Friends Make the Best Heroes

I think we all look back on life moments which changed the direction of our futures. In my case, all through high school I planned to become a commercial pilot. I had the good fortune of extremely lucrative summer employment which left me with deep pockets. I started taking flying lesson at the Halifax Flying Club located at Stanfield airport. I could start training at age 16 but had to be 17 to hold a private license. Shortly after my 17th birthday I took my flight exam and became a legally credentialed private pilot.

The art of flying is pretty mechanical in the beginning but eventually you really start to internalize the feel of controlling a plane. The wings become extensions of your arms. A touch of the rudder peddles turns the aircraft on a dime. You begin to hold the horizon during a turn such that there is no loss of altitude. This is when flight becomes super special

By the way, it is important to be a little careful with what the mind tells you about flight. In poor weather when there is reduced visibility, it is easy to become disorientated as the inner ear can feed you incorrect information about up and down. You really need to trust what the instruments are telling you and not what your mind implies. That aside, there is a magic moment when every pilot feels one with the plane and after that the joy of soaring through three dimension space becomes euphoric.

This was around 1970. At that time, the United States was beginning to deescalate it’s involvement in the Vietnam war. With the evacuation of more than half a million members of the military, it left thousands of pilots seeking employment outside the armed forces.

These highly trained pilots had logged hours in extreme situations beyond anything I could realize in the path I was following. I decided my chance of getting a foot in the door as a commercial pilot was pretty bleak so I headed off to university to pursue a different future.

I guess everything happens for a reason. During my teen years I was highly involved in leadership training at the Halifax Y. This included helping with youth programs in the gym, pool, and social clubs. I enjoyed working with youth back then which continues as a personal source of joy for me today and proved to be an important fabric of my makeup throughout life. I treasure the time I spend with young adults.

With this backstory out of the way, let me loop back to flying. When I learned I had incurable cancer with a defined “best before” date and an unpredictable future, I made a bucket list. It included renewing my pilots license.

There were many clubs when anyone could learn to fly when I was a teenager. Today, the only remaining flight school anywhere near Halifax is the Truro Flying Club located at the airfield in Debert, Nova Scotia. I had all the information about hours needed, costs involved, type of aircraft used, etc. I ordered the bible of training titled “From the Ground Up,” and then contacted an approved Doctor to arrange for a medical. Although a Canadian government website indicates people with cancer can hold a license, that only applies to a very specific cohort. I discovered that no one on chemo will be granted a medical clearance to fly as the pilot-in-command. I was offered the option of flying with an instructor but I would never be able to fly alone. Clearly I was disappointed with this outcome but there was nothing I could do. I abandoned this plan. An upside; it made it easier to afford my new Harley Davidson motorcycle. So as they say, when a window closes, a new door opens.

Let me introduce you to Ted. From day one of my membership at the Shearwater Yacht Club, Ted became a good friend. He is a little older than me and keeps a sailboat at the club. We both volunteered to stain the clubhouse deck. It was a beautiful warm Tuesday and as we worked on the deck, we chatted about lots of subjects. Ted is quiet, private, smart, articulate, and well traveled. He possesses a fine-tuned wisdom you only attain after years of life experiences. It is a pleasure to be in his company. He and his wife, Deb, own a small aircraft charter company so we talked a lot about flying.

I learned that in addition to their charter aircraft, Ted has access to a Cessna 150. Out of the blue Ted said, “You can fly with me any time. I’ll put you in the left seat, let you do all the flying, and step in when you need a hand.”

So today (Friday, June 18th), off we went.

I picked Ted up at the Stanfield Airport where they have an office for the charter business and keep the plane they use for flights to Sable Island. Ted’s wife Deb gave me a tour of the plane and explained many of it’s unique properties which made it appropriate for landing on the beach at Sable.

Ted and I headed to Debert. I’m sure my heart rate was was elevated as we cruised along the 102. I was so excited. I was bubbly with anticipation. We had lots of good conversation on the road up and I learned the Cessna 150 is actually owned by a retired doc who like me is unable to get medically certified to fly anymore. Ted was his flight instructor in a previous lifetime and they have a long friendship. It is win win; the doc gets to fly and Ted has access to the aircraft to take guys like me up.

It is over 40 years since I last flew so I took on the role of student and eagerly followed Ted’s instructions for prepping the plane, starting it up, doing pre-flight checks. True to his word, Ted put me in the left seat and allowed me to do all the steps under his watchful eye.

As soon as we started to taxi to the runway it got real. It is harder to control direction with your feet on pedals but I adapted quickly. I still tended to turn the yoke like the steering wheel in a car but all that does is change the position of the ailerons which are used to bank the wings during a turn. We did the runup on the taxiway just before the runway. This is the final pre-flight check that the engine is functioning as expected.

And then we were off. A short taxi to the runway and then the application of full power until we reached about 70 knots and with a slight pull on the yoke we were airborne and climbing to the west with runway 27 behind. The expanse of the Fundy Basin filled the windshield as we climbed to 2,000 feet and leveled out. I was so great to have the yoke in my left hand and the throttle in my right.

After leveling out by pushing gently on the yoke, I throttled back, and leaned out the fuel mixture. This was a euphonic moment. My mind was in a place of pure joy.

We spent the next 30 minutes doing turns and then headed back to the airport to practice landings. Flying is like riding a bicycle; it all comes back pretty quickly. I had a few rough landings so I have a ways to go to master that skill but it was so much fun.

We wrapped after an hour and ten minutes which was about the right time for a first flight. I was starting to get tired so I didn’t want to push the first experience.

Throughout the entire episode, Ted was true to his word. He coached me through maneuvers but only once during a bad landing attempt did he take control. He fulfilled a dream for me with care and compassion while trusting me with the aircraft.

Kudos Ted. Friends really are the best heroes when they step up and make life that much more wonderful for a friend; not because they have to but because they can.

As always, I thank all you readers for being at my side as a support pillar. I hope you shared my flying experience and picked up how wonderful it is to have an episode like this in my life. It was an adventure worth sharing.

Peace, Love, and Laughter

8 Replies to “Friends Make the Best Heroes”

  1. Hi Phil, this is Robin Smith, we knew each other from our days at eLearning Conferences. Or perhaps, if you don’t remember me, I knew “of you” from all your wonderful presentations!

    Thank you for being a great example of living out your faith. Praying for additional wonderful moments and joyful experiences as you journey forward.

    1. By the way, I have eight Burgee flags on our boat Second Wind attached to one of my four flag halyards attached to the spreaders. If you don’t know, a Burgee is a flag bearing the colors or emblem of a sailing club, typically triangular.

      The first row has a Canadian flag, Nova Scotia flag, Shearwater Burgee, and Second Wind Burgee.
      The second row has custom printed Burgees including: Big Brothers Big Sisters, Canadian Blood Services, Shakespeare by the Sea, and Big Cove Camp.

      Cheers, Phil

  2. What an absolutely terrific development, Phil! I had no idea you were a pilot! But your story was the perfect start to my day!

    1. I haven’t been active for over 40 years but it’s like riding a bicycle; it comes back pretty quickly. It is as joy to have a chance to fly. There’s another check on the bucket list.

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