I don’t recall at exactly what age I began flying all by myself; but I recall being very young. It may have had some influence on my choice of career; I’m not sure, flying did after all become my occupation of choice. I am referring to a series of dreams of course, but it seemed like a very real world I was flying in at the time. It always began with a hover; I would then lift my arms rising above ground level and go from there. I enjoyably went pretty much everywhere I wanted.
I suspect there is much more to my having dreams of flying as a child than just being dreams of happenstance. Making conscious choices of dreams has never been an option one has, though I did find them when they came around a lucid exhilarating experience.
Dreamologists say; “If you have dreams about flying, you’re expressing a desire to be free, to be unencumbered, to find release from a situation. They represent your “rising above,” whether it’s a person, a situation, or a conflict. It might indicate that you’ve found a solution to a problem or a new perspective on how to handle things.
Flying gives you a sense of power and dreams about flying are indicative of that. It can mean that you’re about to get freedom from something. Perhaps your troubles, a bad relationship, maybe a job or a life crisis. People also dream about flying when they discover and connect with their spiritual side and feel a release from the day-to-day of the world.”
I’m not qualified to anoint or dispute these speculations on why one might have these dreams. I had them as a child and it continued well into adulthood. My latest recall of them; I was in my forties and flirting with the notions of Shirley MacLaine and her out of body experiences. I recall one year in Los Angeles attending one of her seminars on the subject. It had to be in the mid-eighties, sometime after she wrote her book “Out on a Limb.” Meditating and the harboring of crystals of any sort were the fad of the eighties, at least in southern California at the time.
Getting back to my flying around all by myself (without the benefit of a dream); my first solo flight occurred in October of 1964. The vehicle was the real deal, an airplane, a Cessna 150 to be exact; its registration Number was N5837E. I paid a visit recently to my student pilot logbook of so many years ago and relived my first experience with solo flight. It occurred on an October day at the Steele, Missouri Airport, a short distance from the Blytheville Air Force Base which was located in northeast Arkansas near the Mississippi River. I was twenty-three years old.
My courageous flight instructor was one Gino J. Cortesi, his certificate number was CFI 1243234. Gino was a tail gunner on a B-52G Bomber Crew based at Blytheville AFB, and taught flying at the Aero Club located on base. I purposely didn’t mention to him that I had lots of flying experience while asleep out of fear he wouldn’t take my curiosity about real flying seriously. I was very serious after all about the reality of flight.
My seriousness was motivated primarily by my reading of a book I had checked out of the base library. The Title of the book was “Fate is the Hunter”, written in 1961 by Ernest K. Gann.
Credit is given to Wikipedia for the following information concerning the book and its author:
“Fate is the Hunter” is a 1961 memoir by aviation writer Ernest K. Gann. It describes his years working as a pilot from the 1930s to 1950s, starting at American Airlines in Douglas DC-2s and DC-3s when civilian air transport was in its infancy, moving onto wartime flying in C-54s, C-87s, and Lockheed Lodestars, and finally at Matson Navigation’s short-lived upstart airline and various post-World War II “nonscheduled” airlines in Douglas DC-4s.
Roger Bilstein, in a history of flight, says that of books that discuss airline operations from the pilot’s point of view,
“few works of this genre equal E. K. Gann’s ‘Fate is the Hunter,’ which strikingly evokes the atmosphere of air transport flying during the 1930s.”
According to the log book entry by Gino, my first flight instructor, my flight training began in earnest on October 21st, 1964 with an hour and thirty minute orientation flight in the local area surrounding the air base which included southeast Missouri. On the following day, October 22nd, my second day of flight training Gino entered into my logbook eight take-offs and landings and 25 minutes of flying under the hood which meant keeping the airplane right side up flying only by instruments. Total flight time on the second flight was 2 hours.
My third flight training session occurred 5 days later and involved doing five takeoffs and landings at the Steele, Missouri Municipal Airport. After the fifth landing Gino instructed me to taxi off of the active runway and taxi back to the takeoff end; after arriving there he says “set the parking brake because I am getting out here.” I wondered at first if I had scared him somehow? What Gino did next should have been a crime in my book: After setting the brake Gino hops out of the airplane and says “it’s all yours… take it around on your own this time!” It happened so fast I didn’t have time to begin a self-doubting ritual, the re-examination of my capabilities to do this airplane thing on my own. I knew I could do it in my dreams but this is a totally different animal; something to be said for Gino J. Cortesi, Tail Gunner-Flight Instructor, invoking the element of surprise.
Obviously I made it around safely. I had a grand total of slightly less than four hours of dual flight instruction when I was turned loose to do it on my own. There are no words I can think of now that expresses fully the feeling of piloting an airplane solo for the first time in your life. It is a once in a lifetime experiences you can never forget. If one has issues of self-doubt about life’s challenges, they are quickly erased as you sit in the cockpit of the airplane all alone, high above ground, and the only thing that is going to get you safely back on the ground is you. It is and will always be the thrill of a lifetime for me, never to be lost.
I’m certain my instructional time with Gino, although seemingly low, isn’t a record by any means. I did after all live and breathe airplanes as a kid growing up. It becomes part of your DNA so to speak; especially after building and flying so many model airplanes, it was in my bloodstream. I already understood many of the fundamentals. All I needed was for someone to release me from my landlocked straight jacket. Also, keep in mind, I was piloting in my dreams well before model airplanes ever entered the picture.
Ernest K. Gann, the author and former pilot at American Airlines, deserves a lot of credit for pushing me over the top with his written word. It was another of those fork-in-the-road moments; do I go left or do I go right? I pursued the dream and really that’s all it was at the time. I had a huge hurdle looking me in the face and yet another in a series of painful life decisions.
I followed in the footsteps of my biological father, who had (unknown to me) abandoned me and my birth mother when I was an infant, and I too found myself in a marriage that wasn’t going to work. I regret the pain it caused all that were involved. It was complicated with plenty of blame on both sides. Had we not gone our separate ways I feel certain one of us wouldn’t have survived and the other of us might well be in prison for committing a crime of passion?
Thanks be to Ernie Gann for having written so convincingly of the atmosphere of air transport flying from a pilot’s point of view, as if in a personal note addressed only to me, he says “Kid, this is your want in life, get on with it.”
After soloing and accumulating some flying experience I decided it was time to expand my horizons. I remembered from my previous technical training at Lowry AFB, in Colorado, their Aero Club had much more to offer by way of training facilities. Their club had more types of airplanes, along with a link trainer, which is an instrument flying simulator and there were more flight instructors having advanced ratings. So my next hurdle became how to get myself there.
On every SAC Base (Strategic Air Command) that had an A&E Squadron(Armament and Electronics) there was also a PME Lab(Precision Measurement Equipment). The Lab was responsible for calibrating the myriad of airbase test equipment. It involved a wide range of electronics, oscilloscopes, voltmeters, weapon system analyzers, etc. Pretty much anything that was used to physically measure something needed to be recalibrated on a regular basis. The school for this specialist training was at Lowry AFB, and involved a whole year of classroom study,` which was just the right amount of time, Viola!
The problem was; In order to apply I would need to pass an electronics and physics fundamentals exam, which was known to be difficult. I found the related materials and went to work boning up. After a few months of study I took the test, passed it, and applied for the course. I’d grown to be a stick in the side of the Squadrons Bomb-Navigation shop and they were more than happy to ship me off. The squadron brass’s standard operating procedures (S.O.P.’s) were to manipulate data to make the unit look better than its actual performance warranted. You were required to go along to get along. I became vocal about bogus data being input into their Management Control Systems (MCS) computers, which obviously affected airman performance reports. If you sucked up you got promoted and I had a problem with that. I became well aware early on that I would not make a good career military man.
I realized I needed to use the Air Forces resources to advance my own career in an alternative field. It was the only avenue to get me where I wanted to be… a commercial airline pilot. I had a long way to go. To learn to fly was the reason I joined up in the first place and the Aviation Cadet Program was no longer available.
The PME course was crowded; the school was operating three daily shifts, an A, B and C and classes were six hours a day five days a week, morning, noon and night. I applied for the “C” shift (the less popular for obvious reasons) attending from 6pm till midnight and got it. I had a whole year to look forward to and I immediately joined the Lowry Aero Club.
The club’s aircraft fleet included 2 Cessna 150’s, both a Cessna 172 and 182, and 2 Beech T-34’s, which had been former military pilot trainers. The rate for renting the T-34 was $3.50 an hour wet, which meant it included fuel. The military rate at the time for aviation fuel was 10 cents a gallon. To cover some of the training expenses I applied for a job at the club as a dispatcher and line boy during the day and on weekends, which meant I was washing aircraft underbellies when they needed cleaning. That job involved soaking a rag in gasoline and wiping the exhaust and oil streaks away. Not a fun job by any means.
I would spend the next year building flying time anyway and anywhere I could find it. I first received my Private License and immediately began working on the Commercial ticket while at the same time taking instruction for the Flight Instructor Rating. During my course at the Lowry PMEL School, in a period of a little less than a year, I acquired my Commercial Pilot and Flight Instructor ratings. I’d accomplished my original goal when joining the Air Force of becoming a pilot; even though I would have preferred to be an Air Force pilot, this route proved to be more beneficial in the end.
I was now a licensed Flight Instructor and so began the business of learning to fly airplanes in earnest.
Flight Plan Re-route
I assumed I would be returning to my former duty station at Blytheville AFB and assigned to work in the PME Lab located there. After graduating from the course at Lowry I received a change of plan and was ordered to report to the Lab at Little Rock AFB, at Jacksonville, Arkansas. Like Blytheville, it was also a SAC bomber base, but instead of B-52’s they supported the B-58 Hustler, a four engine supersonic aircraft made by Convair. The reassignment was a totally pleasant and fortunate surprise.
The Flight Instructor opportunities at Blytheville would have been dismal to say the least. A community of cotton farms with their necessary cotton gins surrounded the airbase with only a small local airport on the Mississippi River east of town. The city of Little Rock on the other hand, was the State Capital having a vibrant aviation community. I’d just struck gold on several fronts.
The commercial airport was Little Rock’s, Adams Field, where there were several FBO’s (Fixed Base Operators) which all had flight schools in need of Flight Instructors. I had my choice but because I already had a full time job with the Air Force, I could only work part time as an instructor. I took a job at Arkansas Aviation which was the Piper Aircraft Dealer in the region and they had a very active aircraft sales department. They spoke a language and in a manner I was unfamiliar with and could tell great stories and good jokes. They were all good ole boys and were a fun group to be around. There was also an avionics technician we called BJ, I never knew his real name but he played a great honky-tonk piano and worked nights at the local Shakey’s Pizza Parlor. He was a girl magnet and we loved him for that too.
Another piece of luck I encountered was having a supervisor at the PME Lab that was very accommodating with letting me arrange my work schedule so I could take off early in the afternoons to go fly. In return, I would open the Lab in the wee hours of the morning, start the coffee maker, sweep the floors and empty garbage cans.
The lab itself was required to be a filtered dust free environment; we wore white coats and slip-on booties over our shoes. You would think we were all surgeons if you were to witness the scene. The rooms were sealed and had a positive pressurized HVAC system. Whenever a door opened there would be a swooshing sound as air escaped the room. No one was allowed into the work areas without the proper attire which included a radiation monitor. It was a very prestigious job to have at the time.
I would begin my shift early in the mornings around 5 or 6, depending on workload, and leave just after the lunch hour break having worked straight through. I would eat my lunch on the way to the airport. I also managed some flight instruction on weekends.
I soon learned why teaching primary flying was left to we inexperienced instructors. Older more experienced pilots didn’t want much to do with it. Teaching someone to fly an airplane all by themselves, in other words to fly solo, was known to be hazardous duty and not to be taken lightly. Learning how to survive in an environment only friendly to birds can be daunting to the best of us. Teaching someone to fly that isn’t in the “best of us” category is even more challenging and the reason one doesn’t teach primary students as a career choice. Flight instructing is generally a mere stepping stone for most pilots; they only do it as long as necessary to get to the next level. That would include me. I occasionally ran across older pilots that really loved teaching primary flight but there weren’t many and they for sure did not do the grind. They did it sparingly and weren’t in any hurry to build flying time like the upstarts we were.
Yet another Blessing
In order to attend the PMEL training at Lowry AFB it was required that I extend my enlistment in the Air Force by two years, which I willingly did before leaving Blytheville. It was a great surprise to me, when barely four months after arriving at my new base, I received notice to report to the personnel office in preparation for being discharged. It seems my extension paperwork had been lost in my transfer of duty stations. Who am I to mess with fate? Would I feel guilty of not honoring my commitment for the training I received… yes, of course? I had already given the Air Force seven years so I reasoned; maybe this early discharge was divine intervention on my behalf. It is an easier task to stay on course when the wind is at your back. This was like winning the lottery without buying a ticket. What do you do… give it back? Better souls may have done so but not me. I’d had enough Air Force.
This is funny but true; the Air Force made my decision easier by promoting me to Staff Sergeant (E-5) shortly after arrival at Little Rock. There were other career Airman working in the Lab I thought deserved it more than I did, so it was difficult working alongside them. I felt some of their resentment, so it made my departure decision much easier. Before leaving the Air Force though I had one more chore to finish up and that was getting an instrument rating. I used up some of my acquired leave and went back to the Lowry Aero Club in September 1966 to get the rating there. It was a matter of economics, I knew the instructors and they knew me and it would be far cheaper. I was short on time and money so I asked my Aunt Inez in Michigan to loan me $200 and she did so. And, I am proud to say, I repaid her not long after.
I was honorably discharged from the Air Force on October 18th, 1966 and went to work fulltime as a Flight Instructor and Charter Pilot at Arkansas Aviation. The very next day I began working on a multi-engine rating. Once I got that out of the way the work just seemed to materialize almost out of nowhere. Two years later I would use my GI Bill benefits to obtain my Airline Transport Rating.
During this same period I was privileged to fly every type of Piper and Cessna aircraft made, both single and multi-engine. Not long after I took on a corporate job with Holiday Inns of America flying a twin engine Aero Commander aircraft that belonged to Charles Bland, the Vice President of their construction division. It was in the era when the buildup of interstate highways was in full swing and the company was putting in motels on highways still under construction. There were many times that we would land on the paved surfaces of un-open sections of interstate highway, then taxi up the off ramp to the job site. I flew allot during this period; sometimes upward of 120 hours a month in single pilot IFR conditions. In other words, flying in instrument weather and doing it without benefit of a co-pilot. It made you very proficient out of necessity.
Stroke of luck
The airlines that were hiring during this period, and there weren’t many, required you to have the Flight Engineer written test passed before you got an interview. American Flyers, an airline and flight training school in Ardmore, Oklahoma offered the course as a ground school. They taught the L-188 Lockheed Electra and I found some time and made my way there. I passed the exam some months later and also made a few friends who were fellow classmates. They would later alert me to an airline job opportunity that got me in the front door and onto my new career path. These gentlemen would also become fellow crew members as well as lifetime friends.
On my return from Oklahoma to Little Rock I was to enter my second marriage to another Arkansas girl I had been dating, that I’d originally met in the airport passenger terminal. She then worked for Trans Texas Airways and would later become a school teacher in the Little Rock school system. We produced a great little guy we called Ronnie Jr.; he was born on August 23rd, 1968 in Cumberland, Maryland. He would follow in his mother’s footsteps becoming a High School math teacher in North Little Rock. He was, and still remains, a lovable fun guy to be around. There is a coincidence here about marrying girls from Arkansas that can’t go without mentioning; when I first met my biological father some twenty-years later, I would discover he also had married a girl from Arkansas and her sister had been an American Airlines Stewardess. Truly, the apple does not fall far from the tree. How son Ronnie came to be born in Cumberland, Maryland moves the story along nicely.