days in my life gave me the most joy, but I know this: Some of the happiest hours of my life were spent looking at what is pictured below. It is the instrument panel of a 1971 “American Yankee," a 2-seat airplane made by the American Aviation Company in 1971. I was privileged to own “her” for several years back in the latter part of the 20th Century and learning to fly “her” is one of the achievements of my life that brought pure, wholesome joy to me.
I dreamed of becoming a pilot early in life. In my late “tween” years, while “The War” was raging all around the world, my little hometown of Caney KS was situated with two Army Air Corps Training Bases just a bit over 20 miles away. Hardly a day passed without seeing at least one, usually several, and on some glorious occasions an entire squadron of airplanes in the sky over Caney. My favorite older brother had volunteered to be a gunner on a B-24 “Liberator” bomber and although in my heart I knew he was never in one of those beautiful birds, in my “vision” I put him up there. (He was later Killed in Action while bombing Germany in a B-24) Consequently I spent a great deal of time during those years with my head tilted backwards. I loved the looks, the sounds, and the mystique of those wonderful machines and hoped, but without much faith, to one day become a pilot.
My faithless hope dwindled over the years to almost a point of being forgotten. Raising five kids on a teacher’s salary, clambering to make a career and fighting my personal demon pretty much drowned out the long-ago sounds and dimmed the looks I so much enjoyed as a kid. Still, I bummed a ride anytime I could from guys who were pilots and one time a pilot allowed me to “fly” his airplane almost entirely across Iowa, with him sitting in the left seat of course. As I learned later when I actually became a pilot, I wasn’t doing much “flying” in that trip across Iowa. A well-trimmed airplane in calm air will fly itself most of the time. But I was in ecstasy.
Five kids, 3 years in Army, three college degrees, and a lot of “living later” I was teaching an evening off-campus class for Bowling Green State University. Like any good teacher, I tried to get to know my students a little. One of them I found was a retired Navy aviator. When I discovered that I practically genuflected at his feet. I told him how I’d always wanted to become a pilot. He told me that if I was interested he would teach me how to fly, or at least get me started. I would only have to pay the rental fee for the small 2-seat Cessna. Interested!! Interested?? We made the arrangements. I was so overjoyed that I’d might as well have been flying home after that class. He gave me three lessons and then the quarter ended. But the dream had been kindled. I couldn’t bear to snuff it out.
I found a flight instructor in an office right across the street from the BGSU Campus. His name was Bob O’Haver. Bob had recently returned from Viet Nam where his “job” was serving as a forward artillery observer. To “observe” he flew a tiny, fabric covered airplane over where the VC were said to be and tried to get them to shoot at him. If and when they did he reported where they were and hopefully made his escape.
An Army L-19 "Bird Dog"
With that experience behind him there was NOTHING I do to scare him. Most pilots “love” their first flight instructor and I am no different. Bob is one of my hero's. But he chain-smoked. You haven’t truly breathed second-hand smoke until you sit shoulder to shoulder with a smoker in a small enclosed area. The quality of his instruction, however, was first class. I “heard his voice” many times when flying in some difficult situation.
Pilots have to pass regular physicals. Soon after hooking up with Bob he sent me to get one. After the doc finished his exam and signed the paper I needed he handed it to me saying, “Here’s your ticket to go kill yourself.” I thought that was a rather nasty thing for him to say. Six months later Bob handed me my first Private Pilot’s License and said, “Here’s your ticket to go learn how to fly.” I learned over the next several months that was exactly what it was. But I didn’t kill myself and I did learn.
Shortly after Bob handed me that coveted piece of paper I took our youngest son Nathan up with me. He was 9 years old at the time and immediately fell in love with flying. I began teaching him some of the basics of handling an airplane and immediately saw that he was a natural pilot. He handled the controls smoother than me from the start. From then on Nate was my companion practically every time I flew. When he was about eleven I began letting him talk to the controllers on the radio. His vocabulary and phrasing were good enough for him to have been the pilot but his unchanged adolescent voice betrayed him. Once when he was talking to the controller the controller in replying to Nate called him “Ma’am.” Being called a girl greatly offended him. Before I could stop him he fired back, “I’m not a “Ma’am.” I’m a little boy.” The controller didn’t say anything more but I’ve always wondered if that controller thought: “Is that airplane being flown by a kid whose voice hadn’t yet changed?”
Years passed with Nate and I sharing a love of flying and many experiences - some truly dangerous situations in which we had to depend upon one another. I can’t imagine an activity that would lead to a more deep, personal, father-son bonding than we developed in the cockpit of airplanes.
Nate went on to become a pilot for American Airlines. Many years later I was in Phoenix standing in the line to board a plane headed for Dallas. There was a tap on my shoulder. I turned to see Nate, resplendent in his uniform. We were going to be on the same flight. He was going to fly the airplane in which I and several dozen other people would be passengers! Now there was no way I could resist telling the lady seated next to me that my son was flying this airplane. When we arrived at Dallas he made a classically smooth landing – a “greaser,” as pilots call them. When we arrived at the gate to unload Nate came out of the cockpit, stood by its door and motioned for me to come to him. Puzzled, I did. While the passengers were still seated waiting to unload, Nate made the following announcement: “Ladies and Gentlemen, if you liked that landing you can thank this man here. He’s my father and he taught me everything I know about flying.” That was a wild exaggeration of course. I was both horribly embarrassed and overwhelmingly proud at the same time. Many of the passengers applauded and quite a few of them shook my hand on the way out, saying things like “You did a good job,” as they got off.
And my vision clouded.