It was 48 years ago, in 1967, that I attended a flight familiarization course run by the Italian Air Force. High-school students were encouraged to apply to such two-week programs, which included classes on the principles of flight and also flying lessons in a single-engined basic trainer.
My mother was my only parent (my father having died a year earlier) and she initially refused to sign a waiver allowing me to enroll. We had a major falling out because of this but she eventually acceded to my request and the next thing I knew I had been accepted by the Air Force, after a physical test that made me feel like an astronaut candidate.
It was a gray, blustery day when we students eventually walked on the tarmac to our allocated aircraft. They made us strap on a parachute and showed us how to walk on the wing root to access the cockpit. The plane was a Piaggio P-148 from the Fifties and had tandem seats inside a bubble canopy that afforded excellent all-round visibility. I was beside myself with excitement when the Air Force NCO in the left seat showed me the main gauges on the instrument panel and cranked the engine into life. The propeller started turning fast and we started rolling toward the runway in a cloud of noise and heady avgas smells, our view forward all but blocked by the plane’s nose. We taxied to a spot near the head of the runway where the pilot ran his pre-flight checks for a couple of minutes, explaining to me what he was doing over the roar of the engine. Then we hit the runway and, in a matter of seconds, the tail lifted and soon thereafter we were climbing. I could see the town of Guidonia slide away under our right wing and we soon reached the right altitude for our first flying lesson. When we landed a while later I was totally and irremediably hooked.
I knew right then I wanted to fly my own airplane and I was prepared to start saving money to get my pilot’s license. Two years later I was climbing into another old airplane—even older, in fact, than the all-metal Piaggino—for my first solo flight (see below). But it wasn’t my own plane, just a flying school workhorse, and—a short few years later—my flying career ran out altogether when the pressures of life convinced me I couldn’t afford flying anymore. Over the following decades I did fly zillions of miles, but I was a mere airline passenger. Meanwhile, the old P-148 had been scrapped as a basic trainer to be replaced by more modern aircraft.
Flash forward to 2015. I was in Pontedera, near Pisa, a few days ago on a business trip when a colleague suggested we visit the Piaggio museum during our lunch break. It happened to be another gray, blustery day when we entered the museum courtyard. I was looking forward to checking out vintage Vespas and other scooters (the Piaggio company that built airplanes belonged to the same group that still makes the famous two- and three-wheeled vehicles) but I was taken completely by surprise when I saw a Piaggio P-148 trainer standing proudly next to the museum entrance.
The bubble canopy’s Plexiglass was cloudy and the plane’s aluminum surfaces were dusty with age, but there it was all right, the old trainer responsible for my teenage infatuation with flight.