Summer â€“ 1973;
Standing outside the shack that served as a makeshift FBO for few weeks every summer, he played over yesterdayâ€™s flight again in his mindâ€™s eye as he waited for his instructor. Here, now in this his 14th year, he found himself perched on the edge of one of those defining moments. Yesterdayâ€™s flight had been a good one â€“ basically solid air work and good in the bounce pattern. The landings were a bit on the hard side as he tended to flare late (still) but his instructor took it all pretty well in stride, joking him about flying for the Navy instead of the Air Force. At the thought a grin crept across his face in spite of himself, for it was no secret what he longed to do. And here, today, everything seemed to be pointed to that path. â€œToday, for sure,â€ he thought, â€œtoday has to be the day I soloâ€¦â€
From across the ramp the instructor surveyed the gangly youth awaiting his arrival. Of the five students he was charged with instructing during this Civil Air patrol summer camp, none had a fire for lying that burned as bright as his. While the others certainly had a desire, else they wouldnâ€™t be here, none spent the energy or time in pursuit like this youth did. He would be the first at the field, striking out on foot while the others waited for a ride a couple miles back at the makeshift barracks and likewise, would be the last one back from the airfield. At the field, he would remain engrossed with either watching the pattern work of others, absorbing the flight manuals or just sitting in the cockpit of one of the spares, always practicing. To be sure, he had to admit, the guy did receive his fair share of ribbing from his peers in the camp over what they called his obsession and as the youngest one there, his social skills were still, well, pretty raw-boned. He just grinned and shrugged off the jokesâ€¦
Casting a glance skyward at the pale blue, Midwestern sky, his practiced eyes told him it would be another typical mid-summer Nebraska day â€“ relatively calm and warm in the morning with growing turbulence in the afternoon leading to a late afternoon/evening thunderstorm. It wouldnâ€™t be one of those fearsome giants common in the springtime that tossed out baseball sized hail and tornadoes with impunity, still one had to respect it just the same. For todayâ€™s flight schedule it meant the best flying was now, so there was little reason to tarry. Walking up to the student, he gave him a friendly slap on the shoulder and for the â€˜nâ€™th time in the last couple of weeks said to walk him through the pre-flight.
The object the two turned the focus of their attention to was a Grumman-American AA-1B Trainer, or â€œYankeeâ€ as it was commonly referred to in deference to its immediate predecessor before the buyout by Grumman. The AA-1B was small â€“ compact and light of construction with a 108-hp Lycoming engine, giving it a cruise speed of 117kts, much faster than the other trainers of the day like the Cessna 150 and Piper Cherokee. Visibility was superb with a sliding bubble canopy over the two occupants. Initially the Yankee was a bit of a challenge for the students, especially with its sharp stall characteristics and requiring of a light touch on the controls. Equally quick to reward or punish, it had a mixed reputation among this summerâ€™s group of instructors and students. It was clear to this instructor though, that the Yankee and his current charge were meant for each other though they had had some awkward moments.
Talking his way through the preflight, the student could feel his pulse start the familiar race in anticipation of the flight, not one of fear or dread, but of excitement. Today it sang in his ears as he wondered to himself if this could be the day â€“ all the flight schedule had said was â€œPattern Workâ€ next to his name.
Engine start, taxi and takeoff were all normal. Forcing himself not to turn early, he glanced out the corner of his eye to see his instructor barely nod to himself as he noted the correct turn. Down wind now, things are picking up. Checklist, flaps (such as they were) full down, power set, carb heat set, make the call:
â€œYankee Three Five Lima, downwind, touch and go, runway 22, Scribnerâ€
Watch the altitude â€“ OK, turn, start to descend, turn to final â€“ roll out, good lineup, watch airspeed, rats, flareâ€¦.the little Yankee banged to the ground. As he added power for the take off he started to say something about the late flare, but the instructor cut him off saying yes, it was a little late again, but that was OK.
Airborne again, check the pattern, climb out, and around the pattern again. Another â€˜firmâ€™ landing and back into the air. Turning downwind,
â€œMake this a full stopâ€
At those words his heart leapt to his throat â€“ was this it? He snuck a glance at the instructor who was utterly Sphinx-like behind his sunglassesâ€¦
Forcing him to concentrate, the resulting landing was enough to jar the fillings in both their heads. The instructor remained expressionless — â€œTaxi back over to the Ops shackâ€ was all he said.
Scribner was built back during the early days of WW2 as a training base for B-17 pilots. With three runways arranged in a triangle (one was now inactive) there, perforce, was a lot of runway, taxi and ramp space to accommodate the big bombers. It must have been an awesome sight then to see them all lined up, engines turning waiting their turn in the pattern. Today though, from the seat of the Yankee, taxiing back to the Ops sack seemed to take forever with miles of empty tarmac surrounding him. Finally he reached the designated parking spot and as he set the brake and made to shut down the engine, the instructor stayed his hand.
â€œGive me three good touch and goes and one full stop. Watch your flare and try and bring it back in one pieceâ€¦â€
And with that, suddenly the instructor was out of the cockpit leaving the astonished student behind. A thousand and one thoughts rushed to his mind, but quickly he pushed them back. The taxi to the shack that seemed to take hours on the return leg seemed like seconds. Out to the active, quick scan of the pattern (it was empty) line-up, power and the little Grumman bounced down the runway and leapt into the air…
With the blood pounding in his ears he made the pattern circuit (cut it too close, again), lining up for the first touch and go…which turned out to be more of a controlled crash than anything of beauty, but no rivets were popped and the everything sounded OK, so it was back into the blue.
Repeating the pattern three more times he finally came to a sweat-soaked stop â€“ the last landing had actually approached a tolerable degree of acceptability. As before the taxi back to the line was all too brief, and seeing his instructor and other students lined up he knew what was coming next.
Dropping from the wing of the now quiet aircraft he was met with volleys of water launched from his fellow students and instructor. It was a moment of supreme happiness that he wondered would ever be matched (it would). Still in the future were other triumphs and failures â€“ but those were to come. Today, well, today, under a magnificent Nebraskan sky he had joined the ranks of aviators and forever after, the world would not look quite the same.