I heard Tina’s laughter before I ever saw her, a rolling laugh that made the chief pilot cringe as he signed my logbook. At the Chagrin Falls Airport, my instructor had been king of the hill before Tina’s arrival. Now everything shifted toward her: students, loyalty, the number of hours flown on any given day. She was a big woman, an opera star who transformed an aria into the
thunder of laughter.
The chief and I hated each other. He warned me during my first few hours of flight instruction that if I were ever so stupid as to stall an airplane—the curse of a high angle of attack, separation of air from the wing, and the airplane falling like a hawk shot through the heart—I would spin, crash and burn. He knew I had been touched by Tina’s charisma.
Before I changed instructors, my fire-and-brimstone teacher tried to soften his contempt for me. He introduced me to his young friend, the cucumber salesman. This boy lived not far from the airport. He grew hundreds of cucumbers and sold them at the end of summer before grade school started. The airport was one of his daily stops.
One morning the three of us met outside the office. Standing next to one of the monstrous shrubs that hid the building, the grade-school kid asked me how many cucumbers I wanted. When I said I didn’t want any, he forged ahead with other enterprises: grass cutting, shoveling snow, selling magazines and chocolate bars. The chief pilot smiled with affection at the forthright salesman. I listened patiently and answered “no” to every offer. The chief’s face darkened. He glared at me as if I were an anarchist, a schmo for all seasons, which given my history, was an honest appraisal.
Tina rescued me that day from the cucumber salesman and his publicist. Several flight hours later, I would solo a Cessna 150.
During my pre-solo hours, Tina took the controls on occasion, nudging the nose down or giving a shot of power if I moved too slowly. Often, she delivered a quick sermon on an aspect of flight followed by a burst of laughter. I never received from any teacher such a complete offering of spirit, intellect and instruction: a contagious experience where disappointments could be hammered into success.