On the road to becoming a Private Pilot there were three “gates” through which I had to pass. One was guarded by a medical doctor, the other two by a pilot. The medical doctor was obviously a man who clearly looked upon people who wanted to learn how to fly an airplane as at best foolish and seemingly, at worst, suicidal. After checking my bodily functions and various orifices he completed an FAA-required form and handed it to me with the acerbic comment “There’s your license to go kill yourself.” I passed through his gate, never looked back and never saw that man again.
The second gate was jealously guarded by my first Flight Instructor. Who and what he was deserves to be remembered. Mr. Robert “Bob” O’Haver was his name and the year I met him was 1978. Bob had spent many months flying as a “Forward Observer” in Viet Nam. A Forward Observer’s job in those days was to fly a tiny, canvas-covered, single engine, unarmed airplane over places where Viet Cong soldiers were thought to be hiding or where they were actively engaged in a fire-fight with American ground soldiers. Bob’s “mission,” if it was over a place where they were “thought” to be hiding, was to entice the VC to shoot at him so that he could confirm or deny their presence. If an actual battle was in progress his job was to “hang around” flying circles above the enemy and tell our fighter/bombers or ground artillery where to blast them. That was an activity the VC disapproved of in the strongest possible way, by shooting at him. So understandably Bob was a rather tense, tightly-wired person. He chain-smoked. I spent many hours inhaling second-hand smoke in the tiny cockpit of his two-seat airplane – and I don’t regret a minute of those hours.
The first gate over which Bob stood guard was one marked “First Solo Flight.” Any pilot will tell you that all the details of their taking an airplane into the sky by themselves and returning it to ground safely – if not “prettily”- are burned into their memory. For me it happened, quite by coincidence, and somewhat unexpectedly after Bob had spent a mere seven hours teaching me the niceties of “taking off” and “landing.” It was a pleasant Ohio summer afternoon and we had been practicing “take-offs” and “landing” for what seemed like hours. After numerous repetitions of “Land, roll down the runway, takeoff, fly a rectangular pattern back to another landing” I was somewhat puzzled when Bob told me to stop the airplane at the end of the runway. When I had it stopped, he got out of the plane and said, “Take it up, go around once, land and taxi back to the ramp.” With that he started walking toward the hangar. A jolt of adrenalin hit me as I realized that in the course of the next few minutes I was going to put myself into a situation in which no one on earth could help me and if I made a big enough mistake there was a good chance I would die in the wreckage of this plane.
Bob had been a good teacher. Sitting alongside me in the cockpit, smoking his predictable cigarette, he had talked me through dozens of takeoffs and landings. As I advanced the throttle the airplane began rolling down the runway and I, psychologically, became two people. One “me” “began saying aloud exactly the instructions Bob had given me so many times. The other “me” was handling the controls of the airplane. I truthfully “talked myself” through the entire sequence of taking off, flying back to where I started, and landing the airplane. As I taxied to the ramp I was a different person from the middle-aged man who first met Bob. I wasn’t yet a pilot but I had passed through the second terrible gate. I had made my first solo. I could become a pilot.
Throughout the fall and early winter of that year Bob continued hammering me into a pilot. As unflappable as he was, having survived terrible hours as an airborne Forward Flight Observer in Viet Nam – I only scared him once. After I almost flew us into one of our hangars he yelled “What the hell was that?” and nervously lit another cigarette. Otherwise he was great at giving me more than enough rope to hang both of us – it seemed. There came a time when I was “coming in” for a landing much too fast. Sitting beside me he drily remarked, “My, my, we’re gonna land at 110 miles an hour. I can’t wait to see how this turns out.” At that juncture I panicked and shrieked “DO SOMETHING!” He calmly replied, “You do something, you’re the pilot.” He knew it was a “teachable moment” and he used it. I DID “do something.” I corrected the situation. I was a “ground shy” student pilot. At our airport we had to approach the runway quite low over the housetops when landing one one of the runways. I just couldn’t get myself to put the plane low enough to make a decent landing. In his inimitable way he “inquired” (profanity was included in his question) why I wouldn’t go lower. When I confessed to him that flying so low over housetops was frightening, he looked at me sternly and said, “You can’t do anything about that s**t down there, just land the airplane. Again, he was right. The trick was to focus on what I should be doing to control the airplane. If I was doing that, everything would take care of itself.
On December 6, 1978, which was coincidentally my dad's birthday, Bob took me into his office, signed an FAA-provided form, handed it to me and said, “There’s your ticket to go learn how to fly an airplane.” He had just opened the third gate for me. As I stepped through it I thought his comment was odd, considering he had just “anointed me” as a Private Pilot. Several years later I understood. Bob was a prophet. There was much to be learned.
Our lives are touched and filled by at least a few, sometimes many, memorable people. Bob O'Haver, tucked away in my memory, is keeping company with a small band of truly remarkable people. God gave me the talent and the opportunity and He has heard me thank Him many times. But it was Bob O'Haver who gave me wings.
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I believe you spent some time in Viet Nam. I imagine you have some appreciation for the work of "Forward Observers" or "Forward Air Controllers." I've forgotten exactly what they're called.
That is me standing beside my little "American Yankee" airplane only a few minutes after completing a cross-country flight from St. Louis to Palm Springs CA. Another story. . . Unfortunately I have no pictures of Bob.
Isn't it great that we have the memories of those who helped us in our "defining moments"? Having a son who also experienced his solo flight as he learned to fly (but hasn't done so since his marriage) I appreciate your description of 'solo flight'.
I've just been introduced to the world of aviation recently, and your description of Bob reminds me, in a more general way, of many of the older pilots I'm meeting. I find that aviation seems to attract a more interesting class of person. Maybe learning how to fly an airplane attracts a certain type. Thanks for sharing this story; it was a wonderful read.
Welcome, Anders. I've found that while there are a few pilots, and remarkably most of them have been helicopter pilots, who view flying as just a job and their craft a tool, most pilots are much more emotionally involved with airplanes and the sky than they will admit. Some people perceive pilots as being cocky and self-centered but if you "hang around" I think you will find that a high degree of self-confidence is a prerequisite to being a competent pilot. I believe that flying does attract a certain type of person - I'll leave it up to "the public" to decide what that kind of person is. If you're really interested, do some reading. A long-ago pilot by the name of Ernest Gann is a great one to start with - any of his novels. Richard Bach put together a book, I have it only in paperback and it may no longer be available except at used bookstores, that he called "A Gift of Wings." It's a compendium of short stories or essays. I know only that I loved it passionately and I miss being able to pilot an airplane more than anything other than my loved ones who are gone. Tailwinds to you.