I learned to fly at a small grass field in the early 1950s. I did my first solo in an Aeronca Champ; a little two place fabric covered trainer that was slow at everything it did. It climbed slowly, cruised at a whole 80 mph and approached for landing at 45 mph but it did almost anything that was asked of it easily and safely, forgiving the ham fisted control inputs of the novice pilot. It had no radio, no GPS, no attitude indicator or directional gyro; just a compass to navigate by, holding a chart in your lap. This was truly flying and the student rapidly learned the fundamentals of stick and rudder, pilotage and dead reckoning.
On my first solo my instructor and I did several takeoffs and landings then he told me to stop at the end of the runway. I can still hear his words as he exited the plane, "Bob, you're scaring me too bad today, I'm gettin' out. Take it around by yourself s few times." He walked off toward the hangar and there was nothing else I could do, so I taxied to the end of the runway, cleared for any traffic, poured the coal, all sixty five horsepower, to her and lifted off in four hundred feet or so. I wasn't nervous a bit, not until I looked over my shoulder at the empty back seat, then my heart jumped up and stuck in my throat until I was on final approach. I then convinced myself that I really could do it alone and so I did, I made three landings, each one better than the last. When I got out of the Aeronca my instructor pounded me on the back, several other students poured a bucket of ice water over my head and someone cut off my shirt tail This abuse was standard practice at the time and I wouldn't trade the experience for anything, it was like holding the first published copy of my book in my hands.
Later on when I was doing my cross country training, flying over the towns, woods and farm fields in northern New Jersey I saw that nearly every town and many farms had a runway with wind sock and a few aircraft tied down in it. I would even fly the Aeronca up to spend the day with my high school girlfriend; landing and taking off between the rows of apple trees in a local orchard. This was truly the golden age of civil aviation. Everyone wanted to fly and many did, learning in tiny Piper Cubs or Aeroncas and graduating to faster, higher horsepower craft as in the pictured Beechcraft 17 Staggerwing that is now a classic. Many, like myself would go on to fly professionally as flight instructors, charter and airline pilots some would become the military pilots of today. Small airlines and charter companies flourished in spite of some notorious crashes and all of aviation blossomed.
Memories of those days now come unbidden, as clearly as if they had happened yesterday. The smell of the interior of a hangar early on a summer morning, a rich mixture of the scents of aviation gasoline, oil and aircraft dope, The sight of the early morning dew, whirled into a horizontal tornado by the prop on takeoff, bearing all the colors of the rainbow in it's spiral around the plane. The first time I saw a rainbow on a cloud surrounding my aircraft's shadow. The wonder of my first night flight with the lights of the cities like diamonds on the black velvet of the night below, and so many more sights and sounds.
Sadly, those days are long gone, killed by over regulation and the ever rising costs of fuel, maintenance, electronics, etc. And the increasing price of new small aircraft due to frivilous lawsuits and rising material costs. Also there is beginning to be a lack of small local airfields due to operating costs. Many small airports have closed in recent years and become housing developments or golf courses. Even those that remain suffer complaints of "airplane noise" from local residents even though the average light plane makes no more noise than an eighteen wheeler on the highway.
The Golden years are gone forever but there is hope, recently the FAA has designated a new category of aircraft as "Light Sport" airplanes. To meet this regulation a plane must weigh a certain amount and carry no more than two people, a perfect trainer and an economical aircraft to operate, well within the budget of a small flight school. The Golden Years may have passed but we may be able to salvage at least some of the thrill and mystique of simple light aircraft and "stick and rudder flying."
Author Robert F. DeBurgh learned to fly at the age of fifteen and has over twenty thousand hours of flight time. He has been a flight instructor, cargo pilot, mail pilot, bush pilot, mercenary fighter pilot and has served as captain for three airlines.