Vic Banko - Flying Article

FIRST FLIGHT                 Victor F. Banko   © MARCH, 2009                                          

To this point, it was a very long and restless night. Sleep continued to elude me no matter how many sheep I counted.

For the moment, my left arm was on the outside of the blanket and the right under my pillow. I’d gotten out of bed for some water at least twice. I’d been tossing and turning for quite a while. It was on about the fiftieth turn that I glanced at the clock on the nightstand. The bright red numerals screamed at me that it was 2:40 AM, only ten minutes since the last time I looked.

“Ten minutes!” I thought. “Only ten minutes since last time? It can’t be!”

It seemed like that scene was repeated every ten or fifteen minutes until I finally got out of bed at 6:30 AM and prepared for the coming days activities. No, I wasn’t in a state of worry or concern. And no, there wasn’t a major problem that concerned me. I wasn’t in pain or discomfort. It was nothing like that. In fact, it was something quite the opposite. It was the anticipation of a pending good experience. It was the upcoming fulfillment of a lifelong dream. It, to be precise, was excitement!

I guess a little explanation is in order at this point.

When I was a young boy, my uncle Joe, my mother’s youngest brother, owned an airplane. It wasn’t much of a plane by comfort or performance standards, but it was an airplane. To be more specific, it was a Piper Cub J3, one of the most popular airplanes in history. But more about that later!

I remember the first time that I rode in his Cub. In fact, it’s the genesis of one of my Sonny’s Adventures series, called The Pilot.

Ever since that first ride, I have had a thing about airplanes and flying. I have never been apprehensive about flying in any flying machine. I‘ve been up in single and multi-engine light planes, commercial aircraft of every size and type, helicopters, and gliders, I would have added dirigibles, hang gliders and ultra-lights if I had the opportunity. All of this as a result of that first ride in the Cub.

If I had to list one thing that I have dreamed about or wanted in my entire life, that would be a pilot’s license, or more correctly, a pilot’s certificate. Some people want a boat, or to travel to exotic places, or to climb Mt. Everest, or do some other romantic and unusual activity. Most never achieve their goals, or worse, never try. Unfortunately, like the dreams of many others, mine was always delayed by other more important things like college, marriage, kids, a mortgage, more college, and so on. There was always something that was more important, more urgent, and more necessary. As a result, I never got my pilot’s license, oops, certificate. But the dream persisted and I never gave up hope that one day, it would become reality.

I am now 71 years old. I’ve had a good life and been blessed with a great family. All things considered, I really had nothing to complain about or to regret, at least until last year. 2008 was a year I don’t wish on anyone. Without getting too emotional and dramatic, I’ll simply say that there were two major events in my life; life altering changes.

First, I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in April. I have since been through two chemo therapy regimens, a radiation therapy protocol, surgery, 2 colonoscopies, 2 CAT scans, a PET scan, a trans-rectal ultrasound, and an ostomy. The bottom line is that I seem to have beaten the cancer, although I must wear a colostomy bag for the rest of my life.

The second, much more impactful and traumatic event was the passing of my wife, Barbara. Barb passed away suddenly and unexpectedly on the morning of Father’s Day, the day before the last of my radiation and initial chemo treatments. She never even heard the good news that the treatments appeared to be successful in arresting the growth of the cancer.

At this point, my physical condition has improved dramatically and I am back to doing all the things that I did before. It appears that I have indeed beaten the cancer and will live a long life. At least, that’s my intent. But there has been a change in me, or at least in my attitude. I wrote an article called “Coping!” in which I define three things to do that I feel will help in recovery and return to normalcy. One of the things is to plan long term projects or goals and then do everything you can to reach them. It could be as simple as booking tickets for a Broadway play 6 or 8 months in the future; or booking a long desired cruise; or visiting foreign countries. I think that when you have a long range goal to plan for and look forward to, it helps to nurture a positive outlook and to think positive thoughts.

In my case, my goal is to earn my pilot’s certificate and I have taken the necessary initial steps to that end. That is the reason for my sleepless night and the excitement that I talked about earlier.

Earlier in the week, I visited 2 flight schools in the area. The first was a well-known school based at Morristown Airport, one of the very busy facilities in our area. It’s a private and commercial facility that services many businesses and their corporate jets. Since it can handle corporate jets, the physical facilities are great. Unfortunately, I found it too busy for me. I wanted a place where there was less traffic, both on the ground and in the air. To be sure, I felt a bit intimidated by the prospect of landing and taking off amidst all the corporate jets. I admit that the flight school was quite up to date, as far as computers and simulators, etc., and that their training would be excellent. But to be honest, I wanted something a bit more personal and certainly less busy.

So, the next day, I visited Aeroflex Andover Airport in suburban Andover, NJ. 



Andover is a lovely little town in Sussex County, in northwest NJ. It’s actually more of a hamlet than a town. I was very familiar with the area since I used to do a bit of fishing nearby. In fact, the local terrain is dotted with hundreds of ponds and lakes. The airport is small by anyone’s standards. It has 2 parallel runways, one paved and one grass. They lie in a north/northeast orientation. About 2000 feet in length, they run between Lake Aeroflex to the north and Gardeners Pond to the south. The facility is owned by the NJ State Forest Fire Service.

I had never fished Lake Aeroflex, which was originally known as New Waywayanda Lake although it’s actually only about 19 miles from my home. Anyway, I drove there on Wednesday about noon. The entrance to the airport is also the entry to the boat ramp for the lake. I drove in looking for the flight school. I found my way blocked at the north end by an automatic gate. I assumed it was there to prevent people from driving onto the runway area. So I retraced my way to a point about midway on the runway where there was a non-paved parking area. The hangers and buildings were on the other side of the runways so I had to walk across to get there. I looked carefully in both directions to be sure there was no incoming or outgoing air traffic.

The flight school office and airport office were small and basic, not at all like those at Morristown. I entered the flight school office where I met the owner and chief instructor Damian DelGaizo. The office was small and dated by the Morristown school standards and about the same size as my den at home. There was no simulator and the only computers I saw were on the owner’s desks. The décor was a fascinating collection aviation art, instruments, components, and memorabilia, Autographed photos of famous pilots trained by Damian stood out among the photos. Pictures of Lindbergh stood out among them. In short, the office was an eclectic collection of aviation materials that any aviation aficionado would appreciate. I explained who I was to Damian, what I wanted, and why, and asked for information on getting my pilots training and certificate. He took his time to explain everything to me, including the “new” categories of recreational and sports pilot certificates. Without getting into detail, the category of sports pilot was of interest. It is the most basic, simplest, and least regulated of all. I decided almost immediately that this was the school for me. It was cemented in stone when he took me next door to show me the training aircraft, two bright, yellow planes; a J3 and a Top Cub, a very special Cub made by CubCrafters, Inc.

I told him to have an instructor call me as soon a possible to set up an introductory flight and first lesson.

I returned home, quite happy with what I discovered at Aeroflex. It seemed like a perfect match to what I wanted. That evening, I call a call from my assigned instructor, a woman that flew for United Airlines and logged over 17,000 hours. Obviously, she was more than qualified. We made an appointment for 2:00 PM the next day. I was sky high even before I got into an airplane.

So there you have the reason for my restless night. I was taking the first step toward my long desired pilot’s certificate.

I woke, turned on the coffee pot, and went out to get my morning papers as usual. As I opened the front door, I had a bad feeling about the day. It had snowed a bit overnight and my sidewalk and drive were fairly slippery. I was concerned that my first lesson would be cancelled due to weather. I brought the papers in and even before setting down for my breakfast and papers, I turned on the TV and tuned in the weather channel.

The report was a bit more promising. Cloudy morning skies would turn to partly sunny and the temperature would hit the mid to high forties. Things looked pretty good!

It seemed like the time to leave for the airport would never come. I went about some routine chores and left quite early. I gave myself an hour for a 30-40 minute trip. When I got there, I went through the gate that stopped me the day before. It opened as my car got close. Continuing carefully across the runways, I proceeded to a small parking area near the office/hangers, parked and walked to the flight school. There, I met my instructor, Lynn O’Donnell, for the first time.

We talked for a while. I explained my goals and she explained the day’s agenda and answered my questions. The day was getting brighter as we spoke and the clouds were breaking up. That was a good sign. We waited for a while for the plane to come back. It was being used for another mission by the school owner. It returned a few minutes later and taxied to the fuel station at the end of the hangers, where it was refueled for my lesson.

Lynn and I walked to the Cub and went through the preflight check list. She explained every step and every item even though I was fairly familiar with all the controls and terms. I had a moment of apprehension when she showed me how to enter the cockpit. In case I haven’t mentioned it, the Cub is a small airplane, very small, with a cramped cockpit I wondered if I would be able to manipulate my “old” body into position. I needed have worried. Nothing was going to stop me at this point. After some brief cautions from Lynn as to where to step and what to hold, after all he Cub is a fabric covered airplane, I got into the rear seat. The Cub is a tandem, a two-seater, one in front of the other. Once Lynn was satisfied that I was comfortable and properly belted in, we went through the instrument and controls checklist. This plane is truly a plain vanilla airplane. It had no radios or sophisticated navigation system. Navigation is done with a magnetic compass, altimeter, and a map. The only other instruments are oil pressure and temperature gauges, an air speed indicator, and a tachometer. It doesn’t take long to go through the checklist. Then it was time to start the engine. There’s no electric starter in this Cub either, so we had to recruit the help of one of the school’s regulars to “flip” the propeller.

Unfortunately, we had some trouble starting. The recruit cranked the prop. Magnetos on and throttle cracked open a bit, he flipped the prop time after time. It didn’t start! So we tried several combinations of magneto and throttle settings, unsure if the engine was flooded or not. Eventually, our helper tired himself out and we called for Damian the plane owner. He needed only one try to start the engine. Obviously, the man knew his plane.

Lynn asked if I was ready to go, although she must have known my answer would be a resounding “You bet!”  We had put on head sets so that we’d be able to hear each other in the somewhat noisy cockpit. Then she started to taxi us to the north end of the paved runway so that we’d take off into the wind, which was clearly indicated by a wind sock on the other side of the runway. She taxied using “s” turns, going from side to side, so that we had a good view of what was ahead of us. With a tail dragger, you can’t see much of the ground over the nose of the plane so the pilot makes a series of left and right turns, making an “s” so that they could see in front of the plane during the turns. Once in position at the start of the runway, and a last look around for other air traffic, she said “Here we go!” gave the Cub full throttle and off we went. It seemed like we had only gone a hundred feet or so and we were flying. I must have had a smile ten feet wide.

After we climbed to a reasonable altitude, she asked if I wanted to take the controls. My response was obvious. We flew for some time and she asked me to try some shallow as well as steep turns. We went through some other basic maneuvers as well. I tried to keep the plane between 2500 and 3000 feet in altitude, quite successfully if I say so myself. For a while, we simply flew around the area, practicing the basic maneuvers and enjoying the scenery. To make matters even sweeter, the sun came out and we flew in blue, although cold, skies. Did I mention that the Cub has only a very basic heating system, which barely suffices in 20 degree weather? We made one diversion to a small, nearby field with only a grass runway. Lynn landed the airplane, explaining every move for my benefit. At the end of the runway, we turned the Cub around to return to the start of our takeoff, into the wind. She let me taxi the plane, and I tried, not too successfully, to use “s” turns. My “s” turns looked more like some ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic character. I needed Lynn’s help. Then we took off from the grass runway, my hands lightly on the stick so I could “feel” her motions. I really felt that I could have taken off reasonably well. But that will come in due time.

We again climbed to cruising altitude and I flew the plane around the area, identifying familiar landmarks as I went. I saw several golf courses where I played a round or two. I saw railroad tracks and a quarry that I’ve passed many times. I recognized several small towns and lakes. There is no comparing the view from 3000 feet to that of a window seat on a commercial airliner. I was amazed at the number of small ponds and lakes in the vicinity, all wearing their winter layer of ice. There was so much to see but it was time to end the lesson. After a total time of a little over one hour, I headed back to the airport where Lynn took over the controls, and flying standard patterns, came in over Lake Aeroflex, making a beautiful landing, that I hope to duplicate soon.

She taxied us to spot near the office, parked, and shut off the engine. Needless to say, I was so high that I didn’t come down for a few minutes after the Cub.

We then returned to the office, where we talked for a while and I told her I wanted to proceed with my lessons. I then paid for this first lesson, a small price to pay for a step toward one’s lifelong dream. She then gave me my own Pilot’s Log Book after filling in all the required information. I also made an appointment for the following Wednesday for Lesson 2. But I’ll guarantee that I will accelerate my subsequent lessons as much as I can. Lynn made this experience very satisfying. Somehow, she instilled comfort and confidence in me, making the experience easier and enhancing my ambition. I left the airfield already anxious for my next lesson.

I can also assure you that I had sweet dreams that night.

In closing, let me give some advice. If you want to take a cruise, or visit Europe, or climb a mountain, then do it! If your emotions end up similar to mine, you’ll never be sorry.