by John Delach
This must be one of the most ironic quotations an individual could make about their first flight, especially as it came from Chuck Yeager: It was in January of 1942, and I had never been in an 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-goes, and I got really sick. After puking all over myself, I said, “Yeager, you made a big mistake.”
Fortunately, my own first flight was considerably more relaxing and without drama or illness. That experience filled me with a love for flying that has remained with me for over 60 years. I made my inaugural flight during the summer of 1957 on an Eastern Airline DC-6 from New York International Airport to Miami, Florida. I was 13-years old. Although this gateway airport had been operating since 1948, the first permanent modern terminal didn’t open until the same year of my first flight and that terminal was only used for international flights. My flight originated from the, so called, temporary air terminal, a collection of single-story plywood structures that meandered haphazardly on a need basis.
My destination was Miami and its rather unattractive temporary terminal. Commercial aviation, born in the 1930s, was only a teenager and had not hit the growth spurt that would come with the introduction of domestic jet service in the 1960s.
I recall two disappointments from my first flight; most of the route was over water making my window seat view boring and not being able to see the New York skyline on take-off.
My second and third trips followed the same route, round trip between Idlewild and Miami. Number Two, in 1959 and Number Three in 1961. Both were on National Airlines with the second being my last trip on a piston powered commercial airliner, a Lockheed Constellation. The third was also my first flight on a jet, a Douglas DC-8.
I didn’t fly again until 1967 when Mary Ann and I, just newlywed, flew to Bermuda for our honeymoon.
Since then, I have enjoyed more than my fair share of personal and family flights, but the bulk of my flying consisted of business trips that I made from 1973 until I retired in 2000. My first trip was a round trip between LaGuardia and Norfolk, Virginia in March of 1973 on Piedmont 737s.
I made my final retirement trip to London in March of 2000 round trip on two of United’s Boeing-767s.
I want you, dear reader, to understand that I loved flying so much that I kept a written record, a sort of a travel log, of all my flights, Between 1973 and 2000 I made 94 business trips to London, I flew 51 times to Bermuda, 39 to Atlanta, 36 to Dallas, 23 to Mobile, 24 to Pittsburgh, 20 to D.C., 19 to Richmond, 14 to Houston, 12 to Oslo and Lewisville, WV, 11 to Boston, 10 to Miami, 9 to Zurich, Nashville and Chicago and 8 to San Juan, PR.
I’ve traveled to Bergen, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Bahrain and Bombay, Mexico City, Rome, Manila, Copenhagen, Munich, Bordeaux and Beijing.
I spent more time in flight on Boeing 727s than any other airplane and made more flights on Eastern Airlines than any other carrier even though they went out of business in 1990.
I was privileged to fly supersonic 9 times on the Concorde between New York’s JFK airport and London’s LHR airport.
And in my time, I also managed to make an additional 117 non – business trips.
If you too enjoy flight, especially commercial flight, I recommend two classic books and a relatively new one that will join them as a classic as time goes by.
The first and oldest: “Wind, Sand and Stars,” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. It is a realistic, yet romantic memoir that chronicles his exploits during the 1920s as a mail pilot flying across the Sarah and the Andes.
“Fate is the Hunter” is the classic re-telling of Ernest K. Gann’s commercial flight experiences as a pilot for an unnamed American airline that my best guess is Eastern Airlines. The last chapter that was made into the movie, “The High and the Mighty,” will give you pause.
“Skyfaring: A Journey with A Pilot,” was published in 2015. The author, Mark Vanhoenacker, an American, beats all odds to achieve his dream job, a pilot flying British Airways 747 on world-wide routes.
I walked away from this book with a renewed understanding of how remarkable our ability is to fly safely and efficiently. Mr. Vanhoenacker completes Saint Exupery’s and Gann’s journeys of trial and error, defeat and renewal. He explains the technical miracles of flying a modern airplane with the same love and respect that Orville and Wilber felt about their Flyer. Flight is truly a miracle.