By Vic Syracuse, EAA Lifetime 180848
This piece originally ran in Vic’s Checkpoints column in the March 2023 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
For many of us, flying has a fun factor to it that no other activity can provide. Whether it’s flying out on Saturday with your friends for the proverbial $100 hamburger or flying on vacation with your family, memories are created that last a lifetime. Sure enough, at any event where there is more than one pilot, you will see them gathered together sharing stories, talking with their hands, or telling the biggest lies. Nonetheless, flying for many is more than a job — it is a passion that is best shared. Nonflying family members sometimes don’t understand.
When we are first learning to fly it is all about the aircraft, the destinations, achieving ratings, and flying more complex aircraft to further destinations. I’m sure all of you can relate and probably have a story to tell about an early cross-country or a particular aircraft you finally got to fly after dreaming about it forever. Who hasn’t sat in a meeting at work dreaming about the past weekend’s fly-out or the upcoming weekend’s airplane trip to the ski resort? We all do. The day we stop dreaming and making it happen will be a sad day, no doubt. The dreams keep us aviators going.
I know. I’ve been in that situation of dreaming about aviation my whole life. I’m sure that somewhere in my own DNA chain is probably a little airplane flying around making sure it all stays together, and I’m happy for that. Many of you are aware I am currently building a helicopter, and I already find myself dreaming about flying it to some far-off destinations, such as Alaska.
However, looking back across 45-plus years of actual aviation (I was dreaming about it long before I flew), there is another side of aviation that I have found to be interesting as well, as it seems to happen at the most unusual and unexpected times.
In the past I have shared some stories with you about taking World War II veterans for rides, and how much fun that has been hearing their stories. Those are events where stories can be expected. As pilots we all get a lot of grief for always bringing up aviation even when others aren’t interested, so I’ve always tried to be sensitive to that. Other times, it can be a real conversation starter.
On our most recent trip to St. Petersburg, Florida, Carol and I were sitting on the pier having lunch one afternoon, enjoying the view, when another couple sat down at the table next to us. They appeared to be speaking German. I say “appeared” because I don’t speak German, but it sure sounded like German. Carol, having a degree in chemistry for which German was required, recognized some of the words. I happened to notice the Spruce Creek Fly-In logo on the man’s shirt, and of course I couldn’t resist. Might as well get an aviation conversation started.
I asked if he was a pilot. Luckily, Guenter End answered enthusiastically in English that he was, and so was his wife, Maria End. Boy, what a story they had. They both hailed from Worms, one of the oldest cities in Germany. It turns out it was their last day in the United States. They were headed back to Germany the next day. They had been coming here annually for many years to lead pilots from Germany on tours in the United States, flying rented aircraft. What a neat adventure! Talk about a lifetime of aviation and passion — they are both retired airline pilots, and both are designated examiners in Germany. Maria was 16 years old when her mother taught her to fly. Now Maria’s own daughter is a first officer at an airline. Guenter’s daughter is an ATC controller in Germany. There’s no doubt they are having a positive impact on a lot of aviation enthusiasts and keeping the fun factor alive.
At our Mallard’s Landing Fall Fly-in this year, one of our longtime customers showed up. He used to own an RV-6 but now has a SkyFox. Jim Delaney is 75 years old and still flying. My helicopter, a Hughes TH-55, was parked outside in my yard as I was scheduled to do the candy drop later that afternoon. While we were eating lunch, Jim casually mentioned he was a Vietnam veteran and that he never got his flight in the TH-55. I asked what he meant. It turns out he joined the Army to be a helicopter pilot, even passing the physical. But when he showed up at flight school wearing glasses, they basically told him to get lost. He ended up being an armament repair specialist in Vietnam. Yikes! Jim finally got his helicopter flight in my TH-55. We had a great time. I think that’s the longest I’ve known of anyone waiting for a ride in a particular aircraft. I’m still hoping for my ride in a Mustang, but I’m not 75 yet, so I’ll keep dreaming.
Sometimes the stories come from the least-expected people. I have a great friend named John Laughter, EAA 280397, whom I have been honored to fly with for many years as part of a Stearman formation team. John comes from a flying family. His mom, dad, uncle, and brothers all flew. John is a retired airline captain and former combat Navy pilot. He is also a Vietnam veteran, with 155 combat missions in the F-8 Crusader, flying off the USS Oriskany and USS Ticonderoga aircraft carriers. Later he transitioned to the F-4 Phantom. Who of us has not dreamed about flying either of those aircraft? John is one of the most accomplished and humble aviators I know. He won’t talk about himself unless you drag it out of him, which is annoying, as I could listen to him for hours. One day last year he casually mentioned that he also flew helicopters for a corporation earlier in life. Yeesh — is there anything he hasn’t flown? We managed to go flying in mine a couple of times after that, and I realized there’s a lot I could learn from John about helicopter flying as well. John’s son, Jay, is also an avid pilot. He regularly flies his brother’s Super Cruiser, has also been a corporate pilot, and is now flying regional jets. John’s other son, also named John, is COO at Delta Air Lines and soloed the Stearman at 16. By the way, John told me there are few humble F-8 pilots, as they have so little to be humble about. John has certainly done his part in keeping the aviation fun factor alive in his family.
I could continue with so many stories such as these. I think I am not alone in discovering that our personal aviation adventures can be larger and perhaps even more enjoyable at times than the aircraft or destinations. It’s also the people we meet, hearing their stories, perhaps even gaining some insight or wisdom that will make our journey safer or even more fantastic. It also seems to me that the ones with the most exciting stories are also the best at keeping the aviation bug alive. I know many of us are doing our part to inspire other aviators. I hope someday they will be telling our stories and keeping the fun factor alive for the next generation. John also told me that “Fighter Pilot” is always capitalized, at least by fighter pilots.
Vic Syracuse, EAA Lifetime 180848, is a commercial pilot, A&P/IA mechanic, designated airworthiness representative, and EAA flight advisor and technical counselor. He has built 11 aircraft and has logged more than 10,000 hours in 74 different types. Vic founded Base Leg Aviation, has authored books on maintenance and prebuy inspections, and posts videos weekly on his YouTube channel. He also volunteers as a Young Eagles pilot.