Let me preface that with this. Airline pilots regularly retire with 20,000 hours or more. One of my favorite people ever, C. J. Logue, retired from TWA with over 24,000 hours, having flown Convair 440’s and 880’s, Lockheed Constellations and L-1011’s, Douglas DC-9’s, Boeing 707’s, 727’s and 747’s (RIP, Bonnie Prince Charlie). G/A pilots, not flying on a regularly scheduled basis of, on average, 80-ish paid hours per month, seldom crack 5,000. I knew a guy, Pat Magee in Honolulu, who, in late 2000, told me that he had 40,000 hours, 35,000 on floats – he flew a whole heluva lot in Alaska.
So … G/A pilot me, with 10 years of flying open cockpit biplane tours in San Diego, and one year of flying tours in Hawai’i, and 18 years of flight instruction given, and 41 years as a pilot, just cracked 10,000 hours. Five figures. It’s kind-a cool – especially knowing that it wasn’t through an air carrier career or military experience … which is a whole lot more fun than dragging a herd of pax from Dubuque to Denver, again, and again, and again – or dropping a load of ordinance onto Falujah.
How does a G/A pilot get to five figures? Flight instruction would be the logical answer, but lotsa instructors burn out after 500 or 1,000 and then try failure at real estate sales – and lots more instruct just to build time so they can have airline careers … sad, really. How did I do it? Flight instruction, of course, but that’s because I love eet. To this date, 23Nov2016, I’ve flown 7,729.2 hours of it over the 18 years since I got the CFI rating. It’s a damned good thing that I love what I do for a living. How stupid would I be to keep doing it for that long and that many hours – please don’t answer that. (Oh, that’s right, this blog won’t allow comments from the readership. Good choice, dontcha think … for my ego, at least.)
Highlights over 7,729.2 hours of flight instruction? Well, every first solo I ever authorized would be high on the list. There is nothing quite like watching a new student grow in skill and experience, then watch me climb out of the airplane for that first time alone. The look of terror (sometimes), or fear (most times), or relief (from the arrogant few who KNEW they were solo-ready way before I allowed it) that crosses their faces is a source of joy. Then there’s the pride that I feel when they’ve completed those 3 full-stop landings – not pride in my achievement, but in theirs. Witnessing that transition from groundling to solo pilot is a humbling gift that few CFI’s contemplate or, even, value.
Let’s see. Other highlights might include checking John King out in a Citabria new to the flying club. I asked at the time – sheez, maybe 16 years ago – when was his last tailwheel flight. “Oh, I flew Richard Bach’s Cub a few months ago,” he replied. Humph. Name dropper … but still … Richard Bach’s Cub? How cool was that.
The first flying lesson with my wife, Saint Laurel, in Travel Air NC-674H, the open cockpit biplane I flew for a decade with Barnstorming Adventures, was pretty damned cool. And, while I wasn’t her instructor at that moment (hand surgery), good friend Bob Turner climbed out of the Super Cub cockpit so I could watch Laurel on her first solo, 12May of this year. That was close to the very best experience I’ve ever had on the ground, watching someone I love kick ass in the sky.
Another highlight was Laurel’s and my flight from San Diego to Sandpoint, Idaho in the Super Cub, with over nights in Sonoma, and Redding. We had to fly up the Trinity River Valley west, then northwesterly, and up the Klamath River to Grants Pass, Oregon, to avoid a line of thunderstorms choking off our planned north/northeasterly route. Dodging smoke from fires throughout Eastern Washington and Idaho wasn’t exactly fun, but it was a great experience.
Speaking of the Cub, the trip with Bob Turner bringing it home from Fargo, North Dakota on the last good weekend of October, 2104. We never flew higher than 1,000 AGL. (No, dear snoopy FSDO wankahs, we weren’t violating airspace. Have you seen North and South Dakota, Western Nebraska, Eastern Colorado, most of New Mexico, Northern Arizona and the Sonoran Desert of Southern California? There weren’t any “congested areas” within 50 miles of our route of flight.)
Going beyond the 18 years of flight instruction and early into my 10,000 hours of total time, I remember my first solo, now 41 years ago, as being pretty cool. Grumman AA-1A, 9346L, 24May1975, 3M Airport, Bristol, Pennsylvania (RIP). I can still remember how well she climbed without that 175 lbs of dead weight that was my instructor (John Herber, an airline time builder). I remember, too, the mild panic that set in on the left downwind for Runway 29. “Wait a minute. What the frk am I supposed to do now?” Then I looked at my check list, got bizzy with “abeam the numbers, throttle back, carb heat, flaps, descend, turn base, turn final, flaps, airspeed, hold it off, land.”
The private check ride was a blur. I have a logbook entry that recalls the facts: 14 July 1976, Bastille Day (just past the 200th anniversary of this country’s birth) AA-1B, 7110L, 1.8 hours.
30 April 1978 isn’t a fond memory, Cessna 172 13119. That was the day I insisted on flying the wind sock at Monroeville Airport (4GO), floating and floating, unable to land because I didn’t realize there was a tailwind. The windsock was located downhill of the runway (5-23) and there was a little venturi-like effect favoring Runway 5, but, in fact, at the top of the hill, the wind was down, and slightly across, 23. Should-a, would-a, could-a … landed on 23. Saw someone land on 23, changed my pattern, successfully landed on 23, but the windsock still favored 5. Duh. Went back for another attempt, came in long, floated, forced it onto the runway and watched it and me head for the trees. Skidded to a stop, dust flying all around, never hit a tree or a hangar. Shudder. The worst was listening to the former KC-135 Air Force driver screaming at me on the phone the next day. Almost put me off flying forever. Sigh.
There was another near-disaster barely avoided on 3 August 1979, a 1956 C-172, 6051A. I had flown from 5G8, Pittsburgh Bouquet Airport (now Greensburg Jeannette Regional … really?) enroute to visit my ex-ex-wife (although not a double ex at the time) who’d had surgery back near her home in Philly. A work colleague, Dan Boone, needed a lift to his family’s home in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, and I dropped him there. I continued the flight, south towards Philly and the aforementioned 3-M. Just north of Doylestown I ran into clouds, rain and low viz generated by thunderstorms that were brewing that late August afternoon. I turned around, landed at ABE (Allentown/Bethlehem/Easton … now Lehigh Valley International – ??? go figger), called flight service for an update, hoping for a break as the storms had been forecast to dissipate after dark. The forecast still called for the storms to abate, although radar was showing cells on my route of flight. Smart lad that I was, I decided to see for myself.
You never expect to bust into the edge of a thunder boomer, but the reduced viz, and the rain on the windscreen should-a told me to turn around. Not until it got very dark inside that cloud, did I realize that I needed to make that 180, NOW – perhaps it was the moderate to severe turbulence that was my clue. Bouncy 180 was initiated, then wing dropping, updraft, downdraft, heavy rain occurred in very short order until, voila, I emerged from that dark and nasty cloud with my knees knocking and my bowels complaining. The logbook shows that it took .3 hours to leave ABE, punch into the edge of that storm, and return to a “lousy landing”. Got it tied down, got a cab to a local hotel, had a few, calming cocktails to ease the jitters. Next morning, had a .6 CAVU flight to see the wife. It could-a turned out so much worse. Holy Haysoos.
There were any number of as-interesting flights over the next 37 years. Maybe I’ll compile them all in another section on this site. Interested? Oh, wait, you can’t comment on the blog – heh, heh. Drop me an email listed in the “Contact Us” menu on the home page. 41 years and 10,000 hours of G/A thrills. Who’d-a thunk it? Let me know if you’d like to read more.
What did I do for hour 10,000, you ask? Took Laurel up for a small tour of our SAN airspace, bouncing down at CRQ, RNM, SEE and, just overtop of MYF the meter clicked forward: 10,000 hours. Who better to share that special time but the best person I know.