By Ed Harrison
In all my 7 years of life never had I seen a more beautiful sight: a line of beautiful, silver P–51 Mustangs coming toward me, zigzagging their way down the taxiway, at the then-named Torrance Municipal Airport, now Zamperini Field in Torrance, California. As they passed by, I could feel the power of those mighty Merlin engines, the smell of the exhaust—and I understood for the first time in my young life why my dad talked about such machines with a reverent awe.
My father was standing beside me at that airshow; and I remember him pointing out, as he always did, the many different types of aircraft and telling me about their engines, their purpose, and how he knew about them. It seemed he knew them all and, to me, he was the smartest man on Earth. He had shown me pictures of many of these same airplanes from a box of World War II photos he kept. Those pictures included a B–17 flying home with most of the vertical stabilizer gone and other aircraft landing with gaping holes in their fuselages.
My father was not a U.S. Army Air Forces pilot. He used to say that he was the one man that every pilot could not fly without. Forget being a mechanic, he was the cook—he kept ’em flying with his food. He told me stories about going out to the flight line in North Africa and then Sicily to watch the airplanes leaving and returning from missions.
Although a product of the post-World War II era, I felt like I had lived part of the war through the eyes of my father. Between his USAAF stories and the World War II movies we watched together, he made me feel like I had experienced part of it with him. He was part of the Greatest Generation, thankful and proud to be an American.
Dad never flew much more than a grill during World War II, but after the war he did manage to secure his private pilot’s license. It was one of the things he was most proud of. He, a Depression-era high school dropout from the piney woods of East Texas married before going off to war and after the war had three children, with me being the youngest.
Often, I think that my dad would have loved to fly my 1972 Bonanza V35B or to have earned his instrument rating, but funding and stability never allowed him to do either.My dad never had much because of family issues, and most of the time our family was split apart. But, nonetheless, once or twice a month he would save a few bucks, grab me (or my older sister and me), and take us to the airport to rent a Cub, or a straight-tail Cessna 150, for 20 to 30 minutes of flying fun. He would always do all the radio work before starting the engine and if there was a line waiting to take off, he would shut down the engine until he had to start it again to move forward. He did this so that he would not be charged Hobbs time while still on the ground.
When the flight was over, we would proudly stroll into the rent-a-plane place, dad would pull out his wallet and fork over about $8 for roughly 30 minutes. He had no credit cards or checks, just the cash he had stuffed away since our last flight. Afterward, I recall that he usually had enough for a Coke to share while we sat outside to critique other pilots’ landings.
Every month I would look over his recent issue of AOPA Pilot magazine, enjoying the pictures, and reading what I could. Everywhere he went my father proudly wore his AOPA wings on his suit so people would know that he was a real, honest-to-goodness, FAA-approved pilot.
Then, on November 11, 1967, my dad died at the age of 52, and everything aviation related in my 13-year-old life suddenly stopped. But I never stopped loving the airplanes my dad loved. Later, I enlisted in the Navy with the promise that I could be on the flight crew of a P–3, only to find out that I was color-deficient—so much for flying. The highest altitude I ever achieved was climbing a telephone pole as a construction electrician in the Seabees. After all, if it was good enough for John Wayne in The Fighting Seabees, then it was good enough for me.
Years later I married my wonderful wife and we also had three children. I was named after my father. He was Edward Clifton and I am Edward Carl. Of course, dad never saw any of my children, so he did not know that our only son, Brian Edward, was named in honor of him. Nor did he know that prior to my son’s birth I, too, had earned my pilot certificate. We named our son after that World War II army cook who was a part-time pilot and became a full-time butcher in civilian life.
Today, as I write these words, I am looking at those AOPA lapel wings my dad wore decades ago. I have them right next to my own 30-year AOPA wings. His old AOPA wings have no real monetary value, but to me they are priceless. I can still see dad wearing a suit to church, or other places, and on his lapel were these very wings. Often, I think that my dad would have loved to fly my 1972 Bonanza V35B or to have earned his instrument rating, but funding or stability never allowed him to do either.
What makes those lapel wings even more valuable to me is that my son also earned his pilot certificate. The first time he took me for a ride we walked out to preflight the Cessna and I could not help but think about all the times Dad and I walked out to preflight an old, ragged rent-a-plane. For me, both with my dad and now with my pilot son, those were and are wonderful days indeed.
For many reasons I am proud of my son, not just for earning his certificate and IFR rating, but for the quality man and husband he is. We tried to teach all children about the important things: to trust in God, obey the law, be honest, love your country, and be thrilled with anything that flies. Not just my son but all three of our children have excelled in those areas, but our two daughters never caught the thrill of flying.
When I visit my son’s home, I occasionally see an AOPA Pilot magazine on his table and that makes me smile. From the World War II veteran Edward Clifton to Edward Carl, to my son, Brian Edward, three generations of pilots and three generations of AOPA members.
How could it get any better? Let me tell you how: My son and his wonderful wife now have three sons (only part of our nine grandchildren). The oldest, Hudson James, is already doing what I did with my dad and what my son did with me: walking the ramp to his daddy’s recently purchased aircraft, a Cherokee, to help him preflight it; and right behind him is the fourth generation Edward (Tucker Edward), now 2 years old.
I hope that Hudson, Tucker, and Hayes Harrison follow their dad’s steps of being a good, honest and moral man. But maybe one (or all) of will also be the fourth generation of pilots in our growing family?
Is that P–51 waiting to dazzle a fourth generation of pilots and AOPA members in our family? I sure hope so.
Ed Harrison is a construction engineer living in Ovilla, Texas.