A Nostalgic Pilot Looks Back at Aviation Memories

Skimming through a first logbook brings back plenty of memories. Getty Images

As a requirement for our upcoming flying safari trip in New Zealand, I had to produce evidence of a “type rating” in a Cessna 172. The type rating was part of the qualifications necessary to obtain the equivalent of a Private Pilot license. Although I have flown a C-172 periodically throughout my flying lifetime, I couldn’t find a specific entry until I literally blew the dust off some old logbooks. Even with the research being a bit tedious, I began to embrace the process.

I skimmed the entries of my first logbook, the pages yellowed, the spine starting to separate from the cover. The aviation bug attacked when I was 6 years old, after flying aboard a Lockheed Electra accompanied by a cockpit tour. I received a certificate that entitled me to a pilot interview with my current employer 20 years from the date. But it wasn’t until the age of 15 that I was truly bitten. The first logbook entry was my first lesson, flown in a Cessna 150 at my local airport near Syracuse, New York. I literally broke a piggy bank to make it happen.

After sweeping hangar floors and then earning the minimum wage of $1.85 per hour as a line boy, I finally squirreled away enough money to get me as far as my first solo five months later. My Private Pilot check ride came a little more than a year from solo. I still remember the designated pilot examiner rushing me through the practical test in Seneca Falls, New York. After the check ride, he scrambled out of the airplane within seconds of parking. Surely, I had failed. My career was over before it began.

As I was starting to unbuckle in shame, the DPE ran back to the airplane in a flurry. In his hand was a signed temporary certificate. He pointed at an ominous-looking charcoal sky forming to the west. He shook my hand and said, “Congratulations! Get home before the storm hits!” My grin was wider than my face when I pushed the throttle forward to launch the Cessna 150 homeward.

I leafed through more pages, seeing the entry for my first flight at Purdue University. Only two weeks before, I had been packed to begin my freshman year at another institution. The other institution had accepted me directly into its flight program, but Purdue had not. Out-of-state applicants were held to a higher grade standard because of the limited training slots available. A solid B-plus average didn’t cut the mustard, but something told me I’d get a better education, so I accepted the offer to enter the management school on the premise I might have an opportunity in my second semester.

I rode my bike out to the airport from the main campus once a week (uphill in a snowstorm both ways, of course), just to show my face to the department head. Persistence and initiative produced success, probably at least in part because I had become an annoyance.

Other entries showed my commercial, instrument and CFI check rides. As my nostalgic review continued, now with a professional Master logbook, the faces of my students started to materialize from the pages. New private pilots. Airplane checkouts. Introductory rides. Biennial flight reviews. Why did anyone trust a 20-year-old kid with barely 300 hours to teach them how to fly?

I grinned at one of the names entered in my logbook. This particular student was a wealthy farmer who arrived at the FBO in Syracuse, always with lace-up work boots, sometimes wearing cut-off jean shorts or maybe overalls. He was eager to learn despite the fact radio phraseology was his biggest stumbling block, often resorting to his familiar CB slang. The charter pilots and administrative staff would snicker. It was a gratifying moment the day I dared to solo him. We listened to him bumble his way through ATC communications, eventually managing to request the obligatory three takeoffs and landings. I got as many handshakes that day as my farmer student.

I looked at the names of the Air Force ROTC students who had been under my tutelage at a flight school next-door to Purdue’s hangar. Their curriculum was so structured that solo flight had to occur during a specific lesson plan. Let’s just say the mission of safely training these candidates was accomplished in the allotted time, but not necessarily with strict adherence to the lesson plans.

Having reached the point in my career where the primary focus was a driven motivation to add more airline-appropriate digits to the total time column, the entries of flying a Super Cub during that period brought back fond memories. Taking the opportunity to fly a taildragger was a stop-and-smell-the-roses moment.

A good friend, who was also the chief of maintenance at the Syracuse FBO, had taxied over to the flight school with a shiny new Super Cub. He insisted that I hop into the front seat despite my scoffing at the notion of flying an airplane with no airline-qualification benefit. The experience changed my aviation life. I owe my friend a debt of gratitude for teaching me the real definition of flying — well, except for glider-flying later.

A little more page flipping led to a rediscovery of other experiences. My sporadic charter career as a wet-behind-the-ears copilot put me in an Aztec or a Navajo, airplanes that might as well have been 727s or 767s at the time. The hourly rate of pay for those airplanes was not normally measured in dollars, but rather experience.

Chuckling, I noticed about 50 hours logged for a month of flying in a Cherokee 140. My hero, and local celebrity, Captain Gordon was on vacation from his job as an AM radio station traffic reporter/pilot. I took over the job for the month, sharing the cockpit with one of the radio station’s DJs.

After circling the same traffic hot spots a thousand times, I was no longer envious of Captain Gordon. The icing on the cake for my short traffic-reporting career was when the VHF radios failed. The DJ used his brick-size portable radio from the airplane to call the AM station so that they could relay the problem to the Syracuse controllers. For the first and only time in my career, I had to follow light signals from the tower. Thankfully, the signals were green.

An entry with “BE-99” under the aircraft-type column defined a watershed moment in my career. I had just been hired as a copilot for an Allegheny Commuter, my first bona fide airline job. Before having the good fortune to be hired, I had literally mapped out a knock-on-the-door strategy across the Northeast almost immediately after graduating from college. To my chagrin, the Allegheny Commuter was my first stop, so it became unnecessary for me to complete the road trip.

With a melancholy grin, I continued my nostalgic logbook review for a while longer.

For those of you who have more than a few entries of memories, I recommend you forget about the day you had set aside for sock-drawer organizing and instead take some time to reminisce. It will be well worth your while.

Les Abend
Les AbendAuthor
Les Abend is a retired, 34-year veteran of American Airlines, attempting to readjust his passion for flying airplanes in the lower flight levels—without the assistance of a copilot.

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