by Ken Anderson
Published in Midwest Flyer – December 2018/January 2019 issue
I recently took 11 hours of dual instruction and some ground school to knock the rust off this rusty pilot. I flew back in the ‘80s when I was in my 30s, but like many young private pilots who fly just for recreation, I had other obligations. There was a mortgage and car payments that seemed more important than airplane rental. Plus, I carried a beeper for my job at a hospital where I was a telephone technician. Remember beepers? When they went off, you had a limited amount of time to get to a pay phone. Remember pay phones? So, every time I went flying, I was hoping that beeper wouldn’t go off.
I was spending less and less time flying and I was making some critical mistakes. So, when I realized I wasn’t flying enough to be current and safe, I quit. There were many times when I thought about getting back into flying, but there always seemed to be more reasons not to.
Fast forward 25 years. I retired, and although I carry a cell phone, I don’t get any calls that require immediate attention. Financially I’m in a much better position and thankfully I’m in good physical condition. So, I decided to get back into the cockpit. After the first lesson my instructor, Andrew Scallon at Wisconsin Aviation at Dane County Regional Airport, Madison, Wis., said I did pretty well and asked how long it had been since I had flown. I said it had been 25 years. He chuckled and said, “I’m 25 years old.”
I first began flying in 1983 when my boss, Don White of Oregon, Wisconsin, asked me if I wanted to fly along in his Cessna 172. He was going to fly his granddaughter back to school from Madison, Wisconsin to Barnesville, Ohio, so I jumped at the chance. I had flown commercially many times in the military and several times in a C-130 Hercules in Vietnam, but only once in a small airplane, when I was about 10 years old. My parents hired a pilot to fly us kids over our farm.
On the way to Ohio, Don’s granddaughter was in the copilot seat, and I was in the backseat. But on the way home, I flew in the copilot seat. Don let me take the controls for a while, and he explained the various gages and instruments. That’s all it took…I was hooked!
I signed up for flight lessons at Frickelton Aviation, the local Cessna dealer in Madison at the time. Cessna offered a package deal where for $2,995, they guaranteed you would get your license, no matter how many hours of ground school and dual instruction it took. I figured I could do better, so I just paid as I went. In the end, I think I went a little over $3,000. Still not a bad deal.
My flight instructor was a young college student named Tanya Cunningham. I don’t recall having any qualms about having a woman, much younger than me, as an instructor. Certainly, after the first stall when I panicked and she calmly brought the plane to straight and level flight, and after a crosswind landing when her quick action prevented a ground loop, I never questioned her ability. If there ever was a natural pilot, it was Tanya. She later went on to fly DC-9s for Midwest Express. Her husband and son both fly for Delta.
Before I could solo, I needed to take my flight physical. Dr. Henry Wilson was an FAA authorized physician and the guy who started the “High On Health” column in Midwest Flyer Magazine. Dr. Wilson and I worked at the same hospital and we were on very good terms. I maintained the complex telephone system and he often complained about problems using the complicated features. I told him they were all user errors. Ten days after he gave me my physical, Dr. Wilson and University of Wisconsin Administrator Dr. Peter Bunn were killed flying a Cessna Turbo Centurion from Janesville, Wis. to Madison. If I were superstitious, I might have taken that as a bad omen, but I think it just made me more attentive to my flight instructor.
While I was in flight training, Don White decided to retire and move to Sacramento. He wanted to fly his 1975 Cessna 172M out there to close on the house he was buying, so he invited my wife and I to fly along with him. We agreed, even though we were very limited on how much luggage we could take.
A few days before our flight, Don and I flew to a local airport so I could practice landing his 172 from the right seat in case of an emergency.
We departed Madison on August 30, 1983, landing first at Sioux City, Iowa where we had lunch. The next leg took us to Scottsbluff, Nebraska. From there we flew to Rawlings, Wyoming. I recall there was a stiff crosswind at Rawlings, but Don made a great landing.
We spent the night there and the next day we flew across the Bonneville Salt Flats to Wendover, Utah. Wendover is a large airport that was used extensively during World War II. But when we landed there, it was pretty desolate. Signs scattered around advised against taking off and landing on the taxiways. From a pay phone we called for fuel, and while we waited for the attendant, a twin-engine plane landed. We talked to the pilot who stated that he was there to pick up undocumented aliens and transport them back to Mexico.
When the airport manager was fueling our aircraft, a flatbed truck came racing in and drove up to the twin. In the back were a number of men chained together. Once everyone was boarded, the plane took off.
When we left Wendover, we had to circle the airport a couple times to gain enough altitude to cross the mountains. My wife was in charge of regulating the oxygen for the brief period when Don needed supplemental oxygen as pilot-in-command. But as passengers, we were not required to use oxygen, although thinking back, it probably would have been a good idea.
Flying from Wendover, Utah to Elko, Nevada, we had a strong headwind. The trucks on the interstate below were actually passing us, so Don decided to land at Elko, rent a car and drive the remainder of the way.
In Sacramento, my wife and I stayed with her cousin for four nights, while Don took care of business. Then on September 5th, we drove back to Elko and flew to Salt Lake City, Utah where we spent the night. The next morning, we flew to Sioux City, Iowa and then to Dubuque because of weather conditions in Madison. Once again, we rented a car and drove back to Madison.
I wasn’t able to record the trip officially as flight training because I wasn’t the pilot-in-command and Don wasn’t an instructor. But it was a great opportunity for me to observe Don filing his flight plans, checking the weather with Flight Service and using computers in the FBOs, and observe his flying techniques. Don was an experienced pilot with an instrument rating and commercial pilot certificate.
Recently I obtained a copy of Don’s logbook from his son, Stanley White, which helped jog my memory of our flight.
Don White died in 2005 of Alzheimer’s Disease. It was sad to think of all of his experience in flying and in life slowly fading away. I kept the letter he wrote congratulating me when I got my pilot certificate. He wrote: “From one pilot to another.” It would probably make him proud to know that I got back into flying.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Ken Anderson lives in Oregon, Wisconsin, and is now retired from the U.S. Postal Service. He rents aircraft at both Wisconsin Aviation at Dane County Regional Airport in Madison, Wis., and Morey Airplane Company at Middleton Municipal Airport-Morey Field in Middleton, Wisconsin.