The last thing I wanted to do during Christmas vacation was fly. I had some time off from the Air Force and I just wanted to visit my parents, sit around in my sweat pants, and watch TV. But there was Dad, standing there, chewing on his moustache, and fidgeting.
“Do me a favor and go flying with my boss’s son,” he said. “He has a pilot’s license and wants to take you up. I’d really appreciate it.”
My Pop is a forester and not much for talking. It had taken a lot for him to ask so I grimaced and said, “Okay.”
“Oh yeah, he’s 17,” he added.
Great, I thought, I’ve got to go fly with some kid. Just great.
This is funny, in retrospect, since I was an aging 23-year old codger at that time. It was December 1990 and I had just been through the Air Force training mill. I’d made it through a long year of Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT). I was lucky enough to get assigned to an F-16 after UPT and was waiting for that school to start after Christmas. I just wanted to recharge my batteries for a while by remaining on the ground. Specifically, I wanted to celebrate by remaining on the couch.
Instead, I sat in my Dad’s car and we drove to the airport in Elkins, West Virginia. As we drove between the humble, metal hangars, I felt nervous. This wasn’t even the town I grew up in. My folks had moved after I joined the Air Force. Now, throw in the fact I was about to meet a strange teenager and “slip the surly bonds of earth” with him a few minutes later. I wasn’t feeling too keen about the whole thing.
I shook hands with the boss and introduced myself to the kid. He had kind of a half-smile on his face as we talked and kind of a glassy-eyed look to him. Apparently, he’d been briefed that I was some sort of fighter pilot. Never mind that I hadn’t even touched an F-16 yet.
We towed the Cessna 172 out onto the ramp. My dad and his boss stood about 20 yards away with their arms crossed. I walked around the airplane with my new crewmate and tried to remember how the heck this thing worked. I had flown the T-41 (the military name for this plane) but it had been almost three years before and three different airplanes ago. I had “ram-dumped” everything I knew. I hoped the kid knew what he was doing, because I sure didn’t anymore.
He taxied, took off, and flew around the traffic pattern, doing touch-and-goes. We exchanged chit-chat through the intercom and I mostly just looked out the window and enjoyed the view.
“You want to fly?” he said.
“No thanks. I’ll just hang out.” I didn’t want him to see how little I actually remembered. I tried to pay a little closer attention to his power and flap settings just to see if they seemed familiar to me. Nope. Nothing. Darn memory.
A few touch-and-goes later, I figured I’d done my duty and we could call it a day. That’s when he asked again if I’d like to take the controls. I got the feeling from the kid’s face that he thought I could fly through sheer willpower. I had wings sprouting from my shoulder-blades. I knew different. I was a creature of training and, usually, a two-by-four was required to bludgeon information into my head. Thankfully, I was smart enough to know what I didn’t know.
“Listen,” I said, “I haven’t flown this thing in a long time and if I really screw something up, I want you to just take the airplane from me and fix it.”
A big smile grew slowly onto his face and he said, “Rrrrright,” real slow like I was pulling his leg. Then he turned away from me and shook his head, chuckling to himself. I wasn’t fooling him. I mean, I was a fighter pilot.
I’ll never forget that base to final. I was fumbling with the flaps and power, trying to make it look good as the runway approached. I looked out front and tried to decide when it was time to pull the power and land. Well, the picture for a 172 landing was a lot different than the one for my most recent jet landing. That looks about right, I thought, as I chopped the power. It would have been right…one hundred knots faster in a different airplane.
The kid yelped, looked at me, looked at the barbed wire fence and junkyard getting bigger, cobbed the power and yanked the yoke back into our laps. Even with that, we pranged onto “brick one” pretty good before bounding back into the air.
Safely back in the air, I looked over at the kid and he was white as a sheet. He looked at me and I opened my eyes wide and nodded my head up and down, as if to say, “I told you so.”
He did another pattern to a full-stop. We didn’t say another word. He taxied us back to our spot through sort of an alley between the corrugated, tin hangar walls. It was kind of a tight fit. Sure enough, adding insult to injury, there was a terrible “dit-dit-dit-dit” sound from the left wing as he dragged the wingtip along one of the hangar walls. Right in front of our dads. I could see them cringe and both of their faces mouth, “Oh.” The prop spun to a stop and we got out and looked at the broken strobe light.
So there we were, all standing in a circle. Every one of us red-faced for one reason or another. I stuck out my hand and said, “Well…Enjoyed it.” We couldn’t get away from each other fast enough.
I knew darn well that the kid didn’t hear a word I said in the cockpit when I warned him about my perishable flying skills. It was obvious that he thought I was joking. Now I’m like a pit-bull. If there’s supposed to be an acknowledgement, I keep transmitting, on the radio or in person, until I know the message is received. It has kept me away from metaphorical junkyards and barbed wire ever since.
On the way home from the airport, my Dad chewed his moustache and looked straight ahead through the windshield and said, “Thanks,” and uncomfortably cleared his throat.
“You’re welcome,” I said. And he thought the only embarrassment was the dinged wingtip…