Becoming An Aviator

by R. Nelson Nash

When I was in the second through fourth grades in grammar school we lived across the road from the airport in Athens, Georgia. I was just a kid who became fascinated with airplanes. Fantasizing what it would be like to be a pilot of one occupied a great deal of my time.

Would you believe it? Just six years later I made my first solo flight on that very airport in a Taylorcraft BC-12D – a two-seater, side-by-side “tail-dragger” light airplane, powered by a 65 horsepower Continental engine. It had a wheel control instead of a “flight stick” control that was most popular in 1946. Most military fighter planes still use the stick control. Radios were non-existent in such light planes in those days. Instruments were minimal, to say the least. Nor was there a battery-powered starters to crank the engine. Someone had to “hand prop” the propeller to get it started. That meant there was no electric generator to recharge a battery.

The frame of such an aircraft was made of welded tubular steel and covered with fabric that had been treated with a number of coats of “dope” – a compound that had been sprayed on to preserve the fabric and to improve aerodynamics to some degree. Bungee cords supported the main landing gear, and of course, the gear did not retract while in flight.

This all sounds inexpensive, doesn’t it? Wrong! Anyone who has had experience with anything that involves airplanes (or boats) knows that parts, labor, and everything concerning either activity will cost at least two to three times what such items would cost with an automobile. In other words, when you are dealing with boats or airplanes you must be aware that exceptional cost is a factor that must be faced. An airplane like the Taylorcraft BC-12D cost more than twice the cost of a Chevrolet sedan at that time.

All of this explanation is to help you understand that my parents were not noted for their wealth. You see, when I was four years old (1935) and younger, my father was a tenant-farmer for his father in Madison County, Georgia. I did not experience indoor plumbing in a home until I was 10 years old. I’m not complaining about my childhood days. I consider myself extremely fortunate for everything that has happened.

But, under the above circumstances I made my first solo flight in October 1946 at age 15. (That was before the legal age or 16 to do so. You must understand – there were “a lot of things done after WWII that were not “legal”). How did this all this come to pass?

In 1941 we moved into the town of Athens. Talk of the probability of war was on everyone’s mind. WWII started December 7 of that year. The U.S. Navy had started a small primary flight school at the Athens Airport. My dad got a job as an aircraft engine mechanic there. Often, he would take me there to help out with certain menial stuff. There was quite an assortment of types of aircraft in use – Waco UPF 7s dominated. Fairchild PT-17s, Fairchild Cabin Cruisers, Stinson Reliant “Gullwings” and my favorite – the Ryan ST Low wing, metal fuselage, sport plane with an inverted, six-cylinder Menasco engine rounded out the inventory. (Google Ryan ST and you will see what I mean).

The Ryan was a tandem two-seater, open cockpit plane that had very small seat compartments. Big men would have a hard time fitting into one of them. The rudder pedals in the front cockpit were connected to the rudder pedals in the rear compartment by means of “push-pull” aluminum tubes. These tubes could get bent easily – and so that happened from time to time. Getting into position to replace those bent tubes was next to impossible for a grown man. But, an eleven-year old, skinny kid could do it with no trouble. I became “the resident expert” on making these repairs. (That would not be allowed today. It was a “different world” back then). One Sunday afternoon my father got me a ride in a Piper J-3 plane. That did it! I was totally hooked! I got to know a number of the instructor pilots and to “talk airplane stuff” with them.

Sometime later one of the prominent instructor pilots, Lloyd Florence, was making a 20 minute flight in one of the Stinson Reliant “Gullwing” planes to check out its radio function. It is a five place cabin plane with a big radial engine that looks just great! Just google Stinson Reliant on the internet and you see what I mean. They used this one for cross-country flying instruction. Dad got me a ride with Lloyd Florence! Can you imagine how I felt!?

A few months later I learned where Lloyd lived. It was less than a mile from where we went to church. After Sunday evening service, I walked over to Lloyd’s house, without an appointment to do so, and expressed my desire to become a pilot someday. That fine man spent two hours with me just talking “airplane stuff.” Matthew 7:7 NIV Bible says, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Lloyd demonstrated the truth of this scripture – a fact that I have witnessed all my life. By this time, I’m totally committed to finding some way to become an aviator.

The time is now 1945 and the war is over. Servicemen were making the transition to civilian life. My oldest brother was in the Army Air Corp as a parachute rigger and stationed on the Aleutian island of Amchitka during the war. One of his acquaintances was a fellow soldier named Herbert Woodrow Hoover. (Yes, that was his real name!) Hoover was transferred to a base in South Florida before the war was over. Brother asked him to stop by Athens and let us know that he was OK and free from danger. Hoover did so, and thus became a friend of the family.

For a variety of reasons the U.S. Government established the “GI-Bill” – one benefit was free college tuition plus a stipend to live on. Athens is the home of the University of Georgia. Hoover decided to go to college there. Housing was very scarce in such a time and place. And so, Hoover lived with us.

During the war he had made some money trading cars and other entrepreneurial things. He decided to become an aviator. So, he bought a Piper J-3 Cub. You must understand how Hoover thought. He wasn’t about to pay someone else to teach him to fly it! After all, it isn’t all that complicated of a thing to do. It is mostly a motor skill. His solution was to let other student pilots who had already soloed fly his Piper Cub – provided that he could ride along with them and watch what they did. That’s how he learned to fly his plane. Hoover taught me. Get the picture? During the next twenty months or so, I accumulated a little over 100 hours of flying time.

To shorten the story, I went through the Army Flight Training program at San Marcos, TX and then to Ft. Rucker, AL in 1956 where I really learned how to fly! By the way, I finished “first in my class” in both locations. I spent 28 years flying with the Army National Guard in North Carolina and Alabama.

There was a lot of civilian flying during my career, also. In fact, this portion was more than twice the military experience. Together the number of hours of flight time is a little over 7,500 hours. Over the years, my family owned 5 different aircraft. This influenced our lifestyle a great deal and provided memories that are priceless – so much so that I feel sorry for folks who don’t know how to fly an airplane!

Accomplishments in a field that you may have an interest may be expensive, but the most important factor is that of your desire! So, be careful of what you think about — it is going to happen if the desire is strong enough.

Of course, the example in this story is minuscule in comparison with the countless stories that we have all heard or witnessed down through the years – examples of tremendous achievement in spite of unbelievable handicaps.

Yes, and there are also countless others who complain that “I can’t do ________ because of __________ (you fill in the blanks).
You see, It’s all about how you think! Your thinking is what leads to formulating your core beliefs.