Proficient Pilot

Inauspicious beginnings

September 1, 2004

Captain Barry Schiff retired from Trans World Airlines in 1998 after a 34-year career.

The road through life presents a fascinating series of forks, turns, and twists that often takes us to unlikely and unpredictable destinations. No one who knows me would guess that my aviation career was a direct result of my having been a juvenile delinquent.

I recall the seminal event as if it were yesterday. I was 13 years old and sat nervously between my parents as we faced the vice principal of Emerson Junior High School in West Los Angeles in the spring of 1951.

"Mr. and Mrs. Schiff, I believe that Barry's behavioral problems are the result of his hanging out with the wrong crowd. I suggest that he be sent away for the summer, away from such bad influences. Otherwise," the man in the suit warned, "Barry will become worse." My parents agreed to have me spend the summer with my grandparents in New Jersey.

A month later, my parents led me toward my first airplane ride, a North American Airlines' Douglas DC-4 that would whisk me from Burbank to Wichita to Chicago Midway to La Guardia. They could ill afford the cost of this ticket and would not allow me to forget how its purchase had wreaked havoc with the family budget.

I sat next to a window and stared incredulously at what I saw. The iron wing stretched endlessly into the night like the arm of some prehistoric monster. I knew that the wings kept us from falling but did not know how. They did not move or flap or do anything to help me understand what prevented gravity from having its way with the iron monster. Blue fire streaked from roaring engines bolted onto the wings. They snarled and shook incessantly as if to keep some imaginary enemy at bay. If I had pressed any harder against that window, either it or my nose would have broken.

Curiosity drew me to the library in my grandparents' town of New Brunswick (partly because I got bored of throwing freshly laid eggs at the chickens running around my grandparents' back yard). There I discovered a 1945 hardbound book titled The Science of Pre-Flight Aeronautics, another seminal event. I was totally consumed by its 774 pages and found myself drawn deeper into its esoteric subject matter. There I encountered those words now so familiar: Bernoulli, venturi, airfoil, camber, pitot. The wing, I discovered, was so elegant in the way it worked without really working at all.

I could not fathom all of what I read, so I hitchhiked to nearby Hadley Airport hoping that I would find friendly pilots to help me better understand the more complex concepts. It surprised me that they did not know as much as I had expected. There I was offered a flight in a Piper J-3 Cub, which my grandparents absolutely forbade me to accept.

Before summer's end I had read all five of my library's aviation books. I could hardly wait for the airline flight home and to tell my parents about my burning desire to fly.

The response was predictable. "You will not take flying lessons," my father barked sternly. "You will become a doctor or a lawyer or other professional." I refrained from informing him that there were professional pilots, lest his belt would have found bottom, my bottom.

That did not stop me from hitchhiking to nearby Clover Field (now called Santa Monica Municipal Airport) and sneaking onto a taxiway where I stuck my thumb into the air whenever an airplane taxied by. (If I could hitch a ride in an automobile, I reasoned, why could I not do the same in an airplane?) I was desperate for a flight in a little airplane, and I got one.

A year later found me with new and better friends at school, but I was still enough of a rebel to forge my mother's signature on the application for a student pilot certificate. I also got a job at the airport working in exchange for dual instruction. I told my parents about the job but not its purpose. They had wondered, however, why I was always so broke.

I did not have the courage to tell either parent that I was taking flying lessons. I did not have to.

One day my instructor called home to let me know that the Aeronca Champ (N81881) that I was scheduled to fly later that afternoon was in the shop and would not be available for my flight. He left that message with my father. Oops.

Enough time passed between the call and my arriving home from school for my father to develop a fuming rage. He chased me out of our apartment and into the nearby alley. At 14, I was thankfully fleeter of foot, but I did notice one of his thrown shoes sailing over my head.

I slept in a neighbor's garage that night and developed the courage to go home the next morning. When my father saw that I was determined to pursue my passion, he reluctantly agreed to allow me to continue flying because it seemed to have given me a productive direction and diverted me from earlier behavioral problems (or so he thought).

My parents never really approved of their elder son becoming an aviator until I was hired by Trans World Airlines in 1964. This is when they learned that they would be given free passes to travel anywhere along TWA's global route structure.

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