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.

* * * * *    * * * * *    * * * * *    * * * * *    * * * * *    * * * * *    * * * * *    * * * * *   


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.

* * * * *    * * * * *    * * * * *    * * * * *    * * * * *    * * * * *    * * * * *    * * * * *    


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.