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 airplane straight down the runway, and at a certain speed you started pulling back on the yoke. The airplane 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. Continue reading “Some Flying Memories”