On April 8, 2017, I checked out our flying club’s 172 and flew a couple of kids at Chapter 252’s Young Eagles rally here in Oshkosh. The reason I’m so specific about the date is because it was 30 years to the day since I’d passed the checkride and become a private pilot.
Thirty years is a long time.
I don’t remember as many details about that day as I wish I did. The internet that I could only dream about back then now tells me that April 8, 1987, was a Wednesday.
My CFI at the time was a guy named Kurt. I was 18, and Kurt was a seasoned adult of 21 that liked telling people that he looked like Joe Jackson, and hated it if you weren’t sure who that was. Kurt was a great instructor and exceedingly patient; he spent some late nights in the hangar grilling me on aircraft systems after asking me to describe how the carburetor worked and me muttering something about “It’s, like, gas and air or whatever.”
I found out later — two days ago, actually — that I was Kurt’s first ever primary student, but I have no doubt that he was every bit as thorough with the scores who came after me. When I was ready, he signed me off and I flew solo in N1557X, a trusty 1975 Piper Cherokee, from Bowers Field in Ellensburg, Washington, to Vista Field in Kennewick to meet the examiner, a man named Boyd Hoops. Boyd was an affable ex-Marine who was known for always wearing gloves when he flew.
When I got to Vista Field, winds were gusty and variable, slapping at the surface from every direction except straight down the runway. My arrival wasn’t so much a landing as it was an erratic and random series of impacts. I assumed that everyone in the FBO was watching, and I almost turned right around and flew home. But, instead, I parked, walked in, and introduced myself and if anyone had seen me bouncing poor 57X down the runway, they were too kind to say anything. From there, all I really remember about the checkride itself — aside from Boyd’s gloves — was the pilot’s prayer: Dear lord, please don’t let me … foul up.
Apparently I didn’t, and I’ve never been so excited to be given a grade of “satisfactory” before or since.
With my certificate in hand, I rounded up my first three passengers for a flight early the next day. John was my first and most obvious choice. We were college roommates and already lifelong friends, having met when we were 8 under embarrassing circumstances that only he likes to talk about. We invited Tera, a dynamo of a third musketeer with a laugh that I can still imitate, but not without popping a blood vessel. Rounding out the group was Chris, the easygoing kind of guy that, when you meet him, you say to yourself “okay, cool, he’s got this,” even if you’re not yet sure what “this” is. Chris was also an avid photographer which, in the dark days 20 years before iPhones, was the only reason I have pictures from that day — pictures that I cherish.
Memories fade and morph with age even faster than photos, and are all but impossible to clean up in Photoshop. I don’t remember what any of them said about the flight, but, thanks to Chris, I can still see the smiles. I may not be able to recall many details, but I can still feel the feelings. I can still effortlessly call to mind every trembling wave of giddy relief that came with passing the checkride, and the quiet hum of unadulterated joy, leavened with a dash of pride, as I finally got to be the pilot.
Simply put, I found the experience profoundly “satisfactory.”
Over the years, John flew with me several more times, including a couple of flights where my teenage judgment wasn’t what it should have been, but no harm was done and no airplanes were bent. In these last three decades as a pilot, I’ve recaptured that first passenger feeling a handful of times. Once was when my mom flew with me for the first time, though I had no idea it would also be the only time as she passed away unexpectedly at an age heartbreakingly close to what mine is now. Another time was around my 20th “pilot birthday” in 2007, when I gave my dad and my wife Muffy their first Tiger Moth rides.
That feeling also comes back whenever I fly Young Eagles. There’s something about seeing aviation through a young person’s eyes that reaches into my head, resets a counter, and instantly sends the exuberance of a proud 18-year-old bubbling straight back to the surface. My April 8th passengers in 2017 were a couple of young men named Chase and Iain.
Chase was kind of quiet, but he spent every minute of the flight with an imperturbable smirk, and rewarded me with an almost solemn “That was awesome,” after we taxied in and shut down. Iain on the other hand filled the cockpit with questions and commentary: “What’s this for? What’s that mean? I’m Superman! Does this red button really fire the ejection seat? Is that Wonder Woman behind us?” He also used the word “awesome” more than once, and celebrated our flight with a fist-bump that my knuckles would politely describe as “enthusiastic.”
Flying Young Eagles is supposed to be an act of charity, of sorts, but for me it’s nothing but the best kind of selfishness — I get far too much out of it to view it any other way. For that reason, I couldn’t think of a better way to mark this milestone than to share the world of flight with a couple of great kids — and then cap it by flying my wife to lunch.
Thirty years later, Kurt is still flying, playing with Challengers and the like at a charter outfit in California. Boyd passed away about 10 years ago after a fight with cancer, and Vista Field followed suit in 2013 after a fight with so-called progress. Good old 57X is still flying, nicely repainted and based out in Tracy, California.
John is the same kid I remember, but now he’s got an important job at a cool place, and we try to see each other at least once a year. I spent most of the last three decades out of touch with Tera, but Facebook took care of that a couple of years ago, and now she’s a school counselor, helping kids every day of her life. Unfortunately, I haven’t found Chris, but I like to imagine that he’s wandering around Madagascar or the Galapagos Islands, shooting pictures and loving his life.
Where will Chase and Iain be in 30 years? Given where my careers have taken me in that period of time, I’m the last person to look to for a reliable prediction. If you’d asked me back in 1987 where I’d be in 30 years, every guess would’ve been wrong; I’d have been lucky to look ahead 30 days.
Wherever they end up, I’m betting that they’ll forget me but always remember what it feels like to fly.