I’m gonna live forever; I’m gonna learn how to fly…
When I was thirty-five, the first part of this lyric didn’t mean much to me. I didn’t think about my own death and must have assumed I would live forever. But the second part of the line resonated with me. For as long as I could remember, I wanted to fly. As a five-year-old, I pinned a towel to my tee shirt and jumped off the couch, pretending I was Superman. At least I was smart enough not to jump out the window. My mother says that sometimes I slept on my stomach, with my arms outstretched, as if I was soaring through the sky. I’ll have to take her word for that. It’s not something I remember doing.
Thirty-five was a restless time for me. I’d been working at Exxon for six years and had begun advancing up the management ladder. I was making more money than I’d dreamed possible. I could do everything I thought I should at work in about fifty hours a week. I went in early and stayed a little late, but rarely brought work home. Our three-year-old son no longer required an adult’s full time attention. You could sit him in front of a picture book and be reasonably sure that he wouldn’t get into any trouble for at least fifteen minutes. I started looking for other things to do. After the fact, Danny called it my mid-life crisis, but I never agreed with that description. I was too young for a mid-life crisis, and my interests didn’t run to other women or fast cars. I wanted to fly.
While driving to work one day, I saw an advertisement for flying lessons at a small airport in Manville, New Jersey. I’d probably seen that ad a hundred times before, but this time it spoke to me. Without consulting Danny, I called the phone number at the bottom of the ad. After answering a few perfunctory questions that verified that I was more than 18 years of age and still breathing, I scheduled my first flying lesson for 9:00 a.m. the following Saturday morning.
I arrived at the airport about fifteen minutes early. The weather was bright and clear, perfect for flying. I sat in a small waiting room with no idea of what to expect. Promptly at nine, my instructor arrived. He was short and little paunchy, with graying red hair and the biggest handlebar mustache I’d ever seen.
“I’m Casmir Grabowski,” he said, “but you’d better call me Cas. You Lenny Bernstein, my new student?” He stuck out his hand. I shook it and said I was.
“O.K., let’s go flying.” We walked out to the runway where a small Cessna was parked. Cas opened the door and said climb in. I squeezed myself into the left side of the two-seater. He gave the outside of the plane a quick once-over, then climbed in and checked out the engine while producing a rapid-fire spiel that I couldn’t understand. The next thing I knew we were rolling down the runway. In a very few seconds we were airborne. I’d flown many times before, but before that morning the smallest plane I’d been on was a DC-3, which was huge compared to the Cessna.
“Where do you live?” Cas asked.
“Let’s check it out.” He banked the plane slightly and the next thing I knew we were following the line of I-287 towards my town.
“We’re flying IFR. Meaning I follow roads.” I later learned that IFR actually meant instrument flight rules, and that most of Cas’s jokes were very old. But I was new to flying, so I laughed instead of groaning.
“Where in Metuchen do you live?”
“Right off 287, just before Route 1.”
“Easy, we’ll be there in five minutes.” Sure enough, five minutes later we were flying over my house. We were low enough for me to recognize some of my neighbors as they worked in their yards. After we flew over my house, he banked the plane again and we were headed back to the airport.
“Now you try it. Pull back on the wheel a hair.”
I’d seen what he’d done, so I just pulled back on the wheel as little as possible. The nose of the Cessna pulled up and we gained altitude.
“Good, now push it down gently.”
I pushed down and we dropped. Left and right were next. The Cessna responded to the slightest touch on the wheel. Cas led me through some other simple maneuvers, and before I knew it we were back over the airport.
“O.K., I’ll take over now.” Manville was a tiny airport that didn’t have a radio tower or flight controllers. Before landing you flew a box pattern around the landing strip to ensure that no other planes were using the runway. When you were sure that the runway was clear, you could land. Cas explained this as he checked out the runway.
“Remember, there are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots,” he solemnly intoned as he flew the required pattern. I thought this was original wisdom, but it turned out to be the oldest axiom in the pilot’s handbook.
We landed and Cas led me into the shed that housed the flying school office where he handed me a form. “Get an eye doctor to fill this out.” Next he handed me a log book. “Keep records of all of your flying in this.” There were no manuals or textbooks to study. Before I left we made appointments for my first series of lessons. I had the 9:00 a.m. Saturday morning slot for the next seven weeks. I was extremely lucky with the weather – even though it was fall, I managed to get every lesson in.
I mastered flying level, climbs, and turns in my next two lessons. We checked out the plane together, I taxied to the end of the runway with a series of zigs and zags, then Cas got us into the air. Once we were in the air I took over and flew following his instructions for the next 45 minutes, then he took over and got us back to the ground. It all seemed so easy.
Cas talked constantly during our lessons. He told me that he had been the youngest squadron leader in the 8th Air Force during World War II, and had flown 43 missions before the war ended. He asked me what I did and I told him that I was a chemical engineer working for Exxon. That elicited a groan.
“You engineers, you always try to fly a plane by the numbers. You can’t do that. You have to feel the plane. It’s got to be part of you.”
When we met for my fourth lesson, Cas greeted me with, “O.K., today you take off and land.” Suddenly my stomach felt queasy. Couldn’t I just do the easy part? We went through the pre-flight check. I taxied to the end of the runway in my usual zig-zag fashion and positioned the Cessna for take-off.
“Put your foot on the brake and run the engine up to 1900 rpm. Turn the key left to check the left magneto. You should see the revs drop. Then do the same thing for the right mag.” Cas had talked me thorough this routine for the past two weeks, so I know what I had to do, even if I wasn’t sure why. Cas wasn’t big on explaining how the plane worked.
“Now push the throttle all the way in and easy off the brakes.” We were rolling down the runway, gathering speed.
“When you get to 55 knots pull back on the wheel a hair,” Cas told me in a calm voice. I followed his instructions and miracle of miracles, we were airborne. We climbed to a thousand feet. He guided me around the runway and we lined up for a landing. So far, so good.
“Now, put your nose up ten degrees and let’s land.” I half expected him to add “this mother” or “this sucker,” but Cas always spoke of the Cessna in very respectful terms. When I commented on this he replied, “You’re trusting your plane with your life. Remember that.”
It was counterintuitive to put the nose of the plane up to land, since that is what you do to climb. But if you put the nose up you increase air resistance. If you don’t add power, you slow down and drop. That’s what happened.
Cas gave me a running set of instructions and everything went well until we were about twenty five feet above the ground. Then I could no longer sense where we were. I guess I panicked because I pulled the nose of the plane up sharply. Cas who was at the dual controls was able to counteract most of my action. He yelled at me to let go of the wheel. I did, but we still dropped that last twenty-five feet faster than we should have. The Cessna hit the ground hard and bounced on its shock absorbers. For a split second it seemed like we were going to flip, but the next thing I knew we were rolling down the runway. I was too shaken do anything, so Cas took over and taxied us back to the flight school.
By the time we got back, Cas had regained his composure. As I climbed out, he said to me, “Any landing you walk away from is a good landing.” They were comforting words, but I didn’t believe them. It was a lousy landing, and I was lucky not to have been hurt.
The next three weeks my lessons consisted of taking off and landing, then doing it again. It was called touch-and-go, and I usually managed three before my hour was up. I got pretty good at taking off – that was the simple part. Landing was another story. Sometimes I landed as smooth as silk, but most times I just dropped the Cessna on the runway.
“What do you do for fun, I mean other than sex?” Cas asked me as we were flying a box pattern preparing for me to try another landing.
“You play tennis, baseball?”
“Ping-pong?” A note of frustration was entering his voice.
“Not since I was twelve years old.”
“I think you’ve got a depth perception problem.”
“But I got my eyes checked. The optometrist said my eyes were fine for flying.”
“Yeah, you can read an eye chart, but up here it’s different. If you can’t tell how far above the ground you are, you’ve got a problem.”
“Does that mean I can’t fly?”
“Nah, we’ll figure out something.”
He said nothing further on the subject, but I was concerned. I talked to one of my friends who was an avid tennis player.
“Lou, when the ball is hit right at you, how do you know where it is?”
“It’s simple. You see it here, then here, then here, and you know where it’s going,” he said, moving his hand to simulate the path of a tennis ball.
“It’s not that simple for me. All I see is a white dot growing bigger until it hits me in the face.”
“Can’t really help you. Either you’ve got it, or you don’t.”
The big milestone in learning to fly is your first solo – the first time you take off and land by yourself. I’d been told by other students that it was traditional to give your flight instructor a bottle of whisky after you soloed, and that he or other students would cut up your shirt. Despite my vision problem I was optimistic and starting with my sixth lesson wore an old shirt and kept a bottle of whiskey in my car. I didn’t solo on my sixth lesson, or my seventh, and was getting less optimistic. But after my first landing of my eighth lesson Cas said, “Taxi over to the flight school. I’m getting out. You’re ready to solo. You’ll fly faster and higher without me.”
It seemed like a dream. I taxied over to the flight school. Cas got out without saying anything more. I taxied back to the runway and took off. Cas was right. The Cessna seemed to jump off the runway. I flew a smooth box and landed. It was not my best landing, nor my worst. I hit the runway hard enough to feel it, but not with the jolt that accompanied many of my landings.
I had soloed and I felt on top of the world. I gave Cas the bottle of J&B that had been sitting in my car for the past two weeks. He cut the collar off my old shirt and told me that it would get better from here on. We scheduled my next set of lessons.
The next Saturday morning it rained. The Saturday after that was foggy. With Christmas and New Year’s thrown in, I couldn’t fly for eight straight weeks. In the interim, I was transferred to Exxon Engineering as head of a section doing traditional design engineering, something I hadn’t done since I’d been an undergraduate fifteen years earlier. I had to work nights and weekends to relearn basic chemical engineering. All thoughts of flying lessons disappeared from my mind.
At Exxon Engineering my office window looked towards Morristown Airport, only two miles away. After two months, I felt sufficiently caught up at work to start watching small planes flying touch-and-go, students learning how to fly. The yearning to fly returned. I wrestled with it for a few weeks, then one lunch hour drove over to the airport and signed up for a lesson.
John, my flight instructor, couldn’t have been more different from Cas. He looked to be in his late twenties and was all business. He looked at my log book and asked me a few questions, then we got into a larger Cessna.
“Taxi to the end of the runway,” John instructed.
I taxied in my usual zig-zag fashion. Morristown was a much larger airport than Manville. It had a radio tower and flight controllers. John worked the radio while I lined the Cessna up for take-off. We got the necessary clearance and I took off. John told me to fly a box pattern, but I couldn’t keep the Cessna on the course he wanted. I wandered out of the flight pattern and heard not only John’s criticism but a steady stream of warnings over the radio to watch out for the outboard Cessna – me. As we approached the runway, John said that he would take over. I didn’t argue. I was embarrassed by having to listen to the radio critique of my flying. When we landed I thanked John and told him that I wouldn’t be scheduling any more lessons.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about my attempt at flying. My head knows that I had no talent and gave it up at the right time. But my gut tells me that I should have kept on trying.
After I retired from a forty-year industrial career, I wanted to do three things:
1. Continue to warn people about the risks of man-made climate change.
I did this by giving lectures and talks on the subject.
2. I wanted to support the hiking community. While my abilities to lead hikes and do trail maintenance declined, I could take on administrative responsibilities.
I did this by serving on the Appalachian Trail Conservancy board of directors and being president of Carolina Mountain Club.
3. I wanted to write. Many years earlier, I conceived of a writing project that told the story of what happened when George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware led to a defeat and the collapse of the American Revolution. The project grew into a trilogy. The first volume was published in 2015 under the title The Great Rebellion: Book One of the Autobiography of William Watson.
While the William Watson trilogy took most of my writing time, I dabbled in memoir and wrote several personal essays. The above is one of those.