Dave Hirschman

The timeless appeal of flying . . .

September 9, 2008 by Dave Hirschman, Senior Editor

The aviation crowd has always been a forward-looking bunch. We’re always looking ahead and trying to anticipate what’s next. But a colleague, Craig Spence, recently brought a copy of a letter from Van B. Foster (his wife’s grandfather), then a young Army flight student in California, and some of his descriptions and motivations are as true today as when the words were put to paper on June 25, 1918:

My Dear Mother,

The red letter day of my life has come and gone–I have driven an airplane through the sky. I have done banks, spirals and straight flying. It is great and glorious and worth all the efforts I have (made) to attain it, and when I cross the great divide, I will do so knowing I have toyed with the clouds and frolicked in the skies; that I’ve raced through space with a joystick in my hand.

I know now what “pockets” in the air are, how they make you skip, toss and rock, and I want you to know that, sitting there 5,000 feet above ground, nothing matters much; you feel as secure as if in a rocking chair. You ride easier than the most luxurious limousine. I repeat, it’s great!

Driving an airplane is more like a combination of swimming, steering an auto, scenic railway riding, and roller skating than anything else. You have three controls: directional, longitudinal, and lateral, and the first time an instructor turns them over to you some 3,000 feet above the earth, you love so well a strange and lonesome feeling that comes over you. But there you are. He signals what to do, say it is for a bank, your heart comes up into your mouth, and then if never before you realize you’re helpless–and all you have learned seems one tremendous pile of ignorance, but dauntlessly you lower your right wing and shove your right rudder–then, mother of mine, that right wing goes to the bottom and your machine turns practically on its side, your left wing nearly straight up and you seem to turn around in the length of your ship, which you don’t.  Then still alive and happy at your success, you bring her out, and once again you’re tearing through great gobs of atmosphere at 75 m.p.h. And you’ve done your bank.

About my commission, I’m not terribly interested in it. It’s a secondary thing, not the primary. The great and only thing is to fly. Being a flyer naturally brings a commission, but you’re not a flyer until you’ve done 75 hours in the air. I have been up four times, each time with an instructor, so you see I am not just on the verge of being haled as an “ace,” but just the same, an accident is the only thing that can keep me from being a pilot . . .

Fortunately, no accidents were in store for Foster, the enthusiastic young writer. But the end of the war cancelled his military flight training less than five months after he penned this letter–and that brought an end to his flying.

Does the joy of discovery Foster described so vividly 90 years ago still exist today?

If you’ve got insights or artifacts that relate to the fliers who preceded us, please share them here. Flying has changed so much through the years, but pilots, evidently, have not . . .


One Response to “The timeless appeal of flying . . .”

  1. Marguerite Baier Says:

    Well, I just an hour ago passed my check ride and am officially now a private pilot certificate holder. I wish I would have read this letter about six months ago, because it describes the flying in a single engine small airplane to a T. After doing really well with my first of 3 instructors, I hit a bump in the road. He quit suddenly and I stressed over having a new person in the right seat. I was very close to solo, but of course the new CFI needed to see what I could do. Oh and by the way my husband and I were doing this together and he got to solo first (bummer). But alas, I regained my confidence, had some more setbacks (travel for work, flipping a quad and healing ribs, that job that pays for all of this, and of course the summer heat in Scottsdale AZ). So my instructor is leaving in July to be a bush pilot and his wife is real pregnant. Short story, the baby comes, my instructor leaves and it is August, but I did solo.

    Next and final instructor, but the weather is monsoon season and the only good time to fly is at 6 in the morning, now it is more difficult to schedule his time. But we go through this one more time, knowlege test taken, and finally wrapping up. The problem is I started off so well, then I started reading more about accidents, stalling the plane, emergency landings, etc and my worrying gene kicked in. That is not good for steady maneuvers or good flying. But I always had good landings and taking off in my LSA was easy. Well after a good lecture from my instructor, who was chief at the school, I started acting like a pilot again. Feeling those bumps, enjoying and not fretting the stalls and steep turns, and greasing the landings. Actually really enjoying the view from 2 thousand feet up.

    My husband also accomplished his check ride about 2 weeks earlier, but that is okay. We are now each others backup and get time to enjoy the flight as a pilot and passenger.

    Ir is a shame this person was not able to continue. Even though I started this later in life, I hope to be flying for a while.

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