A Voice From the Past

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"May 2nd, 1972. Checkout in PA-28-180 Gene Van Meter 1919837 CFII 2-74." So reads an entry on page 10 of my first logbook, one of those small, little ones, about the size of a business envelope. I had about 100 hours under my belt back then, accumulated over the five years since I started flying. The flight in question was a local one; we had departed and returned to LOU, or Bowman field, in Louisville, Kentucky. It was my first flight with the approachable, kind, blond-headed instructor who seemed to be about the same age I was: 26 years old.

I had not done much flying since I got my private ticket in August 1967. I was in medical school -- so no time. The school was in New York City -- so no easy access to Teterboro Airport, which was two subway rides, a bus ride and about a mile walk to the FBO. And, oh yes, no money.

But by 1971 I had finished an internship in surgery and been immediately drafted into the Army as a captain in the medical corps. My assignment was Fort Knox, Kentucky, home of Armor. I had done little flying during my first year at the base. Mostly, I had kept my head down as many docs were still being sent to Viet Nam and I was hoping to avoid reassignment. By May of '72 the Army issued a statement that draftees with less than a year to go on their commitment would not be sent to Southeast Asia. So it was in May that I felt comfortable enough to inquire about instrument flight training.

Gene and I obviously hit it off as evidenced by the fact that the next entry is just a week later. For .8 hours we did "instrument orientation, 30-degree bank, climbing, descending turns, timed turns, rate climbs and descents." Or so says Gene's entry into my logbook -- that's a lot of maneuvers for 48 minutes. Maybe the flight lasted longer and he had given me a break on the Hobbs meter readings to reduce the rental costs. Gene was like that. After this flight I decided to get the instrument ticket; flying was going to be a big part of my life.

I used to be embarrassed to have kept this diminutive logbook for so many years, but by now I have seen these early records of many pilots, some of whom now have 30,000-plus hours in the air. Yet they all have these early palimpsests, redolent of early flights. Each entry is carefully recorded, each minute of actual instrument flying is distinctly logged (maybe even exaggerated a little), every fraction of an hour is tallied and preserved forever. Corrections were made with visible care; these numbers were going to add up, you could count on it.

The very next day we were back at it. "Changes airspeed, timed turns, instrument take off (!), steep turns." By July we were doing ADF holds, teardrop and parallel entries into holding patterns. On the 15th of that month I did my first ILS and VOR approaches. By August 7th we were doing localizer back course approaches in actual conditions. The airplanes were Pipers; the 180, the Arrow and, occasionally, when I was feeling really flush, a Comanche.

The man to my right on all these flights was unfailingly polite, encouraging and helpful. It is also true that he was not about to put up with any imprecision. I have wondered often over the ensuing 37 years if this one gift wasn't one of the most important ever given to me. I still scold myself when I look up a flight of ours on flightaware.com and see that our altitude is recorded as 25,100 feet. I should have been more precise with the altimeter. Gene's easy manner and Southern hospitality made his insistence on being exact easy to take. I remember to this day the time he explained turning errors in the magnetic compass. "It goes faster when you turn to the south because everybody wants to hurry down south and they are reluctant to head back north." Spoken like a true Kentuckian.

On August 31, 1972, Gene took me on a charter flight as copilot. We flew a Comanche. The flights stunned me. We left in the morning, flew to Wilkesboro, North Carolina, where we did an actual ADF approach. From there we went to Raleigh-Durham, then took our passenger on to Atlanta, where he connected to a Delta jet. After we landed we taxied right up to the jetway attached to that Boeing 727. Our fare jumped out, ran up the stairs and disappeared into that monster as we restarted the engine. Gene let me call for the IFR clearance back to Louisville. Gene was like that.

At home in bed that night I couldn't get to sleep. I had been in an airplane that had been working, making money. I had flown with a man I knew, a friend even, as we went from one state to the next and then got home for dinner. It was magic.

The magic was just about to get much better. In September 1972 I noticed an ad in the newspaper for a public auction of some airplanes. A local farm had started a mini FBO and it hadn't worked out. For sealed-bid auction were three Beech Musketeers. Each with a tail number ending with "Tango Delta," for Tin Door Farms. I wasn't sure what I had done when I got a call from a lawyer telling me I had to come up with the money in five days. I had just bought an airplane I had never flown, didn't know how to operate and that was in uncertain condition.

In a panic, I called Gene. He got the maintenance people at Louisville Flying Service to charge the battery and check the cylinder compression. The next day I delivered the money and the day after that I asked Gene to come with me. I was about to take off in my own airplane. We did that together; I remember it still.

On September 19th we flew to Indianapolis (ILS 4) and back (VOR 14) in that Musketeer. On the 30th it was Akron (GCA 32) and back (VOR 14, again). In October I took the airplane to Ithaca, New York, completely ignorant of the weather in upstate New York in the fall. On the trip back I abandoned the airplane in Columbus, Ohio, and rented a car. I had cheated, flown in clouds without my instrument ticket. I was glad to get on the ground. All the while Gene held my hand, balancing real life with the ideal of the perfect life.

On December 11th we spent two hours doing flight plans, five instrument approaches and a missed approach. On the 17th I passed the check ride. I had 185 hours total, 42 instrument. I flew with Gene one more time, six months later as I was getting out of the Army. We spent 1.2 hours doing approaches and catching up. I think we had dinner with our wives that night. I remember her name was Becky and she was very pretty.

I was to enjoy that beautiful little Musketeer with its fuchsia stripes as if it were a Gulfstream for the next three and a half years. I did some foolish things in it but I survived. I moved to St. Louis, got lost in surgical training, and heard from Gene only once, when he called from Lambert Field in St. Louis. He had been hired by a company and was in the right seat of a King Air.

Then last October I got an e-mail sent from the editorial offices of Flying magazine. It was from Gene Van Meter. He was pretty sure that the guy who wrote Gear Up was an old student of his. I e-mailed him. He responded. We exchanged cell phone numbers. But it was a busy fall and we missed talking to each other directly. Then one day Gene called. He'd be overnight in Tampa where I live.

Thirty-five years after I last saw him, I'm driving to a nice hotel in Tampa wondering if I'll recognize the guy who had been such a huge part of my life and the facilitator of so much of my flying fun. I call him on the phone, explaining that I don't have as much hair as I used to. He tells me he knows this from the picture in this magazine and that he's had the same development. As I pull up, there are a gaggle of people out front of the hotel. But there is no question about which one is Gene Van Meter.

What a night. After drinks in my backyard, my wife, Cathy, sends us on our way to dinner. She knows that we don't want to have to be polite to her; we've got lots to talk about. We sit down to dinner and I take a deep breath. "Let's start with a quick description of the last 35," I say. And we do.

** Dick Karl and Gene Van Meter**

Gene has worked for Humana since that day he called from St. Louis. From the King Air he's worked his way onto the Falcon 50s and the Hawker 800XPs. He's a senior line captain now. The most interesting flying was into Eastern Europe in the Falcon. Romania, especially. He loves the company. He loves the flying. His grandson is a flight instructor, who insisted Gene go to Oshkosh last year. At the Flying magazine tent he saw my name. He sent that e-mail. He called. We're having dessert, but I don't want the night to end. "Any emergencies?" I ask. "Not really," he says. "Do you remember that trip to RDU and ATL?" He thinks for a second. "Oh, yes. That must have been Mr. Warns." We agree to meet at TPA the next morning. I want to see the Falcon. I'll bring my logbook, I tell him.

It is a beautiful December day in Tampa. I can't hide my excitement. There he is, all dressed up like a big time corporate captain. We get in the Falcon and take some pictures. The cockpit is tight. The sun is bright. We climb down out of the beautiful jet and check out my Cheyenne. Gene is very complimentary. We go in Signature Flight Support and get a cup of Starbucks. I open my logbook and we look at Gene's signatures and reminisce. Listed on 12/1/1972 is this entry: "Charter flight, Mr. Warns. ATL-LOU 2.0 hours." Gene closes the logbook. We say nothing. He's leaving for Louisville in a few minutes.

Then I say, "Today you are probably going to start your descent into Louisville when you're over Atlanta." He smiles. "Well, yeah, I guess you're right. Just north of there."

I can't take it any longer. I get up, we shake hands; we agree to meet again soon. I don't think it will be anywhere near 35 years from now. At the latest, it will be in Oshkosh.