By Jerry D. Haight

The windows shook while the horrendous thunder-like explosion occurred just at the time in the morning when my mind was neither asleep nor awake, but somewhere in between. By the time my brain engaged, and said “airplane”, it happened again, again and again. As a lover of planes, my body wanted to bolt from the bed, fly to the window for a look, but my brain reasoned by the time we got there, the planes would be vanishing specks on the horizon, leaving only loud trails of memories in their wake. Oh! It must be a real kick to fly an f16, I thought.

My mind then lapsed to times long ago when airplane flight was a part of my life. It first happened in National City, California in 1958 at a sleepy rural airport when as a US Navy seaman stationed in San Diego a few miles up the coast, my little spare time (and money) was devoted to a bright yellow and black 1946 Taylor- craft BC12D.

The tiny high wing, single engine, two-place tandem plane was a thing of beauty, and designed to fly, not very fast, mind you, but fly indeed. Gus, an instructor, and I got to know each other and spent many happy hours in that craft before duty called me away, overseas.

It was many years later before a flying opportunity came again. Then it was after years in the Navy, a college degree, marriage and two small children. Always, in my DNA lurked the flying gene in the background of my makeup and was re-ignited in Sacramento.

The construction company where I worked was located just off the runway of the municipal airport. My attention always diverted to focus on the plethora of small single engine planes taking off and landing shaking the roof. Before long, l joined a flying club at the nearby airport.

The club had some four-place Cessna 182’s and two place 150’s for flight training. While the principles of flight remained the same as the old T-craft, the 150’s were side-by-side, yoke steering vs. stick, more powerful, with flaps and ailerons and more sophisticated instrumentation; things that can get one into trouble. One hot muggy day the instructor said “lets go to mid-field for departure”. I questioned his instruction realizing that these conditions required longer takeoff, but, by his presence beside me, I was assured it was safe. My inquiry about applying some flaps was similarly dismissed.

With full power, the plane continued earth bound beyond the point where it could be safely stopped without overrunning the runway. With no further instructions forthcoming and not wishing to put the plane into the swamp at the end of the runway, I took charge; dropped 10 degrees of flaps and with the little extra lift the 150 became airborne. It seemed we were strafing cattails as we passed over the swamp at the end of the runway; a very close call.

I pondered my instructor as we proceeded to a small airstrip west of McClellan Air Force Base where we practiced “shooting landings”. After the second one, the instructor said; “Pull over to the side of the runway.” He opened the door and stepped out onto the tarmac. Then, just under the wing, he said; “complete three rotations, taking off and landing; then pick me up. Good Luck.”  

“I wasn’t ready,” I thought, but he had already closed the door and stepped away. He was gone. My safety net had simply stepped out of the airplane, wished me luck, shut the door and left. I was more than just a little shocked. I turned around and taxied back to the end of the runway. Then as I checked for aircraft landing, lined up at the center line pushed the throttle to full, the plane bolted into the air. It felt exceptionally light. It was then the reality hit, I was alone in the plane with no guiding voice except the inner one bolstered by many weeks of training and experience.

The first round was tense and my landing somewhat awkward. As I arose in the air again with the airplane bolted to my seat., the exhilaration was profound as a calming peace swept over me. I watched the details on the ground merge into a homogenous blur as the plane soared upward, then I reduced throttle, trimmed the ailerons and dropped the nose slightly reaching equilibrium when gravity is equal to lift and engine power is equal to air resistance. It became quiet and serene as the engine noise dropped to a comfortable hum and the plane and I became one, both in our element.

Lost in the experience made it difficult to return to the airport and the plane proceeded straight ahead quite a ways. Reluctantly I made a banking left turn and then another into what is called the downwind leg.  I mentally calculated altitude, distance, speed and wind, then chose the spot where the runway would meet the landing gear. I reduced the throttle.

The little plane began losing altitude. Another left turn to the base leg and yet another put the plane on the final leg in a direct line with the center of the runway. Reducing throttle again, the engine now merely idling and applying 20 degrees of flap yielded the plane to gravity and it slowly drifted to a feather light landing on the chosen spot on the runway. Perfect. When the third confidence building rotation mirrored the second, the metamorphosis from student to pilot was complete. On the way back to the airport, I no longer worried about my instructor; I was the pilot in charge.

Life’s circumstances and priorities required giving up pursuit of what is known as a private ticket, but neither flying nor love of aircraft ever left my soul. Boom! It happened again. The sound of the first of four F16’s departing from Davis Monthan AFB shook the house, followed immediately by the explosions of the trailing three. This time, I flew from the bed to the window only to see four vanishing specs on the horizon, leaving only loud trails of memories in their wake.  Oh! It must be a real kick to fly an f16.