Monday, May 11, 2015


Fifty years ago today I took an aircraft off the ground by myself, and I returned it to its owner—intact.

I was a 16 year-old high-school sophomore.

May 11, 1965 was a Tuesday.  All through classes I had felt that I would solo that afternoon.  What I did not realize was that I was well past the typical eight hours to solo.  In retrospect, I realized that my father was hedging to the max.  My mother had lost two friends in airplanes—never mind that one was in a B-25 in WW II—and she was, to understate things immensely, concerned.

But she also knew how much I wanted to fly.

At the time I had a learner’s permit to drive but was far more interested in flying.  Dad always took me to Martin Field at College Place near Walla Walla, where he’d chosen Herman Martin’s Piper dealership to instruct me.  It was a 20-minute drive from my home town at Athena, just across the border.  I’d begun flying that February and got my student’s license in March.

Martin Field was 1940s ambience with two hangars and knotted wood paneling in the lounge.  Elevation was 746 feet msl, which meant we flew the pattern at 1,550.  Or so.  The single paved runway was 5/23, set amid neatly-mowed grass most of the year.

My main instructor was Al Bixby, a 50-year-old crew-cut professional who, like most IPs, was equal parts mentor and taskmaster. 

We nearly always flew N6053W, a standard 140-hp Cherokee delivered the year before.  I was always short and slight—in fact, I started flying by sitting on a red cushion for a full view over the instrument panel.  Normally I flew twice a week but I’d missed one day previously, having logged 1.00 in takeoffs and landings on the 6th.

On Der Tag Al had me start up and take off, as usual to the south-southwest.  After a semi-grease job, I was about to shove in the throttle for another go when Al said, “Let it roll out.” 

I knew what was coming. 

As I braked at the fuel island, Al said, “Take it around three times and stop back here.”  I don’t think he said anything as dramatic as “Good luck,” though he may have advised me to abort a landing that didn’t feel right.  (I’m not even sure if the radio was turned on.)  I glimpsed Dad leaning on the cyclone fence; he seemed cool.

Takeoff was procedurally routine but the emotion was not.  I was beyond elated—exultant, actually.  I pounded the dash with my right hand: “You and me, baby!”

It was wonderful. 

Honestly, I don’t recall much after that, not after 50 years.  But I do remember the routine in the pattern: turn crosswind southbound, left 90 for downwind, and turn base leg over the school east of the field, pulling on the flap handle—three clicks, all the way down for 40 degrees—then reaching up to give the trim a turn, relieving pressure on the yoke.

Two good landings and an excellent one, and I was done.  I’d realized my lifetime dream and wondered if I would ever be that happy again.

On the way home, Dad said, “I think it’s time you got your driver’s license.”

Al Bixby died19 years later, and I regret that I didn’t get to say goodbye.

N6053W still exists.  Checking the FAA register, I see it’s registered to a gent in Kerrville, Texas.  I hope he gives 53 Whiskey an extra quart of oil for the high school kid who lovingly caressed her.

Whatever else happened in America and the world, that May was memorable all-round.  My younger brother and I received our Eagle Scout badges (he was precocious in all things, graduating from Stanford en route to a Rhodes scholarship.)  We were active kids in school, church, and community.  We won district, state, and regional titles for debate and oratory, and in ‘66 John won Oregon’s humorous interpretation title with a raucous rendition of Julius Caesar.  Certainly The Bard never expected anybody would render his classic as a hard-boiled gumshoe who-done-it.

I had won my first state percussion championship the year before, playing tenor for the Falcons Jr. Drum and Bugle Corps, would take a third in ’65, and scored another win in ’66 on rudimental bass.  Meanwhile, I broke into print in 1965 with a column in a drum corps magazine, learning the joys and perils of publishing.  (IIRC the publisher used his press for, um, innovative purposes that drew dolorous inquiries from The Authorities.)

I was probably aware of national and world events more than most of my contemporaries.  Being head over heels about aviation, I followed Vietnam avidly.  Operation Rolling Thunder began that April with initial attacks on the notorious Thanh Hoa Bridge, about which I may have to say downstream.  The 173rd Airborne Brigade arrived in-country, as did Australia’s first contingent.  But things didn’t go especially well: the vile-putrid Lyndon Johnson called off the bombing later than month in the first of many carrot-and-stick efforts to get the hard-eyed pragmatists in Hanoi to play Texas back-scratchin’ politicks.  Y’all.  To this day, my Lone Star friends change the subject when LBJ comes up.

An early example of the grief that was Vietnam occurred at Bien Hoa Airbase on the 16th.  Twenty-seven Americans, four Vietnamese, and at least two dozen airplanes were destroyed in an “own ordnance” explosion on the flight line.

Cyclones killed tens of thousands in India; at least 15,000 Bangladeshis died in a horrible wind storm; China exploded its second A-bomb; a Pakistani airliner crash took 121 lives in Egypt; India and Pakistan resumed feuding over their border; and in a month filled with sports news, Scottish Grand Prix champ Jim Clark became the first foreigner to take the checkered flag at Indianapolis since 1916.

We all remember 1965 for our own reasons.  And like the rest of us, I’ll forever remember it as bittersweet vintage.

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