First Flight Stories

On December 17, 1903 the winds at Kitty Hawk, NC were high, but two brothers from Dayton, OH didn’t let that stop them. Orville Wright took the 1903 Wright Flyer into the air at 10:35am, Wilbur Wright helping to steady the wings. After four flights that day, the following telegram was sent home to Dayton: “Success four flights Thursday morning all against twenty one mile wind started from Level with engine power alone average speed through air thirty one miles longest 57 seconds inform Press home Christmas.”

In celebration of First Flight, here are a few stories from pilots in the National Aviation Heritage Area about their first flights.

How long have you been flying?

Richard Stepler: I have been a pilot and flying for 54 years.  I am duel rated as an Airline Transport Pilot and Commercial Pilot.  As a flight instructor and FAA Designated Pilot Examiner, I teach and test all aspects of flying in both single and multi-engine airplanes.

Col. Hank “HOG” Griffiths, USAF: My first flight was in May 1991 at the USAF Academy flying T-41s (Military version of the Cessna 172) for preliminary flight training.  So approaching 30 years now. I am currently flying Piper Cherokees at the MacAir Aero Club and one of the pilots at the Wright B Flyer Museum. I am an Air Force Test Pilot and have flown over 40 different airplanes, with most of my flight time in the F-16 and the F-35.

If you could talk to the Wright brothers, what would you say?

Richard Stepler: If given the opportunity, I would ask Orville why he did not accept the Civil Aeronautics Board’s, the predecessor of the current Federal Aviation Agency, offer to issue him the pilots licenses number one when they began to issue them to pilots.

Col. Hank “HOG” Griffiths, USAF: If the Wright Brothers were around today, I would love to get their observation of how their invention has evolved over the past 117 years and had such a global impact on transportation, economics, the military, and a number of different areas.  For the Department of the Air Force, there are obvious impacts.  One of the Wrights’ first students was Lt Henry H. Arnold who became the first and only 5-star General for the USAF.  And almost 116 years to the day of their first flight on December 20, 2019, the United States Space Force was established. This new service within the Department of the Air Force owes its establishment from the brothers who dared to fly on December 17, 1903.

Tell us the story of your first flight.

Richard Stepler: The details of my first flight are lost to the fog of time but like most pilots, the memories, sights, sounds, and emotions of my first solo flight are as vivid as if it happened yesterday.  With about 5 hours of training from my flight instructor, we started a lesson with takeoff and landings on runway 33 at Bowman Field in Louisville KY.   After several cycles, my instructor asked me to taxi onto a parking ramp adjacent to the runway.  Wondering what I had done wrong he surprised me by exiting the airplane and telling me to do three more cycles solo and taxi back to the hangar.  I was not sure I was ready!  I ask him to get back into the airplane.  Laughing he closed the door, waved to me, and started walking back to the hangar.  The usually anemic performance of the Piper Colt trainer, without his 150 pounds, was amazing; it jumped into the air and climbed at a startling rate.  Each of the three takeoff and landings had its usual challenges of annoying traffic and fickle winds.  Occasionally I was sure I heard my instructor’s voice coaching me to make the necessary corrections to safely land the airplane, to this day I wonder how he did that!

Col. Hank “HOG” Griffiths, USAF: My first flight was so long ago and it would indeed be a challenge to resurrect those brain cells.  But I think your readers would be most interested in hearing about my first flight in the F-35 that happened 10 years ago on April 23, 2010.  Unlike the Wright brothers, we had a variety of simulators that prepared us for the first flight of this new stealth fighter for the U.S. and eight partner nations.  During the development of the fighter, we initial cadre test pilots would fly full motion high fidelity simulators to develop the actual flight control software that will be utilized in the airplane.  We had hardware in the loop simulators to test the actual electrical, hydraulics, fuel, and vehicle management hardware and software for the aircraft, and mission systems simulators to test the software that will employ the offensive and defensive combat capabilities for the fighter.  So, by the time we flew this single-seat fighter for our very first sortie, we had at least a hundred hours of simulator time.  But all that time really did not squelch those first-flight jitters.  My first F-35 flight was the third flight of AF-2, the second of four System Development and Demonstration Conventional Takeoff and Landing (CTOL) aircraft for the USAF, and it was accomplished at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base, Ft Worth, TX; the location where Lockheed-Martin (LM) assembled the aircraft.  My instructor and F-16 chase pilot was LM test pilot Jeff “Slim” Knowles, Lightning 2.  Just prior to engine start, the chief test pilot Jon Beesley, Lightning 1, assisted with strapping me into the airplane and spoke to me with a kind father like attitude to assure me that I was more than ready to take this jet into the air.  On that same day aircraft AF-1, was on its fifth sortie and LM test pilot Bill “Gigs” Gigliotti was getting his first flight too.   I was scheduled to takeoff before him which would have made me the tenth different pilot to fly the F-35 and thus would be known amongst the community as Lightning 10.  However, my jet had problems during start-up and I was delayed getting out of the run station and Gigs had a clean start and got to the end of the runway way before me.  However, Gigs didn’t depart the field, he held at the end of the runway waiting patiently for me to make sure I would be Lightning 10.  A class act from a good friend and a fantastic test pilot.

The F-35 is powered by a single Pratt & Whitney F135-PW-100 afterburning turbofan engine capable of producing a maximum of 43,000 pounds of thrust.  Our takeoff weight was around 48,000 pounds, so the jet really took off when I pushed up the throttle.  We were very early in the flight test program and we still had a long way to go in our flight envelope expansion testing, so our airspeed limit at the time was 360 knots and we were only cleared for half stick deflections.  Holding a jet back capable of flying 1.6 Mach took a lot of attention.  In fact, I recall multiple times hearing my test conductor in the control room telling me to watch airspeed.  She just wanted to fly fast and I was more than ready at that moment to see how fast she would let me take her.  The jet flew just like the simulator, a testament to the engineers who designed and programmed the jet’s flight controls.  This made my first flight a thrill.  After getting to altitude, I cross-checked my air data system with the F-16 chase and I got a feel of how the airplane flew in up and away mode by accomplishing pitch, roll and rudder doublets, bank-to-bank rolls, aileron rolls, and flying formation with chase.  The jet was super stable, when you set a pitch or roll attitude and then let go of the stick, the fighter stays in that attitude and doesn’t drift.  A low workload airplane to fly, the pilot does not have to dedicate time to keeping heading and altitude, as the main objective is to employ weapons and defend against the threat utilizing the multitude of sensors and displays available to the pilot, “flying” is secondary. In the next half of the sortie, we configured the airplane at 10K MSL in powered approach mode and accomplished another set of handling quality maneuvers to include formation flying with chase.  Last we practiced landing approaches while at altitude in preparation for returning to the airfield and getting that first landing.  As stated earlier, a key objective for the F-35 is to reduce pilot workload, and a key system that does just that is approach power compensation (APC).  APC or “auto-throttle” adjusts the power while on approach in order to keep the airplane at 13 degrees angle of attack.  All the pilot is required to do is point the flight path marker to where you want the jet to touch down and the throttle is automatically adjusted to keep you at the correct approach angle of attack. One of the easiest airplanes I have ever landed.

My first flight in the F-35 was 1.7 hours in duration and concluded with an airplane that was ready to fly again once the tanks were refueled, in other words, a “Code 1 jet”.  I am forever grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the largest DoD fighter program ever and to work with the most professional and talented group of military and civilians from the USAF, Navy, Marine Corps, Partner Nations, and Lockheed-Martin.  The reason many of us became test pilots began for me on that very first F-35 flight, and I thank the men and women who were part of the early start of the F-35 program for taking care of all of us and assuring we executed safe, productive, and effective test flights every time we strapped on the jet.

What is the best flight you’ve been on?

Richard Stepler: I have had many memorable flights, some because of the destination, others because of the people I was with or the weather or mechanical problems that I had to overcome.  The best and craziest flight I have experienced are both associated with the flying the look-a-like Wright B Flyer currently operating out of Wright Brothers airport.  I joined the small number of pilots that fly the Wright B Flyer at the request of one of the retiring pilots that originally flew the Brown Bird, as it is called by the Wright B Flyer organization, after its construction in 1982.  Owing to my flying credentials the pilot that flew with me on my first flight in the Brown Bird did not provide any hints about the flying qualities of the airplane. I found out that the Brown Bird, while it has traditional controls, has some unconventional flying qualities; to the point that one suspects that it has a bad attitude about novice pilots.  After the flight, I question if I was actually in control of the airplane at any point in the short flight!   Later I discovered that Orville Wright described flying early Wright airplanes as an experience similar to “riding a recalcitrant horse”. I now understand and agree with his assessment.  I did learn to fly the Brown Bird and I am now the Chief Pilot for the organization.  The flight that stands out over all others is the first time I flew the Brown Bird over Huffman Prairie.  Flying the look-a-like Wright B Flyer in the airspace where the Wright Brothers developed and refined the first practical flying machine was and remains an emotionally charged honor.

Col. Hank “HOG” Griffiths, USAF: During test pilot school we had the opportunity to fly close to 30 different airplanes, but there is one airplane that was especially memorable and that was my first flight in the A-10 Thunderbolt II, affectionately known as the Warthog.  My instructor pilot flew chase on me in a second A-10 and on my very first ride (yes, it was a solo ride) we took off out of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, flew a 500-foot low level to Goldwater Air Force Range 4, dropped 12 bombs, emptied the 30mm Gatling gun, and flew back to D-M to beat up the pattern.  Shooting the GAU-8/A was amazing, those rounds are so big you can actually see them leaving the gun on its way to the target.  It looks like a swarm of insects leaving the front of your plane.