FLYING taildraggers 1950-2003

Sunday, April 25, 2010


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                      Dick Dreselly   Topsham, Maine

Friday, April 23, 2010

Beginnings 1931 - 1944

When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return".                                                          
                                                     Leonardo da Vinci

The first time I remember looking up in wonder was the evening of November 23, 1931, when I was almost 7.  That was a lot closer to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln than to that of Barack Obama, only a generation after the Wright Brothers first flew, and 3 years after Charles Lindbergh turned the eyes of the world skyward with his solo flight from New York to Paris.   Perhaps my favorite comic strip then was Buck Rogers, in which space ships traversed the heavens.   That evening my parents  stopped our car and woke me.  We got out to watch an apparent space ship just above us.   A huge dark cloud obscuring the moon and some stars, it was outlined by white and red and green lights, and accompanied by the thrumming of 8 motors as it  slowly passed perhaps 400 feet overhead.   It could fly that low because there were no TV tower obstructions then.  As newspapers reported the next morning, the apparition was the Navy's  USS Akron (ZRS-4)then the largest of the world's several dirigibles.   It could retrieve, launch and store 5 small planes, and had a range of over ten thousand miles.

Actually the eyes of small boys and adults alike were turned skyward whenever an airplane was seen above.   Accounts of daring aviators distracted adults from the Great Depression, and we boys built model airplanes from balsa wood and tissue paper.

In 1941 I bought the first REAL airplane I ever saw for sale, a tiny Aeronca C2 with tattered fabric, displayed on a lawn.  I could afford the $300 price because I had graduated from delivering newspapers for a penny each to a $75-a-week night-shift job while I attended full-time high school, building Liberty Ships for the coming War.   I was 16, but met the minimum age of 18 by lying about it.    I sold the craft two years later, and never flew in a small plane as pilot or passenger until 1950.

In all the accounts below, distances are in statute miles and speeds in statute miles per hour.   That was current in 1950, but now nautical miles are standard.   Vintage instruments and modern aircraft instruments show that calibration difference.

Segment headings below, like "Beechcraft Musketeer", refer to planes I've owned or others I borrowed or rented that were particularly important to me.   Those mentioned but without headings, that I've owned or  rented or borrowed briefly, and piloted or co-piloted are: Piper C-2, Ryan Navion, Piper Cubs on wheels and floats, Cessna 140 on skis, Pitts Special, Bushmaster (clone of the Ford Trimotor).

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

CessnaS 140 and First 170A: 3/1950- 6/1951

In the spring of 1950 I learned to fly, courtesy of the GI Bill, a government schooling subsidy for those who had been in uniform in the recent War.  For each lesson my young instructor, Roger Atwood, would fly his nearly new 2-seat  Cessna 140, registered as NC2189V, up from Northhampton to a tractor path in a corn field near where I lived and worked for a non-profit youth travel organization in Northfield, Massachusetts.   My lessons were ecstasy alternating with despair.  I loved flying, but it seemed Roger was constantly reminding me that I was OK in one dimension while courting disaster in the other two.   However, after almost 8 hours of instruction I was launched on my first solo flight.   Takeoff and cruise are simple, I thought, but I could wreck the plane on landing.   That first flight was supposed to last just a few minutes, but it was suddenly acutely clear that nobody could help me, and I could delay the landing only until the two gas tanks were empty.   So I landed.   It was the best landing I would make for quite a while, as first solo landings are reputed to be.

Now I was allowed to risk the airplane and my own neck in solo flight, but the law required I have 33 more hours, alternating with and without the instructor, until I could take up passengers and risk their necks.  I was taught new skills, like landing in cross winds and high winds, and flights to other states.  I was also taught how to recover from tailspins, which after years of controversy is no longer taught to new pilots.   I was taught "pilotage", the deceptively difficult skill of navigating by comparing a map with the view outside the windows, necessary because many planes lacked radios and GPS hadn't been invented.   Twenty years later, in 1970,  I first flew a plane with a radio, and thirty years after that, in 2000, I first used a GPS.

That Cessna, like most of the planes I've flown since, was a "taildragger", meaning the third wheel to support the plane on the ground is at its tail.   The great majority of modern small planes have the third wheel under the nose of the plane, making it much easier and safer to land at most airports, but very difficult to land on very rough or soggy fields.   So most Alaskan "bush" planes are taildraggers.

A mere 2 1/2 flying hours after I made that first solo, in the 2-seat Cessna 140,  Monroe Smith my father-in-law at the time, let me solo his nearly new Cessna 170A,  registered as NC9115A, which had 4 seats and more horsepower.   The previous link shows the small differences between the 170, the 170A and the 170B.

Monroe was an intrepid risk taker, as allowing a very inexperienced pilot to fly his nearly new airplane costing the price of 5 new Fords would indicate.  He crashed it that year on a very tight Northfield pasture on which I landed successfully 31 years later  in another  Cessna 170A.
Crash 01.jpg
Roger Atwood took these photos of Monroe's 1950 crash & gave them to me in 2001
Crash 02.jpg
After Roger tested and issued my "private pilot ticket" I had 44 1/2 hours of dual and solo time in my logbook.   When I quit flying 53 years later I had accumulated another 1453 hours, but only one more rating: seaplanes.   That meant I was supposed to fly only in VFR (Visual Flight Rules) conditions, and not in IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) conditions.   Some of us amateur pilots maintain that it's safer for us not to be IFR rated, because that would tempt us to fly legally in weather that our lack of recent IFR experience might make dangerous.   But like most VFR-rated pilots of long standing, sometimes I've edged into conditions where I could have used an IFR rating, if I had had the necessary "blind flying" instruments.
I flew no more until I went to Luxembourg a month later.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Aeronca Champ: Luxembourg 1950

Below are two accounts of one 1950 incident.   I wrote the first from memory when I started this blog  about 10 years ago .    I wrote the  second about 60 years ago, and sold it for $25 to Flying magazine.   I lost the Flying issue in which that was published, and for several years searched for it in libraries, airports, and the Internet, without success, until December 2014.   When I Googled my name I  was amazed that Google Books has put all Flying issues on line, so Google found my name on that article in the May 1956 issue.

My log book shows Luxembourg flights of  0.21,  0.19 and 1.01 hours.  My Flying article alters facts slightly, by combining the 0.21 flight and the 1.01 flight, mentioned in the last paragraph of the first account.   Otherwise both accounts agree and are true.   Each has some details missing in the other.

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For two 1950 summer months I was employed by Youth Argosy, a US non-profit travel agency, in Luxembourg, a country 2/3 the area of Rhode Island.   I became the only American who had a  Luxembourg pilot's license, and may be still.

I found only one small private plane at the Luxembourg city airport,  an Aeronca Champ  registered as ONT,  imported from the USA by the haberdashers guild.   Perhaps because our president Harry Truman had been in that profession, perhaps because Americans had liberated their country about 5 years earlier, or perhaps because I had all of 44 1/2 hours in small planes (none after I was awarded my "private pilot ticket"), they allowed me to rent it.   In 3 short flights I landed at every airport in the country: all two of them.

For my first of those flights, one pleasant evening I rode my bicycle from my downtown hotel out to the airport to get familiar with this unfamiliar plane nobody had shown me how to fly.   After the usual check-up and warm-up I pushed the throttle all the way in, and accelerated down the rough shaggy grass runway for takeoff.   As the runway end approached, the plane had not reached flying speed, so I taxied back and tried again where the grass was not as tall.    A few seconds after I left the ground a flashing red light appeared in the control tower, the international signal to land immediately.  So I made the necessary four right turns, rounded so my path was more like an oval than a rectangle, and came in low on final approach over high tension lines.   As I crossed the wires I felt as if some force briefly restrained the plane, but I kept up flying speed by quickly pushing the throttle in and the nose down.    I  landed smoothly and  taxied to where I'd started.   I got out to find the cause of the takeoff difficulty and the tower's red light and the odd sensation over the power lines.   I found a tangle of wires caught in the braces between the main wheels, with 2 wire strands extending backward.   One strand ended about 50 feet back, but the other continued, continued.....  I could hardly believe what I found at the end of the wire, like seeing a ghost, so I told nobody about it until  Flying magazine  published an article I wrote about it.  What I saw was that the end of the long wire was nailed to a post.   In that entire brief flight I had been tethered like a captive animal.   The controller had seen the wires seconds after the plane was airborne, and flashed the red light.   He told me that as I crossed the high power lines there was a shower of sparks.  Apparently the short wire from my plane caused a short circuit and somewhat resisted the forward motion of the plane.   As I biked back to my hotel people were out muttering on their lawns, for I had extinguished all the lights in half the city.

The metered time for all the above was a nominal 0.21 hours or 13 minutes, for engine warming, two takeoff runs, one flight, and taxiing.   That confirmed the brevity of the flight.

Much later I made some calculations, and figured that yes, the wire tension could have been just under the breaking point, and the plane could have withstood the pull as if a heavy passenger had occupied the back seat.   I wonder what might have happened had the tower not flashed the red light.

I made another flight of 11 minutes there, and a one hour flight to the second airport,  a short strip nestled between  relatively high buildings in Esch, on the German border, where war damage was still evident.  Pilotage (navigating by matching the hand-held map to what I saw below) on this flight was the most difficult I had done before or since, because there were no significant roads, no railroads and no water until I reached the Moselle River at Esch, and mostly a vast irregular patchwork of small multicolored cultivated fields.   Not at all like New England.

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from HANGAR FLYING  in FLYING magazine May 1956

                                               WIRED FOR PATTERN

During 1:45 of flight time in the Grand Duchy of Luxeumbourg I landed at every airport in that pint-size prototype of Graustark. 

One field was a 1,000 foot corduroy grass strip at Esch.   Landing, you graze apartment houses and power lines.   Taking off, you bank as your wheels leave the ground, to skirt an old slag heap square in the middle of the runway.   Then, after being tossed by hot air from blast furnaces at the end of the field, you bank sharp left to avoid crossing into France.   The other field, four miles north of Luxembourg city, is a good paved strip flanked by a grass area for use by the country’s ten or so lightplanes.

After finishing work one night at our office in Luxembourg City, I bicycled out to the latter field.   In my pocket was a Luxembourg flight permit (the first issued to an American, they told me), and a US log book with 42 hours therein.   Since this time was on Cessnas, the prewar Aeronca I rented for 12 cents a minute added a few dashes of the unknown.

The whole country, plus parts of France, Germany and Belgium, could be seen from 3000 feet.   I flew around the city to view the still-standing battlements and precipitous topography that had made Luxembourg one of the most important fortresses of the medieval world.   Then I flew out over Hollenfels Castle, perched above a little gorge, with crossbow slits in its ancient gray walls and surmounted by a high round tower.

After leaving the castle and practicing a few turns, I touched down on the field at sunset, but figured there was time enough to shoot one more landing, and shoved the throttle ahead.   Strangely, the plane pulled to the right and wouldn’t leave the ground.   After 1,000 feet, with a third of the runway left to go, I cut the power and taxied back.   A quick glance from the cockpit disclosed no apparent obstruction, and since the sidewise pull had disappeared, I concluded that it had only been grass in my wheels.   I tried it again, and this time the ship reluctantly left the ground.

Just as I crossed the end of the field, an insistent red flash from the tower caught my eye.   Since it was getting pretty dark and the Aeronca seemed to be carrying some unseen load, I made the briefest pattern I’ve ever flown.   On the final approach sluggishness seemed to appear at a higher speed than before.   I attributed this to errors in my frantic attempts to convert kilometers-per-hour readings into miles-per-hour.   I landed faster but stopped much shorted than usual.   Then, even with full left rudder and full throttle, the plane insisted on taxiing in a circle to the right.   After some maneuvering, I made it up to the flight line.

Now the field was nearly dark and deserted except for two apparently worried airport employees who came out to meet me.   “Did you know you have a long wire trailing in your landing gear?” one asked in French.   I should have known!   The other explained that the wire had been dragged across the power lines at the end of the field as I came in, thereby extinguishing all the lights in the northwestern sector of Luxembourg.   Furthermore, he reported, a motorist passing under the line had been showered by sparks and had come in to find out “if the pilot had survived the crash.”

I still wasn’t prepared for the rat’s nest of wire around the right wheel and some on the left, nor for the bigger surprise to come.   While they worked to unravel the wire I followed it back to find out just how long it was.   The strand which had apparently dragged over the power line ended 300 feet behind the plane, but the other strand went on and on, past the hangar and down back of a parked D-3.   There, believe it or not, the wire was securely fastened to a wood post.   I had been tethered like a cow to a pole during that entire last go-around! Feeling like the incredulous yokel who said, “there ain’t no such animal”,  I later worked the event out with slide rule and paper. Surprisingly, it figured that with the plane 1,500 feet from the pole and at 500 feet altitude, the wire’s pull on the plane would have been less than 100 pounds.   Of course, if I had gone further from the post, the pull would have increased until the wire or the plane gave way.

I expected to lose my license, but the officials blamed it all on the failure of some airport employees to remove a network of wire from the foot-high grass on the airstrip.
New York, N. Y.


Saturday, April 17, 2010

First Commonwealth Skyranger: 4/1954- 7/1955

My flight log shows a few entries in the Cessna 140 after I returned from Europe, but none for the 34 months after June 1951.  During that time I became divorced and was a civil engineer for two seasons in Greenland.  There we worked 10 hours a day, 7 days a week, with overtime after 40 hours weekly.   IRS laws made those high earnings tax free if the worker was in a foreign country 510 full days out of any 18 month period.   That left about 37 days one could spend in the USA or on international waters, so we all would go home briefly and then "abroad" until Metcalf & Eddy called us back to Greenland.
So in April 1954, with a total of a mere 61 dual and solo flying hours in my logbook, none in the previous 34 months, for $800 I bought a  Commonwealth Skyranger 185 , registered as N92975, in Lewiston, Maine, for a flight to Mexico.   I went daily to the airport hoping for good weather.   I was rusty and this was an unfamiliar plane, but my original store of 37 tax-free not-abroad days were dwindling.   On April 13 I settled for less than perfect conditions, and got an hour of dual instruction and solo flight.

There were many times, some mentioned below, where it looks like I was pushing the envelope too far.   However, I got as comfortable flying the plane as I did a bicycle, there were far fewer other planes in the air to avoid then, and the Skyranger design was exceptionally safe.   Commonwealth Aviation was one of several companies that resumed producing planes after the War, to accommodate an anticipated huge market.   But production greatly exceeded demand, most small airplane builders went bankrupt, and one could buy a superbly engineered Skyranger for a lot less than it had cost Commonwealth to build it.   Almost uniquely it had leading edge slots near the ends of both wings which, as the plane slowed towards its stalling speed of 38 mph, would force air to flow smoothly over part of the wing ends, providing some support, so the plane would "mush" down instead of dropping like a stone as did other planes when stalling.   In the picture the slot on the bottom of the near wing appears faintly above "9 7".    The Skyranger cruised at 95 mph, but  could be flown safely at 45 mph.   Flying into the wind on landing yielded a ground speed like that of a vigorously pedalled bicycle.

April 14 I headed for Florida, to visit my daughter and my friendly ex-inlaws.  At dusk I landed at Basking Ridge, NJ, where an X at each runway end indicated the field was closed.    I slept on the floor of an empty hangar.

The next morning I couldn't start the engine.  Since there was nobody else there, I phoned an active airport for help.  An affable man arrived, and quickly discovered that I'd forgotten to turn on the magnetos after turning on the  main switch.  He told me that he couldn't get an airline job in spite of his flying experience in the war in Europe and in the USA, because of the color of his skin.   Years later the FAA published a book about that Tuskegee Airman, who died on a humanitarian flight in Africa.

As I approached Washington a black cloud wall ahead forced me to land at the next field.   It was Beltsville, a government facility not open to outsiders I was quickly told after landing, but I was allowed to stay 2 hours until the storm passed.

The only air charts (maps) I had been to get in Lewiston ended about where I was, but I continued flying mapless past DC until I could spot an airport.   I found one in Virginia, landed, and bought charts for my entire route to Texas.   I landed that night in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The next morning the ceiling (bottom of solid clouds) was less than a thousand feet, so I didn't fly.  Then a small Tri-Pacer came in from the south, and out got the pilot, on crutches.   Quite illogically, I figured that if he could fly, so could I.   So I took off, flying at about 700 foot altitude.  However, I found that with no lakes or ocean like in Maine, and without the perspective of ample altitude, I was soon lost.   I struggled with the controls and map folds trying to match railroads and towns to what swiftly passed below, but I remained lost, so landed on a newly plowed field.  The farmer acted as if my landing was routine, and told me where I was.    I got back in,  pushed the throttle all the way in, the engine roared, but the plane didn't move.  That was because the furrows ran the short way of the field, and the two main wheels were in a furrow.   I rocked the elevators back and forth, and the plane struggled out of that furrow, then another, as the bumps got more rapid and lighter.   I left the ground and immediately flew between the barn and the house.   I wonder what the farmer and his wife thought.   The weather improved, and I continued southward by "the other IFR": I Follow Railroad.   IFR really means Instrument Flight Rules, flying "in the soup", for which neither I nor my plane were equipped.

Just before sunset that day, April 16 1954,  I landed at Savannah, Georgia.   My initial IRS ration of 37 days was dwindling, but I couldn't immediately continue, since I'd never flown at night.   In a very lucky coincidence, when I paid for gasoline in the airport office I met a crop-duster,  D. L. Curry, who had just delivered a plane there and wanted a ride back home.  Home was 300 miles south, right beside the people I was to visit in Delray Beach, Florida.  So we flew south in darkness in my plane, a few miles inland from the bright lights along the coast.   He neither used nor needed a map.    Over the dark land west of Delray Beach there was an occasional pinpoint of light.   Over one he circled low, throttled back, and shouted "Hey Monroe" out the opened window until more lights appeared below.   As we circled, we saw that Monroe drove to the little grass field and directed his car lights down its short length.  Landing was a little tricky, because the lights were pointed downwind, towards us.  In the picture below, the next day, are Monroe and Isabel Smith and their son Jonathan, with Monroe trying to start the engine by "propping" it.   Presumably the brakes were set and I took the picture, which looks unposed.   Monroe and Isabel were my friends, the parents of my ex-wife, and the founders of American Youth Hostels.    All these stories are in my aircraft log book, but they don't explain why this plane is not bright red in this picture.

The next afternoon I left for Texas, circling the Gulf of Mexico.    From Brownsville, where USA and Mexican customs and immigration facilities were conveniently combined,  I flew towards La Pesca (The Fish), Mexico, 200 miles south.   My chart showed it as a village without an airport at the mouth of a big river, but an article in True Magazine in a single sentence mentioned that there was a rudimentary airstrip there.  I flew two hours a few feet above the beach, occasionally looking up at cows on the adjacent fields.    I saw not a single person or structure in that time.   The photos in this segment are about 62 years old.  The beach photo was taken when I ascended a little higher to simultaneously manipulate airplane and camera controls.

Looking inland.   Note muddy river water meeting blue sea water.
Laws and government  permeated the airspace back home, but here was anarchy: no government rules, no government help.  After 200 miles of beaches I came on a big river meeting the sea, but the only "airport" was a short strip of sand festooned with holes made by scurrying land crabs.   There was a tattered windsock and not a single structure.  I chased off the crabs in an initial low pass, then landed, carefully avoiding the big crab holes.  From a thatched hut across the river came an Indian, paddling a canoe made from a log hollowed out with an ax, to take me to the village.    His family provided a hammock (screened off against mosquitoes) and breakfast, for which I paid the equivalent of a dollar.  They indicated that was  generous.

After 2 weeks at the next stop, Tampico, I flew south along the Gulf to Tuxpan.  An airline pilot who had just come from Mexico City told me there were big breaks in the overcast, so I could fly up in the clear to continue on top to where Mexico's central plateau penetrated the clouds.   I tried that, but the hole was too small and I was immediately in thick cloud with zero visibility.    I  quickly descended to clear air.   After some thought I decided to climb up anyway.   I knew if I headed towards the rising ground in the soup, "the earth might rise up to smite me", so  I turned left to fly parallel to the  jungle wall.   Below the clouds I set the plane to a uniform ascent of about 400 feet per minute, which with an expected cloud thickness of a thousand feet, meant I should emerge on top in less than 3 minutes.   It was like being in a telephone booth surrounded by brilliant white cotton,  which I could see swirling between me and the propeller.   After a year-long minute I had a constant dilemma: do I give up and descend swiftly, or am I about to break into sunlight on top, or do I continue climbing but go into a spin?    I kept my fingers lightly on the control stick so as not to disturb what the plane was doing so well.  Occasionally I glanced at the simple turn-and-bank instrument, which was supposed to tell me if the wings were level.   The longer I flew the greater the dilemma, until there was a flash of sunlight as I went through a deep hole in the corrugated cloud surface, confirming that the wings were still level.  Soon I was skimming the top.  It was one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever seen.  I took the above picture then.   I felt I was in heaven in body, where three minutes before I might have arrived there in spirit.   I never tried that again.  Solid white cloud below extended all around, except where higher ground appeared far ahead and the high cones of volcanoes Popocat√©petl and Iztacc√≠huatl appeared beyond.  Navigation was as simple as it gets.  I had no radio, the map didn't show any mark of civilization, and soon all was  brown below, so I just aimed right of the volcanoes, where I knew the city was.

Mexico City is surrounded by higher ground, so one must ascend to at least 10,000 feet to fly there.   I flew beyond the cloud cover, over undulating scrubby vegetation until I could see the Aztec pyramids,


countless swirling dust devils, and some kind of chemical concentration spiral, and the city, with the biggest highest airport I've ever used, at 7300 feet elevation.   The air in that central valley was as crystal clear as when Cortez invaded it.   Decades after my flight it was rated the most polluted and murky on earth, until Chinese cities became worse.  A green light from the tower said it was OK to land on a strip parallel to that used by the international airliners, so I did.

On several landings since Maine the engine had quit when the engine was idled for taxiing, and routine maintenance was needed after the long trip, so I asked for a repair facility.  I was directed to taxi across a main road while car traffic was held up.  At the facility I met someone who was to be the source of much unpleasantness over the next year.   I'll just call him Milton S., because he may still be alive.   He was a Dutch citizen with a crude wooden leg, and said he had the only flying business in Mexico with a female pilot.   I flew Milton in the Skyranger over primitive villages with thatched dwellings and no road access, to Coatzalcoalcos, in the oil regions near the Yucatan peninsula, where we talked of starting a joint air  passenger-and-cargo business.   As a tentative step to that end I bought a local Ryan Navion, registered as XB-GOW, pictured here after it was retrieved to Texas.  My new Chevrolet Bel Air and I roughly date the picture.

I made three flights to Acapulco.  The night club where divers plunge down a cliff to water that is deep enough only when they hit it as a wave comes in is just left of the center of the picture.   The divers are as famous as movie stars, and marry them.  The picture is restored from my 62-year-old 35 mm slide.   I remember romantic evenings with a girlfriend at that night club, watching the divers.

To get to Acapulco I had to cross a higher mountain ridge south of Mexico City, so I learned to find rising air currents, like eagles and glider pilots do.  Some of the areas near my route were labelled on a Mexican map as "tierra desconocida", meaning unexplored territory.   On the first trip I met a girl, a schoolteacher from Mexico City.  That prompted a second trip to Acapulco, on the return from which I was gradually forced upward as the thickening cumulus clouds rose, until the Skyranger was mushing along at 12,600', where one is supposed to use supplementary oxygen.  Before I found a descent hole I was threading a path around towering clouds of ethereal beauty, like iridescent white cathedrals.
Clouds thickening: not many holes left for descending to Earth.
Then, because of the beauty and hypoxia, I never felt closer to this poem that used to be familiar to all pilots:
                High Flight
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air....
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
See:  the author: Pilot Officer J. G. Magee, Jr. 

I took up smoking 5-cent-a-pack black Mexican cigarettes.   I was 29, rather late to begin an addiction that I quit with great difficulty 12 years later.

That may have been why I failed in climbing Orizaba, Mexico's highest volcano at 18,500'.  I took a taxi (about 5 USA cents a mile) from Mexico City to the village near its base, Tlachichuca, the driver stopping occasionally to nervously ask someone if there were "bandits still about".  My climbing guide had a prominently enlarged chest from breathing the air of his home at 11,000' altitude.  We spent the night in a mountain cave at 13,500', the pack horse tethered outside.  I had to force each breath until I acclimatized somewhat, and slept.    The next morning I laboriously ascended to steep snow at 16,500', where I couldn't take another very slow step upward.  I told the guide, "No puedo andar mas" (I can't go further), so we slowly descended.

In Mexico city I logged a few hours in a Link trainer, a pre-computer flight simulator, to develop skill in "blind flying", which is flying with reference only to instruments in the airplane.

On my way back to Maine I flew my longest hop ever, from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, 635 statute miles at about 10,000' with a tailwind.   My 2  days from Mexico to Maine in a little VFR plane might have been a record.  I landed in a pasture near my father's business in Winthrop, and later tried to take off again.  However,  I forgot that on takeoffs from muddy fields the pilot is supposed to hold the stick way back to keep the tail low until leaving the ground, the opposite of the position for normal takeoffs.  As I accelerated to about 25 mph, suddenly the wheels caught in the mud, the tail went up, things cascaded over my shoulders, and the plane came to rest with the bent propeller in the mud.

I  returned to my job in  Greenland, while the farmer cut the field length in half with a new fence, and cows chewed holes in the plane fabric.   One day, I was told, the mud had dried, the holes were patched, the wind was just right, and Bill Perry, the Augusta airport FBO, attached a new prop, squeezed aloft over the fence, and flew to a real airport which has since disappeared, South Portland beside the Rigby railroad yard.
The next year, 1955, I again went from Greenland to Maine, then by Skyranger to Mexico.    Enroute I visited in Geneva NY an engineer friend from Greenland, Paul "PJ" McDonough, as shown in an issue of  Geneva Times accessible by Googling my name.    Continuing, I buzzed Niagara Falls, which was legal then but not now, and took this photo:   

In the evening of May 6 I landed for gasoline in southern Texas as another stack of 37 days was dwindling.   I could reach the border at Laredo by 10 PM, but had never soloed to in the dark.  I figured I'd teach myself the new skill by continuing, like learning to swim by jumping off the dock, so I flew into the night.   When I got a few miles from the glow of Laredo ahead I searched in vain for where lighted airport runways were supposed to be.   There was not even a street light to mitigate the darkness below.    So I flew to the Rio Grande, the border with Mexico, its waters visible down but not ahead in the faint moonlight, turned downstream until I found a unique bend shown on the chart, then turned left for what I now calculated was the airport 2 miles ahead.    I dimly recall that my altitude was about 500 feet.   With the  faint moon I couldn't see the airport ahead until at the predicted moment I suddenly saw a runway below, indicating my dead reckoning had been perfect.   As I looped around to land I  turned on the landing light.  It didn't help, but blinded me, so I turned it off, circled away from the unseen hangars ahead, and returned to land in the dark, very cautiously since I could barely see down, and hardly at all ahead.   The hangars were visible only as I passed them.   I came to a halt at the very end of the runway.  The buildings were locked so there was no phone.    I went to the adjacent deserted road, looking for a car that might give me a lift to town.    Perhaps 15 minutes later one appeared and slowed.  The driver apparently thought better of my outstretched thumb, and started to drive onward.    I shouted, "PLEASE SEND A TAXI !"    The car stopped, and I was invited into the back seat.    In the front seats were two older ladies.   Between them was propped a large shotgun, pointed just over my head.   They said they had been hunting rattlesnakes, which lie on the hot pavement after dark.   It was good I hadn't attempted to walk the 5 miles to town.

In Mexico City I found the Navion had been attached and hangared by a business to which Milton owed money.   That was illogical and illegal, because he never became my partner, but I struggled with lawyers and courts and corruption to retrieve my Navion.   My life was threatened, so my lawyer suggested I change my hotel residence, which I did by walking several blocks in a maze until I was sure nobody was following me.  Finally I gave up and flew N92975 back to Maine.

The rainy season had begun, so I flew north across a couple hundred miles of high central plateau under a low overcast, then down through corrugated jungle valleys to Ciudad Victoria for gasoline.   
This exactly matches my vivid memory of the flight in marginal VFR, following valleys from  the high tableland down to the lower plains.

From there on the ground was much lower but the clouds were still at the same high elevation, so pilotage (navigation by comparing the map to the few features on the ground) to Texas became much easier.

I sold the Skyranger in Maine and  went to Holland to buy a small sloop, which I eventually sailed back to the USA alone, detailed in

Flying then was a lot cheaper then than now, even allowing for inflation.    I figured it cost me about dollar an hour.    Five gallons an hour at 16 cents/gallon.   Ten cents an hour for oil changes.   10 cents an hour for miscellaneous.   Zero for overhauls because I never had any done.   Zero for insurance: I had none.   Zero for depreciation, since I sold my $800 (tax free) plane for $900 minus a 10% commission: a $10 profit. 

While I was sailing,  my lawyer had Cantinflas's (click on that) chief pilot take the Navion when nobody was looking, and fly it to the airport at Grand Prarie, Texas.   Apparently he could do that because his boss, "the Mexican Bob Hope",  had influence and was above the local corruption.   By then I had learned that  Milton had dropped bombs in a recent war in Guatemala, was wanted for murder there, and was a pederast.

I didn't return to Mexico for several years.  However, these and subsequent visits to Mexico left me with a deep respect and affection for its people and culture.  That it has some bad dangerous people is obvious.   That some of its underpaid police and officials seek bribes in order to support their families is well known.    However I, and later my wife Marge with me, have had so  many experiences of kindness, trust and dignity from Mexican residents, especially the poor, that we consider it the norm.

PS on 8-16-2015:  N92975 is still flying 60 years later, based at West Lafayette, Indiana.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Mooney Mite and Navion: 1957

I had given O.S.Smith ("Smitty"), the Grand Prarie FBO (Fixed Base Operator: the airport business), the power to handle matters of airport ownership while I was abroad.  That was another mistake.   I should have learned from my experience with Milton.  Smitty swapped the Navion for a Mooney Mite , registered as N112C, and some money.

I visited Al Mooney, an iconic designer behind the Mite and other planes, at his small factory in Kerrville, Texas, to ask if the Mite could be retrofitted to carry sufficient gasoline to be flown to Europe via Labrador, Greenland, and Iceland.  We sat on the grass and talked about it.  After some thought he said yes, but eventually I abandoned the idea.

At 550 pounds empty the Mite was about the lightest manufactured aircraft since the Aeronca C2.   It had a single seat, so I would have to teach myself to fly it.   Shortly after I took off for the return to Maine I realized I was sitting on the unfastened seat belt.  As I raised my hips enough to free the belt, my head bumped the sliding canopy above.  That made it fly off and away.  The revised air currents slowed my speed by 10 mph, and made the dirt on the floor fly up in my face.   There was nothing to hold me in the plane if I were bumped upward in turbulence, so I quickly fastened the belt.   I reached Louisville, Kentucky by dark, and found Smitty had delivered a defective plane to me: the lights didn't work.   In the landing at Louisville I should have held the nose higher, but the front (tricycle) wheel struck first, and collapsed.   I held the nose up as I steered off the runway, ending nose-low and tail-high, as in Winthrop.  Like in Winthrop there was no injury except to my pride and pocketbook.   I sold the damaged bird to the Louisville FBO, and returned to Maine by commercial plane.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Auster and Cessna 120: 1956- 1958

While on the sailboat previously mentioned I visited P.J. Macdonough and his wife in England, where he was working.    PJ, a fellow engineer from Greenland, was great as a man, an engineer, and a father, and here in 2014 I miss him.   He had been shot down in the War and survived German imprisonment.  We rented a little British-made Auster, and flew it across the Channel to France, Belgium and back.  I vividly remember the huge horizontal figures south of London made millenia ago by stripping off soil to expose the white chalk that extends to the chalky White Cliffs of Dover.

I bought an Ercoupe in Kilgore, Texas, and flew it to Smitty's operation in Grand Prarie.  He swapped it for a Cessna 120 (like a Cessna 140 without flaps), which I flew to Maine in late 1957.   I flew it some in Maine, and sold it the next year.  I didn't own or pilot a plane again for 7 years.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Second Commonwealth Skyranger: 7/1965- 6/1966

In Maine in July 1965 I started going with Margery Pierce, and bought another Skyranger, registered as N33385.    I flew it for 80 hours, mostly in Maine, until I sold it a year later and went to work as an engineer in Vietnam.    My relationship with Margery lasted much longer.  We married in 1968, after Vietnam, and are still enjoying life together.

The Skyranger and I were based in Augusta, Maine.   Marge lived with her parents and son there too.  She and I landed at many little Maine and New Hampshire airports, and several places that weren't airports.  We especially enjoyed landing on Seawall Beach, which was then little known and accessible only by taildraggers or a two mile trail.

Beach landings are easy, but require some knowledge and skill.  The pilot should land:
*  On the strip of hard dark sand between the soft wave-washed sand and the loose dry sand near the high tide mark.
*  When the tide is half way out and receding (consult tide tables ahead), to give a wider "runway" and more time for extraction if the wheels get stuck, which should be unlikely.
*  When there's nobody on the beach, and it's not nesting season for the endangered piping plovers.

My slightly edited letter of October 31, 1965, Sunday
I think Marge, an R.N., at the Togus veterans hospital, was working that weekend.
We have been married since 1968.

Dear Margery,

My flight this weekend was my most hair raising in months.   After you left I dubbed around, had coffee and donuts.  I considered the local  Flight Service suggestion that the weather didn't look flyable towards the mountains, but took off to check. Then I realized I'd forgotten my camera, so landed and got it.   Continuing, the terrain forced me higher, and the headwind got stronger.    Over the low mountains from Conway to Woodstock my ground speed was under 45 mph, so the headwind was about 50.   Halfway across the Kancamagus highway clouds in my path drooped down and there was no way around, so I went through.   Ground was always visible but such a combination of sleet and turbulence I've never encountered before.   I throttled way back to reduce the violent buffeting.   Ice grew on the wing leading edges.    I was scared, and then I came into the clear again.

I came down from 4500 feet to the Lincoln - North Woodstock airport.   It's in a pocket, short, dirt and surrounded by trees.    When I landed there was nobody and no planes.   I spent a half hour doing things inefficiently.   Just as I set foot on the road a lady (60 +) stopped her car for me.   She is the wife of the undertaker who is the principal user of the airport.   She drove me 5 miles up the Kancamagus road to the trail I wanted.   Since the plane is not lockable I left my flight bag with her for safekeeping.

The trail was very wet, then there was snow from last week's storm, which got deeper   It was a good day, and the woods were beautiful.    The pine needles on the sharp white snow would make a good wallpaper pattern.   I hiked 7 1/2 miles up the ridge, a 3300 foot climb, to Mt. Flume then Mt. Liberty (two more 4000+-footers), then Liberty Springs shelter, mostly through 6 inches of snow.   Fine views.  Wind on the bare summits made me glad I brought lots of warm clothes.   Halfway down from the shelter to the road I remembered I left my new ski mittens at the shelter, so I returned.   By then it was dark, so I spent the night there, with a bunch of schoolboys and their leader.   I slept with parka, heavy wool pants, long johns, and mittens, but woke up chilly a few times.

This morning I rose at dawn, skipped eating, and took an hour to reach the highway.   There was a little rain and  worsening weather, so it sure looked like I'd have to leave the plane and return home otherwise.  I hitch hiked to North Woodstock, ate, and phoned Mrs. McKay.   She insisted on bringing up the bag and driving me to the plane.   Much of the hills were in rain, fog, cloud, and mist, but finally it looked as if I could follow the valley road straight south to the plains beyond, then fly northeast to Augusta, a much longer route but free of mountain weather.   The plane had no radio, so I had to assess the weather trend by sight alone.  Aloft it looked better, so I turned left,  through the notch just south of Mt. Osceola.   It was pretty smooth until just abreast of Osceola's tower there was another tremendous buffeting, which required slowing the engine again.   Then I cut over at 5000 feet to the Kancamangus highway, followed it east to Conway, and the weather seemed OK again.   But around Bridgton I ran into rain, so I doubled back to land at the Fryeburg airport you and I visited.   After an hour the weather ahead improved, so over scattered wispy low clouds and under a leaden sky I squeezed in to Augusta and tied the Skyranger down on its spot.   Then I puttered around, showered and went to bed.

                                                              Love,  Dick

Friday, April 9, 2010

Aeronca Sedan: January-April 1970

I didn't pilot another plane for nearly 4 years, until Marge and I bought an  Aeronca Sedan,  registered as N1438H, in Massachusetts.   We bought that to see the March 7, 1970 eclipse over Nantucket, and fly to California.

Although I flew the plane to our home airport in Augusta, Maine safely, it needed minor repairs by Ed Williams, the experienced meticulous mechanic at the local FBO.    Five weeks layer, on the morning of the eclipse, the plane was still in pieces.  Marge and I and my 14-year-old stepson Phil hurried to help Ed put things back together, and we took off with about 30 minutes to spare.  After an emergency bathroom stop in Massachusetts there were zero minutes to spare.   As we arrived over Nantucket we could see the vast shadow sweeping over the ocean towards us at about 1500 miles an hour.   It was awesome and unforgettable.  The visible world became black except for a few automatic lights below, and a brilliant sunrise-sunset marked the horizon full circle around us.  Then we saw sunlight far away apparently sweeping toward us as the umbra (shadow) sped swiftly away.

We saw only one other plane aloft in the eclipse, but as we started for Maine the Martha's Vineyard airport below was crowded with planes preparing to take off, their occupants having watched the show through telescopes.

We learned 2 things about eclipses, untimely because for most people there are few of them in their lifetime unless they travel to experience them:
* Don't bother with a still or video camera.  The results show practically nothing.   As with a first kiss, the idea is to pay attention and savor the moment forever.
* You can look safely at the image during the entire complete eclipse, because the sun is hidden.  The moment a sliver of sun starts to show, use the special eclipse glasses or just look away.

There is a strong psychological phenomena that occurs when flying over water beyond gliding distance to land, called "automatic rough".   In older planes without sophisticated engine instrumentation, one is constantly listening for a small change in the sound of the motor, which might indicate trouble.   That occurred as we flew over several miles of ocean to and from Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard.   It turned out that we didn't just "hear things".   We had an independent expert examine our engine, and he wrote a paper excoriating the dealer who had sold us the plane.  There were 3 bad cylinders.  We received that paper just as someone was about to buy our plane, so we told him, lowered the price, and sold the plane.  That looked like the end of our plan to fly our own plane to California.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Beechcraft Musketeer

We had planned a 23 day (3 weeks plus weekend) round trip to California, but now had to consider forgetting it, or going by airline (which would mean not much of interest enroute).  The unexpected solution came two days before our planned departure.  The Weisbergers, a local couple, had decided to stop flying and sell their  Beechcraft Musketeer,  registered as N3512R.  The Augusta FBO suggested we rent it for our trip.   The Weisbergers figured they could use the rental income, that we might be induced to buy it, or other prospects would be impressed that this was a plane capable of easy transcontinental flight.   So the evening before our departure on April 18, 1970 I was given 70 minutes of dual instruction in this plane that was quite different from anything I had flown:
**  The third landing wheel was on the "wrong" (for me) end: the front.
**  It had a radio.  I'd never used one, and was worried about the fast transmissions required.
**  The fuel was delivered to the engine by pump, not gravity. 
**  It was a low winger, not a high winger.
**   The flaps were controlled by a hydraulic pump, not by lever action.
**  The panel and controls were different. 

 I took a small mountain of charts and how-to manuals.   We hurriedly packed, realizing that our gear would weigh as much, and take as much space as, a fourth passenger.   Nevertheless we have a picture of Marge, Phil and I standing by the plane beside the few things we planned to take, including those things we had to leave behind anyway.  That first Saturday we reached Dunkirk, New York, where we were grounded by 3 days of rain.  We intended to make lemonade out of lemons, so found interesting things to do in that wet drab city with warning signs on its polluted Lake Ontario beaches.   At that rate we'd never reach California.

We used the entire runway and then some at an Ohio airport.   That's the end of our landing run.

But the weather improved, and so did our adventure.   In Arkansas one of us suddenly required a pit stop.   I made a quick map search and calculation, and we landed on the grass strip at Gaston's, a fishing Mecca.  As the wheels touched we abruptly discovered that the 6" grass concealed a 2" deep mixture of water and recent grass clippings, which created giant twin green sprays until we slowed down.  I wasn't sure we could safely take off in those conditions and get over the high cliff over which we had just descended.   So Marge and Phil stayed behind while I made a test takeoff.  That worked fine, so I returned to retrieve them, and we 3 flew onward.

At Oklahoma City we chose the smaller airport, as always, but found too late that it was the busiest, because of its Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.  After we entered the airport pattern in the usual counter-clockwise direction, the controller in the tower told us something that is oft repeated in our family: "One Two Romeo, you are in the pattern backwards - turn right".   The great majority of airports have a rectangular  pattern that pilots are supposed to follow with left turns, counterclockwise, until they land approximately into the wind.   Obviously this airport had a right-turn clockwise pattern.  So we left (sic) it as instructed, the controller forgot us, we reminded him, and at last we were on final for landing, under his control.  He warned us perhaps 3 times about another plane also somewhere on final, and so warned the other plane.   Quite close to landing we found the tower had made and was making a mistake that was almost disastrous.  Ours was a low wing plane so we couldn't see directly below, and the other plane had high wings so its pilot couldn't see directly above.   Apparently the controller suddenly looked out his tower window instead of at his radar screen, saw the other plane was directly below us, converging vertically at the same forward speed, and ordered its pilot to turn left immediately.   Then we saw the other plane, and landed without it.

Eastern Texas has few bodies of water or railroads or other landmarks.  That, combined with the unannounced shutdown of a radio station we needed for a navigation fix, and a strong unpredicted cross wind, made our position uncertain as we were flying in Texas.   When I climbed 2000' higher so we could receive another station, Phil was as pleased as I when he got us a fix showing exactly where we were.   There was bad weather ahead, with possible tornadoes, but we were able to divert directly to a little emergency strip at McLain, Texas.   It was getting very dark, except for brilliant lights in a big arrangement of pipes nearby that we learned was a natural gas  processing facility.   We walked toward and around it, wary of heat-seeking rattlesnakes.   Beyond and below it were a few houses we hadn't seen from our tiedown.  Here was another example of the generosity we've found when traveling away from cities, by plane or boat or car.  The owner drove us 6 miles to the "best motel in town" in his Cadillac, waited while we registered, took us to a restaurant, and took us back to the motel after supper.   In the morning he and friends arrived for breakfast and drove us to the airport.

The next six photos with text are about one long fascinating day.   We left Albuquerque, crossed the quite invisible continental divide, flew 3 times around Shiprock  (sacred to the Navajo and a landmark to the pioneers) for pictures and video, and flew over the  Four Corners point , where Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico meet.   Next on the flight was Monument Valley, where so many cowboy movies were made.   Perhaps the biggest thrill of the entire 23 day trip was flying over and between the iconic mesas there.

We landed at Page, Arizona and walked about 3 miles to  Glen Canyon Dam, on the Colorado River.

We enjoyed a tour of the big chamber with huge photogenic generators adjacent to the dam.

As we continued flying beside the great river downstream, its canyon deepened and widened.   For the first time in flight I experienced vertigo, as we crossed from one side of the widening canyon to the other.  We had intended that when we reached the village of Grand Canyon we would fly over the Canyon, but I couldn't do it, because of the sudden fear of height, the perception of all 3 dimensions.

We had planned to hike to the bottom of the Canyon and stay at Phantom Ranch, a simple hostel that is usually fully booked months ahead.  However, our Dunkirk NY delay meant we were too late for our reservations, and could only hope for 3 last-minute cancellations.  We waited while those ahead in line got their spots, until we finally got ours.   It was awesome (again that word, and that feeling), in spite of heat, and carrying only one hat, and my patting an innocuous-looking cactus.

That night it snowed up on the canyon rim.  In the morning we photographed the snowdrift that came in around the door.   The cabin was austere, but we thought it a better deal than expensive El Tovar, which had a mere curtain to separate the "rooms" (ours and Phil's), and plumbing that Teddy Roosevelt must have used when he visited.   We drove a rented car along the canyon rim, and ran out of gas, though we had been told the tank was nearly full.  We were privileged to meet and talk briefly with Emery Kolb , an almost legendary figure.  In 1903, 16 years before Grand Canyon was a National Park, he and his late brother started the photographic studio on the canyon rim that he was still running.  Ken Burns' recent TV series on our National Parks featured the brothers and their daring trip down the Colorado in 1911, recording the first motion pictures of the canyon.  Mr. Kolb autographed his book for us.

The following day we took flight in marginal weather, dodging snow showers to Prescott, Arizona.

 We passed over Hoover (Boulder) dam, and landed after dark at Bermuda Dunes, California.  The airport was deserted, but apparently used by the wealthy.  We phoned an upscale motel that advertised free transportation, apparently for those arriving in private jets.   A limousine arrived, driven by the owner, Lucille Ball's brother.   Although he stood by while we checked in, he and the super service vanished when I asked for something cheaper than the initial price.  We dressed for dinner, but the restaurant was closed and the transportation had vanished, so we ate crackers and candy from vending machines.  Our luxurious rooms had fully stocked bars and patios directly on the Bob Hope golf course.

The next morning we flew below sea level over Salton Sea, an unusual opportunity.

Then we flew up through  famously windy San Gorgonio Pass , and landed at Hemet.   That was close enough to our friends Dick and Phyllis Plummer in Perris, the congested airspace of Los Angeles, and the Pacific Ocean.

We  toured there for 3 days, then headed east along the Mexican border.   That cleared strip was clearly visible, as were the deep copper mines in Bisbee, Arizona.

We spent 2 nights in Nogales, from where we drove to a ghost town in the mountains, and to Mexico on their May 5 (Cinco de Mayo) holiday.  Near Tucson we were allowed in the mostly-outdoor Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near closing, to see the iconic tall Saguaro cacti receding on a downward slope towards the horizon.   We toured spectacular Carlsbad Caverns, another National Park.

On the 21st day of our 23 we were still in Oklahoma, but woke up early and got aloft just after a dark turbulent cold front passed eastward, and with a strong tail wind made it to Ithaca, New York.

We landed at the Augusta airport on the 23rd day, Sunday.  We had logged 55.1 hours, for which we paid $18 an hour, with our gasoline costs reimbursed.  Two of those hours were night flights.