My years as an amateur pilot

From about 1982 until 2002 I flew a single engine airplane for a hobby. It gave my wife and me a great deal of pleasure, as well as a few hair raising moments, and we saw a great deal of North America as a result.

The national average time required before one is ready for a pilot’s license is about 70 hours of instruction. After 40 hours I did my first solo flight. I took off, went once around the airfield at about 1500 feet, and landed. As I was landing I saw my instructor standing by the side of the runway, saluting me. Cool.

The only problem was that I didn’t know how to keep the plane going straight down the runway after landing, and I didn’t find out about this hole in my knowledge base until I landed in that first solo flight. So, while braking to a stop, I turned the control wheel right and left, trying to steer as if it were a car. Fortunately I came to a stop before leaving the runway. That’s how I learned that rudder pressure, not the control wheel, is the way to keep going in a straight line after landing.

The tradition in piloting is that after your first solo flight, your instructor is supposed to grab the shirt off of your back, still soaked in primal sweat from the experience, and embroider a piece of the shirt with a suitable inscription. I still have that piece of shirt. It says

  “On 04 May, 1984, Dr. (big) H. Wilf did alone and unassisted take-off and return             for a safe landing on the original planet of departure.

                                   `It’s cool’

C172 (Heavy)

       S. Neal, CFII”

I flew after that for about 18 years, logging about 1800 hours of flight, perhaps one-third of which was in instrument conditions. We bought an old, very used, 1965 vintage Cessna 210. It seated 4, and could fly at about 175mph for up to about 6 1/2 hours without refueling. Here am I, patting the plane on its propeller.

And here is Ruth, after a nail-biter of a flight, showing how glad she was to be on the ground in one piece by kissing the prop.

We flew all over the US, including maybe a dozen trips from coast to coast, plus that stupendous trip to Alaska by way of giving some talks at Crestone, Colorado, seeing relatives in Utah and Montana, stopping for some days in Jasper, Canada, and finally flying over the coastal range to Ketchikan, to be greeted by telegraph wires loaded with wall-to-wall eagles eyeing a river full of dying salmon below. We then flew up to Denali, which see below, the white triangle in the lower right being a strut on our aircraft, and we flew completely around Denali at 12000 feet.

Below is a view of Denali and the Braided River.

Here is a look at the enormous Malaspina glacier, coming down to the Sea of Alaska, near Yakutat:

Beyond that, we flew to Baja California, Florida several times, the Bahamas, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, western and eastern Canada several times, and Alaska. Sometimes just a short trip was in order, with our dog Charlie as co-pilot, shown below resting her nose on my right shoulder while I was trying to concentrate on flying the aircraft..