A (Personal) History of Flight

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A (Personal) History of Flight

Aircraft on runway of Compton Abbas

We will not talk about the Wright Brothers, they are a bit before my time. We will not mention the Flying Aces of World War I – the war to end all wars, or even World War II – the next big one.

This is just a personal remembrance about leaving the bonds of earth, without any chaotic1 results.

This was not my first time in an aeroplane, that was a couple years earlier. When we first came to Florida our family did not have a lot of spare cash for pleasure. However Florida is the land of the Real Estate speculators, a meal and an interesting tour of parts of the state are offered in return for allowing yourselves to be subjected to an hour or two of a high pressure sales presentation. My father, mother, older brother and myself were conducted on a tour of a new housing development in the city of Naples, about 4 hours drive south of our home. Part of the tour involved flying over the vast acreage available for purchase. The land had all been recovered from the swamp land of the Everglades.

As we were a family of four2 we were told that each plane could only carry three passengers, with the pilot in the fourth available seat. As we reached the front of the line a couple with no children was ahead of us. The agent said there was a single seat left available and I rushed forward to claim it before my mother could object. I got to sit in the co-pilot's seat and watch how the plane was operated. By the time we landed I had a new interest.

1st Flight Lesson

I settled back into the rear seat of the L16 training aeroplane. This plane has only two seats, one in front of the other.
There were a pair if rudder pedals in front of me, and a slender 'joy stick' mounted into the floor. The lesson began with 'keep your hands and feet off the controls until I tell you what to do with them.' 'Oh by the way, if you hear me shout "Mayday" into the radio, or things seem to be going badly. Grab that stick in front of you, pull it straight up, and break out the window! Throw out the sick and brace yourself for impact.'

It was now time to start the engine. My instructor opened the small window next to him and called to the assistant mechanic. There were two switches on the dashboard, one had four positions labelled as 'Off, 1, 2 and Both', the other was a simple toggle switch with the impressive label 'Main'.

My instructor carefully turned the magneto switch to the 'Off' position made sure the main switch was also down, in its 'Off' position. He then leaned his head out the window and called to our mechanic – 'Magnetos are off, switch is off – prop it!'

The mechanic then pulled the propeller through three or four cycles to put fresh fuel into the cylinders and start the lubricating oil flowing. Once again the instructor stuck his head out the window and shouted 'Magnetos are on' He then turned the switch to the 'Both' position. 'Switch is on' he then snapped the main switch up and gave his final warning- 'Contact!' On the next pull the engine sputtered to life as our mechanic jumped back from the propeller that could chop him to bits in a heart-beat,


Before you can fly you must reach the downwind end of the active runway. At a large airport the movement of planes on the ground is supervised by a dedicated panel in the control tower, at smaller facilitates it more like exiting the car park at a local mall. Before starting down the runway into flight it is important to test each of the Magnetos for reliability, they supply the spark that that allows the cylinders to fire. The engine is brought up the speed and the magneto switch is cycled to both the 'one' and 'two' positions. Should the engine speed drop in either of these positions it is an indication that one of the magnetos is faulty and it would not be safe to continue the flight.

At the larger airports all take-offs and landings are strictly controlled by the control tower, at the smaller field each pilot will announce his intention on the radio and wait 30 to 40 seconds for any reply, or objections. The flaps are extended, increasing the area of the wings and the throttle increased as the plane begins to roll down the runway. At about the centre point of the field the plane should have reached flight speed and the pilot will 'rotate' the aircraft by pulling gently back on the wheel, or in out case, the joystick. As the plane climbs to her cruising altitude the flaps are retracted3 and the course and flying altitude are established. The sky is divided into layers 500 feet (152 metres) apart and are assigned to the cardinal points of the compass (North, East, South and West). This practice is intended to reduce the risk of a mid-air collision. Crossing flights are separated by 500 feet and those on the exact opposite course are separated by a thousand feet (300 metres).

Throttle, Stick and Rudder.

Once we reached our flight level the pilot started adjusting a small wheel that was mounted to the frame next to his leg. 'This adjusts the trim tabs,' he explained, 'with the plane properly trimmed all you need to do is let go of all the controls and the plane will automatically return to straight and level flight.'

At first the pilot instructed me to lightly place my hand and feet on the controls and just get the feel of the movements while he made a few turns and changes in altitude. After several minutes he told me to take control and I was flying the plane! My first manoeuvre was to make a 90° turn to the left, we were approaching the control area of a large commercial airport. As I started into the turn the pilot told me to add a little more rudder. Being used to the controls of a sailboat where the stick in your hand controls the rudder, I immediately made the wrong correction – moving the stick that made the plane's bank steeper rather than the pedal to make the turn sharper. releasing all the controls brought us back to straight and level. On the second attempt I managed sort out which control did what, and made my first successful change of course.

We spent the remainder of the hour practising turns and adjusting our altitude as was appropriate. The pilot took back the control of the plane for our final approach to the airstrip and landing the plane. The girl who was to have the next lesson was not waiting in front of the airport office when we arrived. I was then given my next instruction. When leaving the aircraft with the engine running, I was told to walk under the wing all the way to its tip before walking forward. I was to return the same way, or tell the new student about the rule. When I reached the office she was not there so I returned to the plane and I got to have an other hour of flight training.


I was only about 14 years old at the time of this flight. I belonged to both the Civil Air Patrol (who sponsored my lesson) and the Sea Explores where we learned to sail and went on boat cruises. Shortly after this flight my parents gave an ultimatum, I could choose either of these hobbies, but not both. Reluctantly I gave up flying and devoted myself to the sea.

This was not to be my last adventure in the air There would be other flights. Although most future flights would be commercial, and involve work at the other end.

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Florida Sailor

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1Or at least serious.2My 2-year-old sister had been left to spend the day with the grandparents.3To reduce drag.

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