When I was an 18-year-old high school senior, I read in the classified section of the Seattle Times that a flight school on Boeing Field was offering a “guaranteed to solo” package for $99. At the time, I was making $1.25 per hour pumping gas, checking oil and cleaning windshields in a gas station – $99 was a lot of money. But I really wanted to do this, so I went and found the flight school in an old rundown Quonset hut on the south end of the airport. It was run by a couple of old gruff, laid-off airline pilots. I paid the money and the larger and louder of the two recommended we get started right away. So out we went to preflight the training aircraft, an ancient 85 horsepower fore and aft seating Tri-Champ. It had a Narco coffee grinder VHF radio, no headsets and microphones that looked like they belonged to a WWII bomber crew, each hanging on a hook on the left side.
After a minimal preflight, we cranked up the little engine and taxied out to Runway 12, did a brief run-up, and took off with a straight-out departure down toward the Kent Valley. As the cars, houses and people beneath us gradually became smaller and smaller, I was immediately fascinated by the magic of it all. I stared wide-eyed out the right side of the airplane until all of a sudden, a microphone flew past my head and nearly banged me on the ear. This was accompanied by a string of loud, mostly four-letter words to the effect that we were up here to learn to fly, not stare at the ground, and if I did not start paying attention right away, he was going to whack me on the head with the microphone.
Not knowing anything about flight training (and just assuming that threats of physical violence must be a normal part of learning to fly), I then paid attention to everything the man said. One week and 4.4 hours later, I soloed. I completed three somewhat bouncy landings, then pulled the Tri-Champ up to the flight school ramp all by myself and shut the airplane down. I just sat there for a while, savoring the magic of what had just occurred. My instructor stood on the building’s porch looking somewhat disgruntled. It turns out, for $99, they try to solo all their students in less than 4.5 hours, and I had just barely met their criteria.
I, of course, wanted to fly some more but was told I would need to bring in more money. A month or so later, I was back with about $50 and asked which was the cheapest airplane for me to fly. Their reply was not the Tri-Champ as that airplane was busy soloing other $99 specials, but they could check me out in the Cessna 120. Off we went to explore the mysteries of tailwheel operations, and sure enough, within another hour, they had me soloing in that airplane. From a teenager’s perspective, I found the tricky ground steering and the fact the airplane desperately wanted to ground loop to be fascinating. I just loved it. It was also magic.
I graduated from high school shortly thereafter and moved to Florida where I had a seasonal job working in a hotel as a bellboy. With my eyes set on becoming a pilot, I came across a 65 HP Piper Cub based on a grass airport south of Miami that the owner would rent for $4 per hour, not including fuel. I spent my next 50 hours in that airplane with the doors open flying over the Everglades and up and down the Florida Keys. The air at 1,000 feet seemed cooler than on the ground, and with the doors open, I could easily smell the exhaust of the 65 HP engine. I do not recall ever seeing another airplane during all of those wanderings, but to this day, I remember all the wildlife magically visible from an altitude less than 500 feet.
More time went by as I earned a commercial license and CFI ratings. During my first week as a flight instructor at a nearby FBO, I was asked to fly a charter in the operation’s largest aircraft…a big Cessna 172. We went out over the Everglades looking for an abandoned boat that the charterers had their eye on. We eventually found it, and I finally got some practical value out of all the turns about a point I had practiced as they took a couple of photo rolls. Returning to the Tamiami Airport, I had the magical feeling I was the captain of a huge airliner returning from some exotic far-off destination.
A couple of years later, I was in the Seattle area again, flight instructing as I worked my way through college. In the winter, the days are short at the 48th parallel, and as a result, a lot of the instruction was done at night. In the Puget Sound area, there is typically a series of cold or occluded fronts that pass over one after another for weeks on end. In between, if you are lucky, there will be a 12 or 24-hour period where the air is just crystal clear. During one of those nights just before Christmas, while in a holding pattern for the ILS 12 approach into BFI, the entire City of Seattle was lit up in such a sparkling fashion that it looked like a Christmas tree, with the light at the top of the Space Needle looking like the tree’s highest decoration – magic.
More years and many flights later, my wife and I decided to do an airborne tour in Africa. We flew commercial into Johannesburg and with the help of a tour operator rented a somewhat bedraggled C182. The plan was to fly about two hours north until reaching the Zambezi River, then make a left turn and fly down the river until we spotted the dirt strip belonging to the lodge where we planned to spend a couple of days. Flying at 2,000 feet or so over the plains to the north of what the locals called “Joberg,” we came across a huge herd of Wildebeest running along helter-skelter just like in the wildlife TV programs. I just could not resist seeing what would happen when a really big bird approached them from above. So, banking toward the herd in a steep descent, we leveled off almost at eye level as they thundered along. The effect was fascinating as the herd would separate just enough to stay away from being directly under the airplane, all seemingly in a coordinated fashion. It was indeed the stuff nature films are made of and indeed magical.
A couple of years later, I was returning from a cross-Atlantic trip to England in a Cessna Citation. The route took us out over the Hebrides and the southern part of Iceland and Greenland. It was one of those rare perfectly clear days, and sitting in the right seat of the jet at FL410, I could see forever. But what caught my eye were the little ice cubes scattered about the blue ocean. It took a while for me to realize that those pieces of ice were magically larger than most city blocks. It is a rare person who gets to see the world from that high perspective.
Finally, one of my favorite airborne experiences is taking off on a grey cloudy day, and a few minutes later breaking out on top to see a perfectly clear blue sky on top of a sea of white clouds. The sunglasses go on, the airplane’s interior starts to warm up, and life seems more magical than it did just five minutes before.
These kind of experiences are what keep us flying. And in these times of COVID hysteria, it helps to remember just how magical they are.