Today I was going to write about the success of the “Flight to Hartford” project with my church (you can find it listed under my name) and tie it into the universal laws of attraction and giving. But something else came up, taking priority.
I just learned that a man who helped me make my dreams of becoming a pilot seven years ago recently passed away. While I understand most of you didn’t know him, I want to share the story of how we met and the incredible impact he had on my life. I believe and hope you’ll be touched even if you’re not a pilot yourself.
We could all learn how to give selflessly like he did. I don’t know whether or not he was aware of the universal laws of attraction and giving but he was sure a good model for someone who did.
Here’s the story.
Right around the turn of the 21st century, I was still in the process of building my speaking and writing career so I was looking for a part-time job to pay the bills in between professional speaking engagements.
It was also at this time when I was already a month or two into flight training but my original instructor was offered a new job in Colorado so I was forced to find a replacement elsewhere.
One day, I had an inspiration to visit other airports to see if I could get a job at a place where they taught people how to fly. I thought, “Why not? Might as well shoot two birds with one stone.”
After visiting one or two and being told nothing was available, I decided to venture a little further out and try Oakland Troy airport, a 30 minute drive from my home.
It was nestled among a fast growing metropolitan area (Troy, Michigan, USA) complete with a new strip mall, new apartments, a giant Wal-Mart and an assortment of other industrial buildings. The only area with open space was a small golf course nearby. The airport was big enough to accommodate corporate jets yet small enough not to require an air traffic control tower.
Pulling onto the newly repaved airport parking lot, I noticed a small circular white terminal building up ahead.
“That must be where I can find the personnel department,” I thought.
Upon setting foot inside, I was surprised to see only a couple of people milling about, drinking coffee and reading the paper. A jovial looking man with rosy cheeks was pouring himself a steaming hot cup of coffee.
Seeing that I was a new face in the place, he set his coffee down and came barreling toward me at 800 mph with an outstretched hand. It startled the heck out of me.
After regaining my composure, I made the mistake of accepting his bone-crushing handshake, causing me to wince in pain.
Trying to hide my pained expression, I said, “Hi, my name is Stephen Hopson and I’m looking for the personnel department.”
“And I’m Don Solms,” he boomed. He was still pumping my now lifeless hand.
Finally releasing his grip, he said, “Oh, you want a job here?” His face brightened even more, if that were possible.
“Yes, do you know of any openings?” I was massaging my fatally injured hand, opening and closing it repeatedly.
“I think they might be looking for someone. HEY, let me take you over to the other building to Susan’s office. She’s the personnel director. COME ON!”
Just before going in her office, Don thrust his business card in my hand and said cheerfully, “Good luck. Shoot me an email later. You’ll have to come over to my hangar where I keep my plane. Okay?”
Keeping both hands within the safety confines of my pockets, I said, “Thanks Don.” I could tell he wanted another hand shake. Fat chance buddy!
Susan then introduced me to two guys named Carl Barnes and Jason Zimmerman. They were both young men who were in charge running flight services. The interview went well and I ended up being hired. As a line service rep, I would be responsible for fueling and towing airplanes, among other things. It marked the beginning of an incredible 4 years at that airport.
One day, Don was hanging out at his hangar where he kept his prized Skylane. It was sunny and breezy. His hangar door was wide open, allowing cool air to swirl around inside. It was an open invitation to anyone who happened to come by. Spotting me in the fuel truck (I was motoring my way back to the terminal after fueling a customer’s plane), he waved me in and offered me a cold soda.
Ten minutes into the conversation, my dreams of becoming a pilot somehow surfaced. I told him that I was actually looking for a new instructor and was trying to save up some money to resume flight training.
Before he could respond, my vibrating pager distracted me with a new text message. There was another fuel order and I had to get going.
“Don, I’ve gotta go – they are telling me to fuel another airplane. See ya later!”
As I got up to leave, he grabbed my arm and gave it a powerful squeeze. My mind did a quick flashback to that day in the terminal. This time his eyes were sparkling like stars. And he was grinning stupidly.
I was in no way prepared for what he was about to say next.
“I would be honored to be your flight instructor and I won’t charge you for my time. All you’d be responsible for is the cost of renting an airplane.”
My God, an angel was in my midst and I knew it.
Absentmindedly rubbing my arms to stem the tide of goose bumps that was spreading like wildfire all over my body, I said, “Wow, really? Thanks man!”
Then he turned serious for a moment and said, “When are you free for your first lesson?”
Thrown off balance since I didn’t expect it to happen so soon, I said, “Well, how about tomorrow?”
“Okay, you got it! ” he thundered. Then he winked as if he were saying, “our secret.”
The rest was history. He was true to his word. Months of flight training with this man proved to be quite an adventure.
He was best known as a jokester, even in the cockpit. Now you have to picture this in your mind. There we were, me, a deaf student pilot and him, a 250 pound flight instructor with a large football frame who liked to poke his elbow at me every time he made a joke. And get this…he thought everything he said was funny!
Aside from his wry sense humor, he was one of the most patient flight instructors I would ever have. Every time we got ready for a lesson, he’d explain in the classroom what we were going to do and then we’d go up and fly.
If he wanted to explain something while we were flying, he’d take control of the airplane while I read his lips and then we’d resume the lesson. Don was one of those rare flight instructors who did not care about building flight time for a future career with the airlines. He was in it for the long haul. In fact, it wasn’t until after 50 plus years of flying and instructing that he finally hung up his wings last year.
He truly enjoyed the fine art of teaching and it showed. He never yelled at his students like some flight instructors who think they are drill sergeants with big egos. His students were his prized possessions and he treated all of them with the respect they deserved.
On December 3, 2000 Don had one big surprise up his sleeve. It was a calm, sunny day. We were scheduled to do some practice takeoffs and landings. After doing three of them, he instructed me to taxi over to the ramp by the white terminal building where I first met him months earlier.
Trying to hide his delight, he said, “Let me see your logbook for a sec.”
Arching my right arm as far back as I could behind the front seats, I snatched the logbook out of my bulging black flight bag and gave it to him.
Suddenly it dawned on me that today was “the day.” He was going to sign me off for my first solo flight!
I felt an involuntary shudder.
After scribbling his signature, he turned and looked at me. His brown eyes were sparkling again. The smile was even bigger than before. He was absolutely giddy, like a child on Christmas morning.
“So Mr. Hopson, are you ready?” he thundered.
“Yes, Don, get the hell out!” I thundered back, half joking.
Roaring like a lion, Don heaved his 250 pound football frame out of the airplane, closed and locked the door with a loud click. Then he did something that forever burned in my mind.
Like a five-star general sending his young fighter pilots off to war, he gave me a smart salute!
I almost burst to tears. It was deeply touching. No one ever did that to me before. Despite being more than ready to solo, I still felt a touch of trepidation so I returned the favor with a slightly shaky hand. Thank God he was too far away to see that.
Taxiing into position on the runway, I took a deep breath and firewalled the throttle causing the airplane to literally leap into the air. I remember thinking, “so this is what everyone means when they say the plane will bounce into the air without your instructor!”
Within seconds after takeoff, all the training kicked in and it was just another exercise around the airport pattern. The only difference was…well, I was alone.
After three takeoffs and landings, the venerable flight instructor waved me over and gave the signal to cut the engine. He stood there like a proud papa and motioned for me to go over to where he was standing. Instead of shaking my hand, he wrapped his huge arms around me and gave me a bone crushing hug. But, hey, I didn’t mind.
Five months later, one day short of my birthday, he finally signed me off to take my pilot certification flight test (i.e. “checkride”) with Mary Carpenter, one of the toughest but fairest FAA examiners from the area. He and Terry Ryan (his airplane co-owner at the time), both accompanied me on the flight to Pontiac airport, a mere 10 minutes away where the examiner’s office was located. He wanted to be there when Mrs. Carpenter and I were done with the checkride.
Two hours later, the examiner walked briskly into the waiting area, smiled and said, “Congratulations, Stephen passed with flying colors!”
Don roared his approval.
We all went out to have our pictures taken by the airplane and that’s when he said to me, “I’ll sit in the back seat on the return flight. Congratulations Mr. Pilot in Command!”
It was the greatest, grandest gesture another human being could ever have bestowed upon me. I’ll never forget it. He was that kind of man. Don believed in me so much that he was literally the only person at that airport who believed I would one day become the world’s first deaf instrument rated pilot.
Six years later, I did it, defying every naysayer in the aviation business. In February 06, I became the world’s first deaf instrument rated pilot. For that I salute Don Solms for believing in me.
Here’s to you Don!
Food for thought: Have you considered the power of the law of giving and helped make someone else’s dream come true this week?
Profoundly deaf since birth, Stephen Hopson is a former award-winning stockbroker turned motivational speaker, author and pilot. He works with organizations that are ready to explore and overcome adversity because no one is immune from it – adversity does not discriminate. His professional speaking services, Obstacle Illusions, include fun and passionate presentations, especially the story of how his fifth grade teacher forever changed his young life with THAT’S RIGHT STEPHEN!
You can view his newly re-designed website at http://www.sjhopson.com
Stephen also maintains a blog called “Adversity University” at http://adversityuniversity.blogspot.com/
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