When our son Jim was 16 years old, he worked at the Texaco station on Highway 18 in Apple Valley. This gas station was unique in that it serviced automobiles in front and airplanes in back. Jim had got to talking to a flight instructor there while gassing his airplane. Jim decided that he would like to learn to fly. He came home and told Phyllis about it and naturally Phyllis’ first reaction was NO! That was understandable because Phyllis’ first reaction to any new idea was almost invariably NO! And especially FLYING?! But Jim persisted and kept talking about it, so Phyllis started considering it. She told me, “Brian, you better go down there to the airport and check out that instructor!” I did. I went down there to the airport and checked out that instructor with the net result that Jim and I both started taking flying lessons from him! The instructor’s name is Gene Long. I’m pretty sure he’s still around. Jim and I and Phyllis met him at the airport at Auburn a few years ago and ate breakfast with him.
Jim and I took our dual instruction at the same time. On my first lesson, Gene said, “We’ll practice slow flight for a few minutes and then we’ll go up and do some stalls.” I thought, “STALLS! That’s when you make an airplane fall out of the sky!” Stalls are scary! They give you that strange feeling way down in your stomach, but we students have to practice them so that we will know what to do if we inadvertently stall.
Jim went through the training about a week ahead of me. He soloed first. The next day I flew with Gene and after a series of touch and go landings, we taxied up to the parking area. Suddenly Gene cut the throttle and applied the brakes. He quickly opened the door and got out and said, “Now you take it.” He was telling me to make my first solo flight. Instructors sometimes do it that way so that the student won’t have time to get scared. Well, I was too fast for him. I got scared anyway. I said, “Oh no,--I’m not ready yet!” About a week later I said to him, “Now I’m ready” and I soloed.
Jim and I and Eileen Bloom, an old friend who was also learning to fly, studied together for our written test. Teenager Jim goofed off in our study sessions and after I had admonished him to pay attention a couple of times, I thought, “I’ll just leave him alone and when he flunks the test he’ll learn a lesson.” The test was given at the Daggett Airport.
Jim and Eileen and I flew over there together, in separate airplanes. Since none of us had a license, none of us could carry passengers!
When our grades came out, Jim had gotten the best grade of the three of us! Damn, Smartass Kid!
A short time after this, as my dual instruction with Gene continued, we were flying along over south Apple Valley and suddenly Gene pulled the throttle and the engine slowed to an idle. Gene said, “Your engine just quit! Find a place to land!” He was teaching me emergency landing procedure. His intention was to take me by surprise, as a real engine failure would, and make me find a place to land. I found a little dirt road in an alfalfa field in just about the right location, and set up a pattern on it. Gene had done this to me before. He usually would let me get down to about 100 feet and then push the throttle in and say, “You would have made it.” Or, “You would not have made it.”
This time he didn’t do or say anything, and we had got down to about 20 feet off the ground. I was thinking, “I wonder if he is going to let me go ahead and land?” Then I thought, “I’m not going to be the one to chicken out, if he doesn’t push that throttle in. I’m going to land on this dirt road!”
Just as I was thinking that thought, Gene pushed the throttle in and said, “You would have made it just fine.” Almost immediately after he said that the airplane made a really rough, jerky movement and a violent shudder went through it!! I said, “Whaaat haapened?” Gene, with his Tennessee accent, said, “We hit a waare. I can see it rollin’ up back there.” We flew back to the airport and landed. I was shaking with fright and shock! I knew that in an airplane/wire encounter the wire usually wins and the airplane ends up in a pile on the ground!
Gene got right to a telephone to report the down wire to the Edison Company. It took him about half an hour to get through. Edison’s phone was solid busy because, as we found out later, although the wire that we had knocked down just went to a pump in the alfalfa field, it had caused a short circuit and tripped a circuit breaker and put the power out in about 1/3 of Ap1ple Valley! Edison’s phone was solid busy with people calling in to tell them that the power was off. Phyllis was one of those people.
When Gene finally got through to the Edison Company, The Rep. tried to give him a quick answer and brush him off, but Gene insisted in continuing, so the Rep said by way of further explanation, “Some Damn fool in an airplane knocked down a power line and put out half the lights in town.” Gene said, “I’m trying to tell you, I’m the Damn fool who did it.”
Meanwhile, a car pulled into the Shell Station in Desert Knowles to get gas. The power was off at the Shell Station, owing to me and my instructor knocking the wire down. The gas pump would not operate, so the driver drove on to the Texaco station where Jim worked. Jim gassed the car and during his routine under the hood check, opened the radiator. The pressure relief valve had failed to vent, and steam and hot water blew up in his face. His coworkers took him to Dr. Gabrielson’s office to see if his burns required medical attention. Dr. Gabrielson was tied up at the hospital where things were in chaos. The power was out, and the hospital was operating on emergency generators. Dr. Gabrielson was attempting to restore order.
Phyllis had heard from Edison that an airplane had knocked down a wire and put out “half the lights in town.” She knew that I was flying, so she called for Jim at the Texaco Station to ask if he knew if I was all right. She was told that Jim had gone to the hospital and she theorized that I may have been taken to the hospital as a result of an airplane accident, and Jim had gone there to see about me. It scared the hell out of her.
After things got sorted out and smoothed down and Phyllis knew that I was not hurt and that Jim’s burns were not severe, Gene asked me to go on an air plane ride to Riverside. He was sending one of his more advanced students there to pick up a part. He reasoned that after my scare, if he could get me back in an airplane, again, I would be less likely to quit flying, and he didn’t want to lose a student.
Gene was a very good instructor, but a little on the casual side. One day I had the opportunity to take Phyllis’ Aunt Margaret for an airplane ride. Aunt Margaret and I drove to the airport. Gene told me that both of the planes that I usually flew were out. He said just take that one, and he pointed to a Cherokee Six that was parked there. A Cherokee Six is the big brother to the four place airplanes, Cherokee 140 and 180, that I had flown, but it was considerably larger and would carry six people. More important, it had a variable pitch prop. I had never learned to operate a variable pitch prop, but Gene had said, “Take it.” So I took it. As I taxied to take off I experimented with the variable pitch prop to sort of get the feel of it. When I was ready for take off, I put the prop in low pitch, as I had heard that was how you should have it for take off. It took off just fine. Margaret and I followed the Mojave River to Barstow, circled around a bit, and came back by way of Lucerne Valley. I practiced with the variable pitch prop on the way. I wasn’t sure where to set the prop for landing so I left it right in the middle. Margaret enjoyed the ride and I now could fly a Cherokee Six!
Another “casual Gene” incident occurred when I stopped by the Hesperia airport late one afternoon to get in a quick flight before going home. Again the airplane that I usually flew was out and again Gene said, “Just take that one.” This time the substitute airplane was a four place, not very pretty, old clunker. I do not remember its brand name. When I started the engine, it sounded more like a rumbling old truck engine than an airplane engine, but I took it and it flew. It seemed to me that the engine was running kind of rough, sort of chug chugging. So after I landed, I said to Gene, “Gene, that engine seems to be running a little rough.” To which Gene answered: “That’s what I’ve been hearing. I’m going to have to get into it and find out what the problem is.”
I ended my flying career with less than two hundred hours. Our son Jim, who started flying with me, has thousands of hours and all of the licenses, and is now the number three pilot of the some twelve thousand pilots employed by American Airlines!