When I was a kid we spent as little time indoors as possible and only came home when my dad whistled. This is a short story about one of the things we did for fun and how my training of my younger brother helped him develop the skills needed as a commercial pilot.
Back in the days shortly after the invention of the wheel and many years prior to machines that run on fossil fuel, we would build wooden carts. These were the ancestors of the modern go-cart. After a number of random genetic mutations cars eventually appeared, but they had to start somewhere.
Our carts were designed with wheels, a plank to sit on and a wooden box, if you wanted a deluxe model. A sturdy two-by-four with ropes was the front axle and steering device. Best of all – there were no seat belt or safety devices of any kind. We had a stripped-down model and we always crashed, but that was the fun of it.
We had to push these things up the hill, rest for a few minutes, and then ride them down, only to repeat the process until the sun began to tell us it was time for dinner. In the fifties we played outside as far from home as we could get and only came home to eat. And even then, only if we remembered or if we heard my dad whistle. You could hear his whistle as far away as San Diego.
We had a favorite hill, which was actually a long and curvy private driveway for homes belonging to some rich folks in our town of Los Gatos. It was a great hill. Steep and challenging, with hairpin turns, bushes that blocked our vision and the death-defying straight-away as we zoomed out into a public street, hoping to miss any cars coming down the road. Despite the fact that there were very few cars on that road back then, it was actually pretty stupid and unnecessarily dangerous, but it was fun.
But we began to learn the road well. The turns became too familiar and unchallenging, so we found a solution. Just beyond one of the hairpin turns where visibility was obstructed by shrubs, two of us would build a barricade out of wood with a small opening, just wide enough for the cart to pass through. This would be a test of reaction time.
One of us would push the vehicle up the hill and prepare for a signal to begin the trip down. The whole idea was to develop our reflexes. The driver would have but a split second to spot the barricade, find the opening and steer through it without crashing or flipping the cart.
Now that was a good time! It was a challenge. But we got good at that too. We learned to spot the opening quickly and steer through it with ease. Our skill level made a statistically significant jump and we were running out of challenges.
As was the case in many of my early adventures, my partner in crime was Dick Whitaker, and, many times, my brother Tom. Tom is an athlete. He has excellent reflexes, good judgment and is normally calm in the face of danger. That’s why he was a highly respected Captain and one of the top commercial pilots for TWA after he grew up. That’s not an exaggeration. He was contacted by the Whitehouse once, due to his expertise. I hope he advised the President that he had graduated from my training course.
But as a kid, he was still my little brother and it was my job to prepare him for the challenges he would face later in life as a pilot. His flying skills had humble beginnings as a wooden “cart-driver”. I took my responsibility as his trainer seriously.
With our expert instruction, Tom’s skill rapidly increased. Finding the hole in the barricade and guiding the cart through safely became too easy for him, so Dick hid a little way up the road and as Tom approached the final turn - the turn where the decision had to be quickly made - Dick tossed a blanket over the poor kid, blinding him.
Tom not only ran into the barricade, but the crash ruined our best racecar. Of course, our purpose here was to introduce Tom to flying a plane on instruments when visibility is zero. I think our training was critical in preparing him for his first instrument rating. But we forgot to provide the instruments. We gave him a compass, but the needle was stuck on “South.”. The thing never worked right.
Nevertheless I’m sure those early experiences with that cart were major factors in Tom’s success as a commercial pilot and the blanket trick most certainly gave him a “leg up” when flying with limited visibility. I don’t think he ever thanked me for that valuable training. And I’ll bet he never told the President about our training course.