I was a brand new private pilot and thought I was the hottest thing since Yeager. But when the pilot examiner handed me the new pilot certificate, she said, "You've passed the check ride and are now a private pilot. Now the real lessons begin. This is not as much a ticket to fly as it is a ticket to learn."

She was right.

My first airplane was a war surplus trainer, a Fairchild PT- 26. It had just been restored and was as fine an airplane as I have ever flown. My official check-out consisted of one flight around the airport and one landing. I asked the ex-Navy pilot who flew with me about the stall characteristics of the airplane.

He said, "just keep the speed up and it won't stall."

He was wrong.

I flew the Fairchild solo for a few hours, then began taking my friends for rides. I learned to make good landings. They were too fast at first, but they quickly improved. I met a flight instructor with hundreds of hours in the Fairchilds and who was willing to give me instruction in it. Unfortunately, this man, an Army Air Corps Captain, had not actually flown in years and refused to get into the airplane with me.

He instructed from the ground. Actually, it was from a bar just down the road from the airport, but he was a very good instructor. I could go to him and describe a situation ... such as my tendency to float on landings ... and he would tell me how to remedy the situation. Like crossing the numbers with five knots less airspeed.

He told me anyone could learn to fly well if they just paid attention to what was going on. He was right.

The captain taught me how to do spins, loops, chandelles and even formation flying. On a typical afternoon, I would listen for an hour while he drew diagrams and arrows on the bar top with a yellow pencil. He could describe in detail each control movement and each power setting. He would describe how the "G" forces felt and how the horizon looked outside the canopy. Then he would tell stories of hapless students, now lost in the histories of World War Two, who had done it wrong and paid the price.

I would then drive to the airport, crank up the Fairchild and fly off toward the mountains to practice my lessons in solitude. When my loops quit on the top and fell into some other bizarre maneuver, I went back to the bar and told him what had happened. The captain would explain that I had entered too slow, or that I had used too much back pressure on the stick. Then I would go back and try it again.

The local crowd at the airport told me I would kill myself trying to learn aerobatics solo. But I didn't.

One of the first bad habits a new pilot picks up is that of "buzzing" friend's houses. This is a deadly phase of development that many pilots go through, especially if they live in the country and have friends and family who don't come to the airport. How else, you reason, will they see how exciting and thrilling this new sport is? My first buzz job was an attempt to show my new airplane to my family.

It was a sleek, low-wing airplane with the classic lines of a fighter. And I was proud of it. I approached my house in a long shallow dive, and crossed at about a hundred and fifty miles per hour. I pulled up smartly, quickly dissipating the airspeed, then racked the airplane into a steep bank that would best show off its military lines.

Something went "BAM" and the whole airplane shook like it had hit a solid wall. My first thought was that I had collided with another airplane, or maybe a large bird. I leveled the wings, reduced the power, then slid the canopy back to look at the wings and tail. Everything looked O.K. There was no sign of damage anywhere.

I couldn't see the landing gear, so I reasoned that the damage must be there. My landing at the airport was the smoothest and softest one I could manage. I told the guys at the hangar that I had hit something, but after examining the airplane, the consensus was that nothing had come in contact with the airplane.

I took my incident to the captain. "Hells, bells," he said, "haven't you ever heard of an accelerated stall?"

"Well, yeah, I think they were mentioned somewhere along the line, but I was going too fast to stall."

The captain sighed and got out his Pilot Information File, dated 1944 and stamped "RESTRICTED". He turned to a section on stalls and showed me a graph I had never seen before. It showed the relationship between the airplane's angle of bank and its stall speed. I stared at it stupidly. With one simple line, it showed that when the angle of bank increased, so did the stall speed. When the stall speed became higher that the airplane's actual speed, the airplane stalled, no matter what those speeds were.

"If you don't wise up quick," the captain said, "you won't be around long enough to learn to fly."

I took the Pilot Information File home with me and read it carefully. There was a lot of important stuff in it. I still have it here on the shelf. The captain, God rest his soul, won't be needing it anymore. But I'll never forget him.