Gear Up: Forty-Six Years and Still Learning
"Whoa! Stop. You would not do that to your lawn mower.” I hear this over the din of the engine and next feel a firm left hand atop my sweating right hand. The left hand slowly pulls my tightly clenched right hand and the throttle on the Cessna 150 toward the idle position. As opposed to the inelegance with which I’d rammed the throttle open, this diminution was all grace and smoothness.
It was the summer of love in San Francisco, where I was living for the season, but I wasn’t inhaling reefer at the Fillmore; after work I was driving over the Bay Bridge to Oakland, where I was learning to fly. It was 1967. It was Runway 9, where, in the late afternoon, the sun bore directly into the eyes of this young pilot wannabe. It was the Fourth of July weekend. Two weeks and nine hours of instruction later, I soloed.
That firm hand was telling me to be gentle with power inputs. It was attached to Jim Quistorff, my first instructor. He told me to be gentle about many things, from heading changes to taxiing. Think back to your first instructor. I’ll bet you remember him or her well and may have even named a child or two after one of those unique teachers who ushered you onto the stage. I certainly remember.
Jim was just what I needed. He was thoughtful, patient and persistent. On Aug. 23 I was awarded a private pilot certificate by Virgil Simmons. He was ancient. He signed his name and “FAA-WE-07-5.” On that day I received a certificate number, 1782747, which I have had ever since. I enjoyed that private license for 43 years until I got the bug to fly for hire, when I pursued a commercial and then an ATP rating.
The next summer I was back in San Francisco, and I ran immediately out to Oakland and got checked out by Jim. More than that, he took me with him in a Cessna 206, a massive machine or so it seemed, to Mendocino, Sea Ranch and later all the way to Seattle (Kitsap), where he had family, with stops in Portland on the way up and Eugene on the way down. I will never forget his largess. These were defining flights for me, for they took a kindled passion and set it on fire. There would be no regression, no turning back.
The next big step came at the knee of Gene VanMeter, who guided me to an instrument ticket. Gene was Kentucky all the way through. His quiet patience was a respite for me while I was serving as a general medical officer at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Just up the road in Louisville was Bowman Field. It was 1971. Gene was the quiet pro — he made everything seem easy. When explaining the turning error that characterizes a wet compass, he simply said, “When turning south the compass turns more quickly, because everybody wants to go south. When turning toward the north the compass lags, because who wants to go back north?”
Gene took me on some revenue flights, where I got to watch a real pilot shoot a real ADF approach. Unbelievably, the airport always appeared out of the mists on schedule.
Instrument flying is the detent over which a pilot must pass if real flying is in the cards. Up until then, too many planned weekends were derailed by a cloud deck no more than 1,000 feet from bottom to top. If I was going to fly, I would need this ticket. Besides, I loved it. I loved the instruments and I loved the language. When invited for dinner at Gene’s house, I placed his written directions just forward of the gearshift lever on my car, as if it were an approach plate. And you think I wasn’t hooked?
It was with Gene, on Sept. 15, 1972, that I pushed the throttle forward, gently, on 24 Tango Delta, the Beechcraft Musketeer I had just bought in an auction. I had no idea whether it would fly, and neither did Gene, but his reassuring presence gave us both the chance to find out. That was one dedicated (and generous) instructor. In retrospect, he was as hooked as I was; he was just a lot further along in the learning and had declared formally that aviation would be his vocation, not just his avocation.