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"We are the protagonists of our stories called life, and there is no limit to how high we can fly."

PHD. MBA. MHS. Type rated on A350, A330, B777, B747-400, B747-200, B757, B767, B737, B727. International Airline Pilot / Author / Speaker. Dedicated to giving the gift of wings to anyone following their dreams. Supporting Aviation Safety through training, writing, and inspiration. Fighting for Aviation Safety and Airline Employee Advocacy. Safety Culture and SMS change agent.

Friday, February 8, 2019

A Pilot's Son Looks Back

Steven Graubart

 Steven at the Empire State Building, circa 1962

"As the years go by, I often look back fondly at my fortunate childhood growing up in a Michigan beach house, the son of a pilot, on the edge of hilly forest a half-mile north of the Indiana border. Our family lived there because my father, a pilot since age 16, operated a nearby general aviation business. 

My childhood and teenage years were filled with many flights in a variety of aircraft including Beechcraft Bonanzas, Barons and Queen Airs, Piper Cherokees, Apaches and Navahos, Cessna Centurions, 3-10s and 421s, among others. 

I often took the copilot seat next to my father, and loved the excitement of takeoffs and level flight, approaches and landings. During these flights I was taught the essentials of keeping the aircraft in the proper attitude, ADF and DME navigation, and turning technique. On a few occasions, he purposely put the plane into a stall to demonstrate stall recovery. 

Dad was a great pilot. He flew everything from Piper Cubs to Lear Jets, able to adapt instinctive flying skills to just about any airplane. Flying a DC-3 remained one of his most treasured piloting experiences. 

Besides his smooth three-point landings, judging crosswinds on final approach and weather awareness, after flying many hours with him I came to regard one thing as the essential characteristic of the consummate pilot. He never got bored, never became complacent. Even during several consecutive hours of level flight in the most optimal conditions, he always maintained a constant state of mental alertness. The pure joy of the thing he most loved to do seemed to sustain him in a state of sublime engagement. 

Teotihuacan, Pyramid of the Sun, 1974, age 16
Flew on Braniff with Mom on that trip

Three kinds of adventurous life existed for me during my youth: one on the ground, another on the water, and one in the air. On land and water, I still sought airtime. A few friends and I would climb to the summit of a tall nearby sand dune, take a running leap and land in a splash of sand 40 feet down the steep incline. Carving a sharp turn on a slalom ski, I’d hit the boat wake at high speed and lift off for a couple of seconds, clearing the far wake. The woods of my village, called Michiana, provided tall trees with reachable solid limbs ideal for climbing high into the canopy. 

But nothing quite matched the adventure and freedom of flying. From 8,000 feet up, I saw that the country was largely made up of green and brown squares of land interspersed by forests, lakes, farms and the occasional town or city. I learned the various cloud types and their characteristics, from the volatile Cumulus Nimbus to the feather-like Cirrus. The hum of the engine never bothered me. It reinforced the notion, that yes, we really were flying. 

Along the Michiana beachfront, lake gulls demonstrated great flying expertise, negotiating wind currents, banking and diving for the occasional fish. During autumn, with the beach crowds long gone, a 15-foot wide swath of brown sand near the water became flat and hard—a perfect runway! My father landed a Piper Cub on the compact sand and took village kids for rides. 

Later, on a flight across Lake Michigan, the right engine of my dad’s twin-engine caught fire midway across the lake. Faced with a choice of continuing toward Illinois or turning around, he gently turned back toward Indiana where there would be more landing opportunities. For years afterward, I thought he had crashed-landed in an Indiana soybean field. But later in life, my father told me the real story. 

Upon reaching the Indiana coast at about 800 feet up, he needed to find a landing spot fast. Feathering the right engine had not subdued the raging fire that had now spread to the wing. Sensing he would not be able to reach the airport, he decided on a short stretch of pavement next to a building, not enough space for a gear-down landing. With gear up on final approach, he faced one more obstacle—telephone wires! He hopscotched over the wires and bellied the plane into a rough but safe landing. He exited the aircraft without a scratch in the parking lot of Clark Equipment Company. 

Dad also told me of a night flight during his bush-pilot days in Alaska. He was running low on fuel in his top-wing single engine. Landing strips in the Alaskan wilderness were often vacant at night. Pilots would turn on runway lights from the air by radio frequency. He knew he was near the airport, but after repeated attempts, could not activate the runway lights. Swooping low under a quarter moon, he located the runway and landed in darkness.

When I was a young boy on long car trips, our family liked to play Geography. The rules were simple. From a category of states or cities, the object was to name another that starts with the last letter of the previous one mentioned. Years later the thought crossed my mind that he had likely flown over many of these states and cities. He would also quiz us on things such as the distance from the earth to the sun and moon, and the relative size of the nine planets. 

On the deck of our beach house, the Michigan night sky lit up with a spectacular view of the Milky Way, stars, planets and galaxies. He would point out Orion, other constellations and planets. He made a particular point of showing that the cup of the Big Dipper pointed directly to the North Star and explained why Polaris did not move much in the night sky. He wanted his boy to know about the universe, but also how celestial bodies were practical navigational tools for pilots, and that latitudes could be accurately determined by the position of the moon in the sky. 

Steven age 15 on the deck

Cross-country flights to Florida, a seaplane flight to the pink sands of Eluthera Bahamas, quick trips to and from Meigs Field on Chicago’s waterfront, all provide special flying memories. And though I was the only member of my family not to have soloed, my flying memories keep me stocked in the kind of joyful recollections usually reserved for experienced certified pilots. 

It was thrilling to be along for the ride when my father buzzed our house 50 feet above the water at 260 miles per hour, taking it up in a steep climb, banking hard. Before the era of cell phones, buzzing signaled my mother to come pick us up at the airport. My mother was an artist, an oil painter and sculptor. Her sculpting medium consisted of sand mixed with Plaster of Paris, which she would shape into a pilot’s head (in bomber hat) gazing into the distance. She instilled a love of art that has sustained me my entire life. She would point at one of her paintings and ask, “Where is the light coming from?” I lost my mom three years ago, and when I often think of her, I say to myself “The light came from you mom.” 

She also worked as a legal secretary in the 1940s, and again in the 1970s, cranking out legal briefs and other documents on her IBM Selectric II. I once walked into her attorneys’ office suite in downtown Chicago sometime in the late ’70s. I heard a buzzing noise that sounded like a small caliber Gatling gun. But no, it was just my mom typing. “How fast do you type mom,” I asked. “120 words per minute,” she said with a beaming smile. I still have her typewriter--one of my most prized possessions. She soloed in a Piper Cub, but didn’t pursue flying beyond that. 

Mom with her sand sculptures (about 1980). 

Many years ago, my father provided a flying experience that few “non-pilots” can claim. He let his 15-year old son take the controls, after takeoff, of a loaded Baron for the entire 300-mile flight to Carbondale Illinois, only taking the controls back well into final approach. The airplane was equipped with Autopilot, so dad spent ten minutes to demonstrate how it functioned. It was good to see how it worked, but was excited to have it disengaged and the controls back in my hands. The confidence I gained from that carried over into other pursuits and served me well in ensuing years. 

During the summers of my teenage years, I washed and waxed private aircraft, a great way to pick up a hundred dollars on a Saturday--good money for the times. 

My father passed away 15 years ago, having accumulated over 20,000 hours in the air. From the Alaskan bush to business purposes and personal family trips, he fulfilled his flying dreams. As a kid, I took flying somewhat for granted. It came with the territory. But looking back on it, it was anything but ordinary. It was extraordinary."

A pilot's son grows up,
But memories last a lifetime....

Enjoy the Journey!
XO Karlene


  1. GREAT story, Steven! Poignant, too.
    There are 2 stages of life: when we have
    our parents with us, and when they have
    reunited with their own parents...

    Thanks for this post, Karlene!
    [And, YES - it feels GREAT to comment, again!]

    1. Dan, thank you so much for your comment. This is back to normal and feels great. And yes... such a wonderful story. Glad to be able to share it.

    2. Thank you Dan for the kind words, and thanks Karlene for providing such a wonderful forum for pilots,and all that you do for aviators and those interested in aviation.


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