“Gone west” is a euphemism that pilots use to refer to a pilot passing away. I just learned this past weekend that a very special pilot passed away. His name was Bun Moreland. That’s right, Bun. He was a flight instructor. My first flight instructor in fact. He was the man that introduced me to the sky. He was the man that kept pointing out everything I was doing wrong. He was the man who used to try to mess up my airplane controls just to see if I was paying attention. He was stern while I was a student pilot. It made me a fair pilot.
I’ll never forget the day we met. I walked into Sierra Aviation and asked if they gave airplane rides. Merle Furry, the owner said they did demo flights. I told him I’d take one of those. You see, I was supposed to ride with a friend of a friend and they never showed up so I was determined to get my airplane ride. Merle calls to this balding older guy that looked more like a farmer in his plaid flannel shirt and blue jeans, “Hey Bun, this gentleman was to go on a demo ride.”
So Bun walks me out to the airplane and goes through preflight inspection with me. Explaining everything he was doing without even setting his coffee cup down. He told me to get into the pilot seat. I thought he’d tell me to move before we flew but he got into the passenger seat. He fired up the airplane and we taxied out. He did his runup (more preflight checks) and then taxied to the runway and took off. He told me to put my hands on the yoke and my feet on the rudder pedals, which I did. He then let go of everything and then said, “your airplane.”
I asked him what I was supposed to do now. He said, “I dunno, whatever you want I guess.” Simply awe-inspiring. But he did let me do whatever I wanted. We climbed we turned. After half an hour or so he talked me back to the airport pattern and then took over and landed the airplane. He walked over to the display case holding all the pilots supplies and filled out a logbook. The first entry (which I still have) turned out to be my very first flying lesson. I was hooked. It was the most expensive $20 I ever spent.
After I passed my checkride and received my certificate, he became a different person. He moved from stern instructor to mentor. Also giving me advice, which I took. Later still he became a comrade, a man who could find the humor in anything. I never would have guessed when I was his student. When we became peers, I found that the man could, would, and did laugh at everything, most especially himself. And more than occasionally, me. He taught me to laugh at myself.
My favorite Bun Moreland story was when I was still a student. We were on my first long cross country flight. We were over Sacramento, California and the engine started sputtering. He immediately called, “my airplane” and took the controls. He tried carburetor heat, mixture, magneto check but nothing would bring the engine back to life. He then called Sacramento Approach and declared an emergency. Air Traffic Control asked our intentions and Bun asked for the nearest airport. That airport happened to be an active US Air Force base. But in an emergency, you will be cleared to land there.
Bun had milked the plane most of the way to the Air Force base when the engine quit completely. Coincidentally the tower called us on the radio and said that our approach end of the runway was under construction and could we please land long? I’ll never forget the look on Bun’s face as he looked at me with a half smile, half what-the-heck expression. After a few seconds he looked back out the front and simply said “unable” on the radio.
As we were gliding toward the runway we saw it was indeed torn up but the taxiways were in perfect shape and much larger than our runway at home in Oakdale. Bun just side-stepped the plane over to the taxiway and continued our approach. I looked over at the runway and men were diving off their tractors and running. Trucks were speeding away from the runway as fast as possible. At the time I just thought, “huh, look at that.” It was much later that we found out that all those men know was that “an airplane is about to crash at the airport.” The had pictures of a huge cargo jet crashing and exploding on the torn up runway. That’s why they didn’t notice the little two-seat Cessna quietly gliding past them.
But set it down on the taxiway as pretty as you please. We were just congratulating each other when I pointed out a large barricade designed to warn other aircraft that the taxiway was closed. Bun wheeled our little plane around it, though how he could have missed is beyond me. It was almost as big as my house. We costed to a stop just as a fire truck also as large as my house rolled up with firemen in their moon suits pointing a huge foam cannon at us. I jumped out and put my hands up and said “Don’t shoot!” Though they didn’t see much humor in it.
First the fireman asked us what happened. Then security arrived and asked us what happened. Then all sorts of men in uniform started showing up and asking what happened. We spent about 30 minutes trying to tell the story and getting interrupted as the next guy that was higher up the food chain in the Air Force showed up. Finally we were stuffed in a security car and taking to the security office to make our formal statements. In separate rooms. That was another two hours of filling out forms. The last form was one Bun had to fill out. A landing permit, and that’s the one that finally set him off. “Next time I’m going to put us in a f…ing bean field!” But after the fact Bun found a way to laugh at almost everything that happened during that incident.
Another time Bun and Vito (another of Bun’s former students) flew their plane up to Columbia and I flew up in my plane. We all got on the ground and were just telling stories and lies on the ramp when we noticed a plane landing really long and fast. We were waiting for him to go around but many minutes later he finally came taxiing in. They all piled out of his airplane and everyone was arguing. Except for one small dog who jumped out of the plane and immediately started rolling around on the ground, sniffing the asphalt and licking it. Bun said, “Hey look at that dog!” I said, “He sure is happy to be on the ground.” And for some reason that just struck a chord with the three of us and we almost bust our guts laughing so hard. We still laughed at those stories every time we saw each other at the airport.
And now, that’s all that’s left of Bun. Oh, he had children but they never got into flying and I don’t really know them. But Bun’s stories will live on in my memory. Bun Moreland, the man that taught me to fly. The man who introduced me to the sky. CAVU Bun Morland. Rest in peace my friend.