My First Flight by Ted Duke

inside cockpit of small navy training plan

I was six, going on seven, when my brother, Nelson, came home on leave for Thanksgiving in 1943. World War II was in full swing. He was a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the U. S. Navy and a designated Naval Aviator. He arrived wearing his green uniform, the one only Naval Aviators wore. He was taller than my Dad, making me feel even littler. When he went out that evening, he wore his Dress Blues, his black shoes glistening. I wanted to be just like him.

He hung around the house Thanksgiving Day until after we had a snack for lunch, visiting with Mom and Dad, and keeping my sister and me entertained with Navy stories. In mid-afternoon he said, “Hey, Dad, can I borrow the Mercury?”

“Yes, but don’t use all of my gas; I don’t have any stamps left this month.” Everything was rationed. No stamps, no gas.

We lived in the country. Dad drove the car every day to work in Washington, D.C., and there was little gas left over. My only trips were to the grocery store on Saturday and church on Sunday. Going anywhere was a treat. This was before the days of television and computers. There were a few radio shows for kids, like The Lone Ranger and Jack Armstrong, but mostly we entertained ourselves. We played soldiers, Cowboys and Indians, or board games. I could beat everyone at Monopoly, my favorite game.

“I’m just going down to Hyde Field for a visit,” he said.

Mom called to him from the kitchen as he got the keys from the top of the bookcase where they always rested, “Nelson, dinner’s at five. Don’t be late.”

“OK.” He headed towards the door, and then he turned around. “Teddy, want to ride along?” He hurried to the car with me on his heels.

Nelson wore a leather flight jacket with a fur collar. He drove fast, and I enjoyed every minute of the trip. It was cold that November, and I shivered until the heater finally started putting out a little heat.

Hyde Field was a small local airport and there were only four or five planes kept there during the war. There was little civilian flying during the war.

I followed Nelson into the hangar office, a small unkempt place with a desk or two, and some wooden chairs. I smelled grease and coffee. The manager greeted Nelson and offered him a cup of coffee. Nelson got one, and the manager said, “Hey kid, want some? Help yourself.”

young ted duke

A young Ted Duke in his “fake Navy uniform” his mother made for him.

I sometimes drank a big mug in the morning. Mom made strong coffee with chicory in it; so I made it half-coffee, half-warm-fresh-cream from our cows, with two sugars. Three, if I wasn’t caught sneaking the third.

Here, there was chilled milk and sugar. I fixed myself a mug with plenty of sweetner. It was strong and bitter, but hot, so I drank it; I was feeling real grown up.

After the effects of coffee wore off, I got cold again; there was no heat in the hangar. Nelson and his friend talked for what seemed like forever, but it was probably only an hour. I don’t remember what they talked about, probably flying. I was bored, but at least I wasn’t at home. I perked up when the man said, “Want to take the Stearman up?”

I knew a Stearman was a bi-wing, open cockpit, two-seater. The primary trainer for new pilots.

Nelson said, “Sure.”

They chatted about the plane for a while and then headed towards the door. I was at the window thinking it would be fun watching Nelson fly. As he reached the door, he turned back. “Come on, Teddy.”

I followed him reluctantly as it was colder outside. Why couldn’t I watch from inside? They pre-flighted the plan: shook the controls, checked the oil, looked for leaks, or whatever they did in those days. I remember Nelson cranking some big handle on the side of the engine. Then he turned to me: “Come on kid. Want to go for a hop?”

Did I want to go for a hop in an airplane? I ran toward him, and he boosted me up to the front open cockpit. Then he climbed up and strapped me in before he took his seat in the back cockpit.

He started the engine; it was loud. Soon we were taxiing down the runway and lining up into the wind. Thanksgiving Day in Maryland can be either warm and sunny, or dreary and cold. That year it was cold. Really cold. I was freezing.

We went down the runway faster and faster and then zoomed up into the air. We flew around the airport a couple of times. I could see the Miller’s farm with cows in the field and a tractor pulling a hay wagon from the barn. I could see where someone had cleared a square patch in the woods near the airport. The wind made my eyes water, and I shivered harder, but I didn’t care. I could see the whole county, or at least I thought then that I could.

Too soon, we returned to the field and did a touch and go, and then we went around again and landed. Not a very long flight, but my first. Nelson taxied back to the flight line and killed the engine. The manager chocked the wheels. Nelson came forward and helped me out of the harness.

“How was that? Did you like it?”

I was shivering, but managed, “Oh boy, that was great!” I know I was grinning ear to ear.

When we arrived home, I went on and on about the flight until my mother finally told me to go bring in firewood to the already full rack, which I realize now was to give them a break before we had our big Thanksgiving dinner. (All of us kids were home except for Paul, the eldest, who was a Second Lieutenant in the U. S. Army and couldn’t get leave.)

My next flight was on an airliner over fifteen years later. I was en route to the U. S. Naval School – Pre-flight in Pensacola, Florida, to enter training to earn my commission as an Ensign and become a Naval Aviation Observer (now called a Naval Flight Officer). I retired from the Navy after a twenty-year career as a radar operator and air controller, much of the time flying off aircraft carriers. I had frightening flights and thrilling flights, but no flight was ever as exciting as my first flight with my big brother.

ted dukeTed Duke is retired from the U. S. Navy, from a commissioned sales rep job and from full time farming raising Angus cattle. He enjoys traveling with his wife when he isn’t at home in Fairfield, Virginia enjoying his grandchildren, restoring old automobiles and tending to his small herd of Angus.

Ted finds time to write short stories, memories and novels in spite of doing volunteer work in the community and watching Washington Nationals baseball games with his wife.

He is querying agents to represent his Young Adult adventure novel, SALLYING FORTH. His short story, NEVER TOO LATE, a love story, appeared in the Feb-Mar 2016 issue of Pilcrow and Dagger.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Fred Brundick
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