First Solo

Actually, this isn't about that fiasco of my first trip into the sky in a sputtering homebuilt Heath  but my first official and legal solo flight on my sixteenth birthday a year and a half later. Piper Cub

Gus Irvin, who had given me two lessons in his Aeronca K, which probably saved my life when I managed to get the Heath into the air, came home on leave from where he was instructing primary students at Vernon, Texas and I told him about what happened to the Heath. His only comment was that at least I wasn't hurt. I'm sure he felt some responsibility in what had happened and said we would talk about my learning to fly when I was old enough.

While my dad had said he'd pay for my flying lessons, in looking back, I can see he used the situation to teach me work ethic and saving for something important. The first time I ventured the subject of learning to fly after wrecking the Heath, he set down the rules. It would be a 50/50 proposition in which I'd have to pay for one lesson and he'd pay for the next one. My problem was that paying, after-school jobs for a skinny fifteen year old boy were hard to come by but I was going to raise my share some way. My stash began with a dime in a coffee can under the side of my bed. First I collected pop bottles and returned them to the store for the two cents each deposit, but few people tossed bottles they way they do now so the total climbed painfully slowly. By the time the coffee can held fifty cents, as my dad put it, "The money began to burn a hole in my pocket" and I'd spend a nickel for a candy bar or coke and I continued to be a long way from enough money to pay for even my first hour which would cost seven dollars.

Then I got a job delivering the Grit Newspaper. The papers came in on the four o'clock train and I'd ride my bike to the depot to pick them up. They paid two cents for each paper delivered and with seventy-five customers, I could just taste the six dollars a month I was going to make. However, as in many business ventures, there was a fly in the ointment. I had to collect from the customers and pay Grit for the papers before I got my share. I spent the whole day on Saturday going from one customer to the next to collect the twenty-five cent monthly charge for the paper. I heard excuses all the way from "I forgot to get the money" to "I had to pay the milk man this week" to "I didn't get my paper last week so I'm not paying". Then there were the people who wouldn't come to the door when I knocked. By the end of the day I'd collected less than $13 with $18.75 COD when the papers would arrive on Monday.

A couple hours after I was supposed to pick up the papers, the agent called to tell me that the papers were there with $18.75 due. I told him I hadn't collected enough to pay for them so he said he'd just return them. The next day the Grit man came by, took the money I'd collected and fired me from my first real job. So much for working for a whole month without making a dime.

The school year dragged by with little increase in my flying lesson money and the only association I had with airplanes was to watch as one happened to fly over. Then one day I was walking by the saddle shop, Mr. Sessions called me inside. He offered me $2.00 a day to sweep the shop and learn leather work. He said when I was able to tool leather, he'd give me a raise to $3.00 a day. He was a good and patient teacher and I learned the art of leather stamping quickly and two weeks later he had me tooling belts and wallets and being paid $3.00 a day. My stash in the coffee can began to grow and I began to count how many hours of flying it would pay for.

I began to pester my dad about when I could begin my lessons but he kept telling me that since I'd need only about eight hours, I didn't want to start too soon and be ready to solo before my birthday on November 3rd. Finally, the week before school would begin the first of September, he said we'd go to the airport at the south edge of Borger, Texas for my first lesson. My coffee can contained enough money to pay for five hours of flying time with an instructor which came to seven dollars an hour for a 65hp trainer; six for the airplane and a dollar for the instructor. But, with my dad's promise to pay for half of my lessons, I had enough for almost fifteen hours of flying.

We arrived at the airport, which was a dreary place located in the center of a triangle of carbon plants belching choking clouds of acrid black smoke. They are long rows of metal buildings in which dull red flames burned raw natural gas, creating thick clouds of sticky black soot that collected on the insides of the buildings. The fire was turned off in each building about once a week and workmen scraped down the soot which was compacted into pellets and shipped away to become printing ink, paint and rubber for tires. Without a doubt, the nastiest job anyone could find. 

The airport facilities consisted of an old round-top hangar with a dirt floor which held perhaps half a dozen airplanes, a small building that served as the office and a couple smaller hangars large enough for only one airplane each. There were a few chairs, a couch and a desk along with the usual map of the nation on one wall. Like a long, dirty worm, a string hung from a nail where Borger was located. Pilots would pull the string from there to where they were going to get the general direction and then scale off the distance against a line with miles ticked off along it. I introduced myself to the man behind the desk, told him I wanted to take flying lessons and handed him my logbook with the three lessons. He flipped it open and observed that he knew Gus Irvin and he was a good instructor, then he asked, "Are you the kid who crashed a Heath about a year ago?" I admitted that it was me to which he replied, "You are lucky that you weren't killed."

 About that time a yellow Piper Cub with a black stripe down the side, the Piper cub decal somewhat askew on the tail and cylinders sticking out the sides of the cowl, taxied up. The polished wooden prop came to a stop with a clack, clack as the impulse on the magnetos engaged on the last few rounds. The window was raised against the wing, the door flopped down and a man and woman climbed out and stood talking for a few minutes before she walked in. The airport manager handed her my logbook, saying, "This young man wants to learn to fly. I'll go gas the Cub."

Jean LyonI had always associated pilots with men and had assumed it would be a man who taught me how to fly. She was a very attractive lady perhaps thirty years old, long black hair and stood just a tad over five feet tall. Her name was Jean Lyon but being fifteen and totally immersed in flying, her striking beauty went right over my head. She flipped my log book open and remarked, "Are you the one who crashed the Heath over at Stinnett?" Again, I had to admit being that person. "You were lucky that you didn't get hurt but we will see if we can teach you a bit more before you go solo again."

We walked out to the Cub where we talked about various parts of the airplane and she observed that I was far ahead of most students in my knowledge of airplanes, then she commented that since I'd done so much work on the Heath, it's no wonder I know quite about them. Then she showed me the proper way to hand crank an airplane by never moving into the arc of the propeller and to never hook my fingers over the blade of the prop. After discussing the various commands between the pilot and person at the prop and that they should never be changed to prevent mistakes, she hoisted herself into the front seat and fastened her seatbelt. This was my first lesson, the student cranked the airplane.

The engine started on the first pull and I climbed into the back seat, which seemed odd since I always thought the pilot flew from the front. All I could see around her starched white blouse and long black hair was the tachometer on the left and the combination oil pressure and temperature on the right. As we taxied to the end of the southwest runway, she demonstrated how to make "S" turns so I could see what was ahead. Taxiing the Cub with a steer tail and brakes was a lot easier than the Heath. There was a hill in the middle of the field where the three dirt runways crossed, making it impossible to see the other end of any runway. At least they were aligned so you flew between the carbon plants and didn't have fly through the smoke. At the end of the runway, she showed me how to hold the brakes, bring the RPM up to 1500 and check the magnetos to be sure both were firing properly. Then after checking to be sure no other airplanes were in the traffic pattern we lined up with the runway. "I'll make the takeoff and you follow through on the controls," she told me as she opened the throttle all the way.

I could feel the stick move forward and the tail rose until I could just see the runway ahead over the nose on either side of her head. I could feel slight movements on the rudder pedals as she kept us down the center of the runway while we gained speed. As we reached the top of the rise in the middle of the airport, the ground dropped away and we were flying. Jean reached down and gave a crank that looked like the window crank on a Ford a couple turns to trim the ship for climb. She raised her right hand to indicate that I was flying the ship and signaled for me to climb straight ahead.

I couldn't see the altimeter but things on the ground were getting smaller and smaller as I climbed higher than I'd ever been in an airplane. She cranked the trim for level flight, turned her head and shouted over the drum of the engine, "Let's see some Dutch Rolls." She might as well have been speaking Greek, or Dutch, because I had no idea what she was talking about. I'd read about barrel rolls, slow rolls and snap rolls but not Dutch rolls. I guess she sensed my hesitation and said, "They are like this," as she took the controls and banked to a 45 degree angle to the right, reversed it and banked back to the left. Then she leveled the wings and raised her hand to show me I was flying.

I moved the stick to the right and the nose sort of went the wrong way and as I banked the other way, the nose wallowed the opposite way. "Follow me through and see how I coordinate the rudders with the ailerons to keep the nose straight." As I improved doing the Dutch Rolls, she had me leave the bank in to do turns in one direction and back in the other until I was able to make a turn and roll out on the correct heading. Then she pulled on the carburetor heat, closed the throttle, changed the trim a bit and told me that was what a normal glide should look like and to make a few gliding turns.

"OK, open the throttle to cruise setting and trim it to level flight… and don't forget to turn the carburetor heat off," she reminded me. "See that road ahead, "I want you to do "S" turns across it. Fly straight toward it and begin a turn as soon as you cross it. Hold that turn for a hundred-eighty degrees and cross the road just as you finish the turn with your wings level. Then roll into a turn the other way.” Boy, this learning to fly was a lot harder than I'd imagined, she wanted me to do things just right before we would move on to something else. "OK, fly us back to the airport at about this altitude," she said.

The Airport! I had absolutely no idea where the airport was. I was over open grassland with scattered oil wells and dirt roads scratched out from one to another one. "Remember the carbon plants?" prompted Jean. "Find them and fly to them. That's one of the first things you learn as a pilot, where you are and where you need to go. The other thing is to know which way you flew in relation to the sun so you can fly the reverse direction if needed." I swung the nose around and there were the columns of black smoke six or eight miles away and the airport would be right in the middle of them. "Check the drift of the smoke so we will know which runway to use when we get there." she said.

As we came closer, I could pick out the hangar and the runways. The smoke was drifting off to the northeast which meant we would use the southwest runway we took off from. "Fly parallel to the runway about a quarter mile away, pull on the carburetor heat and close the throttle across from where you plan to land and crank the trim about three turns up for glide." she told me. "Be sure to look around for other airplanes in the pattern." Things were getting busy with so many things to think about and do but I was doing my best.

"OK, start your turn to base at this point and check your angle to the end of the runway, this looks about right. Look to your right as you make the turn to be sure the pattern is clear with no one on a long final." She had both hands up on the braces between where the wings connected above her head to the cowl on either side of the windshield. I was flying the airplane. "OK, begin your turn so you will be lined up with the runway when you finish it. Keep your glide angle and watch to see if the runway is rising or dropping in the windshield. If it's raising, you will be short and will need a little power and if it's falling, you will be a little high."  Everything seemed to be working right because it didn't change as I glided toward a spot a short distance from the end. "Begin to flare when you are about fifteen feet above the round and keep bringing the nose up as you sink lower. Let it sink till the wheels are almost on the ground and hold it off as long as you can."

The wheels hit the ground and we bounced so I let the stick go forward. Her right hand dropped instantly and the stick snapped back into my stomach. "Keep the stick back once you have touched or you will get it to crow-hopping," she said as the wheels came back in contact with the ground. Another thing I didn't know when I was flying the Heath, I thought. I felt a quick stab on the rudder pedals and she said, "Keep it straight, the flight isn't over till the plane is in the hangar."

She kicked the left brake to bring us around to the same spot in front of the office, reached up and rotated the ignition switch to off. The last blade swung past in front of the windshield and I suddenly realized just how tense I was. My arms ached and shirt was soaked with sweat. "You really learned a lot on that flight. You say you want to solo on your sixteenth birthday," remarked Jean as she filled out my logbook. "That's a couple months away so how about another lesson in two weeks, don't want to get you ready too soon and you'd have to wait," she remarked.

Jean talked with me about what I'd learned on my first lesson and that we'd do stalls and spins on this one. She let me do the takeoff which I accomplished without her having to make any corrections. All those high speed taxi runs I'd made in the Heath had sharpened my ability to hold it straight on takeoff. "Climb to about three thousand feet to the southwest," she told me. By stretching my neck and leaning to the right, I could barely see the altimeter over her right shoulder. When it read 6000 feet, which would put us 3000 feet above the ground, I cranked the trim to level flight and she told me to make a couple clearing turns. When I hesitated, she took the controls to make a steep turn to the left and another one back to the right, explaining that was so we could look below us to be sure it was clear.

She demonstrated and then had me do stalls from various attitudes until we were down to around fifteen hundred feet then told me to climb back to three thousand where after doing clearing turns to be sure no one was below us, she told me to raise the nose, tell her when I felt the burble and when it was going to stall. Then she told me when it stalled, to hold the stick back and kick the rudder either way and hold the controls in that position. I did as she said and as it stalled, I kicked the rudder and the ship rolled as the nose dropped through the horizon and began to rotate. After about two revolutions she told me to reverse the rudder to stop the spin, center it when the rotation stopped then release the back stick to let the nose drop and fly out of the stall.

That was fun but like everything else, she wanted me to be precise by counting the turns aloud and recovering after exactly two turns and the same heading as when I entered the spin. We did spin entries from out the bottom of steep turns, over the top and from skidding turns. Then she told me to fly back to the airport where we would shoot landings for the rest of the hour.

Using the carbon black plant beacon, I flew directly to the airport where we did landings from different altitudes and positions over the airport. She showed me how to add a bit of power when low and side slip when high. As she was filling out my logbook, she mentioned that she would be flying up to Gruver on Monday to give some lessons and would I like to go along. Would I like to go along??? That was like a question from heaven, free flying time and actually going somewhere. She asked about a place to land at Stinnett and I told her about on our ranch where I had flown the Heath. Then she handed me a sectional chart and told me to plot a flight from Stinnett to Gruver and she'd pick me up at about 8:30 on Monday morning.

I probably spent more time plotting that thirty mile flight than most pilots do for five hundred miles. Couldn't have been much simpler, straight north along the highway with two small towns in between as checkpoints but I figured the flying time for each segment down to the minute. With a cruising speed of 60mph, each mile was a minute.

I was there by seven the next morning and waiting for the minutes to creep past. Finally I heard an airplane and picked out the dot in the air approaching from the south. As it came closer I could make out the high wing and then the yellow color. It made a circle around the strip, came in over the low phone lines at the south end and landed. She lifted the window, dropped the door and climbed over into the front seat. I climbed in and was aware of the warm spot where she had been sitting. "There isn't any wind and the grade isn't bad so just take off to the north," she told me.

I checked off each intersection, railroad crossing, town and elevator for the next half hour. "There's no airport but we're using the grass area north of town," Jean told me. "Look the land over as you circle over it and pick out a landing spot." I helped with the airplane, gassing it when needed from a barrel someone brought in the back of a pickup and propping it when needed as she gave lessons one after another all day, stopping only for lunch. When it was time to leave for home, I took off and a few minutes later noticed her head leaning to one side and realized that she was asleep, must have been a tiring day. I put my hand on her shoulder as we approached Stinnett and she sat up, yawned and said, "That was a good nap." There was a light wind from the south so I flew a pattern to land that direction. "Swing around and land uphill. It's far easier to land up hill even with a tailwind than it is to land down a hill," she told me. I wish I'd have known that when I was trying to get the Heath on the ground.

I flew to Gruver and back with Jean on the next two Mondays until school began and that was ended. I took one lesson in September and she told me that as far as she was concerned, I needed only one more lesson about a week before my birthday to polish my patterns and landings and I would be ready to solo. The days dragged by for the rest of September and through most of October before we went back to the airport on a Saturday. No one was in the office and nothing seemed to be going on so I walked into the large hangar where a guy was working on an engine. I asked where everyone was and he told me that the manager had quit and Jean's husband had been transferred to Houston by Phillips and she was gone. His only suggestion as to where I might find an instructor and a plane to rent would be in Amarillo.

My dad was going to the cattle auction in Amarillo the next Friday so I skipped school to go with him. English Field, where the airliners landed and military operations on the east side of the field was about six miles east of town. We stopped and were told that they had a CPT program but no regular instruction and suggested the municipal airport about half way to town. There was a large red tile hangar with offices and lobby attached to one side. It wasn't nearly as busy as English Field but a couple airplanes were being serviced on the large ramp by a gas truck. When I asked about lessons, I was directed around the hangar to a row of wooden hangars behind it.

I gave my logbook to a man there and explained that I wanted to solo on my sixteenth birthday which was only a week away. His name was Harley Butler and when he noticed the name on the first two entries, he mentioned that he knew Gus Irvin and they had been primary instructors together. He had just been released when the supply of students exceeded the need and Gus had been moved to advanced training. He ran down the one page of flights and said that we'd go make a few trips around the airport to see how I flew. We walked out to a Piper Cub identical to the one I'd been flying and I did a preflight while he watched without comment. When he climbed into the front seat, I walked to the front to crank it. "Go ahead and get in," he said. "We have a line boy who does that." 

"We use the west half the field for training and other aircraft use the east side. There isn't enough wind to maker any difference so take off to the north. Go ahead just like I wasn't in here." he told me. The airport was a mile square with the northwest corner taken by the Fritch Highway so there was lots of room. I taxied out past the end of the row of hangers to where I the beaten down grass indicated other aircraft had been using, did my runup, checked the pattern and took off.

I flew a normal pattern and when I turned downwind, I asked him what he wanted me to do; he replied, "It's your flight, do whatever you wish." I pulled the carburetor heat on, closed the throttle across from where I wanted to land and trimmed for a normal glide. I checked the pattern on base, burped the engine to be sure it was still running and turned final. Everything looked fine and I was pretty proud of myself as I glided toward my touchdown spot. I flared for landing and when I was about two feet from the wheels touching the grass, he suddenly said. "There's a big ditch right in front of us, go around without touching."

I slammed the throttle open, closed the carburetor heat to get full power, held it level until it built speed then cranked the trim for normal climb. I couldn't believe that I had missed seeing a ditch. With him in the front seat, I couldn't see over the nose so something could have been there. When I was perhaps a hundred feet high, he reached up and closed the throttle. I dropped the nose to a normal glide and since there was lots of field left, I landed straight ahead. When I came to a stop, he said, "Taxi back to the hangar, I've seen all I need to." As I taxied back, I kept wondering what I had done wrong to cause him to end the flight so abruptly.

He didn't say another word till we were back in the office where he said, "I can have a pretty good idea how well a person can fly by the time he makes his first turn. Most anyone can fly straight and level but I wanted to see you make your own decision and how you handle emergencies." He looked at the calendar and said, "Your birthday is the third, that will be next Friday. I'll block the Cub for the morning for you."

We were up well before daylight the following Friday which was nothing new for people who live on ranches. There were all the usual chores that had to be done before we could leave. When it became light enough to see, the day didn't look all that good for flying. No way to tell for sure but the clouds looked awfully low. The good news came while we were eating breakfast when the weather forecast on the radio said the clouds would be lifting at around noon. It was lighter but the beacon was still on as we drove past English Field, indicating that instrument flight rules were in effect. The ceiling had to be a thousand feet for visual flight rules. We pulled off the road to watch a TWA airliner taxi out and take off. It disappeared into the gray clouds soon after takeoff. Nothing was moving at the municipal airport, everyone was sitting around drinking coffee. The windsock hung limp. Every few minutes someone would walk out on the ramp to see if the beacon at English Field was till rotating.

We were all standing on the ramp at noon watching for the weather people at English Field to release the weather balloon to verify the height of the ceiling. A black balloon about six feet across is filled with helium gas until it will lift a certain weight, then the weight is replace with a radioson which transmits altitude, temperature and dewpoint as it rises. They know how fast the balloon will rise and it is timed from release until it disappears into the clouds to get the exact height of the clouds. We watched the black dot begin to rise and followed it until it entered the clouds then waited but the beacon didn't stop rotating, guess the ceiling was still too low.

By that time there were a dozen or more people rooting for the weather to improve to where I could solo. Harley was calling the weather service about every half hour only to be told that while the clouds were lifting, they were still too low. Finally after the 4:00pm balloon launch, the beacon winked off. I don't know whether the ceiling was high enough or not but the people at the weather service were also wanting me to solo and giving me all the help they could. Harley told me to preflight the plane and we'd give it a try.   

He told me that we'd have to fly the traffic pattern at 500 feet instead of the usual 800 feet and to keep it closer to the airport. We shot two quick landings and the instructor told me to stop so he could get out. He fastened the seatbelt over the seat to keep it from getting in the way of the rudder pedals and told me to make a pattern flight and land near him. He warned me that the ship would climb easier without his weight and would tend to float a bit more.

With a mile of field available, it was a simple matter to land, then take off from that point without having to taxi back. He was right, the Cub accelerated faster and hopped into the air with ease. The amazing thing was that with no one in the front seat, I could now see the airspeed and altimeter and suppose I was paying more attention to them than I was to the other things that were happening. Suddenly I realized that the engine was no longer turning 2250rpm but was down around 1800 and even though the nose was in climb altitude, the altimeter showed that I was barely 200 feet above ground as I passed over the north fence around the airport. The airspeed was hovering around 45mph and finally it hit me like a wet slap in the face, carburetor ice! I'd been warned about it many times and read about why it happened, but had never experienced it I grabbed the knob to feed hot air off the exhaust into the intake to melt the ice but it was already too late, the RPM continued to drop. My first thought was to get back on the airport but as I began a turn to the left, I could feel the first hints of a stall and I was sinking lower. There was no way I was going to make it back on the field so I leveled the wings, checked the prairie ahead which was level and open, closed the throttle and landed.

old hangar
The only signs of the old Borger Airport is this one
hangar, which is now used as a barn.

As I rolled to a stop, the propeller stopped turning, the engine was dead. At first I thought it was gasoline dripping from the intake screen but realized it was water. The evaporation of the gasoline in the carburetor had chilled the air to the point where the moisture in it began to form ice. Once the RPM drops to a certain point, the intake air isn't hot enough to melt the ice before it chokes the engine completely. I peeked inside the cowling and the whole carburetor was a ball of frost.

A few minutes later I saw a car approaching with Harley in the passenger seat and my dad in the back. I figured that I was in for a good chewing but all Harley had to say when he walked up was, "You just learned about carburetor ice, I should have warned you. Not many people have a forced landing on their first solo flight.'

"Better watch my dad, he set fire to the airplane after my first forced landing," I told him. He and my dad roared with laughter. We cranked the engine after letting it set for a bit and it fired right off. It would develop full power on the ground so Harley told me, "You landed it here so you can fly it out. I'll meet you back at the field."

I took off with an eye on the tachometer and had it dropped even slightly, I'd have gone to carburetor heat but it ran fine in the short pattern to get me back on the airport. Harley signed my log book and they went through the ritual for first time solo students by cutting the tail off my shirt, writing my name and date of first solo on it along with the fact it included a forced landing. It was tacked to the wall with other mementos.

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