Here’s Your License. Please Don’t Use It!

In August 1968, I had just completed my AFROTC summer camp at Plattsburgh AFB (Plattsburgh, NY) and had returned to the Michigan State University campus to prepare for my senior year.

I was already slated for USAF Undergraduate Pilot Training after my June 1969 graduation. Along with all the other pilot training selectees, I was authorized to enter a private pilot training course (the Pilot Indoctrination Program) conducted at nearby Capitol City Airport in Lansing by a civilian flight school under government contract. Another AFROTC cadet (Dale) and I decided to start that training before classes started in late September.

For PIP, the Lansing flight school used two 1961 Piper PA-22-108 Colts. The Colt was a good airplane and relatively easy to fly. However, its odd-looking, short-coupled tricycle landing gear gave it the nickname of “Flying Milk Stool” and it sported an odd, single-lever brake handle instead of the typical heel- or toe-operated brakes. That brake lever activated both main wheel brakes simultaneously…or at least that was the plan (for a story about problems with that system see Stop This Airplane!).

A white Piper Colt with red stripe tied down on a grass parking area.

Once Dale and I decided to get started on our training, the race was on. Who would solo first? Who would be the first to get his private pilot’s license?

I beat Dale to solo by one day but only because of the vagaries of Michigan’s autumn weather. If memory serves (not always a sure thing these days), Dale was first to pass his checkride for the private pilot license.

On the day of my checkride, I met the check pilot at the scheduled time and proceeded to wow him with my book knowledge and my carefully plotted flight plan.

No sweat thus far.

On takeoff, I skipped once…for reasons I can only attribute to a small case of checkride jitters. As briefed, I flew up to a small grass strip some 50 miles north and made a couple of passable, if not great, landings. Stalls and falls (all the basic aerial maneuvers) went OK, although I think I lost a bit too much altitude in my approach stall recovery. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I detected a hint of displeasure on the face of the examiner. My jitters ratcheted up another notch.

Then, he pulled the throttle back and said, “Forced landing.”

I guess I was so busy trying to second-guess the examiner’s mood that I had failed to keep track of nearby potential forced-landing sites, despite being very familiar with all the fields in the area. Frantically, while establishing the best glide speed, I hunted for a suitable field…as altitude below me quickly became altitude above me.

Finally, I settled on a field that looked good to me and tried to set up a pattern to make it. The examiner wisely said, “Go around.”

After I had regained altitude, I was sure I noted a distinct frown on his face. That frown did nothing to calm my jitters.

Once again, I heard “forced landing” as the throttle came back to idle.

This time, I was sure I had a good field easily in range and set up to redeem myself.

I’m sure we would have survived that landing but it was one sloppy approach. Luckily, I didn’t have to proof it one way or another, as he directed another go-around.

Back to Capitol City Airport for a couple of landings, none of which were up to my usual standards thanks to my persistent jitters. After we full-stopped and taxied back to the school’s ramp, I quickly completed the shutdown checklist and secured the airplane.

The examiner stomped off while tossing off a terse order over his shoulder: “Give me 15 minutes and see me at my desk.”

For the next 15 minutes, I drank a Coke and paced around the flight planning room. My instructor stopped in between flights and asked me how it went. I shrugged and said, “Certainly not my best day.”

Finally, at the appointed minute, I walked up the examiner’s desk and sat down.

Seated gorilla scratching his head

©2003 Walter P. Shiel. All Rights Reserved.

He leaned back in his chair and ran his hands through his thinning hair. Finally, sat forward and said, “I suppose I could flunk you. I guess you know what things you didn’t do well on.”

I nodded.

“Well, I’m going to sign off on your private pilot license. I know your instructor and he wouldn’t have recommended you if you weren’t ready. He began completing the paperwork. “Congratulations.”

I think my shoulders sagged a bit as the tension skidded out of my body. “Thank you, sir.”

Without looking up, he said, “Just promise me one thing.”

“What’s that, sir?”

“Don’t ever use this license.” Not even a hint of a smile.

I seized the paperwork he handed me and promptly left the room, assuming he was joking.

But I’ll never know for sure.

I did learn an important lesson, though: Never let anxiety get the better of you, particularly when flying!

100th Crane I Delivered to RCAF

May 1941 marked a milestone in the history of the Cessna T-50 Bobcat when Cessna delivered the 100th Crane I (the RCAF version of the T-50). Here’s an excerpt from my just-released new book Cessna Warbirds, The War Years (1941-45): The T-50 Bobcat and the Cessnas Impressed into Military Service:

The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), a major participant with England and Australia in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, needed multi‑engine trainers. A lot of multi‑engine trainers…and they needed them quickly. During the summer of 1940, the RCAF evaluated the T‑50 in Wichita and found it possessed significant advantages over its competitors. The predominantly wood and fabric construction minimized the use of strategic war materials like steel and aluminum, and its economical operation, simplicity of maintenance, and overall modern design impressed the Canadians. Cessna’s foresight in preparing for large‑scale production sealed the deal. In September, the RCAF signed a contract for 180 copies of the Bobcat, which they designated the Crane I. This became the largest contract awarded to a Wichita‑based company at that time.

Two RCAF Crane Is in close formation

Crane Is northbound to Canada.

In November 1940, Cessna delivered the first RCAF Crane I, and the RCAF promptly issued a follow-on order for an additional 360.

To meet the production demands, Cessna’s employees began working three shifts. Employment swelled to 1,900 workers by May 1941 as Cessna delivered the 100th Crane I to the RCAF. Cessna also hired 11 assistant test pilots to ferry these aircraft north to Canada and serve as production test pilots when required. To reduce the time needed to accommodate meal breaks during this frenzied period, Dwight Wallace instituted the country’s first corporate “rolling cafeterias”—14 wheeled carts with electrical heating to keep the food warm while it was delivered to the workers.

To read the whole story of Cessna Aircraft Company’s evolution into a major defense contractor, get your copy of The War Years today!

Buy it on Amazon


Email me to get a signed copy from the first print run for $10.95 including shipping.

B-36 – Big and Loud!

In the spring of 1954, we moved from our rental house in Spokane into base housing on Fairchild AFB, Spokane, WA. The housing area for company-grade officers consisted of rows of duplexes, all looking identical. This was called Wherry housing, constructed shortly after WW II under a bill sponsored by Senator Wherry (Nebraska), and was typically poorly constructed.

I remember little about the house itself, but I guess they were nice enough (and cheaper than the rent on our Spokane house).

Fairchild AFB housing area

Fairchild AFB Wherry housing area

We lived in the last row of houses with a large open field behind them and the large runway just beyond that. From our backyard, we could clearly watch the mammoth B-36s taking off and landing with their six big turboprops churning and their four jets thundering. In the dark, we could see the runway and approach lights.

I had a good friend there, although I no longer remember his name. I’ll call him Bobby. Both of our dads flew on those huge B-36s, and the noise and smoke they created on takeoff fascinated us.

We wanted a closer look.

B-36 Peacemaker (U.S. Air Force photo)

B-36 Peacemaker (USAF photo)

Bobby and I explored every place we could access within walking distance of our homes. One day we were chased away from a tall, chain-link fence (with barbed wire on top) by an armed guard with his companion K-9. We ran away…fast!

Before long, we discovered a gap in the fence around the airfield itself, a gap made larger by the drainage ditch it passed over. Bobby and I slipped under the fence and crept through the tall grass and weeds until we were directly under the approach or departure end (depending on which way the wind was blowing) of the runway. We could stretch out under the approach lights and watch the aircraft come and go.

Our biggest thrill was when a B-36 thundered overhead with all 10 engines screaming. We clamped our hands as tight as possible over our ears, as our mouths gaped in wonder. I suppose none of the security folks or the aircrews could see two 7-year-old boys hunkered down in the tall grass.

I don’t remember how many times Bobby and I infiltrated the airfield (good thing we weren’t Cold War spies from the USSR), but eventually somebody spotted us crawling back under the fence on our return to the housing area.

Yeah, we got into more than a little trouble for it and never did it again. I assume some AF guys responsible for airfield security also got into more than a little trouble.

But it’s a memory I’ve never forgotten.

After all, how many people can say they watched B-36s from underneath the approach lights?

The War Years On Sale NOW

Cessna Warbirds, The War Years, front coverCessna Warbirds, The War Years (1941-45): The T-50 Bobcat and the Cessnas Impressed into Military Service is now on available for purchase from Amazon.

But remember that you can still get a copy from the initial print run direct from me, autographed (and personalized if desired), for only $10.95 including shipping. Just send me an email and I’ll reply with payment options.

Cessna Warbirds, The War Years

Cessna Warbirds, The War Years, front coverVolume 2 in my revised and updated Cessna Warbirds Series was uploaded to the printer this week — Cessna Warbirds, The War Years (1941-45): The T-50 Bobcat and the Cessna Impressed into Military Service.

During World War II, Cessna Aircraft Company sold more than 5,000 twin-engine aircraft — the T-50 Bobcat — to US and foreign armed forces with a variety of designations and missions.

As the USAAF AT-8 and AT-17 and the RCAF Crane multi-engine trainers, the T-50 prepared new pilots for the bigger bomber and transport aircraft they would fly in combat around the world. As the UC-78 and JRC-1, it provided personnel and light cargo transportation worldwide. Cessna Warbirds: The War Years (1941-45) details the genesis and evolution of the Cessna T-50 Bobcat from its incarnation as a civilian aircraft throughout its wartime military history.

Table of contents for The War YearsPersonal recollections from pilots who flew the aircraft during WW II, a plethora of photographs (some in color), diagrams extracted from the pilot’s flight manual, and a collection of Cessna-related wartime ads provide a unique depth of material.

The War Years also chronicles the pre-war, single-engine Cessnas that were impressed into military service and includes an illustrated overview of Clyde Cessna the man, the aircraft he designed, and the companies he created.

The table of contents will help you see the scope of the book, which consists of 108 pages and almost 100 photos and illustrations, some in color. The list price will be $13.95. If you’d like one of the first copies off the press for $10.95 including shipping (prepaid orders only), just email me with your mailing address and I’ll reply with payment options.

For those who are wondering, I decided to publish the updated second edition of my 1996 book Cessna Warbirds as a series of monographs. This allows me to get the books out in the marketplace as I am able to finish the research for each, rather than waiting until I complete the research for a consolidated second edition.

Click here to review the current schedule for publication of the upcoming volumes in the Cessna Warbirds Series.

Once the book has actually been printed, it will be available through Amazon, B&N, and most other online retailers plus through discriminating bookstores and museums.

If you missed Volume 1 of the Cessna Warbirds Series, T-41 Mescalero: The Military Cessna 172, just click here to get a copy on Amazon.