It all started back in California with my friend Mike, whom I've mentioned in passing throughout many of these stories. He was a transplanted Englishman, from Brighton, and back in the old country had done a turn in the Royal Air Force. This left him, among other things, with plenty of old pilot stories and a love for aviation that ultimately caused him to start private pilot training at a small airport in San Jose, California. Indeed, Mike became a fixture around Reid-Hillview Airport.
Shortly after he earned his license sometime in 1985, Mike began pestering me to “go up” with him. Actually, he was pestering anyone he came into contact with; I just happened to be one of his more pliable friends. So, finally, I gave in and met him down at the airport one day. Though I'd flown commercially many times, I'd never been up in a small plane and had no idea what to expect, other than being sure it was dangerous as hell. Once I got over a slight case of the nerves, I was surprised at how much I came to enjoy riding in the right seat of a Cessna 152 two-seater. We took short flights around the Bay Area – over the foothills south of San Jose, up to Hayward for pizza, and out over the California coast.
Then, on one of those flights, Mike allowed as how it'd be nice to have a pilot buddy, since his partner Rick had less-than-zero interest in aviation. Someone to go flying with, swap “There I was ...” stories, and play check pilot when he began his Instrument Rating training. I sat there, in the right-hand seat, and listened as best I could over the roar of the engine. Then the other shoe, as they say, dropped. Mike looked at me and said, “Oi think you'd make a good pilot, Joe!”.
Who, me? I didn't even know how the damn thing got up in the air and stayed there (though I suspected the propeller and engine had something to do with it), much less fly it! Besides, though I didn't know much about the training involved, I figured it probably wouldn't be cheap, and I wasn't exactly rolling in money at the time. But Mike was adamant. He was sure I could do it; and even more certain that his instructor, Tom Lynch, could make a pilot of me. Why didn't I meet him and Tom at the airport one day, he said, and just talk?
Again I gave in; Mike could be pretty persuasive (he was at the time, after all, a successful semiconductor products salesman). When he showed me how the cost could be spread out so “you'd hardly notice it”, I agreed to meet him down at the airport and at least find out about pilot training. The whole idea was beginning to seem fun and interesting; I pictured myself casually strolling out onto the tarmac, hopping into the airplane, and taking off for High Adventure while perhaps waving to a few hapless earthbound souls down below. I did get to do that, but later ... much later.
It's a fact that often when I investigate an activity that may be somewhat dangerous and almost certainly expensive, subsequent events seem to happen, as if in a blur, and I find myself involved up to the hilt before I know what's happened. Thus, after talking with Tom and the student coordinator at the airport, I walked out of the flight office equipped with book, aviation calculator, flight plans ... and enrolled in a series of lessons designed to put a pilot's license in my pocket where formerly there had been some cash. No buyer's remorse for me, though; I felt I was embarking on the first of those afore-mentioned High Adventures.
Well, on those first few lessons up in the air with Tom, cold hard reality began to set in. This stuff was hard, at least for me, and the learning process was hampered by the fact that I was scared. It's a wonder my fingers didn't leave impressions in the airplane's control yoke, as tightly as I gripped it. The fear made it difficult to follow Tom's directions, much less learn the things I had to know to control the airplane. I began to dread those weekly lessons and to wonder just why I was putting myself through this.
Finally, one morning during the drive to the airport, I started thinking and thinking hard about the situation.. I really wanted to finish the pilot training and earn that license, and I certainly didn't want to disappoint Mike, who had so much faith in me. I couldn't face quitting, and I decided I was more afraid of dropping out ('washing out' was the term) than of what could happen “up there”. So I made a what-the-hell decision. What the hell, I thought – Tom is a certified instructor, with tens of thousands of flight hours, and I'd never seen him out of control of the airplane. I realized I had to just relax and trust my fate to his abilities, just do what he tells me and assume Tom could handle any situation that might arise. After all, I could only die once, right ...
I felt calm as I pulled into the flight center's parking lot. From that time on, our lessons together were truly learning experiences and even enjoyable. I noticed, too, that Tom seemed to relax a bit and began treating me more like a committed student and not a dilettante. Though there were a few more nervous moments in the air to come, each time Tom demonstrated his mastery of flying and we made it through just fine. I came to look forward to those weekly sessions in the air. I noticed, too, that I gradually stopped thinking of myself as just a student. I began to think of myself as a pilot!
It wasn't all fun and fright, though; there were such things as ground reference maneuvers, which are to most student pilots as mind-numbing as, for example, practicing scales can be to a budding pianist. There was flight time under the hood (a plastic visor-like device designed to restrict one's view to the instrument panel), with Tom calling out my every move – necessary, but rather boring. There were times when I seemed to do everything wrong, and got that exasperated sigh from Tom that I'd learned to dread. But there were also times when we'd just go out tooling along on particularly nice days, enjoying the sheer freedom of flying high over the foothills all around San Jose. Tom would sit back and just let me fly the plane, unencumbered by directions or flight lessons, pointing out interesting things below or treating me to a funny story of his aviation adventures.
The training took longer than it usually did for most students. I could only afford a weekly session and thus it took me a bit longer to grasp some of the concepts. At the same time, I was studying the ground school lessons on my own; this went considerably faster, and within a few weeks I was able to present to Tom my certificate of a passing grade. With that out of the way, we soon got down to the work of preparing me for the all-important first solo. After a check ride with one of the other instructors on the field, the legendary Diane Cosgrove, I was told to expect to solo within a month or so. But that, as they say, is another story!