El Monte airport (EMT) is a small airfield with a single 3000’ runway, primarily serving local general aviation aircraft. Back before TSA unleashed the gestapo on the nation’s airports, El Monte was an unsecured playground for the neighborhood kids to run and play and race their RC cars.
During a period of construction, a large hole was excavated near the parking lot to contain the foundation for a new building. Typical of county projects, construction proceeded slowly, and the excavation remained long enough for local children to shape the dirt hole into a primitive BMX park.
I had recently acquired my first mountain bike, a Walmart clunker that weighed more than myself. I was gonna ride that thing to the X games. But first I rode it to the airport to test it out on some totally sweet jumps.
No one else was playing at the construction site that day. A few single-engine aircraft circled the pattern from time to time. There was a triangular wedge of packed dirt that served as a ramp for launching jumps. I pedaled over. This was going to be awesome.
I was cleared for takeoff. Full throttle, I pedaled furiously up the ramp. Inches before liftoff, I changed my mind. Abort!! It’s too steep and scary! I grabbed the brakes, hard. The weight of the bike and rider lurched forward and the bicycle pitched over the edge of the ramp nose first. I followed, hitting the ground with my face.
Being young and resilient, I dusted myself off and got back in the saddle. I knew exactly what I had done wrong. Do over. I circled around to position myself for another takeoff roll. I held short for several minutes, mentally running up the courage to attempt the jump again. Okay, ready.
I took the active. Once again, I pedaled full power up the ramp. This time would be different. I would not make the same mistake twice. This time, I changed my mind 2 feet from the edge of the ramp and came to a full stop just before the lip. I watched the dirt crumble over the top. Whew, that was close.
I walked the bike back down the ramp. I wasn’t ready that time. I tried again and again, each time aborting the jump earlier and earlier. I wasn’t ready. I still wasn’t ready. As long as an escape hatch existed, I would always reach for the safest way out.
I had a spectator. The airport fuel truck was parked on the east side of the dirt pit. Jose, the airport fueler, sat in the driver’s seat and watched me intently. Fresh out of high school, he spent his days operating the fuel truck to pay for flying lessons. Many years later, Jose would go on to become a First Officer for US Airways.
Aware that I was being watched, I was a little embarrassed. I pretended to adjust something on my bike.
“Why don’t you just go for it?”
“I think there’s something wrong with my bike.” There’s something wrong with the engine.
Jose got out of the truck and walked over. He reached over my bike and disconnected the brake cable from the cantilevers at both wheels.
“Now try it.”
I pulled the brake levers a few times. Zero resistance. There was no way out. The escape hatch was closed.
I was terrified, but I would sooner plunge to my death than look like a wimp in front of an audience. I got on the bike and pedaled towards the ramp. Every nerve in my body fought for self-preservation. My mind raced for ways to back out, but came up empty. Braking was not an option. I held my breath and braced myself. Full throttle. It was Sydney or the bush. I pedaled straight off the end of the ramp and achieved liftoff.