Backing out of the parking lot, I inserted my rented back bumper into the fender of a just-parked car, which turned out to be the property of the president of Safair Flying Service, Inc.
"Would you believe that I just took my pilot's exam?" I said, as we exchanged greeting cards. The president of Safair laughed, even as he viewed his pleated fender. "It all goes to prove that flying is safer than driving," he said, "but what are you going to tell Avis?"
"I'll tell them I try harder," I said.
By the end of the third week I had achieved 12 hours of flying time. My landings were still too bouncy and Hughes put me back on the tether. On what was to be my last supervised flight, though I was not aware of this, we went up to 5,000 feet for a demonstration of what Hughes called a "terminal descent." I did not care much for the terminology.
"You will see that the balloon at this altitude acts, in effect, like a parachute." It did. We drifted down lazily. My control in level flight had improved tremendously. I was getting the hang of the rhythm. Except to light the burners, we never used the cruise valve that pumps heat into the balloon at a steady rate but is noisy. Hughes preferred the blast valve, which allowed for silence between blasts. People below never seemed to tire of the balloon. Wherever we flew there were upturned faces, friendly waves, cars slowing down on the highway and children dancing and chanting c'mon down, c'mon down. Sometimes we passed out balloon postcards, provided by the tycoon.
"One of these days I'm going to let you go, when I think you are in control and feeling well," Hughes told me.
I was feeling fine the following Saturday morning. The day was chilly and sunless, but the wind was surprisingly still. Good ballooning weather. Three other students turned up: Alice and Anne Megaro from New Rochelle, and Roger Kell, a student from Plainfield, N.J. who had just flunked his written FAA exam, which made him a member in good standing of our club.
"You inflate," Hughes told me. "The others will act as your ground crew." I might have known that this would be the day, but I am generally unsuspicious, with little talent for foreboding. Besides, inflation went like a charm. When the wind fan had set the fabric billowing, I cracked the cruise valve and touched the striker to the burners. Flame shot forth, heating the air. My ground crew clung to trailing ropes, one on each side, the other at the crown. The balloon struggled to be free. At a signal, they let go. As the gondola righted itself, I got in. Hughes and Alice climbed in next. Though the Raven S-50A is designed for two, Alice and I were both lightweights. However, it took more blasting than usual, with three of us aboard, to set the gondola rocking. Our takeoff was splendid, I thought, our climb easy and gradual. I checked the speed indicator. The needle pointed to zero.
"It conked out last week," said Alice. So now none of the instruments was working, but I had learned to fly by "feel," had I not?
"Stay low," said Hughes. I took the gondola through the top of an evergreen, which bowed as we passed. I quoted: