Rookies in a Bonanza


The first hurdle in a lifetime of flying was now behind me. I was a pilot – a newbie – but a pilot none-the-less. But what lay before me? Would I, like many with a goal of becoming a pilot, punch the ticket, take a few trips, then move on to new ambitions? Would time and money pressures limit flying to occasional trips for hundred dollar hamburgers, maybe logging 20-50 hours a year?

Or maybe I would be one of the very fortunate to make flying an integral part of life. Flying my own plane. Traveling for business and pleasure. All over the country. Living the dream.

Piper PA-22 Colt

Still in Champaign with a year until graduation, Lynn and I discovered she was pregnant. We could hardly wait for Thanksgiving break to visit our parents and share the excitement in person. But as the holiday approached, her physician made it clear that she was to take no road trips. Hmmm … is it OK to fly? Sure, he said. She neglected to mention that the flight would be in a two-seat Piper Colt with her husband at the controls. 

This would be my first cross-country flight as PIC (pilot in command – no instructor). And with precious cargo. Yikes. The trip from Illini Airport to Elgin Airport* would last about an hour. Preparation would take longer than the flight. But I would be flying.

1964 was event filled: The birth of our son Scott, graduation, and a new job. But I was still  lucky enough to pick up an occasional hour at Crystal Lake Airport. A couple years later on a beautiful Saturday morning my dad asked if he could join me. Although I was still feeling lucky to fly a Colt, there was always an assortment of glamorous planes on the ramp – including a brand new Beechcraft Bonanza.

N9567Q Dad’s Bonanza

It was only a matter of days until Dad had ordered his own on the condition that they would teach him to fly it. His first lesson was a three hour cross country flight from the Beechcraft factory in Wichita. Flying home in his brand new Bonanza. He would be learning to fly in this high-performance, complex beauty that even had retractable landing gear. Something like taking driving lessons in a Jaguar! But he was determined, and at age 50, became a licensed pilot.

Shortly after getting his license, he took Mom to dinner in Milwaukee, about a thirty minute ride. During dinner, the winds picked up. Back in the plane, they taxied to the runway and waited for takeoff clearance.  A Boeing 727 was about to land. But it didn’t. The pilot rejected the landing and went around for another go. Right in front of them. An hour later they were home safe and sound … but Dad never flew as pilot again.

I on the other hand was like a kid in a candy store. In one fell swoop, I had gone from occasionally flying a Piper Colt to the pilot seat of a Beechcraft Bonanza.

Every night I went out to the airport just to practice takeoffs and landings. Initially I used almost all of the runway, but as the summer wore on, I pretended the runway was the deck of a carrier and I had to stop by the third runway light or fall into the ocean. Of course, I realized how silly that was – real carrier landings were made in planes weighing ten times as much, landing twice as fast, on a “runway” that was half as long – and just to make it interesting, the runway was bobbing up and down. Who was I kidding?!

Dad’s dream was for the Bonanza to serve as a wonderful tool as our business took us to locations all over the U.S. On one occasion a critical component of our biggest mailing of the year – the one that shaped the entire year – was going to be seriously delayed. A flight to the plant and a face-to-face conversation with the plant manager enabled us to mail on time – increasing our sales by more than 20%. 

On another occasion, I flew alone to a printing plant in upstate New York. A trip three times longer than any I had experienced. Preparations: Detailed flight plan. Double check the plane’s condition. Weather VFR (visual flight rules). Ceilings were a little low, but visibility was so great I could see for miles. Imagine standing at the top of the Sears Tower and being able to see Rockford.

All was going smoothly until I neared Rochester, New York. I thought I was over a small airport about fifteen miles away so I called Rochester Tower – only to discover I was not miles away but over the middle of their airport! Those planes parked down there were airliners! Fortunately sixty years ago, airline traffic was a fraction of what it is today, and other than being scolded and leaving with my tail between my legs, no harm was done.

Although we were getting business use of the plane, truth be told, there were a number of trips that were just plain fun.

1967 Snowstorm in Chicago

On Thursday, January 26, 1967 it snowed in Chicago. More snow than ever before or since. Saturday the weather was CAVU (ceiling and visibility unlimited). And although O’Hare Field had been closed for three days, the runway at Crystal Lake Airport was open. A perfect opportunity for Dad, my sister Edie, and me to see the city of Chicago completely closed down. On the way, we called O’Hare Tower requesting a low pass over the airport. “Sure thing,” he said. “There’s nothing going on here.” 

And there wasn’t. Over O’Hare or any other part of Chicago. By this time, O’Hare’s runways were cleared, but all traffic into and out of the airport was at a dead stop. The Kennedy Expressway into the city was littered with drifts of snow turning abandoned cars and buses into big white bumps on the highway. The stillness was surreal.

Meigs Field and Burnham Harbor in 2002

Chicago’s lakefront included wonderful parks and harbors. For decades, a crown jewel among them was Meigs Field**, merely minutes from downtown and the harbors. That summer, Dad bought a boat and kept it in Burnham Harbor, sheltered from Lake Michigan by Meigs Field. Rather than fighting expressway traffic, we could fly right to his boat. Still a newbie with many new experiences ahead, I was not prepared for what I encountered on arrival. The runway at Meigs ended abruptly at a twenty-foot wall reaching down to the water. As I approached my eyes were magnetically drawn to the lake below and that twenty-foot wall in front of me. The hours of practicing landing served me well. I successfully refocused on the runway and landed safely. But I can still close my eyes and see that wall.

As that summer passed, dad lost interest in flying. And as much as he indulged me, supporting a Beechcraft Bonanza as my personal toy was too much. He sold it.

But those were years of dreams fulfilled:

  • Dad attained a lifelong dream. He became a pilot. And he flew his own plane – the best he could find.
  • And I logged 180 hours in a Beechcraft Bonanza. Thanks, Dad.

* Times have changed: Illini is now Frasca; Elgin was sold to developers to build a shopping center.

** At midnight on March 31, 2003 in what many call an act of terrorism, Mayor Richie Daley bulldozed Meigs Field.

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