Forty years ago today I fulfilled a lifelong dream and flew for the first time. I had expected to be a passenger as my instructor, a redhead from Kentucky named Kearnes Branham, showed me the ropes, but it doesn’t work that way. After a pre-flight check, I rolled down Runway 16L at Van Nuys and off we went. The little Cherokee responded to my clumsy inputs most forgivingly. After 44 hours of such dual and later solo flights, I received my license 71 days later.
Soon after I took a similar plane on my first real cross-country flight to see my wife’s cousin play Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” in Palo Alto. All was blissful until somewhere over Monterey Bay when the electricity went out. That meant no gauges or radios. There had been headwinds (somehow there usually are, even on round trips) and I wasn’t sure about my fuel supply, so I landed at a little mountaintop airport near Santa Cruz. After gassing up, I realized I had no starter power. Fortunately little planes have a socket for just that purpose, and after a jump start we arrived alongside Palo Alto tower. One of the things you learn that seems superfluous is flashlight signals from the tower when unable to communicate by radio. I expected a green and white light clearing me to land, but instead saw a green/red flash – extreme danger! Turns out some bozo was cutting me off, entering the pattern illegally. After landing I had to present my case to an FAA official who certified that it was a true emergency.
In 1973 my pal John (I had three close friends named John, all of whom were pilots and all died, two in crashes) and I flew to Wichita with Kearnes to pick up our first airplane, a beautiful Cessna 172. Nicely equipped for instrument flight, it cost about $23,000. That same plane with same airframe but with modern avionics and safety features now goes for about $200,000; most of the difference goes to our friends, the trial lawyers. We had a memorable trip home and were greeted by our wives and children as if we were Lindbergh.
In 1974 I earned an instrument rating, which among other things made me realize how little I knew about flying up to then. In some ways it was tougher than medical school. Given the weather in this area, it’s hard to clock enough real instrument hours so we fly “under the hood” with an instructor. A pilot must also undergo training every time he wants to rent a new model aircraft or rent from a new facility. In those early years there were a lot of $50 hamburgers, but I also discovered a few enchanted spots that pilots can get to quickly such as Sedona, Catalina, the Gold Rush towns and so many others.
In the bicentennial year I took my first real vacation in my new Rockwell Commander, which I picked up at the factory in Oklahoma City with my two older sons. The 112 was the prettiest and most comfortable in its class, although not that fast. In April we departed on a great adventure, overnighting in Tulsa and then spending a day in Nashville, where a doctor friend showed us around his beautiful city. Then on to Atlanta and a CDC alumni conference, thence to Washington where we met up with wife and two younger kids for a tightly-planned DC tour. On deplaning, my wife mentioned that the youngest, Laurence (7) had a few bug bites. After doing the Capitol, White House, FBI, Library of Congress and Smithsonian, we visited Arlington National Cemetery. By that time the bites had blossomed into full-blown chickenpox, a fact I announced loudly while we waited behind hundreds of folks waiting for the bus out of Arlington. (Nobody budged). Narrowly averting an international incident, we flew Laurence to his grandparents’ house in Atlantic City where he recuperated while the rest of us visited more historic places including Philadelphia, where I had interned, and Yale, where our pal and best man, Sam Thier, had become Chief of Medicine at age 39. After returning to Atlantic City where we landed in the midst of a rainstorm with 50-mph winds, I wrote a letter to the Press complaining about the airport’s miserable service and maintenance. It was published on the front page. Within a few years the casinos arrived and Atlantic City finally got a serious airport, but they didn’t name it after me.
The rest of that trip resumed with my two older boys visiting Cornell (we tried for Cooperstown but in the 95 degree heat and haze were unable to find its airport, a 1600-foot strip indistinguishable from a driveway). We did make it to the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, where I had also arranged to visit with an old patient who nine years earlier had been my smallest premie to survive, at 1 pound 9 ounces. The hamburger she ate that day was probably bigger than she had been. (Sadly she was killed by a drunk driver at 18). We stopped in Chicago to visit Steve’s birthplace at the University of Chicago, where an old black nurse greeted us and actually remembered his birth! We then spent two days with a former mom in my practice on a ranch near Sioux Falls SD, where she had moved following a high-profile divorce and child custody battle. Her girls were beautiful and of similar ages, and my boys had a lot of fun going into “town” with them and infuriating the locals who did not care for these intruders from “Hollywood”. Eighteen days after we left, and a last stop in Casper WY we made it home. Compared to that adventure, flying cross-country in an airliner is flat-out boring!
In the next few years I continued to upgrade planes and stake out more places. One trip took us to Mazatlan and some of the best beaches in the world. A year later we attempted to fly to New Orleans (made it to San Antonio but had to fly commercially over a stationary front which hadn’t moved four days later – the pilot had to climb to 45,000 feet for a 45-minute flight – and found our luggage compartment flooded after a 6″ rainfall). The rest of the trip, to Puerto Vallarta, was delightful.
In 1978, and again in 1980, I joined the Flying Physicians on fantastic Alaskan tours. We met up in Edmonton, Alberta (the second trip included a stay in Grand Teton National Park) and flew the Alaska Highway, stopping in Whitehorse, Yukon for a world-class burlesque show and ending up in Anchorage. There were 39 planes on the first tour, 26 on the second (after four years of Jimmy Carter everyone was going broke). Side trips included Fairbanks, Denali (Mt. McKinley to the uninitiated), Kotzebue (north of the Arctic Circle!) and almost Nome. Almost because I had a mishap that could have been disastrous; my oil cap came loose and the windshield became almost useless, to say nothing of the real risk of the engine seizing up. Now the Alaskan tundra is like nothing you’ve ever seen, and it was covered with an almost solid undercast. My five passengers (I had a Cessna 210 by now) did not panic because I did not panic. Straight ahead was an old airbase which, unlike commercial airports, had what’s called Precision Approach Radar. That fellow talked me down (turn 2 degrees left, etc.) like an invisible hand, and when we broke through the clouds that runway looked like Shangri_La. I had lost 4 quarts of oil, about a pint short of calamity. N761YM needed a bath and we all enjoyed a beautiful, although unscheduled, detour back to Anchorage. Later in the week we visited Kodiak Island, one of the most scenic and unique places I’ve ever been. We also got to fish for salmon in the Bay of Alaska aboard boats belonging to the sons of our hospital administrator. I love salmon almost any which way, but barbecued salmon right out the bay is incomparable. They have a saying up there: when you visit Alaska you never come all the way back. It’s true. Seeing it from such an intimate height, its glaciers and unspoiled beauty, is challenging but unforgettable. And by the way, we saw what was then the new Alaska Pipeline up close; it is one of the most handsome man-made structures you’ll ever see, and the caribou love it too!
People always ask about close calls, and besides the one above there were several others. The most memorable was so much so that I had it published in a magazine. I shared a condo in Sun Valley, ID for a few years. While my wife and the two youngest flew commercially, an 8-hour ordeal by way of Salt Lake City, I headed north with my two big guys for what was forecast to be a clear flight. Of course within two hours we were in a huge snowstorm. Strangely, it was totally calm but like the inside of a ping-pong ball. I planned to stop in Ely NV but the tower operator discouraged that because he couldn’t see his own runway! That meant climbing back up to altitude, burning extra fuel and hoping to make it to Twin Falls ID. A helpful Western Airlines pilot got on my frequency at one point and said I could circle down through the clouds from my present position and I’d find a little airport on the Nevada border, but I calculated that with my 35-knot (40 mph) tailwind I could make it, and I did. But the tower asked me to go around and approach from the north and I declined. My fuel bill was 64 gallons; I probably had half a gallon of usable fuel left. But we did beat the rest of the family by several hours!
There were many other adventures. In 1981 I took my daughter to several colleges she was interested in, and visited old friends on the way. (She wound up at UCLA for her freshman year). In 1983 I joined a bunch of friends from Valley Presbyterian in an investment program in a beautiful spot in Colorado, Pagosa Springs. On the sunny west side of the Rockies at 7500 feet, with a ski resort an hour away, it seemed like Paradise and a sure bet for eventual retirement. What could go wrong? We bought several acres on a golf course, time shares, and other parcels. Some of the group actually moved up there. Best thing for me was that it was an excuse to fly. I made about ten round trips, less than four hours each way, seeing Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and so many other incredible sights. But the oil bust in 1986 wiped out most of the investor base, virtually all of whom were from Texas and Oklahoma. The rest of our group was hit by death and bankruptcy, and I had to walk away from what had become a dream. Lesson learned: stick to medicine.
There were a few more thrills, such as flying into Chicago for my 25th medical school reunion, several samaritan trips to Baja California with a group of doctors, dentists, nurses and others to minister to a remote village called Punta Prieta; trips to Carlsbad Caverns, White Sands National Monument, the 1986 Worlds Fair in Vancouver. My penultimate trip was to the Bay Area where I took my oldest son and his new bride on a scenic tour of San Francisco that was magical. But after one last trip to Palm Springs (ironically, to an aviation expo where I could salivate over the new planes I couldn’t buy), I hung up my magic carpet key for the last time. Perhaps 200,000 miles later, after 1268.9 hours, there’d be no more $100 hamburgers (forget $50!) but the memories have grown more wonderful. What a privilege to have been a pilot!