How I Learned to Love Flying

How I Learned to Love Flying

© David Burton 2021

C-45 and Electra

     Ever since I was a small boy, airplanes and flying had fascinated me. When the time came for me to attend college, I chose MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts and enrolled in its Aeronautics department. At the time, I had never flown.

     My first opportunity to fly came during my sophomore year at MIT. I was in the Air Force ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) program. As part of the program, ROTC cadets were taken on a flight and given the opportunity to pilot the plane that was being used for the flight.

     The flight was out of Hanscom Air Force Base in nearby Lexington, Massachusetts. The plane used was a C-45 twin-engine transport. On board the C-45 were the pilot - an Air Force officer - myself and 2 other ROTC cadets. Each cadet was given the opportunity to pilot the plane for about 20 minutes. We were instructed in how to maneuver the aircraft – turn, bank, roll, climb and dive. We were also told that at the end of our time at the controls we were to pitch the aircraft up until it was beginning to “stall” and then we were instructed in how to recover from the stall.

     In a stall, the aircraft loses lift and begins to lose altitude. The onset of a stall causes the airplane to “shudder”, which gives warning to the pilot to stop increasing the plane's pitch angle. Recovery from a stall calls for pitching the aircraft down and putting it into a dive.

     The C-45 in which we flew was the military version of the Beechcraft Model 18 commercial light transport. Beech built a total of 4,526 of these aircraft for the Army Air Corps between 1939 and 1945. The Army Air Corps – later the United States Air Force (AF) – used the C-45 Expeditor as a utility transport. Thousands of pilot cadets were given advanced flight training in these twin-engine airplanes.

     During the early 1950s, Beech completely rebuilt 900 C-45s for the Air Force. They received new serial numbers and were designated C-45Gs and C-45Hs, remaining in service until 1963 for administrative and light cargo duties. [1] This was to be the first aircraft in which I flew.

     I was the second student-cadet to get to fly the C-45. The The first cadet's 20-minute turn at the controls went smoothly. When he finished flying, we switched places – I went up to the cockpit and sat in the co-pilot’s seat as the first cadet went back into the cabin and sat in a passenger seat. I flew the plane with no problem for the first 15 minutes or so. Then, as I neared the end of my session at the controls of the airplane, I put the plane into an increasingly steeper angle of climb by pulling back on the airplane’s control yoke as instructed by the pilot. As the nose of the plane pitched up, the horizon, my reference as to whether or not the wings were level, disappeared from view and, unknowingly, I allowed the plane to roll, i.e., to tilt to one side. As the pitch angle increased, we began to stall and I could feel the aircraft start to shudder. But as I pushed the yoke forward to recover from the stall, we also began to roll and enter a spin. I immediately realized that I was totally disoriented and had no idea how to recover from the tailspin that we were entering. I also realized that my best solution was to take my hands and feet off the aircraft controls and allow the pilot to get us out of the predicament I had created. This he quickly did.

     In the short time that I had lost control of the airplane, it had undergone some moderately violent motions. I remained at the controls for a short while after the stall and then switched seats with the next cadet. When I returned to the cabin of the airplane, I realized that the first cadet had become airsick during the twisting and turning of the airplane that I had caused. The odor of the vomit was extremely unpleasant. Shortly later, the smell in the cabin, coupled with the pitching, rolling and yawing of the plane got to me and I also became airsick.

     This was my very first flying experience, memorable in that I got to fly an airplane and because it was my first - and only – flight on which I became airsick. However, the airsickness in no way diminished my love of airplanes and of flying.

     My second flight took place some three or four years later. This time I flew on a commercial airliner, a Lockheed Electra turboprop airliner operated by Eastern Airlines.

     The Lockheed Electra was first flown in 1957. it was the first large turboprop airliner built in the United States. With its unique high power-to-weight ratio, huge propellers and very short wings, large flaps which significantly increased effective wing area when extended, and four-engine design, the airplane had airfield performance capabilities unmatched by many jet transport aircraft - particularly on short runways and at high elevations. Jet-powered airliners soon supplanted turboprops and many of the Electras were modified to serve as freighters. The Electra was also used as the basis for the military's P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft.[2]

     After graduating from MIT, I had gone to work at the MIT Naval Supersonic Laboratory (NSL). The project I was working on was interesting enough to have me present a paper describing it at a technical conference in Washington D.C. This necessitated my Eastern Airlines flight on the Electra.

     On the flight to the conference, I was accompanied by a few other NSL co-workers. They knew that this was my first commercial flight, so they insisted that I take a window seat in order to get the best view of our takeoff, landing and the scenery along the flight path.

     Some time prior to this trip to our nation’s capital, there had been major news coverage of an airline disaster off the coast of New Jersey. A Venezuelan airliner, a Lockheed Super Constellation, was on a regularly scheduled flight from Idlewild International Airport, New York to Caracas International Airport in Venezuela. About an hour and a half after departure, the flight crew reported trouble with one of the engines and turned back to New York. To avoid landing with an overly heavy load of fuel, the airliner started jettisoning fuel over the ocean in preparation for landing. During the fuel dumping, the fuel-air mixture ignited and airplane plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean off Asbury Park. All 74 aboard were killed. At the time, it was the world's deadliest disaster involving a scheduled commercial flight.[3]

     The “fuel dumping” referred to is an emergency procedure used by aircraft during a flight. If an emergency situation were to demand that the aircraft reduce its weight prior to landing, the plane could “dump” any excess fuel into the air via a set of nozzles located on the wings.

     Just as soon as our flight left the ground at Logan Airport in Boston, I noticed something strange. I realized that our plane was in a constant banked turn over Boston Harbor. I knew that the plane should have straightened out after gaining altitude and headed south toward D.C. Very soon, the captain of the aircraft came on the intercom to announce that there was a problem with our aircraft and that we were returning to the airport. However, with our full fuel load, we were too heavy to safely land and would have to circle over the harbor and dump our excess fuel.

     Memories of the unfortunate Venezuelan airliner that had caught fire and crashed while dumping fuel off New Jersey immediately came into my mind. As a result of the best intentions of my co-workers, for the next several minutes, I had a ring side seat of vaporizing fuel streaming off one of the wing tips of our Lockheed Electra. Several nervous minutes later, we landed safely, were reboarded on a replacement airplane and made it safely to our destination - only a bit later than scheduled. This, my first commercial flight, was one that I have not forgotten - even several years later and after many, many more flights.

     My very first time in the air was quite an unforgettable adventure – I got to sit in the cockpit of a twin-engine airplane and actually fly the plane. On top of that, I got airsick for the first and only time in my life.

     My second flight proved to be still another memorable adventure. It was my first flight on a commercial airliner and the first – but not the last – time that I was on a flight that immediately aborted after takeoff. This flight has remained in my memory for more than 60-years for another reason – the vision of vaporizing jet fuel streaming off the wing tip of the aircraft as I recalled the fate of an earlier flight that had caught fire and killed all aboard while performing the very same fuel dumping procedure.

     These first two times in the air were not the uneventful events for which one might have hoped. Both were quite memorable - but for very different reasons – and many years later and after innumerable other flights, I still enjoy flying. One might infer that I acquired my love flying on these first two occasions – or maybe I love to fly in spite of these first two misadventures.


  1. Beech C-45H Expeditor, NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE UNITED STATES AIR FORCE, 5 June 2015.
  2. Lockheed L-188 Electra, Wikipedia, 23 May 2021.
  3. Linea Aeropostal Venezolana Flight 253 (June 1956), Wikipedia, 3 January 2021.

  24 June 2021 {Article 481; Suggestions?_59}    
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