In my introductory Editor’s Briefing in June, I mentioned that my flight training was “unconventional.” I attribute that description to several factors, but the most notable of them was this: I had no intention of learning to fly in the first place. Flashing back to 2010: I was an animal science major, halfway through my degree at Oklahoma State University. Raised in and around general aviation aircraft, I undoubtedly enjoyed flying, but the idea of actually piloting was intimidating and not at all a part of my plan.
While home for summer break, my best friend and I decided to apply for jobs at the new local airport restaurant together. I was familiar with the up-and-coming airpark, Stearman Field (featured in our cover story, page 8) as it was where my father stored his Bonanza while we lived in Wichita.
A week later, I was offered the waitress position I applied for. But then another offer came I was in no way expecting – flight lessons.
Airport owner and family friend Dwayne Clemens wanted to teach me to fly. For fun. A proposal unheard of nowadays. But lucky for me, Dwayne is not known for being conventional. I will never forget the big grin on his face when he plopped down in front of me as I filled out paperwork in the restaurant and said, “Let’s teach you to fly in the Cub and surprise your Dad.” A true jaw-dropping moment if I have ever had one. Needless to say, there was no turning him down. I began flying the next week.
At first, we flew two-a-days, avoiding the relentless Kansas heat and wind with a flight at 6 a.m. and one in the evening. I practiced taxiing, stalls, steep turns, slow flight, and takeoffs and landings on the airport’s grass runway. The light handling and simplicity of the Cub’s controls and maneuverability astonished me. No complex buttons, knobs or radio posed intimidation. I had only the feel of the airplane and its basic instruments: tachometer, altimeter, airspeed, compass, oil temperature, and oil pressure. Quick regular scans of the panel and then my eyes went back outside (a fundamental lesson I am eternally grateful for in today’s world of glass panels).
On the fourth day, Dwayne and I were wrapping up the evening with touch and goes. After completing three smooth landings, we were on downwind for a full stop when he asked how I felt about soloing. Butterflies instantly fluttered in my stomach. Was I ready? Although it had only been four days, I had built up eight hours in my logbook. I felt comfortable with the airplane. And it would be cool to solo on my father’s birthday…yes, I was ready. (It would not be until afterward that I realized soloing that quickly was not the norm – especially in a Piper J-3 Cub).
One magnificent go-around later, I made an unforgettable phone call to my father and sister (who were in Florida and clueless to my recent flying activity) with the news. I was met with a resounding, “WHAT,” followed by nervous laughter. This reaction was the first clue I might have accomplished something a bit untraditional. But once the shock subsided and words came back to him, my father congratulated me, asked questions and spoke to how proud he felt. Next, he demanded to speak with Dwayne and promptly requested no more solos for at least another 10 hours. We obliged.
Incredibly, it would be Dwayne’s spontaneous idea and one amazing summer that would completely alter my career path and lead me to where I am today. I returned to college that fall with my pilot’s license in hand and changed my major to marketing. I had a new mission: join my father and sister in the business aviation world. As it turns out, it was one of the best decisions I ever made.