Plane & Pilot
Saturday, March 1, 2008

Fathers, Sons And Flying

A CNN correspondent reflects on flying as a family affair

guest speakerFor me, it all began a few thousand feet over some Michigan farmland about 40 years ago. We were somewhere between Detroit and Alpena when my father gave me a heading, told me to keep it straight and level, and then let me grab the yoke. I’ll never forget the joy I felt when that 172 began responding to my whims. It was love at first flight.

From that moment on, my father had himself a fully engaged first officer and a carbon-based, self-replicating autopilot system—who needs a servo when you have a kiddo?

My dad taught me the basics of pilotage (you GPS-weaned youngsters wouldn’t understand), and soon I was doing all the dead reckoning—identifying waypoints and timing the distance between them. Suddenly, those story problems from math class actually seemed relevant!

Navigating wasn’t so easy given my nine-year-old stature. In fact, my first hours flying an airplane were all on instruments—not because the weather was bad or I was some kind of aviation savant, I simply couldn’t see the over the glare shield. Many years later, when I began flight training for my instrument rating, my instructor marveled at my seemingly instant knack for flying under the hood. I did nothing to discourage him from believing I was a natural.

I do believe I was born with some sort of recessive aviation gene. Both of my grandfathers were pilots. My mother’s dad, Russell “Duke” Riley, was a wool importer who lived in Boston. In 1933, he bought a Stinson SR Reliant (N13477) that he flew to textile mills in New England and upstate New York. He loved to tell the story of how he beat his rail-bound competitors to a mill in Cohoes, N.Y., and landed an order for a million bags of wool (a record at that time) to make army uniforms.

He claimed he was a pilot, although I doubt he ever really had a license (in any case, he always flew with someone who did have one). According to family lore, my grandfather sold his plane after a trip to New York City in some low weather with my grandmother aboard. Apparently, they got lost looking for Floyd Bennett Field and broke out of the clouds close enough to the Empire State Building that she could see the whites of the office workers’ eyes. After my grandfather and the Stinson parted company, it ended up in Alaska sporting a pair of floats. Eventually, it made its way to the Seattle Museum of Flight where it now hangs from the rafters. My grandfather would be pleased to know his bird is safe and sound for posterity.

Duke’s brother, Arthur, also had an affinity for things that flew. For many years he was the aviation editor of The Boston Globe. According to family lore, he coined the term “skycap”—an aviation portmanteau based on the term for railroad porters, “redcap.” I’m unable to verify this either, although I’m certain he helped foist the term into the popular lexicon even if he didn’t hatch it.

Arthur had the good fortune to cover the Golden Age of Aviation, the amazing years between the World Wars. Right beat...right time…I didn’t even get the T-shirt.

So, I guess it was preordained that I would learn to fly. I took my first lessons in St. Petersburg, Fla., (at Albert Whitted Field) and soloed there in 1986. I finished my training in Boston (Hanscom Field) and took my checkride with the elder Mike Goulian of Executive Flyers fame in February 1988. It was a brutally cold day and the pitot-static system was iced over. Mike told me to press on, and I learned a little something about how to handle an airplane without an important system.


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