Learning to Fly in the Late Fifties

By Hans Schroeder, EAA 43437

We all agree (I think) that once you catch the bug, flying never lets go of you no matter how long you abstain. And so, after a number of years I took a few dual lessons again last year, and what struck me was how much single engine land had changed over the years. Symbolically, the change from the plain white paper ticket to the current secure plastic card — with hologram, yet!

My first flying lesson was in Dayton (DAY) on a June day in 1958. We used a Cessna 120 85 hp (not locked, no key!). Soon I had to memorize the checklist which was “CIGarettes For The Poor Russian Soldiers” that is, controls (free?), instruments (altimeter setting, etc.), gas (switch tanks), flaps (none here), trim (set), prop (fixed here), run-up, and safety (belt, lap belt that is, and doors), and after clearance from the tower, off we went.

Tuning the radio (no earphones) used an internal calibrator and to tune to a channel you tuned for zero-beat (non-radio amateurs: tune for the whistle to vanish) and the CFI told me proudly, “That’s called the whistle stop,” it may have been a trade name.

In due time there came the lesson to do my first takeoff. Now in those days there was no tailwheel endorsement; taildraggers were simply it. So that day the CFI told me simply, “Keep the nose down, keep it on the runway until I tell you,” and I know (now) that he knew just what would happen. Have you ever tried pulling a grocery shopping cart and feel how it wants to whip? That’s what happened to me. We were nicely lined up, “Pour on the coals and keep it straight with the rudder,” but the novice (me) was anxious and pushed the rudder just a bit too quickly, a bit too much. Like the whipping shopping cart, this produced an overcompensation, which then caused me to overcorrect the other way.

So our zig-zags across that wide runway increased in amplitude, and very soon I went from one side of the runway to the other with tires squeaking toward the end. After about the fourth zig or zag I thought “This time I am not going to make it” and at that instant my CFI pulled back on the wheel, laughing, and we were flying (across the grass). We really had more than enough flying speed by that time, but the CFI just wanted to make me aware of the dynamics. So I learned: Take your time, move that rudder slowly!

I think attitudes must have been looser and regulations fewer when I think of some of the things we did; here my CFI once, on final approach, said, “Let me have it,” and he proceeded to make a beautiful short-field spot landing on the little stub of runway beyond the taxiway entrance, and then proceeded to enter that taxiway’s end. Not expecting this maneuver the tower apparently “lost” us and after a little while asked “Where are you?” and my CFI proudly told him where we were — show-off!

And then my first solo when my regular CFI mentioned that perhaps I was getting ready for that important step. So at my next appointment I was somewhat shocked that this time the senior instructor greeted me. And our flight seemed not to go very well — lots of criticism, instructions, even yelling, “When are you going to turn on that carburetor heat?” — and I thought, “No way will I solo today” But amazingly, after a few touch-and-gos he said, “Make a full stop this time,” and that was in the middle of the field! He told me to go around a few times and pick him up again, and then he told the tower about the “first solo” and the tower replied, “We’ll take good care of him!” and he got out, left me alone! And wow! Did that 85-hp Cessna want to fly without that second person! Scared and happy at the same time.

The first solo cross-country was anti-climactic. “Use your resources (sectional chart), call the Weather Bureau, fly to Urbana (about 35 miles), get your logbook signed and come back.” No problem.

Ground school in preparation for the flight test was minimal, which may have been partly my fault. I had always been interested in the physics of weather and solving wind triangles was easy for me because they normally involve narrow triangles, and solving those with approximations is common in electrical engineering. So at one point my annoyed CFI exclaimed “I don’t know what the h*** you are doing, but you got the right answer. So never mind!”

A general principle was that “you’ve got to be able to fly without depending on instruments” (VFR of course) and one day that was useful to me. I had reserved an hour of solo on a very cold day. It turned out that it was necessary to take the Cessna inside and get rid of some snow and frost. As I took off I noticed that I had no airspeed indication — the little flap covering the pitot tube had frozen shut. No problem, of course.

Emblematic of the changes over the years is the Dayton Pilots Club, of which I was one of the founding members and which, as I gather from their website (I now live in Milwaukee), is now a very professionally run organization, much different from the “wild and wooly” operation in my days. We then rented hangars at South Dayton Airport, a grass strip in a bend of the Great Miami River. Aircraft must have been much more affordable then, because the club had a J-3 Cub, also a Cessna 140, a Piper PA-12 Super Cruiser, and a Piper PA-28 Cherokee, which my wife liked because of the low wing; it makes you feel that you are “sitting” on something.

Ah, yes, things were different, and, in a way, I think, more fun, more carefree. But with the increase in air traffic and the sometimes excessive (I think) safety considerations, it is nice to have an organization, such as EAA trying to keep alive some of that spirit of adventure and independence.

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