Photo courtesy of Greg Scott
One day my dad picked me up from school and said, “How would you like to go flying?” My unhesitating answer was, “I’d love to!”
He drove me to Orlando Executive Airport to meet my pilot for a discovery flight. The year was 1985 and I was just 16. Back then there was no TFR around Disney World and the common discovery flight was to do a few circuits around Cinderella’s Castle, then back to the airport. Along the way the instructor let me take the yolk of that little Cessna 152 and do some climbs and turns and descents to see what it all felt like to be in command of an actual aircraft. I still smile today when I think of the feeling of absolute freedom – the freedom to move in three dimensions. I remember sensing the changing pressures on the aircraft as we maneuvered, hearing the rushing wind as we “sped” along at 90 knots, and gaining a new perspective on life from 1000 feet above the ground.
When we returned and I made my way across the tarmac toward my Dad, I remember his smile, probably a reflection of the one on my face. “Well, what did you think?” My understated reply was something to the effect of, “It was great!” I will never forget his next question as it shaped so much of my life in ways I would never understand until more recent years. “Would you like to learn how to fly?” “Yes!” was my unbelieving reply.
That began almost a year of working to earn my Private Pilot certificate, logging about an hour a week during my busy senior year of High School. There are so many milestones that I remember as if they happened just yesterday. There was my first solo, November 14, 1995, talking myself through that traffic pattern flight from engine start through wheels stop, repeating all the things my instructor would say just as if he were there in the right seat. There was my first solo stall practice, when I nearly scared myself to death forgetting to apply enough right rudder to arrest the yaw prior to the break. It took me 30 minutes of flying in circles before I was calm enough to turn back for a landing. The long cross country, where I had to divert to Melbourne to wait out a line of severe convection keeping me from completing the flight. (Anyone remember the days of an actual FSS with dot matrix printouts of weather briefings, actual radar screens you could view, and actual live briefers that would look you in the eye?) Of course, the check ride, with nerves on edge but senses sharpened like they never were before, absolutely nailing my final landing on runway 31 with a direct 12 knot crosswind, crab to hold centerline, transition to a slip, upwind wheel first, nose aligned with center line, no drift, grease it on like never before – and the moment I knew I had my ticket when I saw the Examiner nodding his head as we rolled down the runway.
From there began a series of my own “discovery flights” around the Orlando area with any and all friends that would trust this kid pilot to take them for a ride. There were the adventures with my Dad when we would seek out a new restaurant somewhere within an hour or so of flying time. He and I always enjoyed those flights and the new experiences they added to our Father-Son lore.
But alas, my Father was not going to subsidize my on-going flying activities. The mighty 152 was commanding a whopping $30/hour wet (oh for the days) and it became harder to find the free cash to fly as much as I wanted to. After my BFR, as the Examiner endorsed my log book, he said to me, “You passed, but you fly like my 13 year old son,” a comment which I did not take as a compliment. With a total of 100 hours in the log book I realized that I was not getting the flying time I needed to stay sharp, and reluctantly decided to hang up my wings.
Fast forward some 20 years, and I find myself in a position where I can own an airplane and justify flying myself for business. Back to the airport to knock off 20 years of rust, get the BFR signed off, and begin training for my instrument ticket. Now in my 40s and my Dad moving quickly toward 80 years old, I take him up again as we begin another phase of adventures together. He is just as thrilled as before, although his excitement has been dampened by the Parkinson’s disease ravaging his body. I know he loves to fly and he loves the freedom that flying offers as much as I do. We ply the Florida skies once again, viewing the man-made light shows of nighttime fireworks over the many Orlando theme parks and the far more impressive God-made light shows of nighttime lightning in distant thunderstorms. We visit my sister for dinner in St. Augustine because we can. We pretend that we are a space shuttle returning from a mission to the International Space Station as we do a low approach at the Shuttle Landing Facility Runway 15 at the Kennedy Space Center. The huge Vehicle Assembly Building looms just off our left wing tip, seemingly within arm’s reach, as we enjoy a full view of the launch pads that placed Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, and so many more pioneers into space. Though not overly expressive, I can sense his excitement at all of these experiences.
It is a bit harder now as the physical challenge of getting Dad into and out of the low-wing Trinidad is significant. His disease ravaged body is far from stable or flexible as I assist him up on to the wing. His balance is tenuous. The trick is getting him positioned just right so that he is able to swing his feet in over the door sill and into the cabin. Getting him out of the plane and off of the wing proves even more difficult. We perfect a technique where I piggy back Dad off the wing and on to the ground. We entertain quite a few flight line workers as they watch us pull off this maneuver. It is not easy and it takes quite a long time, but he is glad to do it because the ride is worth the difficulty. I am thrilled to see him enthusiastic to go because it is an enthusiasm that is harder and harder for him to find these days.
Forward another few years to the big family reunion gathering in Tennessee, with all eight of his siblings attending and all of their children and grandchildren. Despite my sister’s efforts to persuade, “Dad, your brothers and sisters are all getting older and it may be the last time ever they will all be together,” Dad does not want to attend because the drive from Orlando is just too long and he does not like going far from home anymore. I am working 800 miles away but call Dad to tell him that I can fly down to Orlando to pick him up and bring him to the reunion. He offers some insincere resistance at first, but then begins making his plans for the trip. My sister has not seen him as excited in quite a long time.
The day arrives, I fly to Orlando and pick him up. As I taxi to a stop he is ready to go, moving toward the airplane as fast as someone with his condition can, my sister almost unable to keep up dragging his luggage in tow. We load him up and make our way to Tennessee. It is one of those messy summer days with a weather system moving through the southeast; a lot of precipitation, low ceilings, scattered thunderstorms, and moisture thick in the air. But we are on top, enjoying the sunshine and the blanket of white and distant towering cumulus. Finally, it is time to make our descent in to Gatlinburg, receiving vectors for the approach, in and out of the clouds, my Dad turns to me and says, “We’ve come a long way from flying around Disney, haven’t we?”
“Yes, we sure have,” I say. Yes, we have, Dad, I think and thank him for the journey.
Thanks for the memories Dad!