Why We Fly

hands in a cockpit
Instructor Erin Brueggen of CubAir enjoys the Wisconsin breeze in her 1946 Piper JC3 Cub in May 2021.

Flight is not free, but it is a gift, handed from one person to another. We acknowledge the Wrights or Glenn Curtiss as the progenitors of that chain of experience, but we know the desire to fly is much older.

Signing Off With Gratitude

Back in the mid-1960s I was a full-time ticket agent for TWA at O’Hare International Airport and a part-time flight instructor at Sally’s Flying School, Palwaukee airport, Wheeling, Illinois. I owed my climb up the ratings ladder to Sally Stremple, legendary owner of said Sally’s. She knew I couldn’t afford flying lessons, being married with two kids, so she gave me a job as a line boy in exchange for flying time.

Sally was famous for wanting the weather to be benevolent for her student pilots, to the point where we joked among ourselves that if there was a cloud over Kansas, we were walking. On the other hand, it gave us a wonderful excuse to cadge a few minutes of free flying time by grabbing a Cub and going up on a “weather hop” to see what things looked like from pattern altitude. One day some scud began to form and I announced my intention to do just that. Sally said, “Wait a minute, I’m going with you.” She sat in the back while I flew two circuits of the airport not saying a thing. When it was over, she mumbled something about a good job. Only later did I realize I had just passed one of the most important check rides of my life.

Three decades later, when I set the brakes on my 727 for the last time, I had hundreds of exit lines to pick from, and finally I whispered, “Thank you, Sally.” James M. Snarski, Santa Rosa, CA

In Spite of Everything

My momenous introduction to flying took place in the summer of 1947 when I was 15.

I worked summers with an uncle who owned a 1947 Luscombe (new) in Massachusetts. He owned a business servicing restaurants in New England with jukeboxes, pinball machines, and other attractions.

One day we were making a service call about 40 miles away. The plane had just gone through the 100-hour inspection. We loaded the equipment and taxied to the runway. After a smooth takeoff to about 300 feet altitude, he mentioned having trouble climbing. About two miles from the airport—whammo!—the propeller stopped right in front of me. The engine refused to restart. My uncle calmly said, “We have to make this landing a good one.” He spotted a small patch of land between powerlines and the Connecticut River, and he set the plane down in a blueberry patch. He suggested that I hike back to the airport (while he planned on eating the blueberries).

I walked an old dirt road to the airport and informed the manager of our experience. He immediately took off in a Piper Cub. An hour later, he landed back at the airport, headed to the hangar, and fired two mechanics on the spot. It appears that when they drained oil during the inspection, they neglected to replace it.

The plane was dismantled to return it to the airport. And we made the front page of the newspaper.

This did not deter me from flying. I proceeded to earn my private license and became part owner of a Cessna 182 aircraft. —Pearly G. Deneault Jr., Nashua, NH

Ad Hoc Flight Lesson

As a Marine in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968, I needed a ride for a courier run. I found an Army Captain who was starting to refuel his L-19 Bird Dog and asked for a ride to Phu Bai, and he said, “Sure. Have you ever flown these things before?” I said, “Sure, all the time.” I’m thinking, How hard can this be? I mean you pull back, you go up. You push forward, you go down, and left and right is self-explanatory! I’m 19 and an idiot.

So the Captain says, “I’ll take it up to 1,000 feet, and I’ll lean over so you can see the instruments.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him I had no idea what the instruments did. He continued, “You take over at 1,000.”

When I get in the back seat, I notice the rudders are folded down. (Didn’t matter that the rudders were folded down; I thought they were brakes and I wouldn’t need them.) We depart Dong Ha and at 1,000 feet, my Captain leans over to the right and says, “You’ve got it.” For some reason, I knew what the altimeter was. I pulled on the stick and wonder of wonders, we went up. I leveled off at 1,500 feet, and I’m sitting there thinking, I’m a friggin’ pilot! The real pilot yelled, “Make a left,” and in response, I grabbed the stick and pushed it all the way to the left. We are now almost upside down! The pilot turns around, screams, “Let go!” and he returns the airplane to straight and level. He then turns around with an incredulous look, and all I can do is shrug my shoulders and give him a dumb smile. What happened next still to this day amazes me. My almost-victim reaches back behind his seat and folds up the rudder pedals. He tells me to put my feet on them. He yelled, “Put your hand on the stick!” I did. He now instructs me: “A little left rudder and a little left stick, that’s a left turn. A little right rudder and a little right stick, that’s a right turn.” He continued, “Keep the nose of the plane on the horizon and that’s level flight. See that road down there? Follow it.” That was the last thing he said, other than “I’ve got it” when we started our approach. I flew for about 60 miles. The only image I have of him is of the back of his head as we descended. I wish I had gotten his name.

I liked the experience so much that after I was discharged, I started flying lessons and became a pilot. Later, my pilot’s license qualified me for a job—flying in the cockpit of commercial aircraft and training pilots on flight management systems. I think my Captain would like to have known how he changed my life. —Carl Heinzelman, Avon, CT

Double-decker USA

In the late 1970s, I lived in Clearlake, Texas, home of the NASA Johnson Space Center. Traveling north on Galveston Road on my way to work near Ellington Field, I noticed several cars pulled off the road. People were out of their cars looking up into the sky, so I pulled off to see what was going on.

Coming in for a landing was the space shuttle Enterprise on top of a 747. Holy @#$&! It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. It appeared to be coming in low and slow into a flawless landing. It was white with the word “NASA” near the tail, and the American flag with United States painted on the side. Everyone was cheering with mouths open and high-fiving each other and proud to be an American. Still brings tears to my eyes when I think about it. Made me want to be a pilot. James Wallace, Baltimore, MD

A Good Landing

I've sold my plane. Aging eyes, rising gas prices, and college tuition for two daughters make my Skylane a luxury I can no longer justify.

I’ve agreed to deliver it from here in New Mexico to the new buyer in Kansas—one last flight.

It’s a beautiful December morning. The front that went through yesterday left the air over the route cool, clear, smooth, with only a light crosswind.

Takeoff is smooth and quick in the cool air, reaching the cruising altitude of 4,500 MSL [median sea level] almost before we clear the pattern. I turn to the direct GPS heading, and follow my course drawn on the chart with my finger.

The forecast is dead-on, the air smooth as silk.

Maintaining 1,000 AGL [above ground level], we scoot across the land, watching it turn from desert to farmland, arroyos to level plains, complimenting those landowners whose backyards are as clean as their fronts, flipping pages on the sectional chart every 15 minutes.

Remembering past flights, sights, passengers…enjoying the moment.

Swinging around Wichita, I see my destination, sad for this to end.

I see people watching me land…and bounce—twice. Dang. Not how I want my last landing to be.

Well…it’s still my plane. Throttle in and back up we go.

This time I do it right—just me, the plane, the air, the runway—and only the light rumble of the upwind tire announces this touchdown just past the stripes.

A good ending…to this flight…my time with 5RJ…my 30 years as a pilot. Mike Kleihege, Big Spring, TX

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This story is a selection from the August/September issue of Air & Space magazine

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