Air-Minded: Losing My Cherry

Pima Air and Space Museum recently added a Cessna 172 to its collection. Seeing it out on display for the first time brought back a host of memories.

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PASM’s Cessna 172 (my photo)

You see, it’s the first airplane I learned to fly. Not this exact Cessna 172, of course, but a similar one owned by the U.S. Air Force, a stripped-down version with a bare aluminum finish. The Air Force called it a T-41 Mescalero, and it looked like this:

T-41 Mescalero

USAF T-41 Mescalero (USAF photo)

I’d been at the controls of an airplane once before. One of my grad school professors at Sacramento State owned a Piper Cub. He took me flying from a grass strip near Davis, California one Sunday morning in 1970. Once we were safely in the air he let me take the controls, then talked me through basic maneuvers: climbing, descending, turning. It wasn’t much, but I thought it was pretty grand, and that maybe flying was something I’d like to do some day. But that short experience was hardly what anyone would call “learning to fly.” Learning to fly, I realized while looking at Pima Air and Space Museum’s Cessna 172, is soloing.

J3 Cub

PIper J3 Cub (photo: Airliners.net)

I joined the Air Force in the spring of 1973, hoping for a pilot training slot. I’d already taken the pilot aptitude ground tests and passed a flight physical, and although the air war in Vietnam was ending, the USAF pilot training pipeline was still operating at full throttle. Lo and behold, I got in. I reported to Officer Training School at Lackland AFB in June. I didn’t know until I got there that pilot training candidates would be put through a separate flight screening program as part of OTS.

After a few weeks of ground training with our OTS classmates, my fellow pilot candidates and I were pulled out of the program, sent to a separate barracks, issued flight suits, and bussed daily to Hondo Airfield outside San Antonio. The flight screening program, as I recall, lasted a month. When it was over we returned to OTS, now assigned to the class that followed our original one, and picked up where we had left off.

The first week at Hondo was ground training: academic classes, lectures, and tests. During the second week we began flying with our assigned instructor pilots. Most of the IPs were young civilians, no older than their students (younger in my case, since I joined at the upper age limit for pilot training). My IP was a Norwegian guy, one of two twin brothers working for the program in order to build up flying time. Their career plan, which they happily talked about with their students, was to log the required 1,500 hours, obtain FAA airline transport ratings, return to Norway, and become pilots for SAS, the Scandinavian Airlines System.

The commander of the flight screening program at Hondo, and the flight commanders below him who supervised IPs and students, were Air Force pilots, freshly returned from combat tours in Vietnam. We all took at least one training flight with one of these Air Force pilots. I remember mine telling me about no-flap approaches in the F-105 Thunderchief, and trying to show me an approximation of what they looked like by demonstrating one in the T-41. I’m sure there’s a huge difference between full-flap and no-flap approaches in the Thud, but in a small Cessna, at least to the totally inexperienced 24-year-old me, the difference was difficult to discern.

Mostly, though, I flew with my Norwegian IP. We’d fly out to a nearby working area to practice precision turns, stalls, and unusual attitude recoveries, but at least half of every training sortie was spent back in Hondo’s traffic pattern, practicing touch-and-go landings and takeoffs. On my 9th or 10th flight, we returned to the pattern a little earlier than usual, and my IP told me to do a full-stop landing rather than a touch-and-go. I was surprised, but followed instructions. After landing, he had me taxi to a ramp near the runway and asked if I was ready to solo. I honestly hadn’t realized that was what was up. I’m not even sure I knew soloing was part of the flight screening program. But there we were, and it was time, and even though I was on the verge of hyperventilating in panic said sure, let’s do it. He got out to stand in the shade of a small shed by the runway, and I radioed tower for clearance to taxi out for takeoff.

Soloing a Cessna 172 in the military is no different than soloing at a private flight school. You take off, re-enter the landing pattern on downwind leg, and request a full stop landing. After you land you ask permission to backtrack on the runway and take off again, then do another full stop. The standard solo flight, then as now, consists of three takeoffs and full-stop landings, and that’s what I did. I was scared to death during my first approach and landing, but had settled down by the last. Afterward I taxied back to where my IP was waiting. He climbed back in, congratulated me, and we taxied back to the main parking ramp. Once there, he pulled a Kodak Instamatic out of his pocket and took my photo by the plane I’d just soloed.

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Post-solo hero shot, Hondo Airfield, Texas, 1973

I remember two additional flights after soloing. One was with the Air Force IP who used to fly Thuds, and the last was a check ride.

Not a week after we returned to OTS at Lackland, we heard that one of the Norwegian twins, along with a student pilot, had died in a midair collision at Hondo. It was my IP’s brother.

You can’t see what’s above you in a Cessna 172. You can see what’s below you, but only if you do clearing turns, banking steeply during descents so you can look down and make sure another aircraft isn’t just underneath. On that day, my IP’s brother and his student were doing just that, clearing the flight path below them as they returned to Hondo to practice touch-and-gos. What they couldn’t see, because he was above them and not doing clearing turns of his own, was a foreign exchange student pilot on a solo flight. The exchange student, an Iranian, collided with the Norwegian IP and his American student, who died in the ensuing crash. The Iranian, uninjured but with a badly-damaged aircraft, managed to land.

I went directly from OTS and flight screening in Texas to a pilot training base in Oklahoma and started learning to fly jets. I was never able to follow up on my Norwegian IP, whom I genuinely liked. I should have tried harder to stay in touch, but I was drinking from the proverbial pilot training firehose and didn’t. I hope he got past the loss of his brother, got his hours and his ATP, and had a long career with SAS.

Meanwhile, that pretty little Cessna 172 at Pima Air and Space speaks to me every time I walk or drive past it, and no wonder. I lost my virginity to one of its sisters.

© 2019, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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