Flight of Passage

by Van McKellar

Ed was so grouchy that Saturday morning in 1958. He demanded perfection as we flew from Holloman AFB to a small airfield a few miles away. As we entered the traffic pattern, he told me to make a full stop landing and let him out about halfway down the runway.

When he got out, he asked for my logbook. I still did not know what he was about to do. He wrote in the book and then said that I should go around the pattern, and make two touch-and-go landings. If he gave the thumbs-up on the second, to go on out and come back for him in about a half hour.

I was so nervous that my left foot was shaking as I taxied back to the takeoff point alone. When I gave 43 Cocoa the throttle, the shaking was forgotten, and I was busy. The two hundred forty horsepower, Continental O-470, engine screamed like all of Hellís banshees; and the wheels were thumping as we gathered speed. The stick felt like a cobra in my hand; I applied backpressure to itówe lifted into smoothness.

I yawed slightly to the right to compensate for a little crosswind. In a momentary downward glance, I noticed that a large number of people had gathered along the flight line. Some were still running to get there. I do not know how they knew that I would be soloing. It went smoothly. I was elated. I wished my mother could have seen me. Later, I felt bad for the people in the crowd who had marveled, even then, and their rush to see if a Black teenager could fly an airplane.

Moreover, what an airplane she was. I earned credit for my flying lessons by working at an aero club for Base personnel. An FAA inspector and I converted two former Air Force T-34 training aircraft into their FAA designation of Beechcraft A-45s; I also helped with servicing and maintaining the other aircraft. I became assistant maintenance officer.

Like the people who ran to the flight line, history had remained hidden from a little dreamer, during the 1940s, in Jim Crow Texas. No word of the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen or of Bessie Coleman, the notable Black female aviator from aviationís pioneering era, filtered down to me. It was as if such knowledge was hushed in those days. If it was a conspiracy to hold me down, it was a vain one.

Although my brothers and I skipped the first half of each school year to pick cotton and attended class in the second half, neither lack of formal education nor systemic prejudice forestalled the consummation of my virgin dreams of flying. I would not be turned away!

Since the Saturday morning that I pulled the shiny Beechcraft off the red dirt runway in Alamogordo, New Mexico, and sailed over the heads of all the onlookers, I have had no masters.

Flight of Passage by Van McKellar

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