My first long-range solo flight brought some surprises.
When I was 22 or so, I joined an Army flying club, which enabled me to learn to fly at far lower prices than were available outside of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where I was stationed as a paratrooper.
The airplane I learned to fly in was an Aeronca Champion—student pilots called it an Airknocker—which was little more than a motorized box kite. A control stick jutted up from the center of the cockpit floor. The throttle was on the left side of the instrument panel, and to start the engine our instructor grabbed the wooden propeller, hiked his leg up like a pitcher preparing for a fast ball, and swung the prop.
The engine caught—and I was airborne. Over the next 20 hours I made many mistakes, but killed no one. My instructor said, “You’re ready to solo.”
It was one thing to fly with an instructor, and quite another to go it alone. However, aside from dancing all over the runway, I did okay, and eventually I was ready for a long-range solo flight. It was summer in the South, and I would fly a triangle of 300 miles using visual flight rules because instruments weren’t required in 1955. (This is all from memory, so I may get mail from real fliers telling me the throttle is under the seat or someplace.)
Alas, somewhere along the route of rolling hills, I missed a point of reckoning—a highway, railroad track, or river—and soon I was lost, flying above a thick carpet of trees broken by occasional glades.
Eventually I saw a long, flat area, like a playing field of some kind. I whizzed over at 600 feet and saw a lot of people scurrying around. Trees surrounded the pasture on all sides, and some of the people were looking up at the airplane. There must have been three dozen of them, all in clothes as pale as Colonel Sanders’ suit.
Now this was a mystery, so I hit right rudder and swung back around, lower this time. The tactic seemed to please the people in the pasture. Several waved their arms vigorously as they jumped up and down, and I waggled my wings cheerfully in return.
Others, however, skedaddled for the woods. My guess was that they were backwoods folks (Kentucky had plenty of them half a century ago) who had never seen an airplane, and who might have been playing a game which I’d interrupted.
In any case, the more I swooshed over them, hoping they’d understand I needed directions, the happier they were, clearly indicated by their gesturing and jumping up and down. Several were fairly dancing with excitement, stopping between sprints to make referee-type signals across their midriffs.
What was this? Some of them were picking up sticks and stones and tossing them upward. To celebrate my flyovers? Such folks merited a closer pass—plus it would give me a better look at the meadow in case a landing proved necessary.
So I spiraled down to 100 feet—and all of a sudden I realized why all those fleet-footed people wore white suits. They were actually wearing no suits at all. I was flying over a nudist camp.
Hoping no one had seen my aircraft number, I throttled up and got out of there. Fortunately, after a few miles I stumbled across a visual flight reference and made it back to base, where I related the bare essentials of my adventure.
“I’ve been trying to locate that place for months,” my instructor said enviously. “Think you could find it again?”
I said I doubted I could get lost twice in the same place, and besides, those folks deserved their privacy.