20 October 1997.

Today I had my first flying lesson in 38 years.

The last one was during the summer of 1959, in Reading, Pennsylvania.  I worked that summer at Reading Aviation Service, making up wiring harnesses for aircraft radar installations.  RAS had a flying school and emplyees got a break on the aircraft rentals, so I took advantage of it.

My instructor was a guy named Ira Sheib, who was a high school shop teacher the rest of the year.  I flew the cheapest plane RAS owned, an Aeronca Tri-Champ, a two-place tandem high wing monoplane so small it didn't even have flaps.  I had thought about flying all during my childhood and had finagled a little stick time whle in the army--I was an aircraft radio repairman for most of my hitch.  Even so, I was surprised and somewhat anxious when one day after I had done aeveral touch-and-goes, Ira told me to stop the plane on the taxiway and climbed out.  He said he'd walk back to the office while I flew around the pattern by myself.

Wow! The average for soloing then was about eight hours, and I only had five and a half, so I wasn't really expecting either the opportunity or the abrupt way it came to me.

I can remember it as clearly as anything, though. Ira stood on the grass beside the taxiway.  I picked up the mike and keyed it.  "ah Reading tower, this is Aeronca two seven eight, for take off."

"Aeronca two seven eight, you're clear for take off, runway three six."

I opened the throttle and taxied to the end of runway 36, turned onto it, and shoved the throttle all the way forward.  The little Aeronca picked up speed and it took to the air more by itself than because of anything I did.  I remember worrying more than usual that the climb was too steep and that I'd stall when turning left, but the Aeronca just kept on clattering higher, and pretty soon I was up to 1000 feet and was turning downwind.  Right about then I remember this terrific thrill coming over me like a great shivver.  I was soloing! Then I was a little past the hanger and it was time to cut the power.  I pulled on the carburetor heat and glided on down even with the end of the runway, giving the throttle a goose now and then to keep the carburetor clean.  Rolled left and turned onto the base leg.  Turned final and lined up with the runway. There was a gulley just before the end of that runway, and I worried that I was too low and would plow into it.  Then I thought I was too high.  But no, everything was fine, and the Aeronca settled down on the concrete without a bounce.  I taxied to the parking area, pulled the mixture back to idle cutoff, and when the prop stopped moving switched off the magnetos.  When I got out, I could hardly walk from the tension.  But what a feeling!

The best part of all, though came when I got back to he flight school office.  I was filling out my log entry when a pilot came in and said to Ira, "Hey, who was that flying your Aeronca just now.  He really greased a landing!"

Ira got a huge grin on his face and nodded his head at me, and the other pilot said, "A STUDENT? Naw, I don't believe it."

Thinking it over later, I figured that Ira had tipped him off, that it was for show--but I didn't care.  It was a wonderful moment for us ALL.

Well, that was a long time ago, and now here I am taking flying lessons again, starting all over pretty much from the beginning.

I've thought about doing this off and on, but never could justify the expense or the time.  This year, though, our second son is finishing college, so there's no more college tuition to pay out, and I'm on sabbatical, so there's plenty of time.  Even so, there's no NEED to fly-- it's one of the least practical things I could do--so I keep having second thoughts about it.

I wouldn't be doing it at all, but for two things.  Carol and the boys gave me a ticket to ride in a T-6, and I'm going up next week.  While scheduling the T-6 ride, I told the owner that I was considering getting back into flying but couldn't quite justify it.  He said, "You could do it for the discipline." That convinced me (more or less).  I'm on sabbatical and I need to do something like this--and THAT's the justification.

My instructor this time, Adam Coulter, probably wasn't even born yet, the day Ira Sheib climbed out of that Aeronca Tri-Champ.  I haven't told him that, though, because he's probably uncomfortable enough having to deal with a guy who's obviously older than he is and whose flying ability--or inability--is unknown.

He managed nicely today, though.  Most of the time when he corrected my mistakes he did it so subtly that I hardly noticed, so he made me feel as though I was much less awkward than I really was.

After going through a lot of paperwork and giving me an overview of the syllabus, Adam took me out to the flight line and walked me through the preflight check on a Cessna 152.

Let's see how well I remember: Turn on the master switch and extend the flaps to full, then turn off the master switch again.  Dig the fuel stick and the drain cup out of the seatback pocket.  Walk around the left side to the tail, checking for the fuselage for dents and popped rivets on the way.  Check the elevator and rudder hinges and hinge bolts, the pushrods, and the lights.  Untie the rear tiedown.  Forward to the right wing, checking the rivets on the way.  Check the right maingear.  Drain the right fuel tank, checking for water and sediment.  Check the flap, the aileron, the lights.  Untie the right wing.  Climb up and peer into the fuel tank filler on top of the wing to be sure there's enough fuel in it.  Check the nose wheel.  Check the engine oil level, the prop and spinner, and the alternator belt.  Check the landing light, below the engine.  Be sure nothing's obstructing the suction outlet on the left side, behind the engine.  Check the left fuel tank fuel level.  Remove pitot tube cover.  Check the leading edge of the wing, the lights, the left aileron, the flap, the landing gear.  Drain the left fuel tank.

I think that's it.  How'm I doing? [Later: I forgot several things and got the order wrong in several places.]

We climbed in--it's a tight fit in a Cessna 152--and continued the preflight.  This is where it got confusing.  Master switch on and retract the flaps.  Be sure the registration certificates are in the little holder down by my left knee.  Check the fuel valve, on the floor, just ahead of the seats, to be sure it's open.  Set the elevator trim wheel to zero.  Set and check LOTS of switches--don't think I can remember them.  Tune the radio to the AVCOM(?) frequency of 131.625(?), using a toggle switch to get that extra digit, 5.  Listen for the wind direction and speed.  Get the altimeter reading and set the altimeter accordingly.  Switch the radio back to the comm frequency--what?--remembering to flip the .005 toggle switch off again.

Then it was time to start the engine.  Mixture forward to almost full rich.  Open the throttle a little.  Pull out the primer, wait a sec, and push it in--six times because the temperature was moderate, but the engine hadn't been started yet that morning.  Open the window and call out "Clear prop." Insert the ignition key and turn it all the way to Start.

Okay, the engine's running.  Adjust the throttle to get about 1000 rpm.  Now we can use the headsets, whith the nifty voice-activated intercom.

Okay, give it a little more throttle, and we're moving.  Right away I found myself trying to steer with the wheel--knew better, but the automobile reflexes take over.  We zig-zag a lot more than I'm cofortable with as I try to get the feel of the steering.  It turns left pretty well, but the only way to get it to go to the right is with the brake.

At the end of the taxi strip, we stop, and I have trouble getting it turned around into the wind, but the wind is so light that Adam says to leave it and we go on with the run-up.  Throttle up to 1700 rpm and check the magnetos--right, both, left, and back to both.  Not much drop, so they're both okay.

Adam calls for take off clearance.  There's no tower at this airport, but someone inside does monitor the traffic.  We're clear.  Throttle up and roll out onto the runway, turn and line it up on the center line.  Full throttle, we're rolling, I'm still trying to steer with the wheel, so we drift off to the right before I finally remember to use the rudder, and then we're up to rotation speed--65?--and Adam says to haul back on the wheel, but it's stiffer than I expected, so he gets the nose up, and we're climbing out and there's enough power that the Cessna climbs at a comfortable angle and I don't have that anxiety I used to feel in the little Aeronca Tri-Champ.

Adam reminds me to set the elevator trim and I finally get it right, and by that time we're above 1000 feet and still climbing to 2000.

He says to try a gentle left turn, and I manage to get it around well enough without changing altitude much.  There's so much haze that the horizon is more of an area than a line.

Almost immediately I realize I'm lost.  Of course I can't see the airport because it's been behind us, but I've also had a wrong notion in my head that the runway was 90 degrees off of its true direction, so when I look at the gyrocompas I'm all turned around.

We do some more turns and ascents and decents--pretty much what's in the syllabus I'd been given the previous week.  After about a hour we head back to the field and turn onto the downwind leg at 1200 feet.  Adam calls in and we turn onto the base leg and then final.  I overshoot the turn onto final a bit because of having to fool with the flaps and Adam pointing out some things, but get it lined up okay.  We're a little low, so Adam reminds me to add power and points out out the glidepath lights to the left of the runway.  They're both red, but with the added power the first one soon turns white.  Then we're over the end of the runway, coming down smoothly.  Flare out and we're down.  We taxi to the turnoff--by this time I'm using my feet to steer without having to think about it--stop at the dashed line, then taxi to the parking area.  I get close enough to the yellow T painted on the tarmac for the tiedown ropes to reach.  Pull the mixture to full lean and the engine shuts down.  Switches off.  (I can't remember all of the post-flight checklist right now.) Stow everything that needs stowing.  Tie down the wings and tzil and slip the pitot tube cover on.  Walk into the terminal building.

Adam doesn't look too pale, so I guess I didn't scare the bejesus out of him.  He says I did well, that most people get a deathgrip on the wheel.  Of course, I'm thinking how much I've forgotten, how badly I've done--so we have different points of view.

Driving home I realize that he probably wondered why I didn't seem more enthusiastic--probably forgetting that in my head I soloed a long time ago.  That gets me thinking that I'm in no hurry to solo this time around.  That's old business for me now, so I expect to enjoy the dual instruction time I'm going to have and will try to get the most I can out of it.  I suppose I'll be nervous when I do solo again, but it won't be the same as the first time.

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