Happy Mother's Day: Tom Pays Tribute

My mother was a single mother most of the time I was growing up. 

She recognized my fascination with aircraft and space travel from an early age.   

My Mother had been forced to leave school at the sixth grade.  Even though she was very well read and had a lot of common sense experience, her lack of education and lack of a high school diploma forced her to work in low paying jobs as my sisters and I were growing up.  In spite of the expense imposed on the head of household for a struggling single parent family, she always paid for subscriptions for at least one daily newspaper and several magazines of specific and general interest.  She struggled to take care of and my two sisters and I, as we grew up in the 1950's and early 1960's in a rural community in Southern California. 

Even so, as birthday presents, while I was still in elementary school, my Mother managed to pay for what we would now characterize as "introductory flights".  I remember feeling all the exhilaration when the Piper Cub first lifted off the ground, when I was about seven or eight.  My second flight, when I was probably ten or eleven in what I remember as a Taylorcraft, I felt like an old pro when the pilot let me take the controls for a few minutes of climbs, descents and straight and level flight. 

When I was about 13 or 14, I was lifting alfalfa bales from the ground to a truck during the summer, in what is really a Southern California Desert.  These bales were in the 75-100 pound range and we had no mechanical assistance loading and unloading these bales.  This is summertime in what is really a desert environment and the temperature was probably between 105 and 110.   

I had a line of mud around my waist were the dust off the bales would be caught in my perspiration and flow down to be caught around my belt.  I had a little hay fever in those days and I was sneezing and lifting as fast as I could.  While walking behind the truck to get to the next bale, I remember seeing a four engine Douglas Transport (either a DC-4 or DC-6, I couldn't tell from that distance) after takeoff from Ontario Airport, heading up into Cajon Pass to continue on its appointed rounds.  I remember thinking to myself, "those pilots can't be working this hard." 

Shortly thereafter, I read an article in Popular Science or Popular Mechanics that outlined what it took to solo and get a private license.  I went to my parents after dinner one evening to ask to finance my flight training up to solo, so that I could solo when I turned 16.  My father didn't want to hear such nonsense. He was a carpenter and it was beyond his comprehension that I would even consider such a dangerous pursuit, even the truth be told, his profession was much more dangerous than flying aircraft.  My mother had a much more practical approach to my desire told me that I was too young to start training at that point in my life and that I should concentrate on my studies if I wanted to become a pilot. 

After that, high school academics, athletics and working in agriculture in our rural community got in the way of my desire to get into the cockpit.  During those years, my parent's generation believed that to be a professional pilot, a man had to be a perfect physical specimen with 20/20 vision.  Because of participation on the high school's football and wrestling teams I probably fit that mold from a physical conditioning standpoint by the time I was a senior in high school.  However, I was one of those who wore glasses because of deficient distance vision.   

Even into the 1980's a few airlines still required 20/20 vision to be hired.  I know of colleagues of mine who got hired by airlines by faking the certificate or going to an AME to get a Medical Certificate with "no limitations".  Once hired, their Medical Certificate could contain the limitation, "Must use corrective lenses while exercising the privileges of his airman's certificate."  But to get hired, the Medical Certificate couldn't contain any limitations. 

I could certainly pass the physical for a first class physical, but en those early years, I was never encouraged to pursue any such dreams by anyone except my mother who said that she would be proud of me as long as what I did was honest, was something that I wanted to do, and provided decent support for a family.  

My mother knew that my interests leaned toward the adventurous.  My mother once told me later when I was an adult with a growing family of my own that she was glad that my vision of adventure and exploration was SCUBA diving and hiking around and climbing mountains.  She was grateful that my "sense of adventure" was different from what some of my contemporaries considered "exploration" or "adventure" in an era of drugs and free love in the 1960's.   

I had been a member of an Explorer Post organized as a mountain rescue team, where I was qualified as a SCUBA diver and in basic mountain climbing techniques. My best friend and I and the German Shepherd who helped to raise me, used to spend at least one day a weekend in the mountains exploring and hiking.   

At the end of winter during my senior year in high school, the wrestling season ended and I was not going directly into spring practice for football as I had done for the last two years.  I was at "loose ends" for the first time since I had started high school.   

So, without asking anyone, I called up the flight school at the local airport and asked what it took to learn to fly.  They told me that it cost fifteen dollars for the first lesson, and that I could start at any time.   

My Grandfather had bequeathed to me a small "college fund" upon his death four years earlier.  My mother controlled that fund and I went to her and asked for money from my college fund to start flight training.  In her infinite wisdom, she said no, but what she really meant was "not no but hell no".  She said that if I wanted to learn to fly, that it was up to me to earn the money.   

So, after Mom closed off that financing avenue, I started mowing lawns and other work to earn the fifteen dollars it took to pay for a lesson and managed to do that for four weeks. 

The airport where I started my flight training was a family operated airport.  Paul Cable (the father and son) were the operator of the airport itself.  Roger Cable was the operator of the flight school.  Walter Cable ran the Cessna Dealer and a General Aviation Maintenance Hanger on the airport.  I did not appreciate this fact when the following encounter occurred that probably sent me into the direction I really wanted to go. 

A friend of mine from our high school, who was also a student pilot, worked at the airport as a line boy.  I had just completed my fourth lesson and was essentially "hanging around" when Walter Cable came up to my friend and asked him if he knew anyone with some aviation experience who wanted a weekend job.  My friend pointed at me and I said that I had four hours of flight time at the flight school.  Walter asked if I wanted a job and I said that I certainly did.  So, for the next few months until I graduated from high school, I spent my Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays putting at least 20 hours washing aircraft and cleaning up the offices.  I earned the equivalent of one lesson each week with five dollars to spare. 

When school ended, I was employed at the hanger as a full time combination parts gofer, mechanic's helper and hanger cleaner.  I learned a lot about aviation during that short summer that is still very present in my  aviation career.  The mechanics who worked there were very patient with a young, eager but not too experienced mechanic(?).  When I started, the only maintenance experience I had was on farm equipment and cars.  While that was helpful, it was not a even an introduction to aviation maintenance.  I knew the difference between a socket and an open end wrench, but that was about it.  Changing the oil in an aircraft is similar to changing the oil in a car or a light truck, but it is not the same by an stretch of the imagination.   

My first job as a mechanics helper was to clean out the wheel wells of a Beechcraft D-18 with a five gallon container of solvent, a nozzle and compressed air.  I was in those two wheel wells all day, breathing petroleum solvent.  I think it was certainly something that needed to be done, but the real purpose of the exercise was to determine if I really wanted to be there.  I learned a lot both about airplanes, pilots, mechanics and airplane owners and the aviation business that I would not have experienced anywhere else. 

As the summer started to come to an end, it was clear that I could get my private license before the summer ended if I only had the $200.00 that the flight school told me they would need to recommend me for my private license. 

I went to my mother once again to ask to tap the college fund for this last burst of activity to get my private license, before I had to leave the college.  At that point, she realized that my interest in aviation and becoming a pilot were not a "flash in the pan".  She, after some consideration, provided that $200.00 that allowed me to complete my private license check ride on the Sunday before he Monday that I loaded up the car to head off for college. 

Now that I look back on almost 49 years as a professional pilot, there were others who also certainly assisted in the progress of my career, but it was my Mother, who was supportive of my pursuit of what to her must have been at least just a little scary, knowing that her only son went off to fly those small fragile machines on a daily basis.  The contribution my Mother made to my career by her encouragement and provision of a home when I was going to college and getting my start as a professional aviator cannot be understated.  That Private Pilot's Certificate was the first accomplishment, without which there might not have been those other accomplishments. 

My Mother's acceptance, encouragement and provision of funds for her son's crazy notion of completing his Private Pilot's Certificate before he headed off to college, was the launch that was required to allow me to eventually serve as a flight instructor, (I still have a current CFI), Accident Prevention Counselor, 14 CFR 135 Air Taxi Pilot, 14 CFR 121 Airline Pilot, check airman/instructor and manager. Almost 22,000 hours later, I am eternally grateful to the Lady who made it all possible, my Mother. 

Thank you Mom!


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