I fell in love with flying more than 50 years ago. I had just graduated with a degree in mathematics from Dartmouth College, and had a summer job in Phoenix, Arizona, prior to starting work on my Ph.D. at Princeton University. As a kid, my dad introduced me to free-flight model airplanes, in high school I toyed with piston-powered control-line models, and I had occasional fantasies about flying real airplanes. So, when I found myself in Phoenix that summer where the weather is CAVU about 360 days per year, I figured it would be a great time to learn to fly. I drove to Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport one afternoon, walked into the offices of Sawyer Aviation, and signed up for my first introductory flight in a 1959 straight-tail no-rear-window Cessna 150. I was hooked and never looked back.
When the summer was over, the ink still wet on my private pilot certificate, I joined the Princeton Flying Club and started flying rental airplanes. Over the next few years, I earned my commercial and instrument rating and flew all over the eastern United States. After a few years of graduate studies at Princeton and Columbia, I moved to California to start my first full-time job as a computer scientist with a Fortune 500 company headquartered just south of LAX. That’s when I bought my first airplane.
N42648 was a brand-new 1968 Cessna 182L that I picked up at the Cessna factory in Wichita, Kansas, and flew home to California. That was heady stuff for a 24-year-old. Over the next four years, I put nearly 1,000 hours on that Skylane, flying it all over the West plus at least one transcontinental trip per year. I learned a lot about weather flying, including the fact that a Skylane can carry an inch of structural ice without falling out of the sky. (Don’t ask.)
Fast forward about 25 years. By now I’d left the Fortune 500 world to start my own software company. I’d sold the Skylane (which I’m pleased to see remains on the active FAA registry), bought a 1972 Bellanca Super Viking, sold that, married a gorgeous blonde named Jan, bought my first house, sold that, moved from L.A. to a semi-rural part of California’s central coast, bought a house there, and ultimately bought my third airplane, a 1979 Cessna Turbo 310 that I’ve owned, flown, and maintained for more than 30 years and 4,000 hours and still am flying today.
The Cessna 310 and I found ourselves in Tulsa, Oklahoma, one day. I was en route from California to the East Coast and decided to stop in Tulsa to visit with my wife’s brother and sister-in-law. It was then that I met their 10-year-old son Justin, who seemed like a great kid, but his life seemed to lack focus. I learned he had a history of running with the wrong crowd and repetitively getting himself into hot water. On impulse, I offered to take Justin up in the 310 for his first ride in a general aviation airplane. Little did I know what an impression that would make on him, and what impact it would have on his life trajectory.
Fast forward another 10 years. Justin was a senior at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma. He’d joined the OSU flying club, earned his private, commercial, and instrument tickets, and was working on his CFI. He was engaged to Carrie Beth, a gorgeous blonde he’d met at OSU, and had decided to apply to the airlines after graduation for work as a professional pilot. He was hired by regional carrier Great Lakes Airlines as a first officer flying Beechcraft 1900Ds.
Justin and I occasionally kept in touch by email. From time to time over the next 10 years, we’d hear one another on Center frequency when his Beech Airliner and my Cessna 310 happened to wind up in the same sector at the same time…and we’d say “hi” to one another on frequency, violating AIM communication protocol. Justin accumulated hours and seniority at Great Lakes, working his way up to captain and check airman, then applied to and was hired by Frontier Airlines as a first officer on the Airbus 320. Now he was spending most of his time above FL300 and we seldom heard one another on frequency. Carrie had become a senior manager at Anheuser-Busch and took a promotion that caused her and Justin to relocate from Denver to St. Louis. They had a son that they named Ethan, and another one that they named Jacob. By now I hardly heard from them at all, much to my regret.
Last summer, Justin reached out to me quite unexpectedly to let me know that he, Carrie, and the two boys were planning to attend AirVenture 2017 at Oshkosh—something Justin had been promising me he’d do for decades but never happened. At first, my attitude was “I’ll believe it when I see it,” but soon my anticipation grew. I was now nearly 73 years old, hadn’t seen Justin or Carrie Beth for more than a decade, and had never met their sons. When we finally rendezvoused near Aeroshell Plaza, I was thrilled.
The boys—now ages eight and six—glommed onto me as if I was their long lost uncle (which I guess I was), and we went whizzing around the AirVenture campus on my golf cart with big grins on all our faces. Ethan, the eight-year-old, was especially vocal about wanting to become a pilot when he grew up.
As things wound down at AirVenture, I asked Justin and Carrie whether there was any possibility of them and the kids coming to visit me in California. They said they’d love to but couldn’t commit to a date because Justin was on the verge of upgrading from first officer to captain at Frontier and couldn’t yet predict his schedule. They looked at the boys’ school schedule and told me that if everything went without a hitch, they might be able to visit during Easter break.
Last March, after much grilling and torture in the Airbus simulator, Justin succeeded in making captain. I learned of this when he texted me a photo of his new four-stripe shirt. Not long afterward, he texted me a photo showing him in the left seat of the Airbus with check airman Kelli Cammack in the right seat, overseeing his Initial Operating Experience (IOE) trip as Captain.
(NOTE: Kelli is the longtime partner of my good friend and JetBlue Captain Adrian Eichhorn. Aviation sure is a small world.)
I’m so damn proud of Justin!
You probably already see where this is going. Justin, Carrie, and the boys did indeed come to visit me in California over Easter break. The April weather was glorious. The family walked on the beach, took part in an Easter egg hunt, even visited some local wineries to do some tasting. Then on Easter Sunday, we had a religious experience: Ethan, his dad, and I drove to the airport at Santa Maria to go flying in my Cessna 310—the same 310 in which Justin had been bitten by the flying bug—to give eight-year-old Ethan his first ride in a GA airplane.
Captain Justin climbed into the back seat and declared himself the official photographer. I took the left front seat and Ethan the right. Even with the seat cranked up to maximum height and slid to the forward stop, Ethan could barely see over the glareshield and his feet came nowhere near the rudder pedals, but that didn’t seem to bother him a bit.
We taxied out, took off on Runway 30, climbed straight out to the Pacific coastline and levelled off at 1,200 feet msl. As we crossed the coastline, I asked Ethan to place his right hand on his control yoke and follow me through as I executed a few shallow turns, climbs, and descents. Then I asked him if he was ready to take the controls, he smiled in the affirmative, and I released my yoke and said, “Your airplane!”
Ethan predictably overcontrolled a bit at first, but with a constant stream of voice coaching he managed to keep his altitude within 200 feet and his heading within 30 degrees. Within minutes, his performance improved to the point that he was holding within 100 feet and 10 degrees—that’s private pilot checkride standards, folks—and mind you he was flying a 5,600-pound twin, not a Cessna 150. The kid clearly had an aptitude. I was jealous. Justin was delighted.
I programmed the GNS 530 for a route up the coast to Big Sur, then east to King City, then back down the inland route to Santa Maria. I showed Ethan how to keep the little airplane symbol on the magenta course line on the 530’s moving map, and he caught on instantly (it was just like Waze). Approaching Big Sur, we climbed from 1,200 feet to 7,500 feet to cross the mountain range, then descended to 5,500 feet for the inland return leg. Approaching Santa Maria, I talked Ethan through a descent to pattern altitude, then took back the controls on downwind leg.
By the time we shut down the engines, climbed out of the cabin, and pushed the plane back into my hangar, it was pretty obvious that Ethan had been bitten by the flying bug big time. I was teary eyed the next day as the clan drove off in their rental car, headed for San Francisco and then home to St. Louis. Justin is now seriously committed to buying his first GA airplane—very likely a Cessna 182, following in his uncle’s footsteps—so he can take the kids flying on a regular basis. The family has already made their campsite reservations for AirVenture 2018, and I’m looking forward to seeing them there in July.
Now if I can keep flying until I’m 90, maybe I’ll be able to catch First Officer Ethan on Center frequency. Would that be cool, or what?