The sun and haze cast a warm orange backdrop to the massive silver machine, the outline of which dominated the view out the taxicab window. Though huge, it looked somehow stubby. The sun was going down, but we were just heading out. It was my second airplane flight. I was 8 years old.
First flights can come in several varieties. Was it the first time you saw an airplane in the air? Was it the first time you went up into the air in an airplane? Or was it the first time you pulled back on the yoke and felt the wheels gently rise off the runway? Let’s call them all first moments of wonder.
My first flight had been a few months earlier, and I remember almost nothing about it. My father had been in the US Navy, stationed on a hospital ship in the Sea of Japan during the Korean War. It was 1953. When Dad’s ship tour was over, he was sent to Long Beach, California, for a few months. My mother, my brother, Steve, and I joined him there, living in a Quonset hut. It was a mysterious and romantic place for two boys who had spent most of their lives in a five-story brick building in Manhattan, New York. I suppose the building was what one would call a tenement, but the word then didn’t have the negative connotation it has today. It had a courtyard—all concrete—that was maybe 10-by-15 feet on a good day. While playing there, we could look up through the lens of the surrounding buildings and spot airliners on the River Approach to LaGuardia Airport. My first thought of flight—a love of flying was born.
The first flight, out to the west coast, began at LaGuardia, I think. The type of airplane is lost to me. I only remember with surviving irritation that my brother got the window seat. It was a long flight with a stop somewhere. Some airsickness was involved. Most of the memory of the trip was eclipsed by the excitement of seeing my father.
The return flight a few months later was a different matter. I was going to fly across the country with my family. It was late afternoon, and the airplane was an American Airlines Douglas DC-4—of that I am almost certain, though no photos remain. This trip I have locked up tight in my mind. Somehow, my brother got the window seat again. I was promised a seat swap after our fuel stop.
I remember how huge the airplane looked, how nice everybody was and how excited I was to be aboard. I don’t remember if the airport was LAX or LGB or BUR. I think it might have been Burbank. Is that possible? Nobody in my family who might have known is still alive. I see the color of the sky, the huge shiny metal ship and the “AA” logo with the flying eagle. All of this might not be anything more than my mind’s re-creation cobbled together from postcards, movies, pictures and some 45 years of subscription to Flying magazine.
Once aloft, the sun set out of the portside window—we must have headed northeast to start with—and I dodged and weaved around Steve’s blond head for a view. When darkness descended, I swear I remember fire coming from the engine exhausts. Then a droning sound, falling into excited semi-sleep and fidgeting, and more droning until we began to let down. We were in Chicago at 4 a.m. on a hot, humid, end-of-summer night. Dad took me for a stroll while my mother and brother stayed asleep. I remember a huge hangar and a long walk for a candy bar. I would base a Cessna 210 in that exact hangar at Midway Airport 25 years later. I am sure of it.
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Once awarded the window seat, I watched as the sun came up, face plastered to the window. I remember a steep turn somewhere near LaGuardia, the landing in the bright sunlight and the reunion with my grandparents, who had come to pick us up. I still might not have recovered from this experience.
For the next 14 years, I was an inhabitant of New York, never venturing far, but my own first experience at the controls came in that magical state of California. In summer 1967, after the first year of medical school, I got an internship in the cardiovascular research laboratory at the University of California at San Francisco. I arrived with a $1,000 stipend to cover expenses and a check for $800 from my father for flying lessons.
First order of business: buy a 1956 Chevy. Second order of business: enroll in flight school at the Oakland airport. I had nine weeks in which to get a private certificate. You may have heard of summer 1967 in San Francisco as the “Summer of Love.” I missed the whole show—I was at the airport. (I did go to the Fillmore Auditorium one night and see Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company, Grace Slick with Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, and Muddy Waters. All in one night for $2.)
It is often said in these pages that your first flight instructor will chart your course. Too much study and overbearing correction can chase a potentially good, enthusiastic pilot away forever. A good instructor will make you safe without killing the fun. I got lucky when I got Jim Quistorff.
Based on yellow logbook pages, I met Jim on July 1, 1967. With 9.2 hours of dual in a Cessna 150 (not a 152) under my belt, I was let loose for my first supervised solo 17 days later. I remember Jim getting out and closing the right-hand door. I was startled as the airplane leaped into the air with only one person on board. I took off from Runway 27R and came back around and landed, legs jiggling on the rudder pedals from excitement. The next day, on my second supervised solo, I started the takeoff roll only to feel the airplane moving sideways toward the left edge of the runway—a first encounter with a crosswind. It was probably all of 5 knots.
Solos were followed by cross-country trips with Jim and then by myself. I was flying almost every day back then, sometimes twice a day in two different 150s. With 37.6 total time, I was readied for a private check ride with the logbook endorsement that read: “recommended for PPX check ride.” It was just a few days before I was to return to New York in a Boeing 707.
On August 23, I passed my private check ride. The examiner must have been flying for a long time because his logbook endorsement read: “PPX-OK-V Simmons FAA WE-07-5”—the code for the check ride, his signature and a very low FAA designation number.
This story appeared in the June/July 2020 issue of Flying Magazine