Earning My Wings

Earning My WingsBy Bryce Matteson

One of the first memories I have of aviation is the day my mother’s cousin took me up in his Cessna Skyhawk.  I must have been in the 4th or 5th grade and it’s a day I’ll never forget.  The small town in Oklahoma where I grew up seemed even smaller from 3,000 feet along with the wheat trucks and combines in the patchwork fields below.

The next memorable aviation event in my lifetime was a dozen years later when I was taking my first ride in a commercial airliner.  I was on my way to basic training at Lackland Air Force Base and for some crazy reason, I felt like the Southwest 737 I was strapped into had developed massive problems and was going down.  It was going down all right.  The first leg of the flight from Oklahoma City to Dallas was nothing more than an up and down ride.  I felt like a seasoned veteran for the second leg to San Antonio.

My true love of flying wouldn’t develop until 1990.  I was interviewing for a job I really didn’t know anything about but I needed the job and KWCH-TV 12 in Wichita, Kansas needed an aviation reporter.  We each got what we wanted, almost.  The news director at the time felt like my BA in Journalism and four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force more than qualified me for the position.  Who was I to argue even though my Air Force career had me toting an M-16 machine gun guarding Titan II missiles.  I hardly saw an airplane let alone fly, ride or work on one.

Working the aviation beat in a town like Wichita was super exciting for me.  The possibilities for story ideas were almost endless.  There was Boeing, Beech, Cessna and Learjet to choose from and scores of mom and pop machine shops scattered about, each supplying major parts for the big four manufacturers.  They all had their own unique stories on products, people, tools and facilities. 

 I learned to work with the CEOs and their respective public relations people.  People like Phil Condit, Russ Meyer, Brian Barents, Dick Ziegler, Dean Humphrey, Bill Richardson and David Franson. 

It was Dave Franson who came up with the brilliant idea of teaching a reporter how to fly (if that was possible).  Cessna had just made its decision to re-enter the piston aircraft business and it was Dave’s idea to document in a series of television reports, what learning to fly entailed and then connect the reports with the grand opening of Cessna’s new plant in Independence.  The opening was just weeks away and Franson needed to select a reporter right away.  Was I ever happy that his selection was me!

KWCH-TV and Cessna worked out the details.  They were simple.  Cessna would provide the airplanes, fuel and instructor.  KWCH would provide the air time for the reports and me.  I was the great benefactor in the whole deal.  Not only would I learn how to fly and get my private pilot’s license for free, I would get paid for reporting on the ordeal.  Needless to say, this was working out to be a sweet assignment! 

I was given a special membership to the Cessna Employees Flying Club.  To my understanding, Cessna’s then CEO Russ Meyer had five honorary memberships he could extend to whomever he wanted.  My membership was one of the five.  It was at the flying club where I first met my instructor Joe Quackenbush.  He went by Joe “Q” for short.

Joe Q was quite a guy.  I later heard from other instructors that Joe practiced yoga and could often be found squatting in deep meditation during breaks at work.  All I know is that Joe was a great teacher and was an excellent choice for the camera.  He had a way of correcting me without making me look too silly – even though he did call some of my landings something similar to ones made by goony birds.

From the first lesson where I learned to pre-flight an airplane to the very end, nearly every second of learning how to fly was documented on videotape by my longtime friend and award-winning photojournalist Doug Schrag.  Doug brought a great perspective to the story because he was a private pilot himself.  He knew what to expect from me and at times, what not to expect.  Doug captured my every move from forgetting to extend flaps for the pre-flight inspections to rough landings at night when I set off the airplane’s emergency locator transmitter.

Because time was of the essence, I flew almost every morning for just over a month.  Some days I would fly twice, morning and evening to build my hours.  Because runway 19L was closed for resurfacing, I had to taxi all the way across Mid-Continent airport to 19R.  We often joked that I probably had the most taxi time of any student pilot in training during that month.

I’ll never forget the feeling of pushing the throttle in and pulling back on the yoke to get the Skyhawk airborne the very first time.  The transition from ground to air was so simple and smooth.  As a longtime broadcaster in radio and television, the radio work with ground, departure, tower and approach came very naturally to me.  Slow turns, stalls and landings did not but all improved over time. 

As the hours built, I knew it was only a matter of time before I would get the chance to solo.  A morning or two came and went without Joe asking me to pull over to let him out but one clear day down at Strother Field in Arkansas City he did just that.  We had practiced in the pattern for almost an hour and he knew the time was right to set me free.  All of a sudden the cabin of the little 172 felt gigantic with just one aboard.  I taxied to the end of the runway, did my run-up and checked (and double-checked) my checklist.  It was kind of like the feeling you have as a roller coaster you’re strapped into reaches the crest of its highest peak.  There was no turning back.

The Skyhawk’s engine roared and the lines on the runway seemed to blaze by.  As I pulled back on the yoke and could no longer feel the asphalt below, I let out a squeal.  I was flying!  Never had I experienced such a feeling of freedom.  I was truly in charge of my life at that time and no one was responsible for me except me.  All of which posed a major challenge for me.  Taking off was fairly easy for me.  Now, somehow, I had to get  back down – safely and in one piece.
Before making my first solo landing, I remembered that Joe had requested that I practice some maneuvers just north of the airport.  Time flew all alone that first flight and before I knew it, I was turning final for my very first solo landing.  Joe had taught me a trick of lining up a bug on the airplane’s windscreen and keeping that bug in line with where I wanted to land on the runway.  Talk about low-tech, but it worked and in no time the Cessna and I were floating down to a near-perfect landing.  I repeated the take-off and landing process two more times with me providing play-by-play commentary along the way.  I had a wireless microphone stuck in my earphone so Doug could record audio while shooting video from the ground.

After chirping the wheels down for the final landing, I taxied the Skyhawk over to where Joe and Doug were standing.  Joe fell backwards on the grass faking an episode of passing out.  I don’t know if his act was a sense of relief knowing that I had survived myself or if he was in disbelief over what we both had just accomplished.  Maybe it was a combination of the two.  After all, not every instructor has his or her student’s every move videotaped for all of Kansas to see – good or bad.   I wasn’t wearing a tie that day but the artistic Joe Q was armed with pen and scissors.  He sketched a cartoon on my t-shirt and cut it out.  His suitable for framing artwork still hangs in my basement today.

From that day, we practiced precision work and I started flying cross country flights.  Points of interest along the way included flying Joe, his wife and mine to dinner at Joe’s mother’s home, a cute girl working the desk at Flower Aviation in Salina and a regional airline pilot who critiqued one of my landings at Dodge City.  I was on my way to becoming a private pilot and I couldn’t have been happier!

Editor’s note: 
In the end, Bryce made that flight to Independence in time for the grand opening and went on to successfully earn his private pilot ticket.  Bryce says becoming a private pilot helped him become a better aviation reporter and gained stick time in such aircraft as the T-6A Texan II, Beechcraft Bonanza, Piper Cherokee, FA-18 Hornet and even a Mitchell B-25 bomber.

“Earning Your Wings” was broadcast live each week for 10 weeks on KWCH-TV showing my progress in learning how to fly.  “Earning Your Wings” was a national winner of AOPA’s Max Karant Excellence in Aviation Journalism award. 

Bryce wishes to thank Cessna Aircraft Company, Russ Meyer, David Franson, KWCH-TV, Doug Schrag and most of all Joe Quackenbush for whom this article is written in memory of.

Bryce Matteson is now a Financial Advisor at Oppenheimer & Co. Inc. and still flies when his pocketbook allows.