The urge to fly, but how?

February 15, 2018 by Terry Fallis

– Illustration by Malcolm Jones –

When I was a kid
, I was fascinated by anything that flew. I well remember spending birthday money on those 25-cent balsa wood gliders. The
first challenge was assembling them without snapping the fragile wings.

They actually flew pretty well, provided there was not even a whisper of wind, but they didn’t fly for long. As I recall, you had about 10 minutes of flying fun before they nose-dived into the pavement, splintering into countless pieces.

If you coughed up for the 89-cent models with the plastic landing gear and a propeller powered by an elastic band, you would expect them to last a little longer. Nope. Depending on how tightly you cranked the elastic band, they were much faster, and therefore hit the asphalt with even more destructive force. They lasted about seven minutes on average. But we loved them.

My favourite book as a young boy was a little volume passed down from my father called Pilot Jack Knight by A.M. Anderson and R.E. Johnson. Set around the First World War, Jack Knight joined the United States Army with the dream of learning to fly. His wish was granted and he trained on a Curtiss JN-4, a somewhat rickety biplane affectionately known as the “Jenny.”

He longed to take on the enemy in the skies over France but he never made it overseas.

He was such a good pilot that his superiors thought he could make a more meaningful contribution to the war effort by staying stateside and training other pilots.

He was crushed but did his duty, and after the war went on to serve as one of the first pilots in the airmail service.

I read that book until the cover fell off. I just connected with the story and it got me thinking about flight training. I remember wondering, “How does one actually learn to fly? How do you take off or land for the very first time?” I frequently ask that same question about motorcycle jumping and ski jumping.

Later in life, I asked my father-in-law, a retired major, pilot and navigator in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He flew fighters and multi-engine aircraft for his entire career. He recounted his training experience, and then proceeded to tell me a story he had heard about another RCAF pilot in training. This anecdote, and many others are found in the book Night Fighters: Stories from the Flyers of Canada’s All-Weather Fighter Force, Canada and Europe 1953-1984, compiled and edited by John Eggenberger, Bob Merrick and Doug Munro.

It seems that back in January 1956 at Canadian Forces Base Cold Lake in Alberta, a CF-100 took off. At the controls was Flying Officer Wood, a student pilot taking off for the first time, under the careful supervision of his instructor, Flight Lieutenant Johnny Sorfleet, who was also on board. (It is much easier to supervise if you are actually in the aircraft with the trainee.)

Wood got the jet off the ground competently enough, but very shortly after takeoff, the plane’s controls completely seized up, resulting in a complete loss of control. As I understand it, jet fighter pilots would rather not be above the ground with seized controls. Apparently, Wood and Sorfleet agreed.

Wood immediately ejected, followed quickly by Sorfleet. The CF-100 hit the ground not unlike the balsa wood gliders of my childhood. In time, both pilots were rescued and eventually made their way to the officers’ mess to commence their recovery and the formal debriefing.

Sorfleet summed up the ill-fated training flight with admirable concision when he turned to his young trainee and said: “Today, we showed you how to perform the takeoff. Tomorrow, we’ll show you a landing!”


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