Pilotage

Like father, like...

September 1, 1994

My father taught me to fly. I mean that in the formal sense — he was my instructor for my primary training — and in a spiritual way as well. Through example more than specific instruction, he has demonstrated characteristics that mark a pilot not just as good, but gifted.

My father has been flying since the end of World War II, and his logbooks are packed full of accomplishments and skill. He operated a small Mooney dealership and aircraft charter company in Atlanta in the early 1960s. He has prospected for uranium in Montana in a Bell 47. In 1969, he and some friends bought a red and black T-6 and flew to Cleveland's Burke Lakefront Airport, where my father competed in a low-level, closed-course pylon race. He still is rounding the pylons in a T-6 (Reno National Championship Air Races, September 16-18; Ralph Twombly, number 41; be there), although there were three fabulous years when he campaigned "Miss America," an Unlimited class P-51 Mustang that is well known in pylon racing circles.

It takes guts and talent to succeed — survive, even — a quarter-century of battling other pilots and airplanes, wing tip to wing tip, 50 to 100 feet above an unforgiving earth.

In my mind, however, my father's greatest accomplishment as a pilot comes from something far less sexy than thundering across the Nevada high desert in old and powerful military trainers and fighters. It arises from his daily toil of flying passengers around the northeastern United States in a Piper Navajo.

The weather in the Northeast often is bad, with icing conditions in winter, thunderstorms in summer, and low clouds anytime of the year — the kind of conditions that make some people nervous about flying in small airplanes. My father somehow makes them comfortable. I think it's because of the confidence he exudes, his smoothness on the controls, his total familiarity with the airplane. He is a part of it, can read its sounds and vibrations, knows when it is running sweet or out of sorts. His passengers sense that intimacy between pilot and airplane, and it gives them peace of mind.

The highest praise a pilot can receive is for his or her passengers, both those who know something about flying and those who do not, to say they are completely comfortable and confident in this pilot's hands. That is a comment I've often heard said about my father.

I'll never be a national champion air racer like my father — probably won't even get a chance to turn a few fast laps in a mega-power warbird — but I can strive to measure up to another standard my father has set: to be a smooth, confident, knowledgeable pilot in the eyes of my passengers.

The passion for flying extends throughout the family. My father also taught my youngest brother to fly. The athlete in the family, he went on to become a hot stick in an Air Force F-15 before signing on with Delta. A brother one year my junior, an independent cuss who learned on his own, moved up through charter and corporate flying, and is now flying a blue and white Federal Express Boeing 727. He taught my older brother to fly. A builder, that brother's interest and activity in aviation ebbs and flows with the fortunes of the home construction industry.

Piloting has been a guy thing in my family. My mother and two sisters are not pilots, but they do possess a special quality: They are excellent passengers, happy to fly anywhere in anything (including the makeshift back seat of a racing Mustang), and uncomplaining about the weather. It makes all the difference when the nonpilots in a family are enthusiastic fliers.

A few years ago, the family's left-seat-gender exclusivity came to an end. My FedEx brother married a pilot, and the two of them have amassed a small fleet of airplanes including a Piper J-3 Cub, an Aeronca Champ, and half of an old Cessna 182. The Cub and Champ form the nucleus of their part-time taildragger school. Their basement is full of little-airplane parts. They are happy.

Now the second generation, my father's children's children, is beginning to be heard.

My sister's oldest son signed up for instruction, soloed, and was in sight of a flight test when other events diverted his attention. A few months ago, I was visiting and sweet-talked him into helping me wash my airplane. Afterward, we went flying to dry it off. I could tell from his grin that someday he will take up where he left off and earn his certificate.

A second grandchild has taken up flying, and I'm pleased to report that it is my daughter. She is the second oldest of four — the oldest is busy at college, and the other two have a few years to go before reaching medical certification age. I'm convinced my daughter is the perfect candidate to become a pilot. She is aggressive, competitive, and likes to do guy things — and flying, unquestionably, is a male-dominated activity. More important, she is comfortable in the air. When I first put her in the left seat, I discovered she actually used the rudder pedals in a rum.

She also has no fear of using the communications radio. That is unusual in a beginning pilot and probably is due to her experience working the line at the airport and handling the unicom.

I will admit that I want very much for my daughter to become a pilot, a professional pilot. I think she would be excellent at it, should make a good living doing it, and could wake up most mornings feeling that her chosen career fulfills her spirit, too.

I believe all of this. She doesn't — yet.

After graduating from high school last year, she made plans to pursue an aviation education. But when push came to shove, she backed off. I realized that I was the one doing the pushing and shoving. She had wanted to please me, but the truth was, she had not made up her mind about flying.

I backed off. She drifted away from flight training to take on other adventures. Now, a year later, she is still a long way from deciding what her life's work will be, but she has taken up flying again. This time it was her decision alone. She resumed ground school and started taking lessons again.

A couple of weeks ago she soloed. Afterward, she was uncharacteristically subdued. I was confused about her reaction, but as I thought about it, I began to believe it was a good sign. When she started flight training, she was cocky and overconfident. Perhaps it was just a facade, but she appeared to think she could lick this flying thing with a minimum of trouble and effort. Then, at some point, she began to realize how much there is to learn and master, how much work it would take. That may be when her interests waned, and she became drawn to other activities.

The fact that she has decided on her own to resume flying gives me enormous hope. She still has a long way to go in terms of commitment, but she is working at it, and for that, I am pleased and proud.

Meanwhile, I'm doing my best to stay at arm's length, to avoid being overbearing and crushing her building interest a second and perhaps Anal time.

No matter what she decides, there is one thing about her early flight training that I cherish now and forever: Her instructor is my father. A circle has been completed.

He taught me, and now he is teaching my daughter. The standards he set for me are being passed on to my daughter.

Like grandfather, like granddaughter.