"Roger, I Have the Controls"

[I began by taking a few flying lessons in January 1998, in order (as I justified the expense to myself and Sally) to enrich the stuff I was writing. My first three hours were in a Piper Colt and a Cessna 172 at DAW Skyhaven in Rochester NH, but the airport was going out of the training business, so I visited 7B3 in Hampton NH, where I was smitten by a Piper L-4 Grasshopper with the name of Four One Victor. I wrote this piece for my alumni magazine that summer. -- Dan Ford]

Brian is my flight instructor. He's 24 and I'm 66, although I don't think he has entirely grasped the magnitude of the difference. We're walking back to the shingled airport building after seven wobbly takeoffs and seven bumpy landings. "Well," says Brian cheerfully, "we cheated death one more time!"

Not everything comes as easily at sixysomething as it did at twentysomething, and in consequence I have accumulated more hours than any other student pilot at Hampton Airfield--perhaps in the nation. A reasonably competent student can solo in 15 hours. With 25 hours behind me, I'm still trying to make my first really good takeoff. Never mind the landings, which generally send our Piper Cub leaping into the air, as if reluctant to leave its element.

But the joys of flying are many, even for the incompetent. In a 1943 Cub built for the U.S. Army, we cruise over the New Hampshire seacoast with the windows open. Summer air blows through the cockpit, along with the smell of hot motor oil and, sometimes when we land on a private runway for practice, the smell of newmown hay.

"I have the controls," Brian says. Fresh from the Marines, he teaches from the same book that taught him. "Roger," I agree. "You have the controls."

The runway belongs to an airline pilot who makes it available to anyone who wants to use it. It's as smooth as a golf course but ends on an upslope. Brian wants to prove that the Cub can leap into the air from the hill, without using the runway at all. He pulls it off, too, with a slight bump when the tailwheel hits the hit.

He accelerates to 80 mph and veers into a clearing, so as to put us onto final approach without flying a formal pattern around the field. At treetop level, I can literally count the leaves. "Like a helicopter in Vietnam," I say over the interphone, recalling a time before my instructor was born. "Yeah," Brian agrees. "All we need is a gun in the window."

Whatever the skeptics say, America will never lack 24-year-olds to fight for it.

Brian's quips are another pleasure I derive from this new hobby. Alas, the banter won't last much longer. Twentysomethings instruct only until they find a real job, co-piloting a Lear Jet or a venerable DC-3. The aircraft doesn't matter, as long as it has more than one engine, so Brian can accumulate the multi-engine hours required before American Airlines will look at his resume.

I started taking lessons when a friend turned 60. To age up, I reminded him, is to do more things for the last time and fewer for the first time. I don't know what effect the homily had on him, but I decided to learn how to fly. It would be the new thing for my seventh decade.

I've since gone through four instructors, three airplanes, and two flight schools--perhaps another record. The fault isn't entirely mine: the first school went out of business. That brought me to Hampton, an unpaved airport that specializes in Piper Cubs.

Twenty thousand Cubs were built in the 1930s and 1940s. Though tricky to handle on the ground--at slow speeds you can't see over the ground, and at high speeds the plane wants to swap ends, like a Volkswagen Beetle on ice--the Cub has only five instruments for me to monitor. It's slow, easy to fly, and has an actual control stick to move its ailerons, elevators, and rudder. Not for nothing did the old pilots call this device the "joy stick."

My wife has been remarkably calm about this development, but she'd like to know where it's leading. So would I. Not to an airplane of my own, and perhaps not even to a pilot's license. I'd like to solo, though, even if I don't understand why at the end of the day the Cub actually settles onto the grass instead of shivering into a heap of 55-year-old bits and pieces.

But when I have 40 or 50 hours behind me, and Brian or his successor climbs out of the front seat and tells me that I have the controls, I really don't know if I'll have the impertinence to answer, "Roger that."

[Brian disappeared from my life before the essay was published--he got his twin-engine time and went to work for Business Express, then American Airlines. I got a new instructor, a retired engineer with infinite patience. I soloed at 48 hours and became a certificated pilot at 106 hours. Neither, I was assured afterward, was a field record. As for gallant Four One Victor, she was wrecked not long after when a student hit the brakes during a high-speed taxi. Happily, she is back online after a complete rebuild.]