The day in question would prove to be different in many ways. First of all, when we got to the helicopter, he didn’t leave us and head back to the hangar. In fact, he had us climb in and buckle up while he did an abbreviated “walk around” inspection. As your average 10 year old, I understood that before one took a flying machine into the air, you first had to do “something”… I just didn’t completely understand what that something might be. His absence was short lived, and before we knew it, he was buckling in himself and beginning a routine that was as familiar to him as starting up the family lawn mower. His hands were a symphony of motion, setting dials, adjusting knobs, moving levers, and when finished, he reached over and strapped onto our little noggins the two flight helmets that “just happened” to be awaiting us in the cockpit. Within seconds he was talking to us through the interphone system with that cool radio voice that only pilots possess. Two light bulbs began to flicker over two little boy’s heads, and the faintest of ideas began to gestate that this day would not be like the many other days spent at the airfield with Dad.
His next move confirmed that thought. With a practiced flow, he moved all of the controls through their range of motion (checking for… well, whatever he was checking for), his hands quickly set the throttle, mixture and magnetos, the engine was primed, and after looking out the open door and letting out a loud “CLEAR”, he moved some mysterious switch and we were treated to the sound of a large engine barely three feet behind us coming to life! Holy moly! He had actually started this beast up, and this was confirmed as the two big rotor blades above us began their dance of follow the leader. Within moments, they were up to speed, and our shell-shocked expressions were met with a funny twinkle in his eye, and an unforgettable grin on his face. He was not only going to let us peek into his world as a pilot, but he was about to give us a “full Monty” stare. He was taking us with him into his world of the sky, and we sat rigid, our eyes locked onto him, clutching the seat belts and having no idea what was to come next. We were fairly sure of one thing. We knew this probably wasn’t an approved thing, for no other kid we knew had EVER mentioned something like this on the playground.
He lifted the collective, the engine began to strain, and the world around us disappeared in a spray of water and wind! The engine revved a bit more and as if by magic, we lifted into the air! We were flying, and not like the TWA and Pan Am flying we did to move across the country and the ocean a few years earlier, but flying as in hovering in a United States Army helicopter. As we would find out much later, this machine was in need of a “hover check” after some sort of maintenance procedure was accomplished, and he took that opportunity to give his two young crew cut adorned sons a ride in the very type of machine they’d sat motionless in for many an hour. We did pedal turns, some forward and backward flight and generally never got more than a few feet above the ground, but that didn’t matter one bit to us. We were flying as high as if we’d just done a max performance take-off from a hot LZ and were topping the Empire State Building. The incredible noise, the vibration, the sounds of him talking to us in that staccato “pilot voice” in our helmets, the up and down dancing under the roar of the blades; it was all a part of a special moment in time in my young life, and I’ll never forget it. He allowed us to lightly hold the controls, so we gingerly grabbed the vibrating cyclic and collective sticks, and put our feet on the anti-torque pedals. We were “helping” him hover this amazing machine, and it was better than any amusement park ride I’d ever been on (or since I might add).
All too soon, we settled back to the original spot of our liftoff and the “flight” was over. He placed the helicopter exactly where she had been sitting when we arrived; it was as if the crime had never occurred. My Dad accomplished his shut-down and securing checklists, signed the maintenance forms, and we unbuckled and climbed out still in a state of shock. As we walked toward the hangar, I turned to look back in awe at the thing that has just given me wings a short time before. It sat motionless with all systems dormant, two large drooping rotor blades, and the now silent engine making that faint snapping and popping sound that only piston engines do as they cool down. It was probably the adrenaline still coursing through my young veins, but I swear I distinctly felt a connection between that little chopper and myself.
Maybe that day was the beginning of my journey as a pilot, maybe my Dad saw the spark in me and that was all a part of his plan to fan the flames. He’s been gone many years now, so I’ll never know for certain, but I do know that many times I’ve felt the same connection between myself and my flying machines. This started early as a fledgling pilot in the little Cessnas, and now at work I will gently pat the big Boeing on the skin as I enter the cabin door from the jetbridge. Maybe I just love to feel the strong metal of the fuselage against my touch, or maybe I’m unconsciously giving it a gentle assurance that I will fly it as smoothly and safely as I’m able to. I’m not sure. I am sure, however, that on a rainy Fall day in Munich over forty years ago, my Dad took me to work with him like he’d done many times before, but this day was different; this incredible day at work with my Dad changed my life. For you see in many ways I left the house that morning a boy, but came home a pilot.
On the ride home, my brother John and I were subjected to a thirty minute speech about how “the last few hours never happened”. He didn’t go into any particulars; suffice to say that he made sure we understood that this was to be a huge secret just between the three of us, not even my Mother and sisters could know about what had transpired. We swore a sacred oath of secrecy that lasted roughly until we were on the playground the next school day. I have no doubt that more than a few young boys finding themselves embroiled in a dodge ball grudge match, were distracted about that crazy kid and his crazy story. You know the one that said he went to work with his Dad and got to FLY A HELICOPTER! Yeah, right.
After returning to the States in the late 60’s, my father retired from the Army (he had received orders to go BACK to Vietnam for a second tour, he had over 20 year’s service by this time, so he opted to retire), and took a job as a civilian flight instructor contracted to the Army. He spent several years training pilots at their expansive Primary Helicopter Training Center located at Ft. Wolters, Texas, the same place he had trained as a fledgling aviator many years before. He did indeed continue to allow me to accompany him to work, and someday I’ll write about those amazing days as a young teenager.
This, note however, comes under the heading of “it’s a small world”. Several summers ago, I was flying back to KMSP from Anchorage, and riding my jumpseat on the 757 was one of our senior 747 Captains making his way back home (we had a crew base in PANC at the time). He and I were commenting on the heat and humidity of the day, and I mentioned that it was as if you were in North Texas. At that comment he offered, “I spent some time flying around North Texas.” This of course picked my interest, and after asking, I found out that he had indeed gone through Ft. Wolters in the early 70s on his journey to fly Hueys in Vietnam.
I asked if any of his I.P.s (Instructor Pilots) were civilians. He stated that actually all were civilians and at this, I couldn’t help myself, so I queried, “Did any of them look like this?” (I then turned in the seat and offered him a good look at my ugly puss). “What did you say your last name is?” he asked?
You could’ve knocked us both down with a feather. Yep, my beloved father was his principle I.P.! Dear old Dad had taught this man to fly! He then told me that he thought he had some pictures of his time at Ft. Wolters, and MAY have some of my Dad. He’d check when he got home and email me with his findings.
Here are the pictures that greeted me in an email from him:
He then relayed that he and several other gentlemen that my father instructed were in attendance at my Dad’s funeral back in ‘93, but they felt they shouldn’t interrupt the privacy of our family grieving. I disagreed and added that it would’ve made a very difficult day somehow easier. I thanked him for caring enough for my Dad to be in attendance, he then said this, “your father was one of our favorite guys to fly with.” The smile I had lasted for days.
My father was a beautiful man, not perfect, but then who is? He was however, the yardstick by which I measure my life daily, and unquestionably the driving force behind my life in aviation. But he was something else, something so special that only three words can describe it…
…a helicopter pilot.
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