My First Time
Aerospace celebrities talk about the flights that changed their lives.
- By Phil Scott
- Air & Space magazine, July 2002
Test pilot, X-1, X-15, and other legendary aircraft
It was 1927, and the pilot was Carl Lienesch. He worked for my father at the Union Oil Company. Lienesch, he flew around to the various oil fields in use. Used Alexander Eaglerocks and Travel Airs. And my first flight was in an Eaglerock, and Lienesch took me for a ride out of Monrovia, California. That was before Lindbergh flew the Atlantic.
I was in the front seat and I enjoyed it. But I fell asleep. I was only six or seven years old.
Author; daughter of Charles Lindbergh
All I can remember is a flight with my father when we had a forced landing. I think I was maybe seven. It was out of Danbury [Connecticut], and what he rented—I know this was true because I asked [Lindbergh biographer] Scott Berg—was an Aeronca with a tandem cockpit. He didn’t own a plane. He would take us up and my brother and sister would take off and land; all I could do was pull back on the stick. He would shout stuff like “Lean in the curve,” and he had all these phrases like “An airplane is like a bobsled.”
The choke malfunctioned and I was quite excited. I asked, “Are we going to crash?” He said, “No, but put your head down between you knees.” I found it quite boring because I couldn’t see much.
We landed in a cow pasture. There were no cows but lots of rocks. They had to take the plane apart to get it out.
GEN. JOHN R. DAILEY
(USMC, ret.) Director, National Air and Space Museum
My first flight was when I jumped in the front seat of a T-34. I was 23 years old. It was everything I hoped it was going to be.
My dad was a marine aviator but I had never flown, never been in the cockpit of an airplane. I felt completely prepared for it, having gotten through ground school and bailout school. They hook you up with an instructor and away you go. I was impressed that they pressed you as fast as you could take it. Every hop you were learning something new. They’d give you a solo or two to practice on your own, and then give you a check ride. It may sound naive, but I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to be there.
I was in the Marines, and it took me about 14 months to get my wings. Would have been July of ’58. It was in the Mentor, actually a Beech Bonanza with a tandem cockpit. We did spins on the very first hop. And aerobatics. We transitioned to the T-28, which had the R-1820 radial. You got into this thing and you started that engine and it torqued, and I thought to myself: I wonder if I’m in the right place. It’s quite an airplane. Everybody I know thought the same thing.
Space shuttle commander (mission STS-93)
I was 19 years old. My mother and myself, we flew from Elmira, New York, to change planes in Chicago and landed in Denver or Colorado Springs. We were taking a little vacation. My brother was a freshman at the Air Force Academy—a fourth classman, first year—and my mother and I went out for Parents’ Weekend or Labor Day Weekend, and we flew out on a Thursday or Friday and flew back the following Monday. I got the window seat and spent most of the time trying to calm my mother down. She was drinking coffee and shaking— she was nervous the entire flight. I’ve got to give her credit: She isn’t as afraid as she used to be. So anyway, I enjoyed looking out the window. For the first time I saw what the ground looked like from the air. That was about the time I started thinking about flying myself.
The first time I flew myself would have been ’77, in a Cessna 150. I went to a local airport, Elmira-Corning Regional Airport. It’s beautiful. It’s hilly, lot of trees, difficult to navigate in. I never finished my license that summer. We had a lot of fog, and I could only fly in the morning because I worked in a restaurant. I waited till the next summer to finish up my flying lessons.
Pilot and author (Jonathan Livingston Seagull)
From about the age of eight I would build little air vehicles and put my eye against the back of the cockpit and say: “This must be what it looks like to fly.”
I had my first flight at 15. That flight was in an airplane owned by Paul Marcus. He was my mother’s campaign manager; she was running as the first councilwoman of Long Beach, California. He had a Globe Swift and he casually mentioned one day that he flew airplanes. I absolutely started bouncing off the walls. He said, “What’s the matter with your boy, Mrs. Bach?” She said, “He loves airplanes.” He said, “Let’s go out flying,” and I latched onto his arm and wouldn’t let go. When we walked out to the airport and we walked out the gate—I still feel the sunlight—my eyes were like dinner plates. He taxied out to the runway and talked to the tower and rolled down the runway. The earth started falling away, and I thought, Oh boy! I was enraptured and it never quit; it still feels this way.
I always thought about that first flight. Certainly it was the most important moment of my life.
Founder, Experimental Aircraft Association
Well, my first time was back in 1936, when I taught myself to fly a glider. It was a Waco gilder that one of my high school teachers gave to me when he recognized I wasn’t a very good student but my interests lay in building model airplanes and flying model airplanes. So he called me into his office and said I wasn’t a good student in ancient history, which is what he taught, but he had a wrecked Waco glider and he offered me money to repair the ribs and buy the dope, and he and I hauled it home. We were a real poor family. My dad had a garage with some wooden planks on the floor. I brought it in the garage and got books on building airplanes and repaired it. My friend had a nice automobile, a coupe, and we took it down to a farmer’s field and hooked the glider on the back, and the first thing I knew I was up about a hundred feet. All the farm kids were watching me. And then I pulled the rope to let it go and found out one thing: Keep your nose down. It was so thrilling I couldn’t believe it. I can still smell the skid sliding through alfalfa.
with Jeana Yeager, flew the only unrefueled, nonstop flight around the world
Right after World War II, I was a little tiny kid about eight years old and my mother took me out to a little field near Riverside, California. I was too small to strap down in the seat. I stood behind the pilot’s seat and held onto the seat cushion and the cotton was coming out of it. We bounced out across the grass field and climbed into the sky.
Sound barrier breaker
It was in January 1942 and I had never been in any airplane in my life. I was a PFC [private first class], a crew chief on an AT-11 bomber trainer, and I had to change the engines. The engineering officer said, “You want to test the airplane?” I said, “I’ve never been in the air.” He said, “You’re really going to enjoy it.” Me being raised in West Virginia it was like me looking over a cliff. He flew some touch-and-go’s and I got really sick. After puking all over myself, I said, “Yeager, you made a big mistake.”
World War II ace; Tuskegee Airman
I had already been reading War Aces and all the old comic books about pilots and the Red Baron and all of that, and that’s why I asked my father to get me a ride in the airplane. The first flight was I guess in 1936 or ’37, when I was nine or 10 years of age. A guy was flying around, selling rides for a couple of bucks. My father paid for it. It was about 10 or 15 minutes. We took off in a little biplane and that was it. I didn’t have a parachute and I didn’t have a helmet; I had a hat on and I was sitting in the back seat of I don’t know what it was.
Stunt pilot; president, Planes of Fame Museum
First time I ever left the ground was in an SNJ-5. I was 15 years old. It was at Ontario, California, at the air museum here, Planes of Fame. I went with a museum pilot, Roscoe Diehl. Roscoe was an Air Force fighter pilot and an Air National Guard pilot; he flew Lockheed F-104s.
I was pretty excited about it. I’d worked on airplanes all my life but I had never even left the ground. He let me grab the stick and said: “Try to break the airplane.” His point was you can’t break it so don’t be too ginger with it. It was like 45 minutes. My best recollection is we took off and circled over Ontario and went over Corona, south of Ontario, and cruised around and did some loops and rolls, some aerobatics.
The same airplane—we still have it at the museum here today. I fly it every once in a while.
SEAN D. TUCKER
I was 12 years old. It was 5:30 in the morning at Hawthorne Airport in California. My father was flying to Fresno and he had an instructor with him. He was learning to fly instruments. He was departing in the dark, taking off and rolling down the runway, and I was scared to death. At 1,000 feet we went into overcast. At 3,000 feet he breaks out of the overcast and the sun was just coming up over the San Gabriel Mountains. And at that moment I knew there was a God.
Aerospace executive; son of pioneering aircraft designer Igor Sikorsky
I was probably nine or ten years of age. It was in Stratford, Connecticut. I was sort of seated on my father’s knee in the copilot’s seat of an S-38, a twin-engine amphibian. I remember that we did a brief flight. Oh, it was great. The airplane taxied into the water from the seaplane ramp that still survives—50 years later it’s still at the mouth of the Housatonic River. The [Sikorsky] plant is half a mile up-river. I remember that as the airplane taxied down the ramp into the water, the water kept coming up higher and higher, eventually ending about six to eight inches below the window. But there was absolute calm in the cockpit so I figured everything was under control. Our chief test pilot at that time, he was in the left seat, he opened up the throttles, and for about a few seconds I couldn’t see anything out of the windshield because the propeller tips were whipping up such a spray. Suddenly we were on the step and everything cleared off like magic. And maybe two or three brief seconds after that we were airborne. I remember seeing the horizon expanding miraculously.
LT. COL. MARTHA MCSALLY, USAF
First U.S. woman to fly fighters in combat
I was a kid flying down to Miami and I was airsick and it was miserable. I had my head in a bag the whole trip. If anybody told me I was going to be a fighter pilot I would have laughed. I felt so bad.