My Most Memorable Experience In Aviation

I am often asked what was my most memorable moment or experience in aviation.  Folks will ask: Was it the first time you flew a jet?  Was it passing a checkride?  Was it your first student passing their checkride?  First solo?

None of the above.  Here it is.  This took place in the mid to late 1980s at Martin State Airport.  The airport has a 7,000 foot runway and it is almost 200 foot wide.  It was a perfect fall afternoon with blue skies, no wind, and low humidity.  There was not a cloud in the sky.  The perfect weather combined with the long and wide runway made the ideal conditions for me to give a young boy one of the most memorable experiences of his life.

At the time I was a relatively new commercial pilot (I do not think I was a CFI at the time).  This was long before the term “Discovery Flights”.  I worked at a flight school giving airplane rides and sight seeing flights.  A guy walked in with a young boy (his son).  By looking at the boy I could tell he had Down Syndrome.  The two went on to tell me that they wanted to go for a plane ride.  The son told me that he wanted to fly to Easton Maryland to fly over the state tree, the Wye Oak.  I said it is a great day to sight see from the air.  And I asked the young boy if he wanted to pilot the aircraft from the pilot’s seat.  Now this is where a perfect flying day starts to become my most memorable experience in aviation.  The young boy looked up to me and said very seriously “I can’t fly a plane, I am a retard”.  Remember, this is the 1980s and this is what they were called at the time.  My reply to him was “Sure you can fly a plane, I will tell you exactly what to do”.  His face lit up with joy as he smiled and said “Really”.

The conditions were perfect for what I was about to do.  My airplane of choice was a Piper Archer for this flight.  The young boy helped with the preflight and I directed him to the left seat.  I explained the checklist to him and together we started the engine, fired up the radios, and received our taxi clearance.

We were departing runway 14 and from Martin State Airport to Easton, it was just a slight right turn (see picture below).

I briefed the young boy on exactly what to do.  I explained to him that as he added power, he would start to pull back on the yoke.  I told him to do it very slowly and to stop when I told him to stop.  My hands were nowhere near the yoke.  The boy’s father was in the back seat behind me so he could watch his son fly the plane.  Neither one could see my feet on the rudders or my hands on the trim wheel, both gave me the control that I needed on this perfect day.  I watched the young boy’s face as he pulled the plane off of the ground, it was magical.  Too bad it was long before the days of cell phone cameras and the GoPro.

We climbed up to 2,000 feet and I talked him through reducing the power using the tac and how to level the aircraft by looking outside using the horizon.  He had the biggest smile on his face and the dad was simply amazed.  The young boy had his own map with him and I showed him how to look at the map and compare that with what he was seeing outside.  He was the one that knew where to go and he was able to find the tree.  We circled the tree a few times and then headed back to Martin State Airport.

There was not the slightest ripple or bump in the sky that day.  Smooth as silk.  So it was time for his encore.  Since the winds were calm and the runway was 7,000 foot long, we could land on 32.  So I asked the boy if he wanted to land the plane.  And eagerly he replied “Yes, if I can”.  I also offered to let him call the tower for our landing clearance.  This was long before we wore headsets and before planes had intercoms.  So I wrote down what he needed to say and what the tower would say.  He did exactly as I instructed him and he got our landing clearance by himself using the hand microphone.

Coming from Easton and landing on runway 32 meant just a slight left turn and we were on final.  You could see the runway 20 miles out.  So the young boy lined up on final and I gave him the power settings and we gradually descended towards the runway.  The dad and his son were both smiling ear to ear as the son landed the plane and my hands were nowhere near the yoke.

I was in my early 20s at the time.  I never thought to get their contact info to stay in touch.  I don’t even remember their names, but I remember the experience.  That day was probably one of that boy’s greatest memories.  He did not look like he had the coordination or motor skills to ride a bicycle, yet on that day he flew an airplane and landed it!

I have told this story many times over the years, however I never wrote it down.  Now it is online for folks to enjoy.  Stay turned to my future newsletters, I will be posting more of my experiences from my over 35 years in aviation.

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