Patrick Mullane is the author of The Father, Son, and Holy Shuttle: Growing Up an Astronaut’s Kid in the Glorious 80s, available at Amazon.com in paperback, Kindle e-book, and audiobook. He is the Executive Director of Harvard Business School Online and lives in Massachusetts. Note that The Father, Son, and Holy Shuttle is a coming-of-age memoir and has adult humor and situations and is therefore not suitable for young children.
I’m forty hours into getting my private pilot certificate at 53 years old. Like all who embark on the private pilot journey, I have thrown myself into my training with a passion that many would call obsessive. I think I’ve seen every YouTube video and read every book related to the splendor of general aviation. And I’ve met a wonderful cadre of like-minded people along the way.
In talking with those also in flight training, I find that many had a single moment, a sort of religious epiphany, that brought them to the church of aviation. One friend of mine got hooked late in life when joining his son on a discovery flight, having never considered becoming a pilot himself. I find such stories are common. A select group, though, had the passion develop over decades. I’m one of those people.
I write about my own aviation journey in my book, The Father, Son, and Holy Shuttle: Growing Up an Astronaut’s Kid in the Glorious 80s. As you may have guessed from the title,my obsession with aviation was borne of my father’s profession: astronaut. Richard “Mike” Mullane, was selected in the first group of space shuttle astronauts in 1978. This group of thirty-five men and women went on to accomplish so much. It was also a group devastated by the dangers of high-performance machines trying to burst free of the earth’s atmosphere; four members of Dad’s astronaut class lost their lives on Challenger.
But aviation didn’t become a part of my life when Dad became an astronaut. It started well before that, while we were living in England when Dad was stationed at an RAF base. One of my earliest memories is of Dad taking me and my sisters to the end of the runway just outside the airfield’s perimeter fence. There, we’d watch F-4 Phantoms (the aircraft he flew) take the runway in pairs, light their afterburners, and thunder away with a noise that I’m sure damaged our hearing. But, boy, was it worth it.
As soon as I was old enough to understand what Dad did, I wanted to be a part of it and, in any case, our frequent moves made me seek something to ground myself in: aviation was my chosen anchor. From England, and after a short stop in Ohio, it was off to Edwards Air Force Base in California. At each base, I drew airplanes I saw fly over our home; I built model airplanes; I read about airplanes. After Edwards, we moved to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida where dad transitioned to flying F-111s and, on his very first flight in one, had to bail out of the fighter/bomber as it crashed on the runway. Dad’s near-death experience was less prominent in my mind than the excitement that came with the fact that he’d done something Chuck Yeager and other men with “the right stuff” had done – cheated death in a flying machine.
It was while we were in Florida that dad was selected by NASA to become an astronaut. While I was incredibly proud of my father’s new role, the best part of moving to Houston was that Dad got his own private pilot certificate. On weekends, between rigorous days of training for his next space mission, he’d rent a Cessna 172 and we’d take off from the same field where NASA kept the T-38 jets used by the astronauts to stay flight proficient. Those hours with my father in that airplane flying low and slow over south Texas hooked me further on flying and drew me closer to him. I vowed that one day I’d get my certificate and experience again the romance and freedom of flying. And, after writing my last university tuition check for my youngest child, I began my own journey to flight in February of 2021.
Recently, things came full circle for Dad and me. I got to fly with him in a Piper Warrior (an instructor with us), my hands on the controls. Seeing his face beam made me realize he was as proud of me as I was of him. No, I wasn’t flying the shuttle or a supersonic fighter. But the vehicle we were flying in didn’t matter. We were flying. And in that moment that special bond we have was more poignant than ever. And we owe that bond, in large part, to the splendor of aviation.Patrick Mullane