By Christian Holtz
Cliff Garl certainly has a lot of stories to tell about flying. For instance, there was the time the engine kept cutting out and the small floatplane he was in barely made it to the river. On another flight in the dead of winter the Pitot tube froze up showing no airspeed, and, when landing at his destination airport, there was a near miss with a small plane that had just taken off.
On yet another flight, the Lockheed Electra he was in—booked full of passengers and with cargo stuffed under the seats and in the aisle—hit rough air on the lee of a mountain pass. When a malamute dog of one of the passengers got sick in the aisle, it began a chain reaction among the passengers.
Now Garl has another story to tell. On the afternoon of April 24 this year, he and Northway Aviation instructor Joe Bennett took a Cessna 172 from their home airport of Paine Field in Everett, Wash., and flew 15 miles northwest over to Arlington Municipal Airport. Once there, Bennett got out and Garl took the Cessna back up, flying two patterns with landings and completing his first solo flight. Garl admits he was a little nervous before takeoff, but once airborne, he just did what he was taught.
This first solo has given Garl a fair amount of celebrity. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association included a piece on him in their online newsletter, and he even got a call coming from the producers of “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”
“All this publicity just started and I hope it’s about to end, too,” said Garl.
The reason for his newfound celebrity is that Garl, who will turn 92 this June, is, arguably, the oldest individual to solo an airplane for the first time. Though difficult to know for sure, he may be the oldest registered student pilot to solo.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there were 600,000 pilots registered in the United States in 2004.
“There are 59 certificated pilots over the age of 80 still flying,” said Jim Grant, owner of Northway Aviation. “Nobody knows how many are over the age of 90 because they don’t keep those records.”
Garl was born in June 1914, less than two months before the start of World War I. He doesn’t know when he first thought about wanting to fly, but he recognized he could never be a pilot because his eyesight wasn’t good enough. As a young man, he wore glasses with heavy, “pop-bottle” lenses.
“When I went before the draft board during World War II, they turned me down,” he said. “They said one eye was 20/400 and my other was 20/600.”
Late in life, Garl had laser surgery performed.
“When I was young my eyesight wasn’t good enough; when I’m old it is,” he mused. “Still, I would fly as a passenger all my life, and I always enjoyed that.”
In the late 1930s, Garl was working in the Bristol Bay area of Alaska doing construction jobs for Standard Oil of California. The only way he could get back and forth to some of the sites was to charter a bush pilot and plane. One pilot who flew him twice a week between Naknek and Dillingham used a Piper J4 Cub Coupe on floats with dual controls.
“After we got in the air, he would let me fly it,” said Garl. “Only thing is, this was flat, muskeg bush country, and he wouldn’t go over 300 feet altitude.”
With only one 200-foot hill to clear along the route, the pilot thought it was a waste of time and fuel to go any higher.
“I would be flying the thing and I was sweating, so I’d give it a little gas, try to get more altitude,” Garl recalled. “He’d turn it back down.”
Often there were heavy clouds and poor visibility. The two would take off in the Coupe and one would work the rudder while the other would handle the stick. If the pilot saw a little hole in the clouds somewhere, they’d fly towards it.
“If I was on the rudder, I’d give it rudder to turn her toward it, and he’d work the ailerons to do a good bank,” said Garl. “You got to have a little fun doing that.”
One day Garl was on the controls when the engine quit. The pilot reached down between the seats and turned the fuel valve, and the engine picked up and started to run again. But soon it quit again.
“It kept doing that,” remembered Garl. “It would start and quit and we were coming down. We got about a hundred feet off the ground and the pilot went for the stick saying, ‘Here, I think I better take it.’ Finally. And here I’m sweating bullets.”
The pilot said they could walk out of it, but below them Garl saw only black water and brush, with the occasional feeding moose.
“We never would have walked out of there,” said Garl. “The mosquitoes would have killed us.”
The engine kept picking up and it barely got them over the river bank. They put down on the river and were able to idle their way downstream to Dillingham. The tide was out and the engine had no power to drag them across the mud, so the pilot announced he’d take Garl ashore.
“He put on his hip boots and I got on his back; he trudged through the mud up to the gravel shore. That was one flight,” said Garl. “The pilot said, ‘I had water in the tank the other day and I thought I got all of it out, but I guess I didn’t.'”
Another time Garl had to go from Seward to Anchorage in the middle of winter. He missed the train so he chartered a plane.
“It was a four-passenger biplane on skis,” he said. “We had another passenger. I sat up front with the pilot, a young fellow who sat astride his seat like he was driving a roadster.”
They were flying along up over the clouds and Garl was looking over the instrument panel with curiosity. Suddenly, it wasn’t showing any airspeed.
“It had dropped down to zero,” Garl said. “The Pitot tube had iced up. I mentioned it to the pilot and he said, ‘Aw. Never mind. It doesn’t make a bit of difference,’ which it probably didn’t.”
Clearing a ridgeline, the pilot started down over Cook Inlet, completely hidden by layers of clouds.
“He’d circle around until he saw little blue down below—a hole in the clouds—then put her right over and down in,” gestured Garl. “Pretty soon he’d lose that and he’d circle around again. If you were close to a mountain and he’d come around by that mountain, you’d see that.”
Eventually they got under the cloud deck, and Garl could see the ground near the airport. They were coming in to land when suddenly the pilot opened the throttle wide and put the aircraft over onto her side.
“And here comes a plane right by us—a little Cub or something—taking off out of the airport,” he said. “We didn’t see him. My pilot had called in. They knew he was coming in to land. He started cussing the other plane; it was a pretty close miss.”
After the pilot straightened the plane out, the landing was uneventful.
“Except that thing on skis just went and went and went,” said Garl. “Finally, we got down near the end of the runway and he just turned it around. We skidded along for a ways and, pretty soon, stopped. That, too, was an interesting flight.”
Coming back from Anchorage, heading to Seward, this time in the summer in a plane on floats, the pilot gestured over to a mountainside.
“I looked down,” said Garl, “and there’s this big bear pawing at the land just out there in the middle of nowhere,” he said.
As they flew along, Garl asked the pilot where he would put down if he needed to make an emergency landing.
“He says ‘Well, we’re flying right over the landing field,'” Garl recalled. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He says, ‘The railroad tracks down there. If I had to make a forced landing, I’d bring it down with a float on each side of the rails and it would just hold us right there.'”
These were Garl’s first flights in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Garl was married then, but as he had to spend long periods of time in Alaska moving around a lot, his wife Lois stayed home in Seattle.
“I once told my wife about some of my experiences flying with Alaskan bush pilots,” said Garl, “She got so upset I quit. She didn’t want me to fly in anything but airliners.”
Though Garl’s second career as first officer in a bush plane came to a grinding halt, the couple’s marriage survived 61 years. Later, Garl’s wife was stricken with cancer and died, in 1998.
“She had cancer for several years and she knew she wasn’t going to live much longer,” he said. “We never had children. She told me she wanted me to get on with my life, find a good woman, and do what I wanted to do. I never found another woman. Never looked for one. In fact, I kind of stayed away from them.”
Garl played golf but began having trouble with his shoulder and couldn’t swing very well. He quit playing and began looking for something else to keep his mind occupied and his life interesting.
“I was at the library, and I was looking at things in an aviation magazine,” said Garl, “I saw this ad by Cessna for an introductory ride. I thought, ‘Gee whiz, let’s get up for a little bit and see what it’s like.'”
Through the library’s computer, he printed a coupon and drove from his home in Richmond Beach, Wash., to Northway at Paine Field. He wandered in, showed Jim Grant the coupon, and asked if he’d honor it for a flight.
“Well, sure!” Grant said, and he had an instructor take him up in a Cessna 172.
“I told the instructor about some of my experiences flying right seat in the ’30s, and when we got out there, he had me take it off the runway,” said Garl. “He’d tell me what to do and, no doubt, he was giving me some help I didn’t recognize.”
They went up for a half-hour flight in which the instructor let Garl make turns, climbs and descents. Upon landing, the instructor told Garl he had flown pretty well. (Garl’s log book entry for his “introductory flight lesson” is June 17, 2004, for a total time of 0.6 hours.)
Garl’s original thought was to have an instructor take him up for an hour or so every now and then for something to do, but on each flight, he was handling the controls, and each time he was doing a little better. Still, he wasn’t yet landing the plane.
It was after reading an article about the Wheelchair Pilots Association in AOPA’s Flight Training magazine that Garl started to think seriously about his own flight training.
“I read that there were paraplegics and quadriplegics who were flying airplanes who had pilot licenses!” said Garl. “Well, my instructor convinced me that if these guys can do this, maybe I can. So I talked to my doctor.”
It just so happens that his physician is also an FAA medical examiner. His doctor expressed his doubts but saw no reason Garl couldn’t take the examination. When it was completed, there were two or three things in which Garl tested in the low end of the range. But, he had passed. Still, due to his age, the physician said he couldn’t issue the certificate but would have to send it to the FAA for their approval. Thus began Garl’s ordeal of running his medical certificate through the mill.
“There was no response from the FAA for quite a long while,” he said. “Finally, it came back with a request for more testing. I did those and sent them in and again there’s no response for quite some time. I’m talking weeks and weeks.”
Garl would ask his doctor about it and the doctor would call the FAA. Then the FAA would come back with requests for further examinations, even repeating some of the prior ones.
“So then they came back and said I needed to make a new application because the old one was outdated,” explained Garl. “I pretty well knew they were just putting me off, hoping I’d drop this thing. But I wasn’t going to do that. Then I mentioned something to my doctor about age discrimination.”
“That’ll get things going,” laughed Bennett, Garl’s flight instructor.
“I never would have made any fuss, but I did mention it to him,” said Garl.
Eventually the medical certificate came through. It was issued in February of this year and was good until the end of April—two and a half months.
“In a letter they wrote that went along with the certificate, the FAA said there were a couple of examinations they wanted to have done again,” Garl said. “If I passed those, they’d issue me a certificate good for an additional year.”
During Garl’s waiting game with the FAA, he also heard from the AOPA, who referred him to someone in their organization who is in contact with the FAA medical people and will help pilots with their medical problems.
Cliff Garl’s new medical certificate now provided a window is which he might solo, but the window would only remain open for a few weeks. To help accelerate Garl to the point where he could fly the plane on his own, Jim Grant made a change of instructors and assigned Joe Bennett, 75, as Garl’s instructor. Bennett has been instructing since 1963, and, according to Grant, has “soloed more students than any instructor I have ever met.”
“Generally, the student chooses his instructor,” said Bennett. “But Jim figured that I was an old-timer and Cliff’s an old-timer, so why not just put us together.”
Two active elderly guys who could relate to each other? Maybe. In actuality, the choice of Bennett probably had more to do with his teaching methods.
Bennett had taught 33 years at Galvin Flying and five years at now defunct Queen City Aviation, both at Boeing Field. He remembers certain “computer heads,” guys who lived and breathed computers, who would come in to Galvin’s Training Center and fly the computer.
“You can go from here to any place in the world on a computer and do approaches,” said Bennett. “With these guys, that’s what they’d do. They’d know the whole instrument panel, all the procedures, and all the checklists, and then they’d turn around and go home! They don’t walk out the door and get into the airplane! And they can’t even make a decent crosswind landing.”
Bennett would rather students simply learn first to fly the airplane.
“Feel the airplane,” he said. “That’s what Cliff and I did, exactly. I told him we just gotta fly the airplane. And the way you fly it is you do touch-and-goes, takeoffs and landings. And you don’t do just one landing; you do many, many of them. I think that for the first 150 hours the emphasis should be on takeoffs and landings. That’s my own personal opinion.”
“The idea they had here was that I had limited time for getting me to the point where I could solo,” Garl said. “It had to be done as quickly as possible. And to do that you just go out there and do takeoffs and touch-and-goes and patterns. You do this and not spend too much time on all the other stuff, at least for the present.”
Arlington Airport was chosen for Garl’s solo so that his workload at an uncontrolled airport could be somewhat reduced (since radio calls are encouraged but not required). The time was picked because there was no wind. Typically, a solo is three times around the pattern with three landings, but when it started to get busy, Garl was asked to just complete two.
“We honestly believed he was going to bring our plane back,” stressed Grant. “I mean, I put him up in a brand new $200,000 airplane. But we didn’t want to make it any more complicated than we did.”
Garl’s plans for the future? If his one-year medical certificate comes through, he’ll log more hours in pursuit of a recreational or private pilot certificate. He’ll also be studying for his written.
For the time being, though, he’s just proud of his accomplishment. It would seem he has learned valuable lessons from those teaching him to fly, both then and now.
For more information on Northway Aviation at Paine Field, call 425-742-7003 or visit [http://www.northwayaviation.com].