My first flight instructor was Ulf, a soft-spoken Swedish guy almost exactly my age. He was a quite young man with a perpetual Scandinavian smile on his face. I never saw him wearing anything but a clean well-pressed white shirt and navy-blue dress pants. The last I heard about him was that he'd been a captain on Scandinavian Air Service SAS for many years. My first solo flight came after 10 hours of dual instruction. Why don't you pull off the runway, Ulf yelped over the engine noise, I need to take a piss. I brought the plane to a complete stop on the taxiway and shut the engine off.
Opelousas, Louisiana had an uncontrolled airport. It had no control tower and accordingly arriving and departing traffic (aircraft) had to communicate by radio and declare their intentions to each other. The system worked pretty well and still does for the vast majority of American airports. Take-offs and landings are on first-come first-serve basis. Airplanes line up in an imaginary predetermined traffic pattern then proceed to land or to take off safely and efficiently. It was late afternoon, however, and on that particular hot summer day the sky was empty and almost as blue as Ulf's eyes. He jumped out of the two-seater Piper Tomahawk, turned his back to me and did actually take a leak in the middle of the airfield. After a manly shake, he obviously zipped up his pants and came to the left side of the plane, my side that is, and spoke in his characteristically diminutive voice. Say Abufares (that was not my name then but I'm using it to keep my identity secret), what do you say if I ask you to fly around the pattern alone, land, taxi back here and shut the engine off. Then you can do it a couple more times if you feel up to it? I couldn't believe my ears. This was not supposed to happen today. The instruction manual recommended the first solo flight after 12 hours of dual training. I knew that if I didn't answer in 10 seconds or less Ulf would climb back in his seat and call it a day. Yes! That was all I said. I shut both doors closed then switched on the ignition. I saw Ulf smiling and waving his hand as I taxied back in position for take-off on the runway. It was sweltering hot and my heart pumping blood and adrenalin at 200 beats a minute didn't make it any cooler.
It's been 30 years since that Saturday on July 11th, 1981 and I still remember it as if it happened 30 minutes ago. I pushed the throttle all the way up like I did many times with my instructor by my side. The plane twitched then accelerated nervously down the runway veering to the left with the torque of the single engine. I compensated with right rudder and at 55 knots an hour broke ground. The tiny cockpit seemed incredibly large and empty without Ulf. The Tomahawk, amazingly light without his weight, climbed steeply, much more steeply than I ever remembered and I subconsciously adjusted the trim wheel to keep her nose down. I raised the flaps and commenced my left turn to join the traffic pattern on the downwind leg. It all went silent as a surge of freedom flooded through my body and mind. I AM FLYING! I AM FLYING ALONE AT LAST!!!
I made a robust first landing, safe and efficient. Although I didn't grease my plane onto the runway I would never forget that moment in time. It was my greatest personal triumph, and save for a thing or two, still is. After I received my Private Pilot License, Ulf left and joined a regional American airline. Krisan arrived on the scene and instructed me almost completely through my Commercial and Instrument training. She was a fine young lady, petite, smart, and very pretty in her leather jacket and tight pants. She too became an airline captain for one of the majors. Before she quit flight instruction, however, she handed me to Rick.
Now if you were God and wanted to create the antithesis of Ulf and Krisan you could only end up with Rick. The man was loud. He came to work on a Harley with a cigarette between his lips. Somehow it stayed lit till the end of the day. And, and... pretending he was grabbing another cup of coffee, he would chase the secretaries from upstairs and the receptionists downstairs with his lewd remarks and stale pickup lines from the 60's. After Ulf and Krisan, I was in for a cultural shock. My best defense against the inevitable I thought was to talk as little as possible. To this day Rick thinks that I didn't speak English then and is still surprised how quickly I picked up the language afterward. I would use lines I memorized from sitcoms on TV for my routine conversation with him. The guy, and I have no doubt about it, must've thought that I was an absolute idiot. Truth of the matter though, I was a graduate teaching assistant in college at the time. But, he didn't need to know that.
Despite his eccentricities, or perhaps because of them, Rick was a top rated instructor and a very proficient pilot. I completed the remaining of my training with him in no time and within a month or so received my commercial certificate and my instrument and multi-engine ratings. Soon thereafter, I was offered my first job as a pilot in the very same General Aviation and Flight School were I earned my wings. Gene, rest his soul, was a boss, a friend and an older brother, who believed in Rick and me. He helped me get my Flight Instructor and Advanced Ground Instructor licenses and I embarked on a trip of adventure and discovery that had changed my life forever.
I had used the I need to take a piss phrase with all of my students when it was time for them to solo. Perhaps the only greater satisfaction than my own first solo flight was when I gazed at the sky and followed with my eyes and heart a student of mine flying on his own while I stood on the side of the runway. I know some of them have joined the airlines, one or two became air force pilots and several are flying doctors and professionals.
The world has changed for me and for everybody else over the years. I have taken on more jobs than I can remember in different fields, places and industries, from construction to industrial installations to shipping. My hands stayed soft despite the wear and tear of time, or so she tells me. I didn't have a chance to fly for 11 years during which not a single day, not one, had gone by without me remembering that first solo flight when I became a pilot. To be with Rick in the cockpit again, on top of the world and above the clouds, is something I fail to describe by miles and knots. He sure talks a lot but he was, still and always will be my best friend.
To anyone with the slightest inkling to get in the air and fly I dedicate this post. Go for it!
To my friend Rick, happy retirement and until next time.