Growing up in Puerto Rico in the 1950s, I lived at the top of the Hotel Columbus. As a boy, I’d stand on the veranda, overlooking Isla Grande Airport, and watch the planes take off and land. My favorite was the DC-3: There was something striking about the rumbling of the engines, then the roar as the plane rushed down the runway and struggled to gain altitude. Sometimes, it looked like it was going to fly straight into our apartment, and I would gape as it roared overhead.
As a child, I was lucky enough to ride some of the Caribair DC-3s to St. Thomas. I would sit by the window, where I could watch the radial engines as they started spinning slowly, and then faster, until with a big belch of blue smoke, they’d catch and roar to life. The whole plane would shake, and it felt like a giant beast had come to life as the rpm went up, the plane accelerated and we flew over my home. I always imagined what it would be like to fly in and out of that airport.
Life, however, went on: I pursued an education and a career as a physician, and began raising a family. But one of the great things about being a father is the adventure your children bring to your life. By that time, I was living in Irvington, N.Y., and my youngest son, Ryan, wanted to be a pilot. So we sent him off for flying lessons, and he did very well.
One day, he invited me along for one of his lessons. I was in the backseat when Ryan and his instructor made me an offer that changed my life: “Would you like to fly the airplane?” The next thing I knew, I was taking off, flying around and landing. I was hooked: I went on to obtain my license and an IFR rating.
Soon after I got my license, my family decided to vacation in Puerto Rico. All of the dreams of that little boy looking at those airplanes at Isla Grande came flooding back. I ordered the VFR chart for Puerto Rico and was amazed at how truly tiny the island was.
After arriving in Puerto Rico, I went to the Isla Grande Flying School to rent a Cessna 172. As is the custom, the first time you go up at a new establishment, they send someone with you. A good idea, since we were right in the San Juan International Class B airspace.
Taxiing to the runway brought back all my memories of DC-3s. I lined up with centerline, pushed in the throttle, and off we went. The 172 lifted off smoothly, and I was flying over my old home!
I made a left turn to avoid the Bravo airspace, and it took us over Old San Juan, with all of its familiar streets and beautiful pastel colors. Next, I flew right over El Morro Castle, the last bastion that scared off Sir Francis Drake, El Draco, when he tried to invade Puerto Rico. I could see the glistening white of the Governor’s Mansion and the dark blues of San Juan Harbor. We were quickly over Dorado Beach and heading west. The palm trees, the lush greens and the sparkling beaches presented a kaleidoscope of sights.
The island is so small that we were at its western end in no time. I saw a huge runway below: Rafael Hernández Airport. Its runway is 11,700 feet long. My instructor informed me that B-52s used to fly out of there with nuclear warheads during the Cold War. Now, most of the traffic involves FedEx bringing in a much more benign cargo. After entering the pattern for a touch-and-go, we continued to fly around, admiring the beauty of the island. Everything looked so peaceful from the air.
We started back east, and passed over Arecibo Observatory, the world’s largest radar dish. (Some may remember it from the James Bond movie, GoldenEye.) It’s built into the mountain, and the southern side of it is just a sheer cliff. But before I knew it, my time was up, and we headed back to Isla Grande.
Something made me want to make the final landing perfect. Maybe there was another little boy looking at the runway, his head full of dreams. It was a straight-in approach right over the water of San Juan Harbor. I slowed down, put down the flaps and tried to remember all of my speeds. I saw the runway and focused on the numbers: I wanted to nail this one.
As we got closer, I kept those numbers fixed. I went right over them, touched down within 100 feet and greased it! After shutting down the engine, I realized it had all gone by too fast. What a privilege we have in this country to enjoy such a fantastic activity.
I thought about the dreams of a little boy watching those planes fly in and out. Now, I had accomplished my dream. I had flown in and out of Isla Grande Airport, not as a passenger, but as a pilot.
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