I believe in living life without regrets. I have no regrets. I have lived a very full and fulfilling life. I have done what I want to do, I still have things I want to do, and there are many more things I’m going to do. Things have happened the way they have because that’s the way they’re going to happen.
I have always wanted to be a private pilot. This is something I talked about casually but it wasn’t something my dad and I talked about a lot when he was alive. While I know he loved me very much and he was proud to have me as his son, I kinda know I wasn’t his favorite. That title went to my sister and I never had a problem with that. My relationship with my dad was great, it was just primarily unspoken. And we really didn’t talk much about things like flying airplanes and the like, even though we did it a lot together. I figure he just didn’t know how to process having a gay son in the 1980s. No worries, no angst, it’s just the way it was and it is.
I think of him at this time of year because my last phone call with my dad took place during the week of Thanksgiving in 2011. He had just flown his second home built airplane for the first time and he wanted to tell me about the experience. I can vividly hear his voice in my head; the airplane was faster than he expected, it kind of caught him by surprise, but he said he would learn it and he would eventually have fun with it.
At the time I wasn’t a private pilot. Starting in my 20s my plan had always been that I would become a private pilot but I would surprise my dad with the accomplishment. I would fly with an instructor, solo, get my ticket, and then show up in an airplane at a fly-in breakfast at the airfield where my dad was part owner. That was always my plan. Unfortunately, becoming a pilot is an expensive venture and it wasn’t until I was in my mid 40s that I was able to put together the budget necessary to reach this accomplishment.
After my dad’s crash and his passing, which occurred during the second flight of his second home built airplane, I never lost sight of wanting to become a private pilot, in fact, I was more determined than ever to reach that goal. With dad I had always flown in the right seat of the Cessna 150/152 or the Piper Tomahawk, the back seat of the Piper J-5A, or the front seat (where the passenger sits) in his AcroSport II (pictured above, photo taken in 2001). The only time I had sat in the left seat of an airplane was with Dad’s flight instructor in the Cessna 150, N7177F. After the day’s flight instruction was completed, the instructor would take my sister and me up in separate flights, him in the right seat, and us in the left seat, for a turn in the pattern. One time we did two turns because the first time I pulled back on the yoke too much and made the stall horn squawk on takeoff. I was probably 10 years old at the time. I can vividly remember the exhilaration I felt during that flight in the left seat of N7177F. When the stall horn squawked on take-off, the instructor said, push the nose a little bit and I did it. I think I nearly took the hat off a farmer working in a field off the end of the runway that day, but everything was good and we had a great time on runway 34 at 1NY3.
The NTSB report of my dad’s crash in 2011 talks about witnesses hearing “sputtering” before the airplane went down. It was my dad’s second time ever flying a Wittman Tailwind W10. He’d built it from scratch from plans. The airplane was powered by a Lycoming O-320. It had 150 horsepower and is basically the same type of engine that powered the Cherokee 140 that I flew for my flight lessons to become a pilot. That exact engine had previously powered my grandfather’s home built, a Jungster II. Gramps’ airplane was grounded when he was no longer able to fly it and no one was interested in taking over the airplane. I know Dad said on more than one occasion that he would never fly it; too challenging to be any fun. But the engine was of some value, so it was rebuilt to be put into the Dad’s Wittman Tailwind.
The day of the crash witnesses heard the airplane sputter before it went down. I know Dad had lost an engine during flight before, in fact, shortly after he rebuilt the Piper J-5A, the two of us were on downwind for runway 16 when he lost the engine and the prop promptly came to a halt. We glided in safely. I was never scared. I was never concerned. I knew he could handle it and because he never had a radio in any of his airplanes, I just heard a faint “huh” after he lost the engine and glided onto the runway in a fairly elegant 180º decent.
It was probably Dad’s unfamiliarity with the Wittman Tailwind, and specifically the airplane he had just built, that prevented him from doing the same when he apparently lost his engine the day of the crash. And as a private pilot, this is why I have so many questions I wish I could ask him.
You see, Dad and I never had the chance to have a conversation “pilot to pilot”. I’ve never been able to fly with him in the right seat as I flew us someplace for a rubber pancake or whatever. Do I regret this? I don’t; things on our timeline happen when they do because they were meant to happen then. But I really wish I could talk to him “pilot to pilot” and ask him some questions about his flights and why he made the decisions he did leading up to the flight. I think the Wittman Tailwind W10 with 150 HP engine may have been the fastest airplane he’d ever flown. I don’t find anything in his logbook indicating he went up with an instructor in that airplane, or anything like it, before his test flights. Perhaps he was more confident in his abilities as a pilot than I am in mine.
A couple of years after he passed my sister and I went to a medium, who immediately asked “who is John and why is he saying he fell from the sky”? My sister went back to the same medium a year or two later and my dad had a message for me: “you can’t be afraid of the airplane and you always have to put it where it needs to be; if you’re afraid, it’ll put you where you don’t want it to be”.
Good advice, for sure.
When our parents have passed on I’m sure we all have questions we’d like to ask if we had just one more chance to talk with them. I have no doubt that he’s happy I’m a pilot and that he’d approve of my skill as an aviator.
I just wish we could have that “pilot to pilot” chat we never had.