Restoring My Faith in Flight

Kathryn Budde-Jones


I was the typical flight student back in 1981. I took lessons on a weekly basis in Key west, Florida until I accumulated about 7 hours. At this time my instructor cut me loose to solo. I remember the day well, for I scared myself senseless and never wanted to go back to flying. Nothing specific or horrific happened, just the fear that I had no real understanding of what I was doing and why I was doing it while in the plane or even on the ground pre-flighting it. From that moment on I put my flying out of my mind. However, my husband continued with his flying interests. I, like so many other spouses, turned into a knowledgeable passenger. I had a basic understanding of checklists but did not know the thrill, and what I assumed to be the terror, of what it was like to keep the plane in the air. I was an informed by-stander and a closet "wanna-be".

In 1987, while diving for the Spanish shipwreck the Atocha with Mel Fisher off of Key West, we found a TBM Avenger that sank in 1945. No, it was not part of the "lost squadron", but it did instill in me an interest in WWII airplanes. This interest led me to Kissimmee, Florida and Tom Reilly's Flying Tiger Restoration Museum in 1997. While on vacation, my husband and I stumbled upon Tom Reilly's museum on the Kissimmee Airport. There we saw them make crumpled pieces of aluminum into flying pieces of history. We saw B-25s, SNJs, Stearmans and Wacos take to the air as they did over five decades ago and it was magic. To stand next to an R 2600 radial engine while it lights off, to feel the snorting and bucking of the massive engines reminded me of the movie Jurassic Park when the dinosaurs rumbled across the plains again after being reborn to this millenium. It brought tears to my eyes and I was hooked.

My new found interest in warbirds led me to attend the first class of the hands-on Warbird Restoration school in May of 1997. The school is set right in the middle of the restoration facility. The blackboard hung on the wing section of a T-6. Every aspect of how to restore a vintage plane back to flying condition was thoroughly covered and demonstrated in the class. Through hands on examples we could see for ourselves how hydraulic systems, electrical systems, and power plants work in harmony with the delicate but strong aluminum and fabric structure of these flying heroes. The many projects that were under way in the facility gave living examples of how safety wiring should be done, cannon plugs installed, cables fitted, and hydraulic fittings assembled. Through five days and fifty hours of detailed explanations and demonstrations I had a much better idea of what made planes stay in the air, the mystery was gone and with it the fear.

When I returned to Key West I started taking flight instruction again. This time with an instructor who took the time to explain the "whys" not just the "whats" and "whens". Thomas Hayashi at Island City Flying service had not only a new student to teach but a middle-aged woman who did not have a good first experience with learning to fly. I asked him after our first introductory lesson if he thought he could teach me how to fly. His response was an incredulous, "I could teach a monkey to fly." My mind immediately wandered to the cold war days when monkeys were introduced to the space program to save humans from our scientific ignorance of space flight. Maybe Thomas was right.

My instruction proceeded slowly, with every lesson starting with a half-hour pre-flight briefing discussing what we were about to do. Our flying time would last an hour followed by at least a half hour de-briefing of what we just did and what I should study for my next lesson. I made every attempt to fly at least three times a week to keep ahead of the intelligence evaporation that would occur between each lesson. We started out with a good pre-flight, a whole hour spent walking around and looking in the plane for things that should not be there. I never knew exactly what my husband was looking for when he peeked, poked and prodded the plane as he circled it on the ramp. I often thought it was just a ritual with no real purpose other than to make you look like you knew what you were doing. Now I knew to look for safety wire and lock nuts, cable tension and hydraulic fluid, obstructed pitot tubes and intact ports. It all had a purpose and I now knew what it was for. I even taught him a thing or two about why the mags are checked the way they are and how to properly prime an engine. After lesson two I felt that me and all the other chimps had a chance.

We started out right away with take-offs and landings. Years of running boats had prepared me well for this part of flying. Try docking a fifty-foot rear cockpit sailboat in a small slip and you have a leg up on landing a plane. I found something that I could do better than the average aviation monkey.

I considered Thomas an excellent teacher. My background is in Special Education and I recognized some of my old teaching techniques used on me. I wasn't insulted, only grateful that he would take the time to explain a concept several different ways. How elementary these concepts were really came home to me the day I observed Thomas giving a group of grade school children a tour of the airport. When Thomas started to explain how planes flew I recognized the lesson he had just given me a week before. I did not feel as smart as the flying chimps at that moment.

It took me 20 hours to solo. We practiced everything before he would even consider letting me solo. Of course, the obligatory emergency procedures, VOR navigation, radio procedures, unusual attitudes, IFR and night flying, endless "touch and gos" until I wondered if I was ever going to go alone. Every calm day when I would go for my lesson I wondered if today would be the day. When it wasn't I would be both disappointed and relieved. This time I wasn't frightened but thrilled at the idea that I could fly alone. As I applied the power for my first spin around the patch, I pictured myself doing it right. I did not picture all the things I could possibly do wrong, but executing each procedure and technique perfectly. This mental imaging would serve me well in my next big flying leap.

We moved up to Kissimmee before I finished my private license and continued my instruction in central Florida. Kissimmee Municipal Airport lies smack in the middle of two Class B airspaces and a handful of class Cs. I was used to flying over an island and lots of open ocean. I practiced turns around a point over a lighthouse seven miles off shore of Key West. Now, I had land and busy airspace everywhere and everything looked alike. My first lesson at an FBO on the field was a disaster, not only had I forgotten everything I had learned in thirty hours of lessons but now spelling airplane would be a stretch. I left that lesson discouraged but got back on the horse that threw me the next day with a new instructor from England. Colin flew for the RAF and his cavalier love of flying showed through even in a clapped out C-152. I often had to arm wrestle him for the control of the plane because he just loved to fly. He was as unorthodox as Thomas was traditional. But he gave me a love of flying that transcended my need to follow every number and rule exactly. Rules, checklists and planning ahead are the triumvirate of flying but common sense and thinking outside the box are vital as well. Five months to the day after I started I earned my private pilot license. And then the real adventure began.

Working at Tom Reilly's Warbird Restoration Museum and not wanting to fly warbirds is like rolling in poison ivy and not expecting to itch. My husband Syd and I took instruction in Cubs and Stearmans to prepare us for tail draggers. Syd had already accumulated 400 hours by this time and was one of the co-pilots for Tom Reilly's B-25 Mitchell that flew out of the museum. I, on the other hand had 60 hours and wanted to fly with the big boys. Tail dragger experience was a must. Actually any experience was a must.

In July of 1998, my husband and I bought a T6-G. We had been looking for a while and found a clean restored Texan. It had a few minor problems, which we found out is the definition of an oxymoron and was probably why the previous owner got rid of the plane after only flying it for 50 hours. There are only a handful of places in the world that can rebuild and maintain warbirds. Tom Reilly's facility has restored over two dozen Warbirds to flying condition including countless big bombers like B-24, B-17 and B-25s. Where we are in Kissimmee is like the Fountain of Youth for warbirds. If Ponce de Leon had been a vintage plane he would have been looking for Tom Reilly's restoration museum. What we did not know, we could rely on Tom Reilly and his crew of experts to help us with. The plane flew from Louisiana to central Florida on July 1st and did not fly again for almost 2 months repairing all the things that were missed on the last annual or by the general aviation mechanics where it was based. The squawk list is long but a few goodies included automotive brake calipers installed instead of aviation quality, hydraulic power valve put together wrong, safety wired backwards, out of date hoses, leaks from every known orifice and some unknown ones, the list goes on. I personally wanted to fly it into a cliff, but did not know how to fly it to a cliff or anywhere else for that matter. I didn't even know how to start it.

However, all this time spent getting to know our first born child helped me when it was finally time to take lessons in it. Thom Richard and his partner Graham Meise operate Warbird Adventures adjacent to the Warbird Museum. They give introductory flights and instruction in SNJs/T-6s. Thom had agreed to check out both Syd and I in our T-6. The insurance company had insured Thom as our instructor and Syd would be able to solo after a minimum of 20 hours of instruction. I, on the other hand, was a bit of a problem. There are not too many potential T-6 students out there with only 70 total flying hours. The insurance company was none too happy to cover me but reluctantly agreed that I could fly my own plane if Thom or Syd (after he was checked out) were with me. They probably assumed that after a couple of white-knuckle flights that I would give up the crazy idea of flying the T-6 by myself. They weren't all wrong!

I warned Thom that I was not going to be easy. I was sure that would be enough of a warning but I underestimated my own ability to forget everything I ever knew about flying. Our first lesson was strapping on the parachute and three-point harness. It took me two more lessons to finally figure this part out of the preflight checklist!! Then the starting procedures, which is always punctuated with the threat of fire. I am sure that this threat existed in a 152 but I don't remember it looming so greatly over me at all times. I had commented when we first started, that I was a blank slate for him to write on and that might make the difficult task ahead easier. Little did I know that most of what Thom "wrote" at the beginning would fade away immediately. I barely remember the first 10 hours of instruction because I was so overwhelmed with the size and complexity of the "beast". Everything from the locking tail wheel to the constant speed prop was beyond my comprehension. Every aspect of this huge hulk of a machine was not only new but also foreign to me and the only interpreter I had was Thom Richard and on certain days he seemed to be speaking in tongues.

Over the many months and hours we spent together flying in the T-6, I would often ask Thom to explain technical material after we were on the ground because I could not think and fly at the same time. Not a very confidence building statement. Each time I got in the front cockpit I found a gauge or an instrument I had never seen before. The only comforting thought I had was at least I knew what it did when I finally noticed it. I am sure that my endless questions made Thom both worry and wonder but he never let on. We would just try it again, and again and again.

From the onset, the actual touchdowns were never a problem for me. No one seemed to understand this, much less Thom. I attributed it to the savant syndrome. Much like Dustin Hoffman's character in the movie "Rain Man", instead of an autistic savant I was a landing savant. My ability to land far exceeded my ability in the plane. Everyone else who flew T-6s would comment on that landing a huge tail dragger like that was the great equalizer that was not my problem. I could even land it perfectly from the back seat! However, I had great difficulty staying ahead of the plane especially in the pattern. Everything happened so quickly. Full throttle on takeoff, push the tail off, up on one wheel, rotate at 80 mph, gear up, pull back to 30 manifold pressure" and 2000 rpm. All of this before the end of a 3000 foot runway! Then maintain airspeed 110mph, change throttle and prop another couple of times before the gear comes down again. Once you drop the flaps and make that Navy approach to the field you realize the plane has the flying characteristics of a piano. Round out, flair at 100 mph and touch down while doing a tap dance on the rudder pedals that Fred Astaire would have been envious of. Clean the plane up and go for it again. Poor Thom, he often heard upon a low approach or shaky touch down a fast staccato rendering of his name "Thom, Thom, Thom, Thom" like a snare drum warming up to a fast roll. He paid little attention and always made me do the things again that scared me the most. I felt it was a good lesson if I did not say his name more than a Catholic would say "Hail Mary" while reciting the rosary. He should be nominated for Sainthood.

For the first thirty hours I could not imagine that I could ever fly the plane with Syd in the back much less alone. I felt on most days bruised from being hit with the dumb stick. I tried to fly as often as possible but with repairs and maintenance to the plane as well as weather and work obligations, my previous schedule of three times a week was not possible. Sometimes it was difficult to fly three times a month. I found that with my lack of experience I had no residual intelligence to fall back on. It was all surface charge like on a quickly charged battery and left me as soon as I was away from the source. I often made one step forward and two back. Some days it seemed I now couldn't even remember how to spell T-6.

Syd and I enjoyed sharing our flying experiences after our lessons with Thom. In many ways it was a great reinforcement for both of us. We would compare notes on what went well and what obviously didn't. Syd had considerably more time under his belt than I did and staying ahead of the plane in the pattern was not a problem for him. To paraphrase Chuck Yeager in the book "The Right Stuff", there was a demon that lived at 800 feet for me in the pattern.

At the forty-hour mark I was going to other airports with Thom's partner Graham. The experience was good for at least two reasons. One, it is always good to experience other airports and patterns during training to get as many dumb attacks out of the way as possible with an instructor still in the back seat. Two, having another opinion and teaching style is always good. Graham and Thom are as opposite in style as two can be. For example; Thom demands perfection, Graham believes you can learn a lot from mistakes. According to Graham's theory then, I should have my doctorate by now. When turning from base to final in our normal deep sweeping T-6 turn, Thom will always be heard in my mind saying over and over again, "don't over shoot the runway, don't over shoot the runway, don't over shoot the runway…… you over shot the runway!" Graham would say in a similar situation; "It's good to know how to save a bad approach."

I learned so much from both of them and seemed to make great strides in the last ten hours of my instruction. I also had some of my most colossal brain farts, a true passing of intelligence into thin air, during this time. While in the pattern with Thom performing emergency procedures, I was asked to perform an emergency landing. I thought I had covered everything; best glide speed, trim, prop & mixture, flaps at just the right time (for a change, Thom has got to be happy with this). But Thom kept saying "go over your check list, what's that noise?" "What noise, I can't think over the landing gear warning horn #@*@#@#*" Just at that point the tower reminded me my gear was still up. I learned a very valuable lesson that day, one that I did not have to pay dearly for, this time. It was not just to stick to a checklist but that a low time pilot does not possess peripheral intelligence or experience to draw upon without thinking; that I must develop a routine that cannot be diverted by distraction; that my checklists should be second nature and not to let second nature turn into complacency. I had grown fond of this plane and sensed that it felt a motherly instinct towards me. I also believed that she would forgive me once for breaking the rules but if I didn't learn from my mistake she would come down on me hard and smite me.

As I grew closer to the 50 hour mark I found myself thinking less often, I should know more than this by now. I actually believed I might be able to solo this plane by myself with a measly 120 hours total time. My training was not the usual drudgery many students find in the pattern but an actual flight back into history at this magical field in central Florida. On any given day I might find myself in the sky with P-51 Mustangs landing in formation, or watching a B-17 come in for a landing, or flying formation with two or three other T-6s. Or the best of all, flying in the pattern when my husband and Tom Reilly were taking off in the B-25 Mitchell. This was a magic time I wanted to savor. You only solo once and I wanted to enjoy the foreplay up to the "Big Moment".

As D-Day approached I called my insurance company to find out what they required for my solo endorsement. I am sure they never thought I would get to this point. I was told that they would like it if would continue with my instruction for another 5 months. They were reneging on their verbal commitment to me. They obviously did not know that anyone who would take on learning to fly a T-6 with my lack of experience does not quit easily. If they were going to deny me coverage they were going to have a fight on their hands. After many phone calls, letters from my flight instructor, a detailed summary on how I spent the last 50 hours of instruction, i.e., 20 hours of pattern work, 200 touch and goes, ( I have the worn out pair of tires to prove it) and verbal posturing on both sides-I won.

The conflict over the insurance actually helped my resolve to solo. I was not all that sure that I could or wanted to. But after someone said I couldn't, there was nothing else I wanted to do more. I spent the few days between winning the verbal battle and receiving written confirmation of coverage preparing myself mentally. Through the years I have participated in various activities that demanded that you visualize yourself performing the task successfully; singing in front of a big audience, martial arts, even finding treasure on the bottom of the ocean. All activities that are performed more successfully with a positive mental image.

So every night I would picture myself soloing. Thom would leave the plane and I would taxi to the end of runway 15. I would perform my checklist before take off; trim set, prop & mixture forward, fuel on, gear locked. I would call the tower; "North American one, zero, four Delta Charlie ready to go runway one, five." The tower would clear me and I would apply full power to the 600-horse power 1340 radial engine. I would check my gauges making sure all were in the green before I would push the stick forward to get the tail wheel off the ground. At just the right moment, just as countless other pilots had in the past 56 years with this very plane, I would bring the nose up and this two-ton lummox would become graceful in the sky. This nanny to the aces of WWII was giving me the chance to see what I was made of as she had done for so many before me. In my mind, I would complete the pattern effortlessly remembering all those little things, like the landing gear. I would glide into final, touching down and rolling to a stop in front of the Warbird museum where my husband, family, friends and co-workers would cheer. The reality was what I pictured and then some. The day came, the photos were taken, the champagne flowed and everyone shared with me the feeling of accomplishment I felt. I was more comfortable than I ever imagined I could be flying a plane. Eighteen years after my first scary attempt at flying I learned to fly the "Pilot Maker", as the WW II aviators called her. She was so named because she taught many, through the decades, that flying a warbird was not mastering a machine but building a relationship based on respect for the plane's flying ability and heritage. I feel like a newlywed now, anxious to build on this new and fragile relationship.

Written by:
Kathryn Budde-Jones
E-mail: <>
If you want to talk T-6, why don't you drop a line her way? She'll be happy to swap stories...



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