THE BEECHCRAFT KING AIR 200 has shut down, the passengers have disembarked, and as the pilots are walking away I whisper into my young son’s ear, “Wave at the pilots.” It works like a charm. One of them walks over and asks Tudor, “Would you like to see the inside of this airplane?” “Yesssirr!” he shouts. In we go. Tudor goes for the left seat. I have my camera ready and snap another photo for his collection.
Airplanes have always fascinated me. Growing up, I wanted to fly F-4s for the Navy. I watched the Blue Angels every year at Belle Chasse Naval Air Station in New Orleans, and I was sure that one day I too would be signing autographs for adoring kids. I learned how to fly when I was a senior in high school. I was a good pilot, able to make soft-field landings and smooth turns in Piper Tomahawks and Cessna 152s. There was only one problem with my piloting skills: I was a lousy navigator. I made two cross-country flights, and on both I got lost. Only a low pass over a town-labeled water tower saved me.
In college I had several meetings with Navy recruiters. While watching their films, I could picture myself hopelessly lost over the Pacific, with the back-seater hollering, “The carrier’s east! Don’t you know which way is east?”
Fast-forward about 20 years: One day I decided to bring Tudor to the Greenville Downtown Airport in South Carolina to watch airplanes. It’s a great general aviation airport with a four-foot-high wall separating the parking lot from the taxiways. The first day that Tudor and I had seated ourselves on the wall, the pilot of a Cessna Citation II business jet walked up and asked if my little boy would like to go inside. “Hell yeah I would!—uh, I mean, yes, of course, right, son?” While Tudor tried to twist the yoke off the panel, the pilot entertained my questions about rotation speed and maximum thrust.
Driving home, I realized this never would have happened had I been by myself or with someone my own age. It was definitely the kid. Most of us are only too happy to show off where we work to a starry-eyed child, and pilots are no exception. It took several more experiments before I could prove my theory.
The next week, there we were on the wall waving at pilots, and sure enough, we got invited into a Beechjet. A couple of weeks later we got ushered into a Cessna 421, and a few weeks after that, during a trip to Louisville, Kentucky, Tudor got to sit in a Eurocopter Dauphin air ambulance. Much to my wife’s dismay, he told her the story of Pilot Glen and Nurse Patsy’s Dauphin over and over, all the while flying the toy helicopter I had bought him in Louisville.
When we were invited into a Canadair Challenger, I knew my theory was valid. The next day, Tudor was looking at photos of the space shuttle and asked me if one day we could see the shuttle take off. “What a great idea! Of course we can,” I replied. “Will the astronauts let me sit in the cockpit?” he asked. Hmmm, I thought, I wonder if we could pull that off.
“You’re giving him a false sense of reality,” my wife complained. “No I’m not, it’s all part of my plan,” I told her. I confessed I was trying to mold our son into a fighter pilot or a shuttle commander.
“You know, it wouldn’t hurt to take him to an art museum once in a while,” she said. “I’ve got no problem with that,” I told her. “Why don’t you see if he can find the museum by dead reckoning?”
I truly believe I can work all of this to my—uh, his—advantage. If the early years are the formative ones, my son is well on his way to becoming a Blue Angel or a shuttle pilot, circa 2027. I wonder if the Blue Angels’ parents ever get asked for autographs. Or better yet, maybe the fathers of shuttle commanders get to sit in the cockpit.