That First Flight

Justin Mallory, left, flew with Graham and Clemens on their first discovery flights. Dick Karl

The building was a hulking blue, metal-sided affair, pockmarked by a nondescript door and a window air conditioner—but no window. It might have been difficult to reconcile the uninspiring appearance with the promise held within if not for a sign that declared: “Airplane rides, you fly the plane. Air-conditioned lounge and gift shop.”

So I pulled up to Ocean Aviation in Ocean City, Maryland, with two grandsons in tow. We were there for introductory flights for Clemens, 15 years old, and Graham Robinson, 12, who live not far away in Delaware. Noelle at the front desk had been very helpful setting up the two flights, assigning us to CFI Justin Mallory. It was hot—91 degrees Fahrenheit.

We tumbled into the Part 141 flight school, appreciative of that air conditioning. Mike Freed, the boss, came out to say hello. Justin was still airborne but would be in shortly. Noelle examined the boys’ passports because they would be in the left seat; such scrutiny is a result of 9/11.

Justin arrived shortly thereafter, looking remarkably fresh given his previous hour in a hot, un-air-conditioned small airplane.

Soon we were walking out to preflight the 1975 Cessna 172. Justin estimated the airplane had more than 4,000 hours under its belt. That looked about right. Justin led the boys through a preflight check, extremely patient, thorough and clear, and I clamored awkwardly into the back seat. It was hard to track how much of this the boys were taking in.

We had secured permission from Mike to fly to Delaware Coastal Airport (KGED), where the boys live, to switch pilots there after landing and shutting down. The distance from Ocean City Municipal (KOXB) to KGED is 25 nautical miles as a 172 flies.

Clemens took the left seat. For all our time flying together, he had never been there. Justin started the Lycoming, saying to Clemens: “The engine is still warm. Look at the oil temperature.” A curt nod signaled that the pilot understood. With a clatter, we taxied out to Runway 14 and did our run-up.

Soon we were over the Atlantic Ocean, turning northbound, looking down at the beach. To my surprise, it was Clemens gripping the yoke. Justin’s hands were in his lap.

I can’t deny the pride I took in watching my oldest grandchild hold heading and altitude with seemingly inborn intuition. I know he and his brother have spent a lot of time on flight-simulator apps, but keeping a 172 level in a turn isn’t easy. I watched our course and groundspeed on ForeFlight: 3,500 feet and 96 knots.

We turned to enter the downwind for Runway 22 at KGED. We descended to 1,000 feet and held steady there. On base, I could see incremental flap extensions. On final, I looked up to see that the 15-year-old was still flying the airplane. His face sported a look of intense concentration seasoned with a hint of joy. Justin took control and chirped us on.

Mom and dad came out to inspect the goings on. Clemens’ smile was evident—even with his COVID-19 mask on, sneaking out of each side of his face covering. No virus can kill the feeling when you first fly an airplane.

Read More from Dick Karl: Gear Up

Pictures were taken and seats were switched. Graham mounted a special cushion to improve visibility and reported that he could reach the rudder pedals—and, more important, the brakes. Patient instruction was repeated for the benefit of the new pilot. Of the two, Graham is the one who is constantly sending me videos of his landings on flight-simulator apps.

We took off from Runway 22, and it seemed like just a few seconds before the 12-year-old had the yoke in a death grip. Our speed crept up, and we leveled off at 3,000 feet. Again, I was happily surprised by innate airmanship—not hereditary because I have minimal innate piloting skills.

Ocean City came back into view. To Clemens and me in the back seat, it looked like we were too high to make the left base for Runway 14. “This will be interesting,” I said to Clemens. “Yes,” he exclaimed. But our pilots had another plan. We flew around the entire airport and entered the left base for 20—a circling approach if I ever saw one. The younger grandson was still in charge, I could see, until Justin kissed us onto the runway. We turned off onto a taxiway where, thank goodness, the opened windows provided us with Cessna air conditioning.

Justin shut us down, and we waited while the young pilot took in the magical sound of the gyros winding down. “I got extra flying,” he hollered. The Hobbs meter read 0.6 hours for the trip to Delaware and 0.8 hours back, though we had a higher groundspeed because of the winds. It seemed that this 0.2 hour discrepancy would be the subject of much sibling discussion in the future. Logbooks were bought, filled out and signed. There was some talk of “actually flying an airplane.” Justin was quizzed on the landing flare.

We walked into the hangar/flight school, chatting with Justin about his career plans and his next goal: CFI-I. I found a Flying magazine and signed it for the people at Ocean Aviation.

There’s plenty of lament these days about lack of interest among the young when it comes to flying airplanes. Their attention can easily be commandeered by electronic devices that simulate flight but don’t offer the sounds, smells and texture of a real airplane. The cost is another barrier. These discovery flights were $199.95 each. Most estimates for a private certificate are in the $12,000 to $14,000 range. As Graham said, “I guess I got to mow a lot more lawns.”

For 51 minutes on the drive home, Graham sat with his logbook open on his lap. It read: “Discovery flight: climbs, turns, descents, pilotage, dead reckoning. Day 0.8. Dual 0.8.” Do you remember that first day?

This story appeared in the December 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

Dick Karl
Dick KarlAuthor
Dick Karl is a cancer surgeon who appreciates the beauty and science involved in both surgery and flying. Dick’s monthly Gear Up celebrates the human side of flying. He writes about his enthusiasm for both the machines and the people who fly and maintain them.

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