Essay: One More Chance.

This is a re-post, with photos newly added, of an essay I wrote a few years ago. It was originally published in the AOPA ePilot newsletter, March 2007.

My earliest memories are of pointing to the sky, having detected the far-off drone of a piston engine. Dad had been a pilot since before I was born. He flew a pea-green Cessna 172 from Rialto Municipal in Southern California. I can remember with crystal clarity those lazy Saturday afternoons at the airport, helping him push back the big hangar doors and leaning my small weight against the airplane’s struts as he pulled it into the sun.

I read him checklists, learning words like “aileron,” “magnetos,” and “pitot” that no one else in my first-grade class knew. I drew airplanes and helicopters all over every piece of paper I could find, proudly telling Dad that I was going to grow up to be a “helicopter designer.” I went to the library, looked up the addresses of every aircraft manufacturer I could think of, and sent them packets of drawings. (Grumman was the only one that responded, with a very nice letter and some glossy 8-by-10-inch photos of fighters.)

But, as a teenager, I had “better” things to do than hang out at the airport. I turned down invitations to fly out for breakfast — that would require getting up too early on weekend mornings. Eventually, I graduated from high school and moved away for college, beginning to build my life in a new city. I saw Dad less and less frequently. He talked occasionally about flying out to visit me, but then he lost his medical and sold the plane. At 75 years of age, he was grounded.

Over the next few years his health deteriorated further. He lost weight, and his energy flagged. When I did see him, he often sat slumped in his chair in a defeated pose I’d never encountered before.

And then, one morning, I got the call that the ambulance had come in the middle of the night to take him away. I rushed to the hospital and met, for the first time, a thin, sad figure that I hardly recognized as my father — so different from the strong, robust figure of my childhood. I drove him home that day, driving as carefully as I could, and knew that he was weak when he never once bothered to comment on my driving!

That night I told my then-girlfriend (now my wife) about how much I regretted passing up the opportunity to fly more with Dad when I’d had the chance. I mentioned that in the back of my mind, I’d always thought that I’d become a pilot someday. I’d just never done anything about it.

A few weeks later, for Valentine’s Day, she surprised me with a $49 introductory flight at a local flight school. I grinned like a chimp as I climbed into the school’s Piper Cherokee. When the Lycoming engine barked to life, it was as if a spark had jumped a gap in my heart — the love, vigor, and excitement of my childhood came rushing back.

As the instructor led me through some simple maneuvers, I realized that flying had to be part of my life again. The instructor complimented me on how comfortable I seemed in the sky and how sure my movements were — I told him that I’d done this before.

Before I left the airport that day, I bought a logbook and had the instructor sign the first line. I was working an evening shift at the time, so I worked flying lessons into my morning schedule. Within three months, I had my private pilot certificate and was as happy as I’d ever been.

But by now, Dad’s condition had gotten worse. His energy was very low. I’d told Mom about the flying lessons, but I didn’t tell Dad — I wanted it to be a surprise.

Dad still liked to go to the airport now and then to watch the airplanes and perhaps chat with some of the pilots. Mom told me about a fly-in breakfast that was coming up and said she would make sure he’d be there. When the day came, I took to the air, flying the one-hour cross-country to my hometown. As I taxied from the runway to transient parking, I found Mom leading Dad across the ramp toward me.

The first words out of his mouth were, “Why didn’t you tell me?” I laughed and gave him a hug.

The next thing he said was a string of admonishments — “Always watch the weather. Don’t spend too much money. Always be careful taxiing. Take the time to do a proper preflight.” Once I heard his strict tone, I knew that the old Dad was back, if only for the day.

Mom coaxed him into the cockpit, and I gingerly steered the plane onto the same runway that was featured so heavily in my favorite childhood memories. With a roar the Cherokee pulled us into the air, and a trip around the pattern rushed by all too quickly. On final, I asked him if he wanted to go around again. Feeling the stress of the flight, he declined. I let the plane down gently, pulled off the runway, and taxied back to parking.

Mom and I helped him climb down the Cherokee’s wing, and Mom asked him about the flight. “Sure, David’s a good pilot,” he said. Coming from him, this was high praise.

In the months that followed, he weakened further. I took any opportunity I could to visit him, even as his speech and breathing became labored. We discussed where I’d flown recently, and he told me stories of notable trips he’d taken. He continued to warn me about the hazards of not watching the weather, a lesson I’ve taken to heart.

Dad passed away about four months after the fly-in. My first flight ever had been as his passenger, and his last flight had been as mine. I continued to revisit the little Southern California airports that we’d been to together.

At Apple Valley, an airport in the desert northeast of Los Angeles, a restaurant wall is decorated with handwritten messages from 60 years’ worth of pilots who’ve passed through. Names and dates fight for space on the long, painted brick expanse. I remembered this place. I wondered if I’d written anything there.

I spent 15 minutes searching the wall, trying to find my own name. Instead, I found Dad’s — dated five years before I was born.

The ink had faded over the decades, and the name was partially covered by newer additions. I borrowed a marker from the waitress and inked over his signature, smiling as I recognized his familiar scrawl. I colored in his name and date, and then added my own beneath it. Mine was a little bit smaller, a little bit newer, a little bit sloppier — but it was right next to Dad’s.

28 thoughts on “Essay: One More Chance.”

  1. Thank you for this story. My father grew up in Victorville, and I’m essentially going through what you had, as my my Dad had a stroke a few years ago, and he’s been getting weaker ever since. I do my best to see him at least once a month and your story literally had me in tears.

    Thanks for reminding me about how truly great fathers are.

  2. This was so sweet and touching. Thank you for sharing it with us. And I’m really glad that you had the chance to have those experiences with your Dad near the end, it’s obvious how much you treasure those memories. <3

  3. Hey, that’s what I was going to say! I’ll say it anyway: thanks for sharing the lovely story.

  4. Oh, wow, I live in Hesperia currently and I used to live right next to the Hesperia Airport and I’ve been to the Apple Valley Airport a few times. This was a touching story and a very good read especially on Father’s Day. Maybe I should spend some more time with my own dad.

  5. That was awesome, Malki!

    Glad you fulfilled your dreams and had excellent “quality” time with your father before he passed away.

  6. This was a beautiful essay which brought up so many emotions for me, just when I thought I had got past father’s day without crying…

  7. David,

    That was one of the most meaningful aviation-related blog posts I’ve ever read. Thanks for sharing that.

    Having your father around long enough to share in the special accomplishment of earning your pilot’s certificate is a very important thing, indeed. My dad passed away from a three-year battle with brain cancer in 1992. He spent many years as a boy hanging out at Brown Field in San Diego, and would have earned his own pilot’s license had he not been so honest on his first medical exam. He’d had a cerebral hemhorrage when he was five and though it never bothered him again, it precluded him from getting a medical so he could solo. Still, he loved aviation, and when I was old enough, he did everything he could to instill that love of flying in me. It didn’t take much, really. I loved it from the beginning.

    I woke up one morning the month after he died to gorgeous blue skies, knowing that I had to go flying that day. After my first lesson, I too bought a logbook and had my instructor sign the first line. A couple of months later, as I soloed for the first time, I cried openly while flying that Cessna around the pattern at VNY, wishing my dad could be there to see me. Of course, I believe he was, but having him waiting for me on the ground afterwards…to have him pat me on the back and tell me he was proud of me…that was what I really wanted.

    My name is somewhere on that wall in that restaurant at Apple Valley. I flew there while doing my dual cross-country flights for my private pilot’s license back in 1992. Unfortunately, I haven’t been back since.

    I hope you’re still flying actively. I don’t have much time to fly for fun these days, since the flying for the career thing takes up so much of it. Someday soon, though, I hope to own a small airplane so I can introduce my five-year-old daughter to the wonderful feelings of accomplishment and freedom that being able to fly an airplane gives.

    Thanks for the blog post. And thanks for a truly funny webcomic! I read it daily.


    Glenn Calvin
    First Officer
    Southwest Airlines

  8. Thanks for sharing. My dad and I went flying yesterday in a rented Cessna 177. He had taken flying lessons many years ago and soloed but then moved overseas before getting his private license. So yesterday we flew out to Nevada City and watched the bike race there. Cycling is another one of his favorite activities from his youth so all in all it was a great day.

  9. I lost my father in 1967, my mother in 1988 and my first-born son in 1989. The saddest moments come when I realize that I can’t share the new things that I see with them, especially the 40 years of science that my father would have loved to hear about.

  10. David,

    Thank you for sharing your story. I am sorry your father did not have a chance to fly more trips with you. I’m currently in flight school and will have my private pilot license later this summer. I also have two young daughters. Your story is an inspiration that aviation will foster a remarkable bond between the three of us. This month, my six-year-old wrote on her school report that “reels make durg.” Translation: (Wheels make drag.) I look forward to the many weekend fly-ins with my girls in the coming years.

  11. I was really touched by this story… how wonderful that you and your Dad had a chance to relate over something you both loved, before he passed. Thank you for sharing.

  12. What a beautiful tribute to your father. I was crying as I read it, which might have had something to do with my dad passing a week ago today, and burying him the day before father’s day.

    My dad wasn’t a pilot, but his father designed planes, and building and flying RC model aircraft were among dad’s hobbies. So much about him, I never appreciated until he was past being able to do it.

  13. David – Thank you for this post. I too got teary reading it. My father died in 1993, a couple of years after I got my commercial license. Although I never got to fly with him, and I didn’t see him for over a decade, I remember sitting in a pub with him, both of us with a glass of coke.

    I don’t fly anymore, but I’m building a motion flight sim in the garage so that I can teach my son to love aircraft as much as I do. And I hope he doesn’t have to go ten years without seeing his father (or ten days, or ten hours to be honest).

  14. that was a really great story! glad you got to fly your dad one last time. you will definitely think about that often when you’re old and looking back….

  15. Wonderful stuff. Thank you for sharing. Trust me – many of us just flew our fathers again in our hearts – vicariously – through your story.

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