There's not much I miss about flying in General Aviation. Sometimes on a breezy day when I'm not comfortable flying my Powered Parachute, I think back to my days of enclosed cockpits and the smell of low-lead 100, the days where I was limited only by money.
I grew up flying, taking my first flight at 3 weeks old (much to my Mother's chagrin!!). I loved everything from pulling the plane out of the hanger, to hearing the gyros wind down after we were done. As a little boy, I would be so excited when it was time to go fly, and would cry when told the plane was down for maintenance or the weather was bad. Even as a child, flying would remove everything else from my mind. There was nothing to worry about except enjoying the flight.
When I was old enough, I paid for my license up-front and completed the lessons as quickly as the weather and my instructor's schedule permitted. Within a year of having my license, I had taken all of my friends up. For most of them, it was their first flight. I still love giving those first rides to this day!
After a while, I got bored with putting around in a Cessna that was a old as I was. I didn't have the budget to really go anywhere, so the longest journey I took was about 100 miles away to an airshow with some friends.
One day, I went for a ride with my instructor and as we were putting the plane away, I saw it. A beautiful Decathlon taxiied by with it's nose in the air. It seemed to be saying it was better than the 152s and Tomahawks being abused by students that day and I couldn't have agreed more. I mentioned to my instructor that I wanted to fly that plane. He couldn't have picked three worse words to utter: "That's Chuck's plane."
Chuck White was a very well known instructor at the airport. I had the chance to meet him when getting my license. He was the pilot who gave me my second stage check. Now by the time you get to this stage check, you pretty much know how to fly a plane. I was the best pilot that ever set foot in a Cessna! At least I was until Chuck stepped into it! By the end of the flight, I didn't like Chuck and was pretty sure I would never fly again. He didn't like anything I did. He picked on my rudder usage, my navigation skills, my ability to use a chart... well, you name it and I was bad at it. I was devastated. Over the next few weeks, my instructor built my confidence again and once again I was worthy of wearing the scarf and goggles. I passed both written and flying portions of my test with flying colors and was complimented heavily on both.
So now, I'm back to my great desire to fly that Decathlon. I wanted it more than anything I've ever wanted. I needed my tailwheel endorsement and then Chuck would rent it out to me. I had to suck up my pride and go talk to him. He told me he kept current parachutes in it and with a little training I could fly aerobatics! There was no turning back now, he had me.
I showed up for my first lesson and sure enough, there was the Grinch waiting for me. He was as grumpy as ever, but not only was I taught to respect my elders, but he had the keys to my new style of flying, so I held my toungue. He started showing me how to taxi and I was soon convinced that something was wrong with the plane as it wouldn't go in a straight line. He gruffly told me that I didn't have to S-turn it, it wasn't a Pitts! The Decathlon is a tandem plane, so I was in the front, with him sitting behind me, so he couldn't see my facial expressions! I'm sure that was a good thing. He sure wasn't my favorite person.
I knew that getting your tailwheel endorsement usually takes between 5 and 10 hours. After the first hour of him pecking me in the back of the head (really!), and asking if I'd left my right foot at home, I was sure I'd never make it. I wasn't willing to admit defeat though, and I kept showing up for lessons. I made it through three lessons of one hour each and on the fourth day we took off and made a few passes through the pattern. We didn't have much fuel, so it would be a short lesson of only touch-n-goes. After a few circuits, he told me to land and get fuel, so I pulled up the pumps and filled it to the standard halfway point we kept it at. I was ready to go, but he just stood there. He told me to go fly... I had 3.5 hours of training and he cut me free. He said I was ready. I couldn't have been more scared or excited at that moment. As I flew by and looked down at him, I realized our relationship had just changed.
Chuck was a few years older than my Grandfather and I was amazed at his flying skills. He'd spent most of his life in a plane. He was one of those instructors you really learned from and rarely find. Chuck and I became closer over the years. He had enphesema and though he still had his medical (he couldn't teach primary students), he usually didn't feel like pulling the plane out or fueling it. I would go get it ready for him. I would wash it and treat it as my own. He greatly appreciated it and told me so often.
One time after a rough biennial where he again critisized my skills with a chart, he said something that I'll never forget. He said I was one of the best pilots he'd ever known. He said he couldn't find anything to correct me on when flying. I could work on my navigation skills, but I was a natural when it came to flying. From him, this meant the world to me.
Once he let a guy borrow his plane to go get something from a remote airport. When the guy landed, he started bouncing and somehow blew out the tailwheel. Chuck called me and asked if I would go get his plane. The pilot who blew it out would take me to it. He said he couldn't breathe and didn't trust anyone else. I went to his hanger, picked up the spare tailwheel and we were off. Again, this was a huge compliment to me.
I flew that plane for many years. I did learn aerobatics in it and I was proud to fly it anywhere. Even though it was a 1973, it was in perfect shape. When he called me to tell me he had to sell it, my heart sank. His health wasn't getting any better and he didn't want his wife to be stuck with it when he was gone.
After it sold, I bought my Team Airbike and then eventually ended up flying Powered Parachutes. Though I miss it sometimes, it was a good thing for my wallet and family, and I've met many good friends flying PPCs. I believe everything happens for a reason.
On April 10th of 2009, I lost my Grandfather. I was very close to him and I was out of town for awhile. I was completely out of touch as I tried to make sense of his loss. A couple of weeks ago I found out that Chuck died on the same day. For all of the many students he shared his passion of aviation with, for all of the the lives he touched, I couldn't believe how simple his obituary was: WHITE, Charles Edmond, 80, retired aviator and instructor, of Austin died April 10. Survived by wife Patricia. No services planned. Arrangements by Neptune Society.
Chuck, I miss you buddy. Thank you for all you taught me. I still hear your words of wisdom when flying. Sometimes I still feel your finger tapping the back of my head! You taught me skills that have no doubt saved my life. I will never forget you. Happy flying up there where the winds are always calm and there are no thermals and you can breathe in the sweet air. I wish every pilot could have a mentor like you.
The Decathlon ready for a flight!
The back of my head! My friend took this photo as we were about halfway through a loop.
Fly safe - Jack