Like many teenage boys, after seeing Top Gun, in the spring of 1986, I wanted to be a naval aviator. The thrill of flying jets, of being a flyboy with those cool Ray-ban sunglasses, wearing those flight suit coveralls, and hanging out drinking and singing at officers clubs with nice looking women, captured my juvenile imagination: “That’s the life! Sign me up!” I mean, what a job!
Anyway, I was 19 years old, which speaks for itself, and I happened to live in a military town—Virginia Beach, Va. My dad, before I was born, had served in the Navy. The Hampton Roads region had approximately 15 military installations, to include the largest naval station in the world (Norfolk) and one of the Navy’s only 4 master jet bases (Oceana). I’d grown up and gone to school with a lot of military kids. For me, the military option just always seemed a natural one. If by chance that wasn’t going to work, my second option was attempting to swindle my way into a law enforcement job. My uncle and the brother of a former girlfriend were cops, and it kind of had a similar appeal and looked like fun (yeah…I was 19), and so that idea was also floating around. But getting to 21 to get hired for police work was taking too damn long and so Top Gun gave the military idea the momentum…for the moment.
Somehow I was able to talk mom and dad into letting me take flying lessons. Amazing swindle as I look back now. I sold my parents on the idea that if I already knew how to fly—had my private pilot license—my chances of being selected by the Navy after I graduated from college were much better. They bought it. Don’t get me wrong, being a licensed pilot certainly would help in getting picked up by the Navy, but there was obviously a lot more to it than that. My luck here, and thank God for it, was that I had wonderful parents who believed in me.
I can still remember driving over to Piedmont Aviation, which was part of Piedmont Airlines (bought out by USAir in 1989), to check out the pilot training school. Piedmont’s charter division, administrative offices, and private pilot training school, were at Norfolk International Airport, not too far from where I lived in the Great Neck area of Virginia Beach, Virginia. Piedmont Aviation had its own building and aircraft hangers on the south side of the airport, opposite the main terminals. Pulling up in my car to the Piedmont facility, I remember pausing to take in the word “Aviation” on the sign at the main entrance. My thoughts raced from the image of winning the Top Gun trophy to a ball of flames after slamming into a mountain. Oh, how the possibilities were expanding!
This was a decision that could significantly change my life’s trajectory…or allow it to simply follow its set path, depending on what you believe. I had no idea, still don’t, what the future would hold, but ready or not, I was going to go ahead and nose dive into it. Youth just added a greater level of naiveté, a degree of enthusiastic ignorance, and a bit of angst over making something of your life. Looking back now, and currently having a 19-year-old son, I have a greater respect for the uncertainties and struggles he feels at this time in his life.
Entering the flight school on the 2nd floor, I was greeted by Joe Russo, one of the instructors. He was a tall, medium-build guy with salt and pepper hair and a dark mustache. He had the air of a man determined not to get killed by a student pilot in a fiery airplane crash. He’d spoken to me originally when I called to talk about taking lessons. Joe, as I recall, was a little late coming to the game. He’d started out doing something else, I don’t recall what, but then, say, 10 years into driving an ice cream truck (just joking) he decided he wanted to be an airline pilot. So here he was. For most of the instructors, Piedmont Aviation’s private pilot school was a way of racking up hundreds of flying hours toward the goal of becoming an airline pilot. Of course, surviving all those student pilots was a part of the challenge in getting to the cockpit of that Boeing 777. (Please note that both of my instructors survived and went on to fly for the airlines.)
Joe showed me around the school and discussed what was involved in getting my pilot’s license. At the time I remember thinking it seemed rather easy…yeah, 19 years old.
Joe: So, just to be sure, have you ever flown in a airplane?
Me: Sure. An airliner.
Joe: Did you like it?
Me: Hmmm, it made me a bit nervous.
Joe: So you’re a little scared to fly?
Me: Oh no. It’s not the flying that bothers me, it’s the crashing.
And so it began. I took 1 to 2 lessons a week. Lessons lasted about an hour to an hour and a half and would consist mostly of flying time and/or some ground schooling. The hardest part of ground school was learning navigation. In the air, the hardest part wasn’t actually flying the airplane, it was learning how to land the aircraft. Taking off was nothing. You throttled up the engine to full power, keep the plane straight down the runway, and at a certain speed you started pulling back on the yoke. The plane would lift off almost effortlessly. After takeoff, you kept the power up, the angle right, and climbed out to your cruising altitude. Not that hard really. But landing was an entirely different story.
Let’s just say that zipping down the runway at a high rate of speed, lifting off, and climbing out was smooth, powerful, and exhilarating. It had that how-cool-is-this factor. But landing, well, that had a factor too, but it tended to be mostly a pucker one. Just fly the airplane onto the runway, right. But as you get closer to the ground, everything is moving very fast and there’s little room for error. Decisions come fast and reactions must be quick. During final approach, you put the flaps down, your feet are on the rudder pedals, one hand is on the yoke keeping the angle or pitch right, the other hand is on the throttle ensuring your speed is just above the point (stall speed) where the airplane drops out of the sky. Yeah, nothing to it…
And then just for good measure, while attempting to land, let’s add in a good cross wind, and on top of all the other concerns you have, your little 1500-pound Beechcraft Skipper (the training airplane used by Piedmont) is being tossed around—at a low altitude! So the nose of the airplane is yawing into the wind and you’re giving it opposite rudder to keep the airplane straight. For those who don’t know, you land heading into the wind, so any wind gusts tend to add another problem: The wind is slight and then suddenly it gusts hard, which creates drag, the flaps are already down (more drag), and suddenly the stall buzzer goes off! You’re too slow! Power up! (In aviation terms a “stall” is referring to the wing or airfoil, not the engine). All this is happening while you’re focused straight ahead on the quickly approaching runway. And once the plane hits the runway (“hits” is an apt word for student pilots) your steering goes mostly to your feet and the rudder petals, which control the front wheel—which is hopefully still there after the pounding.
We usually did pilot training in the “south practice area,” which was the airspace above the southern parts of the cities of Chesapeake and Virginia Beach. This was airspace over mostly farm land, which was perfect for low flying, avoiding other airplanes, and avoiding the possibility of crashing into a neighborhood. One of the things Joe would constantly do while flying around the south practice area was to suddenly and without warning cut the engine (throttle it back to idle) and say “Okay, your engine is gone, where are you landing this airplane?” This was a constant part of pilot training and was drilled into my head. I was constantly reminded that I should be scanning the ground below and always asking myself, “If the engine quits or I had to land this airplane right now where was I going to put it down?” It was, I remember thinking, training that applied to life too. If things go wrong, you suddenly lose power or have an emergency, what is your plan for surviving and landing safely?
During practice one time, Joe cut the engine and let me glide the plane down to about 20 feet, maybe less, above farmer Brown’s field. We usually didn’t go that low, so he was pushing it. Farmer Brown happened to be on his tractor at the time and stood up slowly as he came to realize we were about to plow his field with our landing gear. At the last moment, Joe throttled up the engine and we climb back out. I gave a friendly wave to the stunned farmer Brown just as the engine kicked in. He enthusiastically waved back, but as I recall, with only one finger. Apparently, he thought Piedmont was number 1.
And then there were the other memorable aspects of pilot training. For example, I’d be told to put the plane in “slow flight”—flaps down full, power up, nose up—which was basically flying the airplane just above a stall. I didn’t actually enjoy all the time I spent doing slow flight, but because I did so much of it I have a strong memory of it. Though it’s a critical part of learning how to fly, it’s not exactly fun. The intention of slow flight was to get you comfortable with the mushy feel of the controls at slow speeds, especially since landing was a form of slow flight. You also developed a quick recognition and feel for when the plane was about to stall or fall out of the sky. We did all this, obviously, at an altitude that allowed for a safe recovery if the airplane stalled and started to spin. During a landing a stall might be fatal, so you had to master slow flight. During the training Joe would have me purposely stall the airplane and put it into a diving spin (from about 3000 feet) from which I’d have to recover quickly. It was exhilarating to say the least. The toughest part was watching the thin medal skin on the wings literally ripple as I pulled the airplane out of a nose dive.
I should point out that about 2/3rds of the way through my training I changed instructors. I think Joe landed a charter pilot job and so he left Piedmont or switched to their charter division, I’m not sure. My new instructor was Dave Stange. Dave was a young guy from rural Illinois who was very friendly and easy going. He had a great sense of humor, was a really great guy, and we shared a lot of laughs in the airplane and afterward socializing together. Dave finished up my training and prepared me for my FAA test flight.
My “check out” ride, the one you took before your test ride with the FAA to get your license, was with Sam Murphy, the chief flight instructor. Sam had been a Marine Corps aviator in WWII who’d flown Corsairs in dogfights against Japanese Zeros…and he still was! What a ride. I don’t recall if the Skipper was stress tested for barrel rolls, but whatever, and we didn’t just gently let the airplane roll into a spin, oh no, Sam punched the rudder and threw the airplane into a hard and fast diving spin. The airplane gathered more speed in the dive than I was used to, and from below farmer Brown probably thought we were dive bombing him. I can still remember experiencing those positive ‘G’s as I started pulling out of the dive. I also recall praying the wings weren’t going to rip off the airplane and I said as much to Sam, who said, “Well,” with a chuckle, “then we’ll die like men.” Not exactly the reply I was looking for.
And so after about a year, maybe a little more, of flying, ground school, touch and goes in the pattern, cross country trips, etc, etc, I finally got my private pilot license (I believe it was 1988) after taking my FAA test flight with Linda Holloway. Everything went smooth and I passed with flying colors.
During my training I had also been checked out (qualified to fly) in a Beechcraft Sundowner. This was the airplane you’d typically rent to fly once you got your license, because it was larger, a four seater, unlike the Skipper, and more comfortable. The one odd fact about the Sundowner, I recall, is that you had to put a couple 50-pound sandbags in the back storage area (if you didn’t have people in the rear seats) while flying it, because the Sundowner was front heavy. It was a minor design flaw. Forgetting those sandbags meant you’d better be watching the nose pitch during approach and landing. I remember a student had forgotten the sandbags and during landing she bumped the propeller blade, sparks and all, into the runway. The blades were, of course, bent at the tips by the impact, but amazingly enough, this student actually took off after impact, did a “go-around,” circled the airport, with the airplane shaking and shimmering, and was able to land safely…to the consternation of the instructors.
So after getting my license, I pretty much moved my flying adventures into the Beechcraft Sundowner. Funny that my mom was the point person on paying for my flying lessons, but she never flew with me—gosh, I wonder why? My dad and a close family friend went up with me, and I let the family friend do some of the flying (which is safe at 3000 feet) while my dad continued to pray in the rear seat. I took my friends up for rides around the area and even did some Top Gun like fly-byes—within regulation, mind you—down along the beaches in North Carolina. I took friends to various small airports, like First Flight in Kitty Hawk, NC, where we got out and walked around and enjoyed the Wright Brothers Museum.
And then there was the memorable time I took a girlfriend to Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay. The island had its own runway. It also had about 660 full time residents living on this small island. It was a nice and mild July day for flying and my landing on the small runway strip was, as I’d like to recall, rather perfect. I taxied the aircraft to the ramp and parked.* We didn’t see anyone, or any other airplanes for that matter, around the airstrip/ramp area. It almost looked deserted. My girlfriend and I began walking toward the town area which was close by. As we left the ramp area and I remember crossing a wooden pedestrian bridge which led to Main Ridge Road. This area of Tangier had a few small shops, restaurants, a general store, a museum, a post office, a church, and of course there were some of the residents going about their daily business at the time.
There are, I should note, very few cars on the island. Most of the residents use golf carts, walk, ride bikes or mopeds. I do recall, also, seeing the ferry boat that took residents and tourists, non-aviator types like we few, we happy few, to and fro the mainland. No doubt the island folks noticed the two young tourists. We mostly just walked and looked and snapped some pictures. I remember it being a rather quiet and peaceful place—not much excitement. It was a charming and picturesque island fishing village that was a unique place to visit.
As we prepared to depart, I remember seeing water on the far end of the runway. Apparently, the tide had come in while we were out walking around. This little bit of information about the runway and the tide was not something I was aware of when I planned the flight. (Looking at the runway now, via Google Earth, it appears to me they’ve extended it since my July, 1990, trip). I don’t recall thinking the water would cause me a real problem, but I wasn’t going to take any chances, so I was going to do a what’s called a short field take off. Hey, I needed to practice anyway. A short field take off is not something the average passenger will ever experience, but it is, for sure, an experience.
Piedmont had trained me in the military style of short field take off. Full throttle, keep the nose down, gathering as much speed as possible, and then a sudden pull up at a steep angle off the runway. For those uninitiated it can be one of those “holy shit” moments as the airplane leaps off the runway into a steep climb. I can’t recall whether I told my girlfriend about the short field take off; I suspect not, but endure the thrill she did.
What I mostly remember from this Tangier trip, among the other memorable things, was the view out the window as I banked hard left after take off, and leveled out, to fly over the town. Dusk was starting to set in and the way the light was casting across the Bay, the various islands, and the eastern shore and beyond, was stunningly beautiful. It was a real privilege to have earned that view. There was something about that moment, as some the Tangier residents looked up, some waved, with all their fingers, at our airplane as we flew down the length of the main street, that was unforgettable.
While hunting for old pictures of my flying days, I came across one I’d forgotten about entirely. When I took friends flying, one of the things they’d typically ask me to do was to fly over “the neighborhood” where we hung out. I would oblige and we’d look for people we knew. We’d circle and fly as low as we could and, of course, strafe any opportune targets we happened to see in the open. On one of these flights we circled my house on Bay Island from above. Not sure who my passenger was during this flight—it was likely either CJ or Chris—but he snapped a picture of our house as I made a steep roll. I’m glad I found this overhead picture. It means a lot to me, because I have a lot of very fond memories from of our home on Bay Island. It was, for instance, in the solarium of this home, on the evening of Wednesday, April 22, 1992, after a dinner at Three Ships Inn, that I went down on bended knee and asked Melissa to marry me. After 25 years of marriage, two children, and so many sweet and loving memories, I am happy to say, with all my heart and soul, she’s the best thing that ever happen to me.
Anyway, I didn’t end up becoming a naval aviator. It just wasn’t in the cards. I enjoyed my time flying, but after landing a career job (no flying involved) in Washington D.C., in February of 1991, my flying days ended. I haven’t flown in over 2 decades. My private pilot license, however, is good for life. I’d just need an aviation medical exam and get checked out (do some flying with an instructor) to bring me up to standard. I may take it up again one day and maybe I’ll be able to talk my lovely wife into letting me take her up to enjoy the view.
* 2016 Google Maps pictures. Certainly, Tangier Island has changed since I visited circa 1989, but not enough that you don’t get a good idea from these pictures what this small island fishing village looks like.