For my 35th birthday I planned a four day backpacking trip. On the way out of town I stopped at a bookstore, where I picked up How to Fly by Gordon Baxter from a one dollar table. I had no interest in flying whatsoever, though I’d been up in a small plane several times. That night in the tent, I couldn’t put the book down. It was one of the most compelling books I’d ever read; enough so, that I packed up that next morning and drove straight back to Los Angeles. I started dialing flight schools until I found one that could schedule me that afternoon. After that first hour in a Cessna 152 the instructor asked, “So when next week would you like your second lesson?” I answered, “You mean when tomorrow would I like my second lesson?” I loved flying immediately, and bought my first airplane, a 1958 Piper Comanche from a dealer on the field after only seven hours of instruction.
Van Nuys, I discovered, was the busiest general aviation airport in the United States, and San Val Aviation turned out to be a particularly lucky find. The circle of student pilots at the school were mostly aiming for airline careers, and took their training very seriously. My instructor, Wayne Graham was only 21, finishing college and building hours toward his airline goal. To say this guy had the right stuff is an understatement. I completed my private pilot and instrument pilot training with Wayne at San Val, and he became one of the most admired airline captains in the business, as did Ian Moss, a fellow Graham student.