A pilot’s path begins with a father’s influence
Air Facts Journal

Probably the most asked question a pilot gets is:  “What got you interested in flying?” Often the response is something like, “My father (or mother) was a pilot, and I spent a lot of time around airplanes with him.” When pressed further, (usually not very hard) the pilot will go on about time spent at the local airport; enjoying the freedom of being able to hop into an airplane and go anywhere; or flying to distant airports on weekends for the legendary “$100 hamburger,” listening in awe to flying stories and other hangar talk, and in general, being a small part of that special group of adult kids known as pilots. From there (if the door is left open for more than a few seconds), the story will probably continue, but will often end up one of two ways:

  1. “Unfortunately I didn’t learn to fly back then, but when I got older and had the time and money I got my pilot’s license.”
  2. “I took lessons and got my private pilot license as soon as I was old enough and have been flying ever since.”
bat masterson

Capt. Robert Alan “Bat” Masterson and his F-51, Korea, 1951.

That’s my story, too. It really did start when I was a boy, and my dad, Robert Alan “Bat” Masterson, was a pilot, but as in the first example above, I didn’t take lessons and learn to fly back then. Nonetheless, there were turns in the story that kept me interested and led me to get my license after Dad died. Most of the twists had to do with him, my mom, and the eight children they traveled around the world with. The course took us through various flying jobs in air cargo transport, relief airlifts, fire-dropping and other contracts in such places as Southeast Asia, Africa, the continental U.S., Alaska and the Caribbean.

 

With a father who took flying jobs in Southeast Asia, Africa and other unusual locations, hundred dollar hamburger stops often were red dirt strips in the Congo or Sudan or ice runways on the north slope of Alaska. The hangar talk was different, too.

Dad wasn’t much of a storyteller and probably was humble by pilot standards. He would more often sit back, puff on his pipe, and listen with half a grin as other pilots with more flair and bravado shared happy hour stories about forging through tropical thunderstorms that mere mortal pilots would avoid, landing large transports at night on widened roads (no runway lights, of course) amidst incoming mortar rounds, or risking their lives to save those final few on “the last flight into Uli” as the close of the airlift to relieve starvation in the 1960s Biafran war.

In Cambodia hangar talk would more likely be practical information shared between an informal group of pilots who called themselves the Phnom Penh Pig Pilots Association. They spread the word about which strips were still open, safe, or bogged down during the rainy season; which end of certain fields to approach to avoid small arms fire; and what frequencies to use that day. With fire-tanker pilots, the hangar talk might be more like, “keep the lead plane in sight” or “avoid trying to fly between one mountain.”

Of course, at the end of the day the talk usually reverted to the “You aren’t gonna believe this…” type of tales. Although they were entertaining—and although Dad experienced much of that described above—his accounts usually were less embellished.

For example, I recall his answer when my two brothers and I asked him how many planes he’d downed during his early years with the Air Force in Korea: “Ours or theirs?”

A friend who flew with Dad in a DC-3 in Sudan provided another favorite example:  As they were descending on approach to Khartoum, Dad lit a cigarette.

“Hey Bat,” the friend said, “I thought you were a pipe smoker.”

“I am,” Dad replied, “but I usually light up a cigarette at about 3,000 feet to calm my nerves before landing.” This from a pilot with more than 30,000 hours at the time.

c-47

A Douglas C-47, part of the Congolese Air Force in the 1970s, when it was known as the Zairian Air Force.

Dad once chuckled as he told me the other Pig Pilots kidded him about his circling descents from 8,000 feet over the airport at Phnom Penh to avoid attracting small arms fire. But when he died, it was with more than 42,000 hours of accident-free flying time. There aren’t many of those around anymore.

They say that flying is 99% boredom and 1% sheer terror (or what the Southeast Asia pilots called “fascinating”). Ninety-nine percent of Dad’s flying was probably long hours involving little excitement, but with a sense of responsibility to get the job done. He wasn’t a war hero, but a working class blue collar hero who kept his family together and led us to a lot of adventurous places. He rarely missed Christmas at home, whether it meant keeping us with him where he worked or quitting just in time to make it home.

So, the short answer to what got me interested in flying is, my dad. That I eventually got my license and became a pilot probably explains the long-winded, embellished, nostalgic answer.

Now I fly a 1952 Cessna 170B, a taildragger that serves as my quasi-DC-3. My Fairfield Flying Club buddies are my Pig Pilots. Our hangar talk is about weather, landings (good and bad), navigation, cross-country flights to ever more distant hamburgers, family visits, and fly-ins with other pilots. It’s about the sense of accomplishment, responsibility, camaraderie, and enthusiasm for flying that we share.

Whatever the motivation, I would encourage anyone with the desire to “slip the surly bonds of Earth” to consider the same.

c-170

Now I fly a 1952 Cessna 170B, a taildragger that serves as my quasi-DC-3.

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