Famous Pilots Reminisce: Love at First Flight

Pilots reveal which aircraft first stole their hearts.

First Airplane Loves

First Airplane Loves

They say you never forget your first love, and for those of us who fly, there's usually that one special airplane that first grabbed hold of us and seared itself into our memory like no other. With the countless different types of airplanes that have emerged since the dawn of flight, those first favorites can take a variety of shapes and sizes depending upon whom you're talking to. Sometimes it's the first airplane we ever flew; other times it's an airplane that gave us performance we'd never dreamed of; and for others it's an airplane whose controls felt like an extension of our own bodies. Whatever the reason, those makes and models sparked a fire in us and gave us our first real taste of how truly amazing it is to fly.

We asked some of the world's most famous pilots to reveal their "first loves" in aviation, and they readily dished their stories. While each of the following five tales is unique and every airplane different, they all laid the foundation early on for a lifelong love affair with aviation.

Bob Hoover has flown many amazing aircraft throughout his career, including the P-51 Mustang, the F-86 and the F-100, just to name a few. But as a teenage aviator the first airplane to truly excite him was the Stearman, thanks to its extra horsepower and aerobatic capability. (Photo by Ray Pittman)|

R.A. "Bob" Hoover: Boeing Stearman

Aviation legend R.A. "Bob" Hoover has flown an awe-inspiring array of airplanes throughout his 92 years, beginning with the Taylor Cub he first learned to fly at age 16. But while the Cub initially gave him his wings, Hoover says it was the improved performance of the Boeing Stearman he flew soon after that really let him explore the fun of flight.

"For the first time I had enough horsepower to do aerobatic maneuvers," he says. "It was pretty exciting. I suddenly could do things I could never do in an airplane before."

The future test pilot didn't miss the opportunity to take full advantage of it, performing everything from eight-point rolls, loops, falling leaf sideslips and landings that went back and forth on one wheel. Throughout his self-taught study of aerobatics, Hoover found the Stearman a willing companion.

"It was a docile airplane, easy to fly," he says.

When Hoover joined the service at age 18, he again went up in a Stearman, only this time accompanied by an Army flight instructor.

"My instructor said, 'Would you like to see a roll?'" Hoover recalls. "And he did a roll, and it was terrible."

When asked if he'd like to give it a shot, the young Hoover relied on his prior practice and executed the maneuver seamlessly.

"Where the hell did you learn to do that?" his instructor asked.

The young Army pilot soon left the Stearman behind to move on to more complex airplanes, flying everything imaginable, from fighters to bombers to transports, as the United States entered World War II. When the war came to a close and Hoover returned to the States after being shot down in a Spitfire and held prisoner for 16 months, he decided to buy an airplane. Although he could get his hands on a Mustang for just $600, he chose to purchase a Stearman for $1,400 instead, since he knew he couldn't afford the hefty fuel demands of a P-51. While he eventually had to give up the plane due to financial constraints, he enjoyed the airplane for a few years, and to this day his memory of the Stearman as his first love hasn't waned.

"I've flown some of the most difficult airplanes in the world. That was one of the simple ones. Anybody could fly a Stearman."

Mike Goulian hasn't had the opportunity to fly the Learjet in a few years, but he still has a sweet spot for the smooth-flying business jet that he logged several hundred hours in as a young charter pilot. (Photo by Mitchell Haughee)|

Mike Goulian: Learjet 35

These days you'll find aerobatic star Mike Goulian flying sophisticated piston singles at the world's biggest airshows, but in the early days of his career it was a business jet that stole his heart. As a burgeoning airshow pilot in his late 20s, Goulian says he couldn't afford aerobatic flying without supplemental income, so he worked as a corporate pilot to provide the funds needed to make payments on his Extra 300.

"Whenever I wasn't in my aerobatic airplane, I was in my corporate airplane," he says.

Goulian flew King Airs and Citations before getting the opportunity to move up to the Learjet. When he did, he jumped at the chance, and instantly fell for the jet.

"It's a business jet that feels like an Extra," he says. "Every little control movement that you make you can feel. You guide it more than anything else."

Goulian's employer didn't waste any time making sure he got his feet wet in the jet. On his first trip in the Lear, Goulian was set to fly from Tucson, Arizona, to Boston, Massachusetts, a journey that would stretch the jet's legs to the max. The airplane was up to the challenge, though, and Goulian landed in Boston on a 4,500-foot strip, close to midnight, with the "absolute minimum" amount of fuel left in the tanks.

"It worked out successfully and was all fine from there. It was a pretty fun experience," Goulian says laughing.

After that first trip Goulian amassed some 750 hours in the airplane, and while he has since become one of the most revered airshow pilots in the world and no longer has to moonlight as a corporate pilot to fund his aerobatic flying, he still holds a sweet spot for the Lear.

"It's one of those airplanes you get in and you just absolutely love," he says. "You could tell it was built by pilots for pilots."

Hal Shevers, the man who created Sporty's Pilot Shop, didn't waste any time putting miles on the first airplane he ever owned, shown above. For the 25-year-old Midwestern bachelor, the 170 provided both fun flying and a gateway to international adventures.|

Hal Shevers: Cessna 170

Sporty's Pilot Shop founder Hal Shevers was just 25 years old with only 120 hours under his belt when he and a friend laid down $5,200 for a pristine Cessna 170. The airplane, N1980C, had 3 G's painted on the side, as it was previously owned by a gambler and had changed hands in a poker game at one point in time.

"We paid more for it than anyone had ever paid for a 170 before, but it was a beautiful piece of equipment," Shevers says.

Having learned to fly in a J-3 Cub just a few years earlier, Shevers says the 170 was a step up.

"It had these things called ‘flaps,'" Shevers jokes. "This plane was so advanced it not only had a super homer, but it also had an ADF."

With a new airplane on their hands, the two bachelors decided to break in the 170 with a long-distance trip, the first real cross-country journey either of them had flown outside the confines of the Midwest. The destination? Acapulco on the Pacific coast of Mexico.

"To take the airplane 1,800 miles was really exciting, with all those stops and all the different people we met. In fact, it was one of my first trips outside the country."

Shevers and his friend lived it up on the journey, making stops in Tampico, Matamoros, Mexico City and a slew of other cities along the way. Flying into a foreign country in the 170 for the first time brought its own unique challenges, including dealing with an airplane handler for the first time. In Mexico City, the men were approached by a handler who promised to clean the airplane and refuel it. They reluctantly agreed, but watched with increasing wariness as N1980C was towed away to an undisclosed location. Sure enough, however, they returned to the airport two days later to find the airplane present and accounted for.

"It was there, totally polished. It looked like new," Shevers says.

The trip ended up requiring a total of 36 hours in the air, giving the two men the perfect opportunity to become familiar with the airplane and test its limits. Both of the young pilots were at times pleasantly surprised by the 170's performance.

"We had a tailwind, and we came back nonstop from Memphis to Cincinnati. We were cruising along at 120 knots. We didn't know the plane could go that fast," Hal reminisces.

During the few years they owned the 170 Shevers put more than 400 hours on the airplane and also completed his instrument and commercial ratings in the taildragger. He eventually sold the airplane to move up to a Comanche, but to this day carries fond memories of his first owned airplane.

As a 16-year-old student pilot, Burt Rutan already knew he wanted to design airplanes for a living. The Aeronca Champ further whetted that appetite by giving the 16-year-old his first 15 to 20 hours as pilot in command, much of it spent without an instructor. Rutan went on to finish his private pilot training in a Cherokee 140 after college. (Photo by Rod Reilly)|

Burt Rutan: Aeronca Champ

As a young child growing up in central California, Burt Rutan spent his time scavenging for pieces of downed model airplanes and gluing them back together into airworthy creations. When he was somewhere between the ages of 7 and 9, he was flying his latest assembly of parts in the backyard of his family home when the striking sound of a dozen radial engines arrested his attention. When he looked up, he saw two B-36s flying overhead.

"It was mesmerizing," Rutan said. "Right then I remember deciding that I wanted to be an airplane designer."

While the B-36 first sparked his imagination as a child, it was a local rental Aeronca Champ that further deepened his interest in aviation a few years later when, at age 16, he started taking flight lessons in the airplane.

"It was a very basic, very primitive airplane," Rutan says. "As I recall it had only about three instruments on the panel."

Rutan says he chose the Champ as his training platform because, at $4.50 per hour wet, it was the cheapest rental option around. Add in another $2.50 per hour that his flight instructor, a local country music DJ, charged, and Rutan could get an hour's worth of instruction for the grand sum of $7. Due to his limited teenage funds, Rutan says he could often afford to buy only two patterns at a time, making for lessons that sometimes lasted less than half an hour.

"In those days we didn't log tenths of hours; we logged actual minutes," Rutan says.

But the time racked up, and after just five hours and 46 minutes in the Aeronca 7AC he made his first solo jaunt in the airplane. Afterward, he enjoyed the freedom that came with solo flight and spent his time pushing the limits of the Champ in races with a high school buddy.

"I had just gotten my driver's license and would drive a '49 Ford out to Alta Airport with him. He would then drive the Ford out to a deserted airfield while I would run to the airplane, do a very cursory preflight, start the engine, take off and head for the field. We would see who could get there first."

One of Rutan's other favorite pastimes with the Champ was cutting toilet paper, something he admits he once did while flying over a high school football game.

"If you did that today, you'd probably get in trouble," he says.

The fun came to an end when his buddy wound up groundlooping the Champ, grounding the airplane and bringing Rutan's flying days to a halt. He would go on to finish his license in a Cherokee 140 after college, but the Champ remains the plane that gave him his start in aviation, paving the way for one of the most successful careers ever as an aircraft designer.

Dierks Bentley now flies a Cirrus SR22 to meet the travel demands of his career as one of country music's biggest stars, but it's the venerable Cessna 150 that gave him his start in aviation nearly 20 years ago.|

Dierks Bentley: Cessna 150

Renowned country singer Dierks Bentley was 13 when his mom bought him a discover flight at a school auction. Bentley had always been interested in aviation, but the intro flight really gave him the bug.

"It started to feed the sickness," he said.

Years later as a young adult trying to make it on the country scene in Nashville, Bentley pursued his license in a 1971 Cessna 150. He says that in addition to the fact that the airplane had low rental costs, his choice of the 150 was simple.

"It is the trainer. It's such a great plane to learn to fly in. It's real docile and very manageable. You can really feel the stalls coming on."

Bentley paired up with an older instructor who helped him put the airplane through its paces, practicing stalls, spin training and the roster of other maneuvers demanded during training. Bentley and his instructor eventually got to the point where they would have contests to see who could land the airplane in the shortest amount of space. The loser would have to buy a round of beers at the end of the day.

"With the Cessna, you can come in so slow and just really stick a landing. I got pretty good at it," Bentley says. "I could put it on the numbers."

He soloed after 7.7 hours in the trainer and eventually accumulated about 88 hours in a 150 and 152. These days Bentley flies a Cirrus SR22, which serves as a more speedy travel platform for his busy work schedule touring across the country and also provides the perfect family airplane to use with his wife and three kids. But he says he would love to get the chance to fly that beat up and rusted Cessna 150 again.

"It makes me smile thinking about it," Bentley says. "I'm so thankful I started there. I can really appreciate how far I've come."

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