Colonel Ray "Frenchy" L'Heureux with Lee Kelley
St. Martin's Press
A YOUNG BOY DREAMS OF FLYING
I was born in Salem, Massachusetts on July 24, 1961. A couple of years before that, my parents bought a three-story, sixteen-room, old Greek Revival–style house in historic Salem, about fifteen miles north of Boston. My dad was an electrical engineer. My mom was a devoted, hardworking homemaker, and they planned to fill the place with kids. That agenda seemed to work out perfectly, because I am the third of seven siblings. My sister Yvonne and my brother Roger are older than I. My sister Marilyn was born next, followed by my three brothers, Marc, Tommy, and Paul.
The house was built in the mid-1800s, and I imagine my parents must have thought that its location and size outweighed its age and impracticality. The style resembled a miniature Parthenon—a mint-green box with white trim and a peaked roof. For a long time, my sisters shared a room, Roger and I shared a room, and the three younger brothers shared another one. As we got older, we spread out into our own spaces, but in the early years my parents consolidated all of us kids, you might say, in that big old house. From a hundred feet up, the roof with its two chimneys would have just blended in with thousands of others, jutting out from the thousands of trees standing sentinel over our storied town, best known for the witch trials held there in the late seventeenth century and a certain house with seven gables.
It was one of those houses that any kid would love to grow up in. There were so many rooms and stairwells and alcoves and they all provided endless opportunities for fort-building and hiding. I’ll never forget those spots where I could hide forever—just me and my scraped knees surrounded by the look and feel of our house’s beautiful old woodwork. When you walked in the front door, there was a formal staircase with a large banister that twisted up in a pattern of squared turns all the way to the top. I could stand on the first floor and look all the way up. At the back end of the house was another stairway, originally a service stairway, which rose from the kitchen to the top floor. That one was enclosed. With sixteen rooms, three bedrooms, a basement, and two stairwells, hide-and-seek was elevated to a varsity level.
Almost all my family members were musically inclined, and most of them played several instruments. While I always loved music, and while the memories of Dave Brubeck through the whole house on Saturday mornings are very dear to me, I just didn’t get the musical gene. In a house full of musicians, I was the only one who didn’t play an instrument or sing harmony. However, as early as the age of six or seven, I was obsessed with the idea of being a pilot. Logan Airport was due south of us, and I looked up into the sky over my neighborhood and watched countless planes going in and out of Boston.
I remember one airline that painted their planes bright yellow, and I loved to watch the big metal birds leave their contrails across the sky, imagining I was their pilot. At the time, the airline industry was growing and the wide-bodied jet was coming into fruition. McDonnell Douglas had their big DC-10, Boeing had the 747 jet, and Lockheed Martin had the L-1011. Just the sheer power and size of those aircraft fascinated me. Even though this was near the end of the Vietnam War, I wasn’t really interested in high-performance aircraft yet. I was enamored with the whole commercial-airline industry and loved those big wide-bodied jets. By this time I had my own room overlooking the backyard and the walls were plastered with pictures of my heroes—pilots like Chuck Yeager and Amelia Earhart, and astronauts like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
Eventually, it wasn’t enough to see the planes way up in the sky or on TV or even in my imagination. I wanted to get my hands on them. I would walk with my friends down to the local department store, Almy’s, and check out the model airplanes made by a company called Revell. I started saving up my allowance and birthday money and even raking leaves or shoveling snow to earn money. I pretty much spent my money on model airplanes and movies. Some of the original models were pretty simple, but so much fun. I had a small mahogany school desk in my room, and I turned this into my work center. My dad gave me one of those gooseneck lamps, which stood in the corner of the desk.
If you ever made model airplanes or cars, you’ll probably remember the excitement of opening the box. They always had cool photos on the lid and they always had that new-car smell when you started taking the parts out. I liked to open each box carefully and set it on its side near the edge of the desk so I always had a picture of what the plane should look like when I was done. The parts were shrink-wrapped, and I did my own inventory as I spread the parts out and read the instructions. Some of the smaller ones were mostly just an exercise in snapping parts together. They only took about ten or fifteen minutes to assemble, but I enjoyed the small parts, the precision required, and the smell of the paint.
My buddy Brad was a model-car freak and had quite a collection. Sometimes I packed up my collection in a box and transported it to Brad’s house, where we would compare our craftsmanship. He showed me his model Mustangs or Barracudas, and the overall quality and precision always looked so much better than my airplanes. He knew how to use matches to create the look of exhaust and road grime on the tire wells, and he taught me that using spray paint was the way to go, especially on the larger parts.
I went through the first dozen models pretty fast and also made a lot of those simple balsa-wood glider planes. Whether it was gluing pennies to the nose to add stability or creating my own unique little rotors on the tail wings, I tried every imaginable experiment. I launched many wooden planes out my window, harassing the chickens that my dad always had in the backyard. After a while, there were a 747 and a couple of biplanes hanging at various angles from my ceiling. It was my own private aerodrome. I could soar, in my imagination, to my heart’s content. While the rest of my family slept, I flew over the United States, across the Atlantic, all the way over Europe and Asia, crossing the Pacific and landing back in Salem. Here’s the thing, though: I never built a helicopter.…
I built and built and graduated into more-complex models. I remember one day buying a DC-10 replica. I had saved some money, and I walked to Almy’s department store and bought the plane. It felt like ten miles but it was probably only a few blocks. When I got home, I ran straight up to my room and got started. I opened the box and started pulling out all the parts. It was an American Airlines jet.
Over the next couple of weeks, the project became a competing priority with everything, even my homework. On the weekends, when my brothers and sisters were running around, I was in my room with my model airplane. I was late for dinner a few times, and in my household that was a capital crime. After assembling and painting every little detail, even the seats in the passenger area, I put the finishing touches on the exterior paint job with a can of spray paint in the backyard. As soon as it was dry, I carried it back up to my room and set it on my desk on its landing gear. I stood back and surveyed my work. It looked beautiful. It was kind of like the moment when Ralphie, in the movie A Christmas Story, finally got his Red Rider BB gun. I considered my building of that beautiful DC-10 model one of the greatest accomplishments of my life. Even then, as I looked at the completed model, I was thinking about the day when I’d get to sit in the cockpit and fly a plane just like that.
My First Time in the Sky
Probably every boy dreams of flying at one point, but very few ever have the chance to do it. One spring morning when I was twelve, I was sitting at the breakfast table with the whole family before school. It was a Monday, and as a kid that was not my favorite morning—an interruption to my weekend daydreams.
While everyone rushed to shovel food into their mouths and get out the door, my mother, a woman with blue eyes and auburn hair, smirked knowingly into her cereal for a few minutes before announcing, “Well, I won something in the church drawing yesterday, and I’ve decided to give it to Ray.”
I stopped spooning my Lucky Charms and looked up at her. “You did?”
Smiling, she said, “Yes, and guess what?”
“It’s a free flying lesson in a real airplane!”
In the next instant I was jumping up and down, my arms wrapped around her, saying “thank you, thank you” over and over. I caught some jealous looks from my siblings at first, but I think they all understood how much flying would mean to me, and they never said a thing. It was excruciating going to school that day—all I could think about was flying.
I kept bugging my mom for every little detail about the plane all week. When Saturday finally rolled around, the whole family came along on the drive out to the Beverly, Massachusetts, Municipal Airport, which was more like an airstrip for small planes. We met the pilot instructor, a tall guy who was probably in his late twenties. He towered over me, with dark hair like mine and a serious expression that would break from time to time into a smile. Since he was the first real pilot I had ever met in person, I quickly added him to my growing list of personal heroes.
While my parents filled out some paperwork, I kept looking out the airport office windows at the little white Piper Cherokee with red stripes I’d soon be flying in. It was a tiny, single-engine plane with just enough room for a pilot, a copilot, and a little bit of cargo in the back, yet it dwarfed the model planes that covered the shelves in my room, and to me, that made it larger than life.
The pilot brought me into a small classroom in the back of the main terminal to discuss some of the safety precautions and other requirements. I wasn’t expecting this part. I just wanted to fly. I couldn’t stop looking around at the posters with safety messages and illustrations of aviation instruments and planes.
I was trying to pay attention, and nodding along with whatever he was saying, when suddenly he got very serious, bent down, and said, “If I tell you we have an emergency, I want you to do nothing but sit on your hands. If I have already issued you the controls, I will take them back from you. I need you to say nothing and sit on your hands.” He wasn’t joking.
I had never flown in a plane before, so when we walked out to the runway, it was the closest I had ever come to a real aircraft. He escorted me around the plane, which was only about twenty to twenty-five feet, and when we finally sat down in the cockpit, our shoulders were touching. I was speechless before the shiny, intricate detail of the instruments. My entire field of view was dominated by this huge instrument panel, and I could hardly see over it. These levers and dials and pedals and switches were all new to me. I wanted to click, push, pull, and press everything.
I was trying to act grown-up as the instructor gave me a brief orientation to the main controls. I kept nodding to indicate that I was paying attention, but I just wanted to fly! Then he started the engines and began to taxi toward the runway. We moved slowly. The sound of the engine roared in my ears. I kept one eye on the scene ahead of me, the runway rolling quickly below us, and the other eye on the pilot’s hands. He began to pick up speed. He got faster and faster and, all at once, he lifted us off the ground! I felt that lift in my stomach. I was in the sky! I couldn’t believe it. After building all those models and dreaming of being a pilot soaring over the earth, I was in the sky!
There was a set of tandem controls, typical in general-aviation airplanes. Once we were airborne, he let me handle the controls for a while and I could feel the plane respond when I pushed forward or pulled back or otherwise manipulated the controls, causing the plane to climb, dive, or roll. I could feel how sensitive the controls were to my touch. The pilot gave me some pointers, and I think I was a fast learner, but my strongest memory of that day was the view. For the next hour, we flew over our little town.
He pointed out certain landmarks and neighborhoods I barely recognized, and then we flew over my house, my school, and my friends’ houses. From that altitude, my town looked like one of those towns you see under a Christmas tree with a toy train circling it. Even the Beverly Airport looked tiny from that elevation. At takeoff, the airport runway looked enormous. It was the biggest runway I’d ever seen. From that altitude, it was just a gray strip of asphalt carved into a field of green.
After maybe half an hour, the pilot took back the controls, and I sat wide-eyed as we drew closer to the runway. We got lower and lower. I was a little afraid, but I knew the pilot was in control. My family, below, slowly got larger, pointing up and clapping for me, my little brother Tommy jumping up and down. I felt like a hero. The pilot landed gently. I noticed the way he put the brakes on and stopped the plane exactly where he wanted. His control was incredible. After that day there was no doubt what I wanted to do with my life; I was hooked on flying. I wanted to be a pilot, just like that guy.
That was one day I’ll never forget. As I got older, making model airplanes gradually was replaced, as it is with a lot of boys, by thinking a lot about girls. What can I say? It happens. I was starting to date and hanging out more with my friends, but one thing never changed: my dream of becoming a pilot. It only became stronger and stayed with me no matter what girl I met or friend I made. That day at the Beverly Municipal Airport gave me my goal in life.
A College with Wings
Life rolled on and I grew up, pretty much like any other guy. Between my sophomore and junior years of high school, my family moved to New Hampshire. I always had a job and was working as a dishwasher at the time, and I was almost sixteen. Seeing a way to use my dishwashing skills to hang out with friends and meet girls, I had signed up to work as part of the kitchen staff at a girls’ summer camp. I mean, how great was that? A job and girls! I went there right after school let out that year. When the camp was over, my family picked me up and we drove to the new house in New Hampshire. All my boxes had been stuffed into my new room. I went off to the camp from Salem, Massachusetts and came back to a new neighborhood, a new high school, and a new city in New Hampshire.
I got a job as a waiter in one of the local restaurants, started dating a bit more seriously, and moved toward my final year of high school. And I still had no doubt about what I wanted to be. My dad wanted me to go to Boston College, but I had other plans. Even though there were more-inexpensive colleges nearby, such as the University of New Hampshire, I had my eyes on a private school called Nathaniel Hawthorne, which had a flight program. The idea of joining the military didn’t even cross my mind.
I had been drooling over the college brochure, which featured scenic photos of the campus in the fall, and the DC-3 aircraft that was the workhorse of their flight program. When the school started advertising an open house for prospective students, my parents really didn’t want to go, so I persuaded a couple of my buddies to go with me. We drove up for the open house and received a quick tour of the campus, which was very green and appealing to me. Before long we made our way to the small airport that was actually part of the school. I loved to see the pilots’ lounge, to smell the fuel out on the runway, to see the little hangars and maintenance sheds all over, and especially to see the old DC-3 aircraft painted in the school colors with the Hawthorne College logo emblazoned on both sides.
I couldn’t have been more excited when it was time for the flight. I knew that the DC-3 was the one of the original transport planes and had been used pretty extensively in WW II (when it was called a C-47, or Sky Train). I was impatient to fly. We received a short safety briefing and then approached the aircraft. It was a “tail dragger,” so the tail sat low and the cockpit high. When we boarded, the plane was angled back, so we had to walk up a slight incline to find our seats. I got to see the cockpit briefly, but this wasn’t another flying lesson just yet. This was a joy ride, and my buddies and I sat in the back with other kids, some of whom had their parents with them.
It was about a thirty-minute ride over the campus, and over the mountains of southern New Hampshire. They were trying to give the parents the best possible ride because they were also trying to “sell” the school and its flight program.
As I walked off the plane and talked to the pilot some more, I thought, This is where I want to be. Before we left that day, I made sure I had a handful of school information that included the application. Picturing myself as a student in this aviation program brought my dream of becoming a pilot to life.
My application was accepted, and when I graduated from high school in 1979, I packed up my stuff and eagerly relocated to the college campus. I bought an old Ford Maverick from my buddy Darren for $150, and it didn’t even have a heater. I didn’t care, as long as the car could make the one-hour drive between college and home.
Moving into the dorms was exciting, and before long I landed a job as a waiter near the school. I could still see my girlfriend on the weekends. I knew (and my parents reminded me) that this was an expensive proposition. First of all, it was a private school with high tuition. But more important, the flight program came with additional expenses that I wasn’t sure how I was going to afford. My parents and my grandmother agreed to help out as much as they could. I also worked as much as possible, applied for every grant I could find, and maxed out the available student loans. Somehow, I patched together enough money to get started. I was an Aeronautical Science major who was officially earning his pilot’s license.
I was required to enroll in the same academic core curriculum as any other major, but I also had to take courses like aeronautical science, transportation economics, and meteorology. In my young mind, these were the kinds of things pilots had to know,. At one point, I spent literally my last penny to buy a pair of aviation sunglasses. I thought I was pretty cool, all things considered.
My classmates and I were also indoctrinated into the pilot program. I met the flight instructors and set up my curriculum. Although each student went through the same training, they didn’t necessarily go through it at the same pace. This was partly because some people struggle to learn different aspects of flying more than others do. But mostly it was a financial issue. Getting into the cockpit and up in the air was obviously a key part of the program, and you could actually fly as much as you wanted (within reason). But here was the catch: you had to maintain at least five hundred dollars in your flight account, and this was used to cover the one-hundred-dollars-per-hour cost for fuel, maintenance, and instructional flying.
As a waiter I was making a little over a dollar an hour plus tips and my flight account got drained very quickly. I didn’t always have the money to replenish it. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was going to school mostly with people whose families could afford to fund their educations. I remember using one of the pay phones in the training area one day, and a kid next to me said into the phone, “Hey, Dad, I need you to deposit another four thousand dollars into my flight account, okay?” I couldn’t help but eavesdrop, and when the kid said “thanks,” I was astounded to realize that his dad must have said “sure.” My parents would have done the same thing if they could, no doubt in my mind, but they just couldn’t. So, although I was keeping up with the classwork and overall syllabus, my limited flight account was keeping me on the ground way too much, and slowing down the best part of the program—flying!
Eventually, the cost of my tuition, books, and flight-program expenses became too much, and left me with a crucial choice: opt into a cheaper degree and give up the dream of flying or find another way to pay for college. I had six brothers and sisters, and I didn’t want to place any additional burden on my parents, who had always been so supportive. I dropped out of the flight program and changed my major to Aviation Management. I wasn’t depressed about it. I maintained a positive outlook, but I was disappointed with the realization that I wasn’t going to be able to finish college, and take the necessary steps to finish pilot training all at the same time.
I needed a new plan.
Copyright © 2014 by by Colonel Ray L’Heureux with Lee Kelley
COL. RAY “FRENCHY” L’HEUREUX joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1980. In 1991, he joined HMX1 flying Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. In 2006, he became Commanding Officer flying Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He retired in 2011 and lives in Hawaii.
LEE KELLEY is a writer, former Army Captain and Iraq war veteran. He is the author of three books including A Life Well-Built and has written for The New York Times. He lives with his wife and three children in Utah.