I SURVIVED MY FATHER’S DAY GIFT
by Jeff Fichter
I’ve had an interest in flying ever since I was a kid in the early 50’s. My family lived in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania and back then commercial planes heading to the Philadelphia Airport flew right over our house. I would climb out my bedroom window on the second floor and sit on the roof to watch the planes go by. Sometimes they were pretty low and that was special.
Years later I was still interested in airplanes and on weekends I’d take my two young sons to the local airport at Downingtown to watch planes take off and land. I didn’t know any pilots and never thought much about becoming one myself until my wife and kids surprised me on Father’s Day with the gift of an hour’s flying lesson.
When my wife Linda went to the airport to request a gift certificate for an introductory flying lesson, the personnel said they had never heard of such an idea before.
They asked whom she wanted to teach her husband and she remembered the name of an old instructor who had taught a friend of a friend of her parents. She mentioned his name, paid the fee, and received a receipt. Unbeknownst to Linda, the instructor was not giving private pilot lessons anymore because he had elevated himself to IFR instruction only. No longer did he have to put up with new flying students for whom he had little respect and a lot of distain. No doubt Old Crusty (as I’ll call him) was surprised when the airport people told him he was going to take up a new student sometime soon. I’m sure he agreed to the imposition only because of the friend-of-a-friend connection mentioned by Linda at the airport.
The day of my first flight dawned bright and clear and I was excited. If I had known what was in store for me I wouldn’t have been so eager. After a rather cool introduction at the airport, Old Crusty and I climbed into a Cessna 150. I had never been in a single engine plane before nor held a yoke in my hand until that moment when the instructor told me to sit in the pilot’s seat and take the controls. I’m a pretty big guy so with the instructor, me, and full fuel in the plane I’m sure it was over-loaded.
We started up and taxied to the runway, did a run up, and then taxied out for departure. Old Crusty told me to push the throttle all the way in so I did it. The engine sounded as if it was screaming and I didn’t think we were going to move; but slowly…slowly the plane built up speed and to my great relief began to fly. I was feeling pretty confident but that soon changed. We climbed to a hundred feet when suddenly Old Crusty released his seat causing it to violently slide back to the stops. “What was THAT?” The plane seemed to stop in mid-air; but then somehow continued flying. What kept the little plane flying that day is still a mystery to me.
I was able to calm down a bit as we continued the climb to altitude and then Old Crusty decided to show me how stable the plane was. He told me to push the yoke all the way forward which I did. Suddenly we fell off a cliff into a steep dive! I was petrified. I held on for dear life and locked my fingers on the yoke. Crusty yelled for me to take my hands off the yoke and I complied thinking he was going to take over the controls. I was wrong. As we dove I thought: “Is this guy nuts?” The little plane built up speed and slowly the nose began to come up. The airplane started to porpoise and after a couple of cycles of going up and down, it ultimately assumed a fairly level altitude much to Crusty’s triumphant joy: “See? No problem at all!” I also got the message he was really telling me: “See? Any idiot can fly, even you. In fact, you’re not even needed. The plane will fly itself!”
By that time I was feeling pretty woozy. We flew a while, made a few turns and then he said: “Let’s go back and land.” I told him I had no idea where we were, so he frowned and pointed in the direction of the airport. As we neared the airport he took over the controls. We were on final approach to the runway when I looked down and was horrified to see another Cessna right under us on final to the same runway. I pointed down and yelled “Plane! Plane!” and Old Crusty made an immediate, extreme right turn out of the pattern. He said nothing during the go-round as we flew in silence.
At this point, I had had it. I was airsick and my aching head felt like it had a fifty pound weight pressing down on it. Old Crusty finally landed the plane and I stumbled behind him as we walked to the airport office. Inside I heard him say: “Well, son, when do you want to start?” I mumbled: “I’ll call you.” but I was thinking I probably wouldn’t. I staggered through the office screen door into the parking lot and as I heard the door slam behind me, I felt lucky to have survived the flight.
Somehow I managed to drive home and when I got there I felt so lousy I went to bed. Linda came into the bedroom, looked down at my sickly green face and said: “Well, how did it go? Will you give it another try?” I surprised her and myself when I said: “I’ll give it three more tries.”
Three thousand two hundred hours later, I’m still trying it. Jeff Fichter