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This is one of my favorite pictures of my dad and me, even though you can't make us out in the photo. I don't know the exact date; my sister Barbara took the picture. We had been down to visit in Oklahoma City. I don't recall the weather being particularly hot, as it can be in Oklahoma, so I would guess it was in the late fall of 1990. We had a good time there.
We got to see Barbara, my brother Gerard and their families, and my twin sisters Mary and Martha. Then, it was time to go home. Barbara drove us to the airport.
I don't remember who else was with us, but I believe it was Mom in the back seat. She didn't care much for this flying nonsense, especially if Dad and I were in the same airplane. Instead, she viewed it as dangerous, demanding to know, "Who is going to run the radio station if you, your dad, and I are all in the airplane and it crashes?"
I assured her, "We're not going to crash."
But she continued, "And what if something happens to your dad while we're flying?" So, although Mom did not like flying in the small plane, when she did, I think she preferred that I was in the airplane with them.
I responded, "I can fly this airplane, too."
Determined to win the argument, she asked, "And what if the tail falls off?"
At this point, I conceded, "Well, we are going to crash."
She snapped back, "You're not funny." I told her she should relax and enjoy the flight. Dad gave me a scornful look, to say, ‘keep quiet.’ The same discussion occurred on the few times she flew with us. But Dad wouldn't engage in the senseless conversation; the outcome would always be the same. So, I looked out the window.
Barbara stood on the ramp, taking our picture. She was mighty proud of her Kodak 110 Instamatic pocket camera. It was the kind that used the flash cube on top. The camera didn't have a zoom lens; you just moved closer to the subject. I started paying attention to what Dad was doing.
Dad did his run-up. Checking all the gauges and equipment. Next, he set the radio frequencies we would need for departure, followed by his usual test of equipment; "Wiley Post tower, this is Beechcraft Bonanza, November 4-6-2-2 Delta requesting a radio check, please."
The response, "November 4-6-2-2 Delta, this is Wiley Post tower; I read you loud and clear."
Dad switched to the second radio and asked, "Wiley Post tower, how is my signal on communication radio two?"
The man in the tower replied, "2-2 Delta, you're a little scratchy on this radio; com one was much clearer."
It surprised me the tower could hear us at all. The radios were ancient; Narco Mark 12 was the brand and model; 'coffee grinders' was the nickname pilots gave these old radios. Although the Narco's were outdated, they still worked. Finally, dad called back to the tower, "Wiley Post tower, Beechcraft Bonanza 4-6-2-2 Delta is ready to taxi for departure." We waved our farewells to Barbara and taxied out.
As we began rolling down the runway, Dad would make the sign of the cross from his forehead to chest and across his shoulders, left to right, a prayer for a safe flight. The airplane gained speed. Soon, we lifted off and were climbing in altitude. Dad raised the toggle switch to retract the landing gear. I looked out the window and saw Barbara standing by the fence outside the building, waving her hand high over her head. I knew she would stand there watching until we were out of sight. I've stood in that spot before, watching as Dad flew away. There was something special, yet lonely as I watched Dad disappear into the sky. I always felt like I should have been going with him.
The feeling is the opposite when you're inside the airplane flying away. It brings a feeling of security to look out the window and see family watching and waving as you depart. There is a comfort in trusting they will also be there looking to the sky in anticipation of your arrival, to greet you when you return. Dad continued to climb and turned the airplane on course.
The Bonanza had a single yoke (control wheel) that would flip over from the pilot to the co-pilot. When we reached our desired altitude and were established on course, Dad would throw the yoke over to me. Mom worried, "Dan! I wish you wouldn't do that when we're flying; that thing could come loose and fall off."
Dad ignored her concern. "Keep it steady. Watch your altitude. Keep an eye on your heading. Check your engine gauges." Dad gave me these commands as he sat in the left seat, watching every move I made.
I was a low-time pilot back then. Even though I was sure I knew more about flying than he did, Dad understood I was young and new at this game. He knew I had that cockiness about me that every young pilot has. Nevertheless, he was determined to break me of my inexperience and teach me to straighten up and fly right.
Because I thought I knew everything, it was frustrating when Dad critiqued my flying skills. Mostly because I knew he was correct.
The flight was beautiful; we arrived back in Ottumwa after dark. The runway lights are so pretty from the air, like a family member; the lights greeted us to say, "Welcome home."
"It's not safe flying at night; you can't even see where you're going," Mom rattled away.
"We made it home, didn't we," I replied. Dad gave me a scornful look as if to say, 'Just let her vent.'
We pushed the airplane back into the hangar by hand; Dad steered the Bonanza with the towbar while I pushed on the front edge of the wing. I watched as Dad performed his routine of putting the airplane away. First, he chocked the wheels, then rocked the aircraft back and forth to ensure it was secure. Dad always double-checked the master switch was turned off, then rotated the propeller, so it was perfectly straight vertically. Next, he raised the engine cowling to let the heat out, locked the door, and pushed the handle to a specific position. I loved watching him, I loved flying with him, and mostly I just loved being with him.
Dad taught me more about flying than any instructor I ever had. His lessons brought flying, life, love, and faith together. As we closed that hangar door, Dad talked about what he would teach me the next time we would fly. I was eager to learn more.
I had no way of knowing that would be the last time I would ever fly the Bonanza with Dad. He died on February 3, 1991.
Dad, although you remain in my heart every time I take off and fly an airplane, I must admit; it was more fun when you were in the seat next to me. I love you, Dad, and I miss you beyond what words can express. So, until we meet again, I will do my best to "Straighten up and fly right" in the airplane and all aspects of life.
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