The Solo of Ben Taylor
© 1998, Paul Berge
Flight Service answered the phone with their pre-recorded warning, "VFR not recommended. All briefers are busy; please stay on the line and your call will be ignored in the order in which it was received". They played the AFSS theme song, Stormy Weather, while I waited on hold. Finally, what had to be one of the new Cyborg-Briefers came on line, "You should not fly, you should not fly..." I explained that I was a flight instructor and I had a student I wanted to solo that day. Before I could add who or where, the briefer redoubled her efforts, "... definitely do not fly... danger, danger!" Of course, they're programmed to say that and I didn't take it personally. I explained that I had to get from Indianola, Iowa to Blakesburg, Iowa-a distance of about 60 miles on a 130-degree heading. The flight would be VFR in my 1946 Aeronca 7AC Champ and we'd take off as soon as the morning fog lifted.
The FAA briefer expressed great concern that I dare attempt flight at all, but in an antique airplane? She new she had a nutcase on the line and reluctantly issued the weather along the route of flight-all bad, all IFR, don't go. Only problem was, she had no idea where Blakesburg's Antique Airfield was located and the route she chose went off to the north. She probably assumed I meant Oshkosh. I thanked her, promised to take the bus and hung up. 'That went rather well', I thought. After all, if the FAA doesn't know where Antique Airfield is located, then there is at least one facet of aviation that's still safe. Thirty minutes later the Champ and I climbed through one of the most beautiful Iowa mornings we'd had in weeks. The sky was clear and washed in a soft rose. The air was still and cool near the surface and warmer as we topped the haze layer 500' above the corn. Sunlight poured through the windshield and I lowered my cap and trimmed the airplane for cruise (which in a Champ is full power). A flock of Canada Geese passed us also headed southeast. I waved; they honked. I wondered if Flight Service had told them, "VFR Not Recommended". I wondered how geese managed to fly without the FAA's approval. Great thing about the Champ, it gives you lots of time to wonder these things.
An hour or so later, we'd covered the 60 miles and crossed over Antique Airfield. If you've never been there, you'd swear you've flown back 50 years in time. Below, Ben Taylor, barely age 16, had pulled his grandfather's 1941 Interstate Cadet from the hangar. Blue fuselage and white wings flashed in the sunlight against the emerald grass ramp; it could have been 1946. I read the NC37381 on the upper right wing as we banked for the downwind leg. Power to idle, we turned base and slipped on final over the trees and onto the upslope of the grass runway. Then, hoping Ben's landings that day would be better than the one I'd just made, I taxied to the hangar, grateful no one had seen me touch down.
Preparations were underway for the annual Labor Day reunion two weeks out, but even without that, the field was more active than normal. Even the dogs seemed to anticipate something. A small crowd of family and friends followed Ben Taylor through his pre-flight, knowing he might solo. Truly, they looked more nervous than he. August 22 was Ben's 16th birthday and we'd been preparing for his first solo since mid June. Ben grew up on the airfield so, in a way, he'd been preparing for this day since he'd been in utero. Now, on the cusp of adulthood with medical certificate and logbook in hand, Ben was ready. He knew it; the crowd knew it. Even the dogs knew Ben could fly. Problem is, we flight instructors are a little slow and I needed just a little more convincing. I dragged out the anticipation by rechecking all his papers like some Lithuanian border guard. Once satisfied that all was in order, I climbed into the Cadet...actually, I fell into the Cadet as I misjudged the step and entangled myself in the intercom wires. The intercom was our one sacrifice of authenticity to convenience. Instructors didn't use intercoms 50 years ago. Apparently, they were a lot smarter then and relied upon a rolled up sectional chart or Racing Form to communicate with students- WHOMP! "I said rudder!" WHOMP!. Extricating myself from the wires, I wondered if this was progress.
Ben stood at the propeller, shaking his head, waiting to hand-prop the 85-hp Continental engine. His mother, Marcy Taylor, stood off to the side barely able to conceal her look of concern. Ben's father, Brent Taylor, also stood off to the side concerned that, once again, I might flood the engine and he'd have to get us started. I shared his concern.
Takeoff! Ben Taylor lifting off Antique Airfield on his initial solo in Interstate NC37381
"Switch off?" Ben called
"Switch off!" I answered and he pulled the prop through.
"Switch on; brakes on; throttle closed!"
"Switch on; brakes on; throttle closed," I repeated and saw Ben's hands over the cowl. He flicked the propeller blade, and the engine barked to life. A shudder ran through the airframe followed by that early morning whiff of burnt avgas.
One of the toughest decisions in life is deciding when to let something go. When does the child no longer need the parent? When does the student need to be rid of the teacher? Ben Taylor was more than ready to solo. He'd proven that time and again in our pre-solo lessons. The rest of the world may shun tradition in favor of expedience, but aviation is steeped in ceremony, so Ben had to prove to his instructor just one more time that he was ready. We flew to neighboring Albia airport, where he demonstrated that he hadn't forgotten anything. It was obvious there was no longer a need for me. We flew back and taxied to the hangar. I signed his logbook and student pilot's certificate, then, to satisfy myself that I hadn't forgotten to teach him something, I gave more last minute advice than the Space Shuttle crew gets. Ben closed the door on my fingers and taxied away. His father took up a lone observation in the shade of a far hangar. Ben's grandfather joined me at the fence. The others - Barry Taylor, Steve Butler, Steve Black, Les Gaskill - stopped what they were doing to watch. Except for Steve Butler calling, "Is he down yet?" the field was silent. Even the dogs stopped looking for ticks as the throttle opened and the distant clack of the engine increased in pitch. The Interstate Cadet rolled. Up came the tail and seconds later, the mains, and Ben Taylor left the Earth-alone, solo.
Ben on completion of his three takeoffs and landings, August 22nd, 1998, his 16th Birthday
Ah, to be 16 and at the controls of an airplane built in the last days of peace before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Ah, to have the warm summer air blast past your window as you open the throttle and bounce across the lumps and divots in a grass runway. Ah, to lift across the airport fence, to fly-to solo on your 16th birthday in the very same airplane your grandfather had soloed in 1946. Ah, the reality of the Antique Airplane Association and the people who 'Keep the Antiques Flying'. Ah, to be the CFI, helplessly watching from the ground.
Three good landings later (well, one bounced a little, so I didn't feel to smug) and Ben Taylor taxied to the hangar, swung the tail with a new sense of confidence and killed the engine. There is no grin like the one on a student's face after the first solo, and no amount of cool can hide it. He stumbled from the cockpit and graciously took the well-deserved applause. Scissors in hand, I preformed the ancient CFI ritual of humiliating the heck out of the student in front of friends and family. CFI's get so few pleasures, but the biggest pleasure is seeing a young pilot graduate from dual to solo. A sacred moment in every pilot's life, but to combine that thrill of accomplishment with the legacy Ben Taylor inherits from his father, Brent, his uncle, Barry, and grandfather, Robert Taylor... well, they don't write stories like this one every day, and I'm grateful that I was asked.
L to R: Paul Berge, author, flight instructor, radio and TV personality. Ben Taylor and his grandfather, Robert Taylor.
Antique Airfield, Blakesburg, Iowa, is headquarters to the Air Power Museum and Antique Airplane Association. It is more than a place where aviation's memories are stored, it's a place where aviation history lives and, with the solo of Ben Taylor, is reborn for a new generation. As for me-I called Flight Service back and told the briefer, "Despite your recommendations, aviation is alive and well!" and I flew home.
Paul cutting off Ben's shirtail in that age old ritual.
Paul Berge (AAA Member-17344, Lifetime) is a CFI, former FAA air traffic controller, and writer.