As a returning veteran I was entitled to four more college years at government expense. I didn’t take the gift seriously until I heard the same educational benefits could be extended to aviation. I could learn to fly—at government expense. Because my eyes were so poor, I couldn’t become an airline pilot, but I could take some less ambitious flying lessons for next to nothing.
I thought we might go to war against the Russians. I didn’t want to walk anymore.
The bass player in the house orchestra, George Ramsby, sang hillbilly songs but had taught flying to many Air Force cadets. He offered to teach me for nothing, and the government would pay for the rental of the training plane, a J3 Piper Cub.
The plane’s top speed was 85 miles per hour. There was no gas gauge. A cork floated on its puny 12 gallon tank, and an inverted L-shape steel rod on the cork protruded to the cowling in front of the pilot. As the inverted L dropped lower, the aviator knew he needed a refill. On a day without headwinds the plane was good for 190 miles—about the distance from a Chicago suburb to Milwaukee.
It was a kite with wings, powered by a motorcycle engine.
What it recalled to me were my brother’s photographic albums of World War One. Spads, Nieuports, Fokkers. The training George gave me was not based on learning to fly from here to there; the object was to get Baron von Richtofen off my tail. I learned stalls, spins, figure 8’s. I had to fly a sharp 360-degree turn and hit my old prop wash when I completed the full circle.
Before I soloed, Tuulikki was nervous. She sat in the car and watched. George said that if she had one lesson she might calm down. He took her up, showed her how to make a banked turn with stick and rudder, and brought her down.
“Skee,” he said, “I know you have a good marriage, so I can tell you the truth. I can teach her to fly in half the time it will take me to teach you. She’s a dancer. She’s better coordinated than you.” Cruel, but accurate.
After some six hours of instruction, Ramsby put me into the pilot’s seat.
“Take her up, do a pattern and land her.”
Palwaukee airport was a sod field with two runways scratched as an X. I taxied to one, pushed the power to full and moved down the field. Without George in the cockpit the plane was lighter, and before I was ready, the Piper jumped into the air.
I had made myself fly.
I was in the air. Caesar, Napoleon, George Washington, Beethoven and Moses could not have elevated themselves to the heights I had reached. I was one with the Wright Brothers and Lindbergh.
Not quite. I was nervous and had a potbelly.
The Cub lands in a three point position. To land a plane as light as a Piper Cub the nose has to be high. The two wheels and the tailskid have to touch at the same time. That means the landing stick has to push into the belly button and held firmly there. If the stick moves forward, the nose of the plane drops and the Piper picks up speed, wanting to rise again.
That’s what happened to me. My pot belly (which was small, but large enough) and my nervousness pushed the stick down and the plane rose skyward. I bounced twice and George waved at me to go around again.
I did and missed another landing, betrayed by my physique and neural connections. As I made the third approach, I saw Ramsby standing there with a shotgun. He threatened to shoot me down if I could not ground my emotions.
When he signed my logbook, certifying that I had soloed he commented, “If we go to war with the Russians, make sure you walk.”
1946 Piper J-3 Cub: https://uk.pinterest.com/pin/340303315566521164/