I soloed an airplane when I was about 10 years old. It's hard to say exactly how old I was because I wasn't as conscious of age and time then as I am now. I'll admit, though, that on that particular day—it was probably in 1944 or '45—I came close to discovering something most kids don't know: We're all mortal.
My soloing took place over Bay City, Texas, where I did most of my growing up. A man there named Elmo Hatcher was a friend of my mother and stepfather. Elmo was a pilot, the kind of fellow boys my age just naturally gravitated toward.
His airplane was a fairly ancient Aeronca, a two-seat, low-wing craft capable of cruising about 70 mph with a good tail wind. But it was an airplane, and it represented part of my dream for the future. I hadn't quite decided if I wanted to be a professional ballplayer and a pilot, or to pursue my probable destiny as the first man to pole-vault 15 feet. In that era most people considered that height impossible, but I had always known I was bound for high places. So, day after day, there I was in my backyard, armed with a stout cane pole. I had already attained the dizzying height of 6'6" and considered the next 8� feet a mere formality.
My future as an aviator got a boost from all the time I spent at the airport hanging around Elmo and his airplane. Despite my mother's strong disapproval, he had let me fly with him many times. I started out in the right (copilot's) seat, but when I was tall enough to reach the rudder pedals, Elmo would sometimes let me fly in the left seat and practice takeoffs and landings. At first he guided me through, letting me follow him on the controls, but after a time he began to lounge back in his seat and keep his hands and feet to himself while I flew the plane.
One Sunday, late in the summer, my parents went out to the airport with me, even though planes made my mother nervous. Well, that day Elmo and I took a short hop, and after we landed, we taxied over to the hangars where my parents were standing.
Elmo opened his door, got out and said, "You about ready to take it on your own? Solo?"
"Sure," I said, with a nonchalance born of ignorance.
"Go ahead then," he said, shutting the door. "Take it around the patch and land."
I didn't think any more about it. The fact that I had never been alone in an airplane before didn't enter my mind. I just lined up on the runway, poured on the power, reached flying speed and took off. I made the standard climbing left turn, put the plane on the downwind leg, reached pattern altitude and leveled off I don't remember being particularly nervous at that point. The presence of my instructor lingered, and I was automatically doing the things I had been taught. Then I made a left turn that would take me to the final approach.
At the proper moment I reached out and pulled out the throttle—or what I thought was the throttle; actually it was the knob to control the carburetor heat, which had nothing to do with increasing or decreasing power—and tilted the nose down to set up my glide path for the landing. Now, you don't land a light plane with the power on; you pull the throttle back to idle and control your speed with the angle of attack. As I guided the airplane toward the ground, lining up on the runway, I became aware of a strange feeling. I realized it was going much faster than it was supposed to, and there was that roaring sound that a powerplant makes at full throttle. I glanced at the airspeed indicator and saw I was doing 90 mph. Even as I watched, it started creeping toward the red line at 100.