Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Light-Sport Chronicles: 50 Years To Solo

Rounding the circle of life with the immortal Piper Club

There’s always another hurdle to jump, another race to run better with the J3. That’s one of its greatest virtues as a trainer: It’s always teaching you. Yank it around, whip the throttle harshly, rein it in too fast—or slow—on flare, or spur it too hard with the pedals, and it will bolt or buck you right off the runway.

I don’t remember how I met Jim, a local pilot when I lived in Long Beach, Calif. He was in his 30s and knew I hoped to enter the Air Force Academy after high school. It was 1960. I was 15. John F. Kennedy was running for president. My world was filled with TV westerns, The Twilight Zone, balsa model planes and dreams of flying jet fighters and some day walking on the moon.

One day, Jim offered me instruction in his Piper Cub J3 for $5/hour...wet...including instruction! For a high-school kid with wings on the brain, and working in fast-food restaurants for spending money, well now: How do you pass up a chance like that?

Our first flight was out of a small grass strip flanked by huge, frightening power-line towers. Sitting in the front seat of the Cub, I remember vividly how strange everything felt. It was noisy (no headsets) and drafty, and I couldn’t see ahead (I was five feet, six inches and still growing)—hardly the romantic notion I had formed of laughter-silvered wings. What did he mean, “coordinated turn?” Why use rudder on takeoff, but not at other times...except in turns? Crosswind? What’s a crosswind—something that’s mad at you? I took another lesson two days later. Things started to come together. Then my mother, fearful of my impending doom, made me quit. I never flew with Jim or that wonderful, rickety old Cub again.

Over the years, I earned wings in a variety of ways that suited my independent nature. I took some sailplane lessons during college, couldn’t afford more, then bought a hang glider and taught myself, on dunes, then hills, then mountains, how to soar like a bird. When hang gliders evolved into ultralights in the ’80s, I built several, then wrote about and photographed anything with wings for the next 30 years. In 2008, I got my sport pilot license as Plane & Pilot’s LSA Editor.

I read recently that in our later years, we don’t so much seek out new worlds to conquer as much as we revisit those events, challenges and joys that sang the siren songs of our youth. And like a classic aged wine, perhaps there’s no sweeter taste than to fulfill an old, almost-forgotten dream. I bet I’ve seen a thousand Piper Cubs at Oshkosh, Sun ’n Fun and all the airports I’ve had the good fortune to visit. But until that day last spring at Great Barrington Airport (GBR) in western Mass., I had never completed that journey that began in a Cub so long ago.


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