I was invited to a local restaurant, walked in, came around the corner, and there they were. The whole of AOPA Pilot's magazine staff had lured me into a surprise party. It was a celebration of my 25 years working for the magazine, and it took me aback. Had it really been that long?
Alas, it had been. It's not something you think about in the day to day, of course, but a little math confirmed it, all right. I'd gone through some 336 monthly deadline cycles, written some 2,000 articles and a couple of books, and ridden the ups and downs of a quarter-century-long roller coaster. It got me thinking. How did this come about?
Back in the 1970s I was struggling with a young family, a divorce, and a series of jobs that paid little and demanded much.
I was a cartographer — a photogrammetrist, really — and I made maps for civil engineering firms and government projects. I spent a lot of time in darkened rooms tracing contour lines on huge sheets of Mylar. It was like being in a cave, condemned to tedium. My career track needed to get on track.
The only thing that kept me going was the flying lessons. One mapping job was at the Gaithersburg, Maryland, Montgomery County Airpark. I'd taken glider lessons earlier, but the proximity to Montgomery County Airpark made it easy for me to slide by Freestate Aviation and sign up for lessons. In four months I had my private pilot certificate. From there, it was on to the instrument rating, and commercial and flight instructor certificates.
Of course, I liked flying better than mapmaking, so I wangled a job piloting the camera airplanes that took the photos I'd later use to make those daggone maps. I'd fly during the day, then make the maps at night. I have to thank the late Joe DiLeo of Mapping Associates for giving me the opportunity to fly for a living. He took a chance and let me fly the company Cessna 205 for two seasons' worth of mapping flights. After the first season, I hardly needed a chart to know where I was.
From anywhere over the Eastern United States, I could look down and I'd know. Which was good, because this was in the pre-GPS days. I flew other mapping flights in Cessna Turbo 206s, a Piper Apache (with the Geronimo conversion), and Piper Aztecs. Soon I was pushing 1,000 hours' total time.
Still, I couldn't get enough. A fellow who worked in Mapping Associates' darkroom offered me his Ercoupe. All I had to do was pay for gas. What a deal! I went with him to see the airplane, and there it was, parked in grass up to its wings. On the first flight, the engine started cutting out right after takeoff. I made it back to the airport, then gave it a full-power runup, which it passed with flying colors. On the second takeoff the same thing happened. So that was two dead-stick landings in a day! I'd do anything to build time back then.
I'd learned to write fairly adeptly in graduate school, so my next goal was to try to break into aviation journalism. After meeting with scads of aviation magazine editors, I finally hit the jackpot. After seeing an ad in the newspaper for an editorial position, I met with AOPA Pilot's then-Editor Edward G. Tripp. He wanted to see a sample of my writing, so I wrote up a story and sent it in.
I was hired.
My new job was a dream come true. Soon I was flying all the new airplanes being manufactured at the time, traveling all over the United States, doing formation flying for air-to-air photo shoots, and always learning a whole range of new subject matter. In this I was helped immeasurably by Tripp, Art Director Art Davis, Editorial Consultant David Abrahamson (now a college professor), and Executive Editor Steven L. Thompson. By 1982, I'd won a writing award from the Aviation/Space Writers Association, and was learning to fly the first of a long series of turboprop twins.
Many still associate me with the ultralight phenomenon of the early 1980s. Americans abhor anything diminutive, and so it was with these new featherweight airplanes. But I — and AOPA — saw their potential. These new airplanes would bring new blood to the pilot population, and draw these neophytes into flying conventional, certified aircraft. When AOPA formed its Ultralight Division I volunteered to serve as editor in chief of Ultralight Pilot. This was another big opportunity; I had my own magazine after just two years on the job.
Ultralight Pilot was unique. It took a consumerist editorial stance, as opposed to the rest of the ultralight press, which was largely adorational and uncritical of this burgeoning new activity. My handful of staffers and I built, and then flew, some 12 ultralights, flew dozens of others, and reported everything we encountered. We learned that building an ultralight took at least twice as long as advertised, and that many had serious design and handling flaws. During my time at Ultralight Pilot I flew everything from the flimsiest weight-shift models (the "Wizard" comes to mind), to cobbled-up contraptions (the Rotec "Rallye," which we dubbed the "no-tech" Rallye), to some very elegant designs (Ultraflight's twin-engine Lazair).
In 1982 I turned a life-long interest in meteorology into the first of my monthly "Wx Watch" features, which dealt with the effects of wind shadow on approach speeds in ultralights. Although it started with Ultralight Pilot, I'm still writing "Wx Watch" for AOPA Pilot. It must have been the first regular column on aviation weather in a general aviation magazine.
Oh, those were exciting days! I had three engine failures, one case of exhaust poisoning, and an in-flight carburetor separation. Tripp crashed a Weedhopper, a particularly lousy design, after an engine failure, and Art Davis spiked the desert flying a weight-shift Quicksilver. His story (see " Ultradelights: This Is It," May 1981 Pilot) lives on as one of the best examples of well-crafted aviation writing. There were plenty of good memories too: learning to fly an American Aerolights Eagle from Bryan Allen, the guy who pedaled the Gossamer Albatross across the English Channel to win the Kremer prize; making slow-motion flights in a Para-Plane (the first of the powered parachutes); soaring in Lazairs with the engines shut down; and much, much more. Our writers and mechanics had great esprit de corps and can tell you plenty of their own memorable stories. Just ask Jeff Miller, John Sheehan, Mark Lacagnina, Dan Brockway, Dave Dodds, Terry Dill, Mark Twombly, or Marianne Seriff.
The ultralight craze died a sudden death when ABC's 20/20 newsmagazine ran tape of a correspondent's fatal crash, and by 1984 AOPA's Ultralight Division, and Ultralight Pilot, was phased out.
But I was still quite busy. You see, I still wrote for AOPA Pilot when Ultralight Pilot was being published. The magazines were largely staff written in those days. That's how I racked up three to five feature articles per month. Together with the travel, it was demanding and stressful (did I mention I was a single parent?), but also immensely satisfying.
I'd always had a deep interest in foreign affairs (my bachelor's and master's work was in international relations) so it was only natural that I follow the aviation goings-on in Europe at the time. Thus began the first of many visits to manufacturers and conventions on the continent. I must have been the first American aviation writer to visit Robin Aircraft and fly its DR400 and ATL airplanes, as well as meet with Burkhardt Grob of Grob Aircraft. A particularly memorable flight was over the Bavarian countryside in a Grob G109 motorglider. To get around on that first European trip I used a rented Mercedes. I recall tooling along the autobahn, thinking just how great this was, and how I finally felt I'd found my niche.
My first transatlantic ferry flight took place in 1986. That was when Socata signed me on to fly a TB 21 Trinidad from the factory at Tarbes, France, to the customer in Livermore, California. I was part of a flight of four Trinidads. Our route took me to the same airports I'd visit over and over again in the next 22 years: Glasgow and Prestwick, Scotland; Reykjavik, Iceland; Narsarsuaq, Greenland; Goose Bay, Labrador; and St. Johns, Newfoundland. Since then, I've flown some 23 ocean crossings. The longest trip? A six-day marathon to Bangkok, Thailand, in a Piper Seminole. Of course, I've left a lot unsaid. The juicy parts (ice, engine stoppages, and killer headwinds) will have to come out later.
There's something about transatlantic crossings that makes me want to do them over and over again. Just not in piston singles. I gave that up after seeing too many 80-knot groundspeeds in Cessna 172s. So thanks to Nicolas Chabbert of EADS Socata, Peter Herr of Hawker Beechcraft, and Mike Haenggi of Pilatus Aircraft for letting me keep my hand in turbine-powered ocean crossings.
Those trips are great, of course, but the guts of my job at AOPA Pilot is writing feature articles. Preparing any of them involves research that makes for valuable educational exercises, but one huge writing project stands out as perhaps the biggest single editorial job I've yet to carry out. This was the October 1989 issue of AOPA Pilot — an issue that commemorates AOPA's fiftieth anniversary.
I wrote half of that 220-page issue. My job was to chronicle AOPA's history, decade by decade. As part of this effort, I dug into AOPA's archives — such as they were. It turned out that AOPA's historical documents and memorabilia were being stored in metal closets in the marketing department. They were simply tossed into the closets in no particular order, and not cataloged in the least.
So, it was up to me to put things right and make some sense of it all. After six months of doing nothing but concentrating on the anniversary, the writing and cataloging were finished. I even found AOPA's original charter and articles of incorporation, plus a book bearing the first member entries. They were done with a fountain pen, and listed the names next to their member numbers — starting with number one: Gill Robb Wilson. I recall the editor in chief at the time, Richard L. Collins, being terrified of losing these documents. "Get 'em out of the building!" he said. So I took them to archival storage at the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Delaware, where they remain today. I also wrote a special feature for the fortieth anniversary of AOPA Pilot in March 1998 (see " Look Who's Forty!").
They say a well-rounded man should do three things in his life: build a house, raise a child, and write a book. I wouldn't trust myself to build a house, but I've got two out of three, having published a book on aviation weather from a regional standpoint. Published in 1999 by Aviation Supplies & Academics, Flying America's Weather was another labor of love, one that taught me much more than I could ever have imagined. I certainly didn't get rich, but there's no underestimating the education that took place.
You could say the same thing for the semesters I taught aviation weather at the University of Maryland and The Community College of Baltimore County. Teachers always learn more than their students, believe me. Now, as I take a forecasting course from The Pennsylvania State University, that learning grows exponentially.
And then there were the sweepstakes airplanes. In my case, I was project manager for the 2004 AOPA's Win-A-Twin Sweepstakes Piper Twin Comanche and the AOPA's Win a Six in '06 Sweepstakes Piper Cherokee Six. These projects are fantastic ways to learn about airplane maintenance and aftermarket upgrades, scheduling, and logistics, but there's no small amount of frustration, too. For the first 100 hours of flying time in those projects' lives, the airplanes were in disarray and in progress. And then, just as they become perfect specimens in the last 10 hours I flew them, I had to turn around and give them away!
I could go on and on, but let's just say that my job seems to be getting more and more challenging, interesting, and educational. As an example, look at one recent special project I'm involved with: the FAA funding debate. This took me once more to Europe, where I produced video clips that have helped convince the principals in the debate of the folly of adopting European-style user fees and fuel taxes.
So, as I near the end of my third logbook, finish my twelfth pilot initial training session at FlightSafety International (in the Rockwell Twin Commander), and make an entry for flying my 241st different make and model of airplane, I'm still mindful that I've got two other stories due for the July issue. This one might be finished, but I'm looking forward to writing many more, and having many more adventures, in the years to come.
E-mail the author at [email protected].