In addition to being my father, a local dentist, and perhaps the best shade tree mechanic I have ever known, Dr. Robert Mathis is a private pilot.
When I was a kid, Pop owned an Aero Commander 100. He had purchased it in the late 1970s from my uncle, Bob Miller, another well-known local aviator. A more simple aircraft as the Commander was probably never built, unless you count hang gliders and ultra lights. Composed of a prop, two wings, an engine, and four seats, the Commander was neither sophisticated nor particularly fast. It could be coaxed to fly at a maximum speed of 120 knots with a stiff tailwind, a fresh coat of wax, and clean carburetors. The same results might be more readily achieved if one was to load it up with bowling balls and push it off a cliff. It was a flying brick, but it flew, nonetheless.
For what it lacked in cosmetic appeal, the Commander was as mechanically sound as it could be. Pop did most of his own maintenance and knew the aircraft systems inside and out. He probably disassembled and reassembled the plane at least a couple of times. It ran strong and had no history of structural or mechanical problems. The little airplane flew quite well. If the Commander had been any less than that, he would have never flown any of us in it in the first place.
After his day of orchestrating root canals, extractions, fillings, and crowns was through, I would beg him to go flying in the evenings when I was on summer vacation. Occasionally he would agree to my constant nagging.
On those occasions, the slowly setting summer sun would find us at Roscoe Turner Field, pre-flighting the plane. We ran our hands over the leading edges of the wings and the prop for nicks and dents. We gently moved the tail control surfaces while looking for loose linkage bolts or over-stressed rivets. Pop pulled a fuel sample and examined it for water in the tanks. He popped an engine access panel and fished out a dipstick that confirmed clean oil was in the crankcase. It was a ritual of safety and attention to detail. Finally, we pulled the wheel chocks and climbed aboard.
Pop set the mixture and energized the magnetos in preparation for start. He looked to his left, hollered, “Clear prop!” and rotated the key to the start position. The little 150 horsepower 4 cylinder Lycoming engine usually took a couple of stabs with the primer pump to bark to life and fill the warm twilight with deafening mechanical racket. The engine vibrated your teeth and blurred your vision. There was no noise canceling headsets or intercoms in the Commander. It was hard to hear anything but the drumming throb of the rotating propeller carving up the humid air. That was ok with me. I am reasonably sure that the ear-to-ear grin placed on my face by excitement and anticipation did all my talking for me.
Taxiing out to the single runway, Pop would check the gauges, set the altimeter, and insure that my seatbelt was good and snug. Pausing at the end of the taxiway, he would perform a full power run up while watching the tachometer and manifold pressure gauges closely. The run up was almost as much fun as flying. Struggling against locked brakes to claw its way out on to the runway, the little plane lurched, rocked, and shook. The rotating red beacon on the top of the tail flashed through the rear window, adding an air of urgency to our adventure.
Departing a small rural airport was a no nonsense affair. There is no formal Air Traffic Control Tower. One simply took a good look around to make sure no one was landing on top of you and then radioed out your departure intentions and direction to those aircraft that might be in the area. If they were committed to an approach, they said so and you held up. If they were not, they said so and perhaps extended their approach a bit until you were airborne.
Corinth traffic, Corinth traffic. Darter November Five-Five-One-Four Mike departing One Seven north,” Pop spoke into the microphone.
We craned our necks left then right. The silence of the radio indicated we were cleared for takeoff. Once on the active runway at full power, liftoff came a few seconds later at about 80 knots or so. With the little Lycoming bleating happily along up front, we sailed off into the deep orange sky.
Pop taught me how to read the instruments properly and how to operate the radios and navigational transponders. He explained Bernoulli’s laws and the physics of lift. Sitting next to him in that tiny airplane on a warm Southern summer night two thousand feet in the air, I might as well have been in an F-4 Phantom with Chuck Yeager doing Mach 1 at forty thousand feet. The landscape always appeared so neat and organized as we crisscrossed the patchwork quilt of green and brown. The detail and relief of familiar landmarks seemed so fresh and new. It was as if everything had its place and all was right with the world.
As was the custom, we capped off the evening by establishing an orbiting right turn over our neighborhood, hoping the drone that accompanied our arrival would bring out curious onlookers. Mother and maybe a neighbor or two would come out onto the lawn and wave as we circled overhead. Satisfied, we broke out of the turn, passed low over the house, and waggled the wings in greeting. Smoke from barbeque grills, the scent of freshly cut grass, and other smells of summer made their way into the cockpit. The air was crisp and cool.
A couple hours of flying time seemed like only a few minutes. Soon Pop had us in the traffic pattern for landing. We crossed high over Turner Field in an overhead recovery and banked to the right in a slow descending turn. We ghosted over Highway 72 and the barbed wire fence at the northern end of the runway. The trees to the west were filled with lighting bugs, giving the illusion that hundreds of flash bulbs were popping on hundreds of cameras pointed our way, capturing our arrival. The instruments glowed a soft red in the dark cockpit as the sun had long since set. Pop set an appropriate amount of wing flaps to slow our descent and we glided effortlessly down to the pavement. The big white 17 painted on the runway threshold flashed under the wings. Tire marks from hundreds of previous landings shown charcoal black in the harsh beam of the landing light.
The main gear wheels chirped against the tarmac as a result of being accelerated from zero to ninety miles per hour in an instant. Pop would let the Aero Commander roll out nose high until the wings ran completely out of lift and the nose wheel settled gently down to the runway.
Trundling back to the hanger to put the Aero Commander to bed, I was already working on my next sales pitch for another ride in Pop’s plane.