Looking Back: Fueling a Life of Aviation

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Written by: Phil Derner Jr.
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My fascination with planes started when I was young, living across Flushing Bay from New York’s La Guardia Airport in the tiny Queens town of College Point. From my third floor apartment window I could see planes taking off and landing all day, back when 727s ruled the American skies, and sister three-holers like the L-1011 and DC-10 were always in my view on LGA’s short runways as well. I didn’t know how good I had it back then.

Looking back, I wish I had a camera.

I did have binoculars, however. And a notebook. My father had taken me to the library and I kept taking out the same book that showed diagrams of airliners, which is how I learned to identify them when I was 5. With this, before I knew planespotting even existed, I was writing down logs of each aircraft movement; aircraft, airline, time and runway. I didn’t know about registrations or using a scanner to get flight numbers, but gimme a break, I was spotting!

Looking back, I’d kill to have that notebook, or the library book that had that diagram. I’ve actually visited several local libraries over the past few years and spent hours Googling to see if I could find it (tall hardcover book, with the title “Aircraft” or Airplanes”. Vague enough, huh?).

Days after turning 11, I laid in my bed at night, listening to people in front of my building argue over a parking space. The sky suddenly lit up momentarily, and 20 minutes later I heard my parents discussing the news bulletins that were appearing on TV. USAir Flight 405 had crashed on takeoff, killing 34 people. That lit sky had been the fireball of the stalled aircraft slamming into the ground before coming to a stop inverted in the bay.

Looking back, I never would have thought that I would later work in the airline industry for a living, studying crashes like Flight 405 to learn about de-icing procedures, holdover times, and the aerodynamics of winter operations, doing my own part to help make sure that such crashes don’t happen.

VROOOOOM!! Photo taken at LGA Kids’ Day in 2003.

Like many children, I had a couple movies that I would watch over and over…and over…and over. One of them was The Final Countdown, a story of a modern (“modern” being in the early 1980s) aircraft carrier being sent back in time to face the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Aside from the sound of the tape on the VHS cassette groaning to me “please don’t play me again,” I became familiar with the sounds of the military aircraft in the movie, among them the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zeros.

With that sound being saved in my head, I recall that almost annually in the late Summers as a child, I would hear a propeller noise outside that sounded exactly like the Zeros in the movie, and running to look outside I would see a formation of World War 2 style aircraft zipping around overhead. It almost scared me because I associated that sound with enemy attack.

Looking back, I learned that the “annual event” was LGA Kids’ Day, which I attend each year in September these days, and the aircraft I saw were the Skytypers based out of Republic Airport that were regular visitors to the event. The Skytypers fly the old T-6 Texan, which is the aircraft type that is commonly modified to look exactly like the very rare Mitsubishi Zeros, which is they had done in The Final Countdown. So yeah, I was indeed hearing the same sound from the movie. Avgeek high five!

With all of that, my first time flying was at the age of 9 on a trip with my family to Alberquerque, New Mexico. I flew Continental (meatball!) with a connection in Houston, I believe flying DC-9s on all legs. Before getting on that connecting flight, an airline employee came up to me on the jetbridge with a clipboard of some type and told me to bring it into the cockpit, and to tell the Captain “No ice”. The Captain laughed when I handed it over and gave me a tour of the flight deck, and I was cocky with him as he showed me the movements of the yoke, “Yeah, I know how it works,” I said like the little brat that I was (by kay at dh inc). He let me say hi to my parents on the PA system and I went back to my seat with a an ear-to-ear smile. A major experience in my growing aviation passion.

Looking back, obviously, that was the mechanic giving me the maintenance logbook, along with a joke to the pilot that there was shockingly no ice on the aircraft…in the middle of summer in Houston.

Ten years ago, I was 22 years old, checking IDs at doors and patroling dance floors of various bars and clubs around New York City for a living. I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew that in between drinking beer, meeting girls and lifting weights, that I loved planes. My free time was spent hanging out at the airport with new planespotter friends I had met through this amazing hobby.

Aviation helped me meet Barack Obama a week before he won his first Presidential election in 2007.

Looking back, I never would have thought that within a few months I would start an email newsletter which would lead to a website that would grow to what it is today. I never would have thought that a job or two later I’d be working in the airline industry, traveling to dozens of countries, working hands-on with airplanes bringing our nation’s soldiers to and from war. I didn’t know I would eventaully become a dispatcher, earning a respectable salary and stumbling upon this thing called a “career”.

Looking back, I now know that the same overhead airplanes whose smokey black soot gave me respiratory issues as a child would later save my life. If not for that La Guardia window view, I would likely be standing at the door to some Downtown bar both delivering and receiving the occassional ass beating from a drunk, probably with my big mouth getting me stabbed or shot.

Looking back, I know how enriched my life has been and how very lucky I am to have traveled to where I have, done what I have done, and seen the things I’ve seen, all thanks to aviation. Most valuable of all has been the friendships I’ve formed with so many who play huge roles in both my aviation and non-aviation lives alike. Because of aviation, I’d rather live the life I’ve lived than win the lottery, because I feel I’ve already won it 10 times over.

My story is of but one person out of so many thousands of aviation enthusiasts whose lives have been so greatly influenced by the joys and experiences brought to them through our passion for these amazing machines that take to the sky. I hope all enthusiasts everywhere take a moment to look back at their own story, and be prepared to use it the next time people look at us with that quizzical look, wondering why our hearts are among the clouds.

The view of LGA and the NYC skyline from College Point. Can you see why I liked watching planes?

Phil Derner founded NYCAviation in 2003. A lifetime aviation enthusiast that grew up across the water from La Guardia Airport, Phil has a background in online advertising and airline experience as a loadmaster, operations controller and flight dispatcher. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @phildernerjr.

About the Author

Phil Derner Jr.
Phil Derner founded NYCAviation in 2003. A lifetime aviation enthusiast that grew up across the water from La Guardia Airport, Phil has aviation experience as a Loadmaster, Operations Controller and Flight Dispatcher. He owns and operates NYCAviation and performs duties as an aviation expert through writing, consulting, public speaking and media appearances. You can reach him by email or follow him on Twitter.



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  • I feel like your story is twenty billion times better than mine…

  • Really lovely piece, Phil. My first flight didn’t happen until I was 14 (AirTran to MCO), but there was no going back to road trips.

  • Kevin O’Gorman

    Great story Phil. I grew up in Flushing near Kissena Park on Booth Memorial Ave. Depending on the winds and runways in use I used to watch the 727’s, DC-9’s and back then the Allegheny Convair 580’s as they turned on final to fly over the park looking like they were going to hit one of the apartment buildings on Kissena Blvd. My first flight was on a National Airlines B727S from LGA to PHL when I was 15, Saved up my money from birthdays, Christmas and cut school for the flight which left at 7AM. Took the Q-17 to the Q-48 to LGA. Stayed about 5 hours in Philly and flew back went home without my parents ever knowing. Finally at dinner I told them what I had done. They were in shock. My Dad picked up that I loved aviation and encouraged my interest. Although my career path first took me to Hertz Rent A Car where I worked as a manager for 18 years, 9 of them at LGA, I spent 6 years with Northwest at LGA before the cutbacks after 9/11. It might have been later in life while in my 40’s but I finally achieved my dream. There was nothing greater then walking on the tarmac and being so close to those machines I used to only view from afar. Keep on dreaming.

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      Tell me why we cannot build planes to excel the speed we’re going now..
      I’ve been flying as a passenger since 1970 and still it takes 5 hours plus to go across this country. ..I don’t get it !!
      And…why are we flying 737’s from Hawaii to Seattle when it used be 747’s, 767’s and other wide bodies.. to save jet fuel ??
      How absurd is that.. geeeez

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