(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)