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Downlinks with Miles O'Brien

A passion for things that fly

April 13, 1999
Web posted at: 4:44 p.m. EDT (2044 GMT)


A Mustang P-51 on display at Sun N' Fun

IPIX 360° Miles O'Brien at Sun N' Fun


LAKELAND, Florida (CNN) -- Until I landed here, I hadn't really thought about how much a love of flying runs through my veins.

I grew up sitting in the right seat of various small airplanes rented by my private pilot father. I first took the controls without being able to see over the instrument panel, and for that I owe my father some thanks for saving me aggravation as I progress toward my instrument rating. After all, I learned the basic mechanics of flying using gauges alone.

My father's father was also a private pilot -- although not a very active one (or "wet," as we pilots like say).

Although not licensed by the FAA, my mother's father sat in the right seat of his own plane all through the 1930s, as he peddled wool to the mills of New England and Upstate New York. He imported wool -- primarily from Ireland -- to the United States in the days before polyester. While his competitors were playing cribbage on trains below him, my grandfather was beating them to the next sales call.

He once sold a million bags of wool to a mill in Cohoes, New York, that had a commission from the Uncle Sam to make uniforms. At the time it was a record. I have a wonderful sepia-toned 8-by-10 photo of him standing in front of his Stinson -- hands on his hips -- dressed, as he always was, to the "nines."

And his brother -- my great-uncle -- was the aviation editor of the Boston Globe in the days when stories about flying were often page one material. I haven't checked this out, but family legend has it that he coined the moniker "Skycap" to describe the bag-toters then simply known as "porters."

All of this came to mind as I flew with my family to the 25th annual "Sun N' Fun" fly-in now under way in Lakeland, Florida -- a place known historically as a home to strawberries, citrus and, during spring training, the Detroit Tigers. These days, you can add the fly-in to Polk County's claim to fame. About 800,000 people will fly or drive in.

For me, half the fun -- actually a little more than half -- was getting to and fro. My good friends, John and Martha King, who are well known to general aviation pilots as the undisputed "Kings" of aviation instructional video tapes -- offered us a ride in the Citation 500 jet in which they wing their way across the country, mixing business and pleasure. Actually, with John and Martha, it is difficult to tell where the business ends and the pleasure begins. They have turned their passion into profit -- by design.

In any case, they kindly offered this pilot who normally resides in what John calls Indian country -- where small piston/propeller driven Piper Cherokees, Comanchees and Apaches fly -- to sit in the captain's seat of their high-flyin', fast movin' freedom machine.

During the fly-in, Lakeland Airport is the busiest in the country, with more takeoffs and landings than even the new leader in this category: Atlanta's Hartsfield International.

Aircraft on approach to Lakeland during Sun N' Fun must fly a specific pattern -- and stay off the radio -- waiting for controllers to call them. "Citation: turn left to 090 degrees ... and put your gear down ... Citation: turn right for final ..." etc. No need -- or time -- to reply.

The Herculean air traffic control effort is coordinated by Wayne Boggs -- a major league air traffic controller playing a game of ATC pepper. You may know his brother from another league: Wade plays down the road in Tampa Bay.

Anyway, the intense exercise taxed my meager skills considerably, but I was flying with the best instructors in the business. Like they say, any landing you walk away from ...

But back to my point: From the moment we started walking the flight line, it became readily apparent that my children -- in particular my 6-year-old son, Murrough -- have that same passion for things which fly. We wandered past homebuilts, helicopters, warbirds and vintage aircraft of all shapes and eras. And, according Murrough, each one was cooler than the last.

We even ogled at a few old Stinsons in absolutely mint condition. Murrough is his father's son.

Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien's column appears on Tuesdays.

Downlinks with Miles O'Brien

Downlinks archive

How did Wilbur and Orville do it?
March 4, 1999
From Kitty Hawk to the red planet
February 2, 1999
Alabama man loves to fly -- and it shows
December 31, 1998

Sun 'n Fun EAA Fly-In, Inc.
FAA - Federal Aviation Administration
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