It was a hot day. I mean, not all that hot, but sitting in the Aeronca Champ with the sun greenhousing through the windscreen it was hot enough. My instructor, Bob Nelson, told me to go ahead around the patch once more and then bring it to a full stop landing. I had been doing touch and goes, which is basically flying a circle around the airport and landing the plane. But rather than coming to a stop, once the aircraft was definitely not flying anymore, shoving the throttle ahead and taking right back off to come around and do it again. This drilled the landing process into my head by its sheer repetition. We’d been doing this for the last 20 minutes, which was about 8 turns around the patch.
I’d been taking flying lessons for a couple of weeks, and had about 10 hours of instruction. In those hours I went from grasping the superstructure of the airplane in wide eyed terror to getting a kick out of stalling the airplane. Stalling is purposely slowing the plane to the point that the wings won’t support flight anymore. A lot of pilots get hurt or worse by stalling their airplanes, usually when they come in for landing and are bleeding off airspeed so they can descend to alight on the runway. Sometimes though, pilots will try to climb too quickly and they stall the airplane as they trade airspeed for altitude. Recovering from a stall is no big deal. You just point the nose at the ground and allow it to quickly accelerate and get some airflow over the wings again, then pull back up into level flight. It gets ugly when there isn’t enough room between you and the ground to complete the maneuver. Anyway, stalls became one of my favorite parts about flying, and the beginnings of some favored moves like tail spins –or the accelerated stalls of snap rolls.
I brought the little plane down and did what I was told. With a little brake action I brought the airplane to a full stop on the runway. My instructor then did a strange thing, he got out of the plane and closed the door –with me still inside. He smiled and said that I should do three touch and goes and then a full stop landing with a taxi to the pad. In other words, you are now a real student pilot and can go practice on your own. It’s time for you to solo. I was thrilled at the prospect, but when he turned his back and trudged off across the field towards the flight shack, the light sheen of perspiration became full blown sweat that stung my eyes and rolled from my temples down over my ears to tickle my neck. I pulled the window open, sliding the sheet of Plexiglas backward in its track to give myself some air.
The Champ never took much runway to land –or take off for that matter. Maybe 300 feet or so for each. So I had a lot of runway in front of me and had no need to roll back to the end. So I kind of shook myself, and grinning widely I advanced the throttle and the plane started forward. As it picked up speed, the air coming through the open window became a gale, and I reached up from the throttle and shoved it forward to close it. But I guess I put some outward pressure on it because the next thing I knew, the window had popped out of the track and I was holding it outside of the airplane just as I lifted off. Much lighter without the added weight of my instructor, I virtually sprang into the sky while I was frantically trying to finagle the window back inside the plane. That and also control the airplane which, at full throttle was charging upwards quite rapidly. I managed to get the sheet of Plexiglas inside without dropping it, and tossed it behind me onto the seat vacated by my instructor. The Champ is an in-line tandem plane, with two seats one in front of the other. Of course, the window landed in such a way as to block the rear control stick from moving backwards. After some swatting the air behind myself I managed to knock it off to the side, where it slid vertically between the seat and the side of the cockpit, out of the way.
I’d actually managed to fly a reasonably proper pattern, and I got to start paying attention to the way the airplane felt, how light and maneuverable it was with just me in it. Landing was a bit different, it was like the plane didn’t want to come down, which gave me a little anxiety as I pictured myself a laughingstock going round and round the airport until I inevitable ran out of gas. But I just pulled the stick back a bit more than I needed with two of us in the plane, and it settled to the runway quite nicely. Of course, I landed in the middle of the 2200 feet of length, missing my touchdown point by a mere 800 feet. But there was more than enough runway to do a touch and go, and I did. The next few landings I put the plane right where I wanted it. Grinning quite widely, I taxied back to the flight shack as ordered to get my logbook signed off as qualified for solo flight. Bob Nelson was a bit taken aback when I walked in carrying the Plexiglas window. But he and the airport owner, Wally Olsen, laughed at the incident for a minute or two and then Wally said “Well, don’t just stand there. Go put it back.” I did so wondering why I hadn’t thought of that myself.
The very best moments in life can sometimes be marred by misfortune. You never know when something unexpected is going to insinuate itself on your circumstances. I was a happy guy who owned his own business and lived in an apartment that I really liked. I had friends and a good life when I received my diagnosis of cancer, and the lousy prognosis that went with it. While that window coming out of its tracks stunned me, I managed to accept the situation and do something about it. There were no heroics involved, no mighty effort. That’s pretty much what cancer is all about too. There you are flying along and suddenly things go off track. From there we all do the things that present themselves to try to make the situation better. And that’s what we all do when we get diagnosed; we try to put the window back in the track.