Tailspin Tommy, who has been the Student Prince’s mechanic for thirty years, asked me the other day, “Summer do you remember when you first saw the Student Prince?” He told me that when the hangar doors rolled open to reveal the yellow biplane I gasped audibly and said in awe, “It’s so beautiful…..!” Little did I know that it would shape my life in so many ways.
I recall responding to my mother’s questioning me as to whether or not I would be taking my first flying lessons in Dad’s biplane. I smugly told her that of course not, I would begin flying in a Cessna trainer, not my father’s precious antique airplane of which there were only three in the world. And for heaven’s sake, it didn’t even have a radio or lights, not suitable at all for training. What a dumb question! Of course, being a teenager made me an expert in all matters and adults quite dim witted.
When I arrived in Port Townsend from Alaska, my Dad had other ideas. He had already arranged a flight instructor for my flying lessons and there was no question; I was to learn to fly in the Student Prince after all. My instructor, Ken, had been my father’s instructor in the Student Prince, and his patience and reaction time had been seriously tested by Dad. Perhaps Ken had forgotten the pain of the experience or perhaps Dad had bribed him. For whatever reason, he agreed to teach a sixteen year old girl who didn’t even drive a car how to fly.
Ken was from an era of fighter pilots who could see enemy airplanes fifty miles away, drink whiskey with the men, cut a dapper figure on the dance floor and still keep a perfect military crease uniform. He was a man’s man and the stereotypical fighter pilot of the 1950s. He had powder blue eyes permanently crinkled from years of squinting into the sun, and he spoke with crisp, to the point sentences. While an instructor pilot in the military, one of his students mistakenly ejected him out of an airplane over the swamps of Louisiana. At night. Needless to say, Ken didn’t easily lose his cool. The only time I saw him get anywhere close to excited was during one of our morning flying lessons.
I hadn’t soloed yet, and we had taxied from the hangar for a session of touch and gos. Having no communication other than hand signals, Ken sat still in the front cockpit while I taxied without assistance and performed my pre takeoff checks. I made sure that the flight controls were free, confirmed that the engine was the proper operating temperature and that the oil pressure was normal. I checked the ignition system, making sure that the engine would run even if one spark plug fouled or if a magneto failed. I set the altimeter, and put the trim lever in the takeoff position. I accomplished the whole sequence of checks while Ken sat stoically in front of me offering no input. All I saw was the back of his head. I had taken several lessons and I was quite proficient on the ground. The focus now consisted of honing my takeoffs and landings. In the near future, my instructor would decide that I was skilled and consistent enough to take to the sky alone, and that day was drawing closer.
So while Ken sat like a lump during the pre takeoff checks, I spun the airplane in a brisk 360 to look for airplanes overhead before trundling onto the runway and lining up for takeoff. As I was applying full power and beginning my takeoff roll, my heretofore languid flight instructor became suddenly animated. He flapped his arms and shouted to stop, stop! Startled, I reduced the power to idle and stopped on the runway. Ken looked back at me, and chuckling, explained that he had no flight control stick.
We learned later that my Dad had removed it the weekend before when he was hopping rides at an airshow. And that morning when Ken went to cover the flight controls during our takeoff all his hand met with was air. It got his attention to say the least. And although I laughed along with him as we taxiied back to the hangar for the stick, I always wondered what would have happened if we had gotten airborne. And deep down inside, a part of me didn’t find the idea funny at all.