Ralph Higgins

Ralph Higgins
color pencil sketch by Gayle Higgins

Quotes I Like

"If you do not take an interest in the affairs of your government, then you are doomed to live under the rule of fools."

– Plato


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A Pilot Wannabe

      I’ve taken a few flying lessons and always wanted to get a pilots license.  Too many things got in the way and I’ve never pursued that goal.  Gayle has always discouraged me, because she thinks I’d forget to put gas in the plane and not bother to go through the check list and prepare for a flight.  She thinks I’d just hop in, crank the sucker over and take off.  She thinks I’m too impulsive and unorganized to be a pilot. 

            I’ve lost friends in plane crashes and don’t mean to minimize the importance of proper flight training and the discipline and caution necessary to be a pilot.  But I have to admit to some stupid behavior when I was a kid.

            My brother Tom is the best pilot I’ve ever known.  I’m not saying that because he’s my brother.   I’ve flown with him and he is an excellent pilot.  He retired as a Captain with TWA and was known for his landing skills, among others.  They say he can land a commercial airliner so gently that the passengers can’t tell when the wheels touch the ground.  He was contacted by the Clinton administration to investigate a well publicized plane crash and earned the respect of the big shots at TWA, including the CEO, who came to Tom’s retirement party.  Tom is the real deal.

            I was just a “wannabe” pilot.  The first time I flew a plane was with an old bush pilot who was mentally deranged. He was going to teach me how to fly.  I sat behind him and followed his instructions, placing my feet on the pedals and holding onto the stick.   “Just feel what I do as we take off,” he said.

            We took off and gained altitude very quickly.  When we leveled off this maniac flipped the plane upside down.  I thought it was fun and, as dirt and debris fell from the floor in my face, I noticed that both of us had our hands on the roof.  We were upside down and the pilot wasn’t flying the plane.  “Okay.  It’s your turn.  Fly the plane,” the maniac ordered.  He had no intention of taking the controls.

            Somehow I managed to coordinate the pedals with the stick and got the plane back on the level.  We both got a laugh out of that, but I’m not sure that’s the best way to learn to fly.  It’s like tossing a kid in a lake and saying, “Okay.  Now swim.” 

            In another act of youthful foolishness, I was in Maui where a good Canadian friend managed a small airport.  He didn’t have a pilot’s license either, but had taken a lesson or two.  So one day, when the airport was empty, we “borrowed” a plane and flew over to the island of Lanai. We made it without incident, loaded the plane with pineapples, and flew back to Maui.

Another thing I remember was when my brother turned the controls over to me as we flew a small plane over Monterey Bay. I spotted a party boat loaded with fishermen and decided to dive-bomb the boat.  The fishermen heard the engine screaming from the sky and seemed to be running back and forth on the deck in panic.  It looked like a nest of ants when you lift up a rock.  The older fishermen probably thought it was a Kamikaze pilot caught in a time warp. 

Tom and I were both laughing until I yanked back on the controls to pull out of the dive.  Tom grabbed the controls to prevent the wings from breaking off.  I guess you need to be gentler when pulling out of a dive.  That’s the only time I ever saw fear on my brother’s face.  

I’ve told Gayle some of these stories from my youth.  Maybe that’s what undermined her confidence in my potential as a pilot.  For some reason Gayle thinks I would be better at barbequing burgers than flying a plane.  I have no idea why she would think that way. 


  1. The great thing about flying sailplanes {gliders} is you dont have to remember to fill the tank..

  2. Good point. You've flown me around in gliders back in the day. Except for the sound of the wind, it's a silent and peaceful experience. Landing can be a problem, because if you undershoot or overshoot the landing spot, you can't pull out. I've had white knuckles a time or two on our landings.

  3. I believe you might have had to wash your underwear

    1. Actually, having been friends with you since kindergarten, I've built up a resistance to the terror you inflict on anyone involved in your exploits. Although after my first glider flight with you, I developed a temporary facial tic.

    2. You can always blame any missed horn notes on your facial tic.

    3. After a year of teaching my first students to fly in the busy LA area, I developed Tourette's syndrome. Fortunately that has improved over the years

    4. I guess I misinterpreted your Tourette syndrome outburst of jerking and profanity as terror when we landed the first time. That alone was enough to send me over the edge.

  4. re Your Cdn pilot pal. I too knew this giant. Pretty good at snow and water skiing, tennis,sailing , motor bike etc. Not a natural athlete like myself but he worked hard at being better than most. As a conservative Cdn, there is no way I would take a chance in the air with our pal. Being better than average on the ground does not qualify for "in the air" fun flight. You must have been crazy for a rush when you did this one. Gayle is right, stick to the barbeque.
    North of 49.

  5. as they say: any landing that you walk away from is a GOOD landing

  6. This was so funny. You made my stomach woozy just flying along with you. And thank goodness for younger brothers huh? Way to go Tom!

    I also liked the part when you and your friend 'borrowed' the plane in Maui.

    I've always thought it would be fun to fly to Paris for lunch, and then back. However, flying is not one of my better likes. More of a necessity I'm afraid.

  7. Anonymous -

    Yes. We spent a lot of time with our big buddy. I skied Whistler Mt., water skied, and road motorcycles with him, among other things. He even pushed me into trying hang-gliding. He left us too soon and under mysterious circumstances.

  8. Sharon -

    That trip to the island of Lanai was interesting. Cesar Chavez had unionized all the pineapple workers, forcing Dole to go out of business, moving operations to the Philippines. Acres of pineapples lay rotting in the fields and all the workers were unemployed. It's a sad story, but we scooped up a ton of pineapples and flew back to Maui.