A Childhood Dream
Wendy has said in a previous blog post that she is not a good gift giver. Untrue. In fact, she’s become so good that she blew my socks off and literally brought me to tears yesterday when I saw my grandfather’s aircraft pull up in front of me on the ramp at the Winchester Municipal Airport (BGF). I had not seen this aircraft in person for over 20 years, but somehow she was able to pull this one off as a total surprise. Kudos to her…I have to say I am impressed at her deviousness!
Following our recent Bucket List blog post where I made mention of my grandfather’s plane, my life had become very busy and I was exhausting myself, both mentally and physically, trying to keep my head above water with work. I think Wendy knew I needed something to bring my smile back, and boy did she deliver. My wife was able to utilize her super stalking skills (her words, not mine) to track down the current owner of N5762C, a gentleman named Brian. As it turns out, he and his wife Sara do not live that far away from where we are in Southern Tennessee.
After playing a little phone tag, Wendy was finally able to speak with Brian on the phone. I can’t imagine how that conversation would even have went! “Hi Brian, I know you don’t know me, but I would love to talk to you about your airplane and maybe even see it.” I don’t think most people would have given her message the time of day. According to her though, Brian was even nicer and more cooperative than she could have ever hoped for. She went on to say that he seemed to be almost as excited as she was to pull off this surprise. They exchanged emails, and she even sent him some photos that were dug out of deep storage in our house. Working together, a plan was formulated to reunite me with the first aircraft I ever got to sit in and the one that ignited my passion for flying.
The day began pretty much like any other Monday does, grumbly and needing an extra cup of coffee. I left the house early to get a jump on some paperwork and phone calls. Before leaving the house, Wendy told me that she’d likely come up to the airport to do a little work. That was not too strange as she’d done it before. She had been there about an hour when a pilot came on the radio and asked the attendant to have me meet him outside as he landed. I thought this was a little odd but then again, odd things happen at our small town airport sometimes. Apparently Wendy had several other people at the airport in on it because many started to gather as the plane flew overhead to enter the pattern. I went outside to investigate and realized shortly thereafter that I was being recorded. After seeing the silhouette of the aircraft, it didn’t take long for me to put 2 and 2 together, especially when it got close enough for me to see the paint scheme.
As the aircraft taxied onto the ramp, I about broke down. It was just as beautiful as I remembered it being. Why does this aircraft hold such a special place in my heart you might ask? Well, let me rewind a little bit for you. When I was a very young child, my family lived in the same small town as my mother’s parents did. I remember seeing them very often simply because they were so close to us. None of us were by any means close to being rich, but somehow my grandfather was able to own his own aircraft…a beautiful 1950 model Cessna 170A.
As far back as I can remember, he had owned the aircraft; however, he did not purchase it new. The plane belonged to a local farmer who made a deal with my grandfather. The farmer told him that if he were to do the maintenance on it, he could get his private license and fly it anytime he would like. Now then, my grandfather was not an educated man, but he was an absolute genius when it came to anything mechanical. His understanding of how things worked is so far beyond what mine will ever be. Working on an airplane was probably second nature to him. Conversely, during his flight training, he had to take his exam seven times before he passed it. This was not because he didn’t understand the material; in fact, it was quite the opposite. As such things went back then, he left school prior to the 7th grade in order to support his family. Because of his lack of formal education, he had trouble reading the material. If the tests had been given verbally, he would have surely aced them.
When the farmer tired of the aircraft after a few years, my grandfather made payments to him until the aircraft was paid off. From then on, it was his, and he made sure it was always kept in immaculate condition. I can recall visiting the hangar with him as a kid, and he would put me to work making sure the wheel pants were polished to a bright shine. Sundays were always a special time though. He would come by my parents’ house to pick me up bright and early so that we could fly to breakfast. The Coles County Airport (MTO) in Mattoon, IL or Hulman Field (HUF) in Terre Haute, IN were our destinations of choice. Both had little cafes right on the field that were always a treat! I never took off or landed the plane, but must have spent countless hours learning to maneuver the aircraft in the air. When I was young, my grandfather constructed a thick foam seat so I could see over the dash while acting as his co-pilot. I knew then I always wanted to be in the air.
I never wanted it to end, but everything ultimately does. Several years later, my grandfather had a heart attack and lost his medical. Knowing that it was a long and expensive road to try and regain that piece of paper, he made the difficult choice to sell his baby. I remember him calling to tell me. It was absolutely devastating for me, so I can’t imagine how it felt for him. My dream of one day owning the airplane was gone.
I kept track of the aircraft for many years as it passed through the hands of various owners. Interestingly enough, the aircraft came into the possession of the brother of one of my professors at Indiana State University. I overhead the two speaking one day about a Cessna 170 he had in the hangar, and butted my way right into the conversation. He confirmed that was the aircraft they were speaking about and asked if I’d like to see it. A few years after that, it was a featured aircraft on Barnstormers.com. Even though I was not in a position to buy it at the time, I contacted the person selling it, struck up a conversation, and he sent me several photos of how it looked. That was the last time (until yesterday) that I’d laid eyes on the plane, and I somewhat lost touch with where it was.
It’s very hard to articulate the rush of nostalgia that overcame me when I saw it in person yesterday. It had minor differences in appearance, but was essentially the same. As the plane shutdown, I stepped up to the pilot exiting the aircraft and remarked, “Good morning! I don’t know who you are, but I certainly know this (aircraft)!” After he and Wendy brought me up to speed on their little plan, I couldn’t help but shed a few tears…for hours. We looked through an old photo album that my grandfather had kept and had been passed on to me. It contains pages and pages of the plane at different airshows and airports over the years and many with me standing right beside it at various stages of my childhood. There is even a drawing I did of the airplane as a small child that was important enough for my grandparents to cherish and keep with all the other photos of 62C. We also talked about how the airplane had changed hands over the years, and the story of how it had come into his possession.
Soon, the moment had arrived that I’d dreamed about for over 25 years. It was time to go flying. I watched Brian as he carefully went through his preflight, noticing every detail that the aircraft had to show him. I later remarked to Wendy about how meticulous I thought he was, to which her response was, “and you love that, don’t you?” She was absolutely right. She knows me inside and out. It did not take long to realize that the aircraft that my grandfather had loved and meticulously maintained was now in good hands. Brian and his wife are not simply content to own the aircraft, but they are maintaining it, improving it, and most importantly, flying it.
Sliding into the right seat of the plane was like sliding back into a really comfortable armchair. Hello old friend; it’s been awhile. Brian got us up and running, took off, and graciously allowed me to log about 0.5 hours as we soared above the Tennessee countryside. Once again, I never wanted it to end, but everything ultimately does. Not wanting to wear out my welcome, I handed the controls back over to him, and he brought us back down to Earth.
We taxied back to the FBO, collected my wife, and all went to lunch. We spent the next couple of hours eating lunch, trading stories, and getting to really know each other. I hope I can now say that this will be the start of a lifelong friendship.
I don’t think I really understood then or appreciated how that aircraft would shape me, but today I realize exactly how much that it meant to me. I cannot imagine the person I would be today without aviation running through my veins. People often ask me how long I’ve been flying, and I can only answer that it’s been my entire life. I don't know exactly how old I was the first time I flew with my grandpa but in my earliest memories I can't be older than 2 or 3 years old. I do not have the words to express my gratitude to Brian or my wife Wendy. They’ve done more for me than either of them can imagine.