I learned to fly.

I don’t remember where I was going but at an airport newstand somewhere, I saw this little book about 8×10 but horizontally called something like Learning to Fly.  I just picked it up out of curiosity and read it on the plane.  It explained flight dynamics of a small high-winged airplane like a Piper Cub.  It told the functions of the controls and such and I thought, why shouldn’t I try this.  Without my having verbalized anything of the subject, it was not too long until an ad appeared in the Clarion newspaper about ground school forming and learning to fly…right there in Clarion.  I took the bait.  Wow!  Bill Mowry (sp) was an ex-Vietnam fighter pilot and there was a small air strip in Clarion barely a mile from my house in Clarion.  We communicated and I met him at the airstrip for my first lesson.  I can’t remember where ground school entered into the time span.  There were about 6 of us who took the classes from Bill…I can only remember the one couple that learned to fly at the same time span that I did, and I’ve already written the sadness related to them.  Getting to the field there was a low wing Piper Cherokee 140 near the hangar.  We got in and he took me thru the details and my first flight, that I recall very little of.  Of special note I learned that the grass strip we were flying out of was the first commercial airport in the USA.  That so, because it was for air-mail.  It was then and still is a grass strip and when landing from one direction,  one planned to touch down then be airborne again for a short distance before finally landing.  It was because the field was uneven.  It was so isolated that we frequently had to buzz the strip at low level to frighten the deer off the runway before we landed.  After my first flight in the Cherokee, Bill asked me if I’d like to try aerobatics.  I said, you mean like upside down and loops and he said he thought I did so well in the Cherokee that he thought I might like a different perspective.  Oi!   I meet the Aeronca.  It is an OLD.  As I recally 1945 (I could be wrong) high wing craft that is canvas covered, versus the metal covering of the low wing Cherokee.  It looked similar to a Piper Cub which is usually painted the factory yellow, but this Aeronca is mostly blue.  The advantage of the Aeronca over the Cub is that they are laid out in tandem.  That is, you can’t sit side by side (they are two place), but sit one behind the other.  In the Cub, if you’re flying solo you must fly from the back seat due to weight and balance, where as in the Aeronca, you can sit in the front seat to fly.  Both are fly by stick which alone just has this special feel that is hard to explain.  It’s very comfortable and you feel as tho you are part of the plane.

To start both the Cub and Aeronca, you have to chock the wheels and then hand spin the propeller.  It’s a bit daunting the first time but then, it’s such a nice feeling to have that motor go when you “prop it”.  Of course one (just one) time, I neglected to set the chocks which are rubber or wood blocks you place in front of the wheels so that the plane doesn’t take off without you because you had the throttle set too high.  There I was frantically holding on to the wing strut and diving towards the door.  It could have been serious but I was lucky and all was well. (This happened some time after I had soloed and was then flying on my own.)

So, I started the plane, Bill got in the back seat and I into the front.  A bit tiny and cramped.  The gas indicator is (seriously) a wooden dowel stuck into a cork and stickin up thru a hole in the cowling in front of the windshield.  There was no radio or locating equipment so it didn’t take too long to know the panel.  We taxied the down wind end of the grass runway and headed up into the wind.  The Aeronca is a tail dragger, so I first had to learn that contrary to the others, when you pushed the throttle on, you pushed the stick forward.  This lifts the tail off the ground and the roll out begins…then it’s simply a matter of holding steady and the plane takes itself off the ground.

The Aeronca only weighs something like 700 pounds so it was much different than the Cherokee.  You can see down because the wing is above you and it is such a glorious feeling I don’t have words to describe it.  We climbed to a sufficient altitude with Bill talking to me all the way describing things.  Our first maneuver was a loop.  Throttle up and push the stick forward as into a dive, and at the bottom of whatever loop you planned, you pull the stick back and hang on…the plane climbs up and over and back down so nicely.  One has to be comfortable with his stomach and for reasons unknown to me, I never had any problem in any of the maneuvers and some of them were a bit challenging. The Aeronca was not built for inverted flight so one could only loop or roll it, you couldn’t stay inverted for very long or the engine would get no gas and it would stop and you’d then be a glider. 🙂  Been there; more on that later.  The loop was fun, like an amusement ride in the sky and enjoy the scenery as well as the sensations.  Bill did the first one, I did the second one.  Almost identical…very comfortable and easy.  Then came the spin.  Now, to do a spin it’s easy in a small low powered plane.  You just aim the plane straight up until the propeller can no longer pull it vertically.  As I recall the power plant was 45 horsepower. Don’t quote me.  When the plane reaches as far up as it can go vertically, it starts to slide backward slowly, so you push the rudder left or right depending on which spin you want, clockwise or counter-clockwise and the front drops down sideways and you enter the spin and you simply fly out of it when you’re ready.  This might sound complicated the way I’ve written it, but it’s very easy and such great fun.  You’re heading straight down and the earth is spinning below you.  I learned several other maneuvers such as the Falling Leaf which was my favorite, but I can tell you that learning aerobatics gave me such a great feeling and such improved control of the aircraft that I knew I’d be able to walk away from a crash safely.

While learning to fly I find the rules have changed drastically since I first learned.  Back then you had to have 8 hrs before you could solo.  Bill had me fly him to Franklin Pa, where there was a paved runway and we did some touch and go’s.  After several, Bill got out of the plane and I asked where he was going.  He said, “Just take it around a couple times and come back and land.  I think you’re ready.”  I was a bit surprised but I did what he asked.  It was Gawdawful quiet!  But I was comfortable and not a bit nervous.  It was nice to look around and know that I was in full control.  When I landed, Bill asked me for my log book which I carried when we flew.  I handed it to him and he flushed for a moment when he told me he just realized I had only 6 hrs not the required 8.  But no matter…he signed my book.  Last I heard, a student pilot had to have 40 hrs before soloing and even a special certification for a tail dragger like the Aeronca.

The most important part of of flying, really, is navigating.  At flying speeds, it takes no time at all to get away from the airport and from familiar scenery looking down upon it.  It is actually fun, and you get some of it in ground school and plenty more in the air.  The Cherokee had an instrument that used radio beacons to tell where the plane was.  The Aeronca had only the pilot.  So, early on, I used mostly the Cherokee to do my distance flying and the Aeronca to play.  My required cross-country flight was from Clarion Pa, to Morgantown WVa.  Bill described the flight perfectly…not long after I was in the air I could see the Delaware watergap on the horizon and soon after, the Mexican hats of the nuclear power plants at Morgantown.  Other than that, the over 150 mile required trip was pretty boring.  Then it came time for me to take my flight test.  The examiner was at a field about 45 minutes from Clarion as I recall it, in Butler Pa.  I flew the Cherokee over and met him and we took off.  He put me under “the hood”, a device that you wear like a cap with a shield on it preventing you from seeing outside the plane, and he put me through some maneuvers and headings etc.  Then he told me it was ok to remove the hood.  Whoa!  It was so smoggy I couldn’t see the ground.  He said, “Take me back home” and I told him I could not because I had no idea where I was.  He asked if the Cherokee had instruments and I acknowledged it did; he asked if I knew how to use it and I said yes.  He said “then take me back home”. 🙂  It was a breeze.  But then, when we landed and went inside to do the paper work, he found I was short an hour of required flying time.  Bill had done the figuring not me and I was shocked.  He said, tell you what, fly back to Clarion and fill your tanks and fly right back, that’ll give you the hour and I’ll sign it.  Looking back, I think this was part of the test the guys had rigged up.  Anyway, I got my license.

I had a lot of enjoyment out of flying.  Especially the Aeronca but I flew my family to Cleveland in the winter. And I took Chris on many rides, he was a good companion.  He and I used to also go for long rides on my trailbike when he was little.

Of all the memories of flying, I think this following is the most special.  Now, I have admitted to many many that I am not mechanically minded.  It drove my Dad crazy that I didn’t care for the mechanics of a machine.  To me, as long as I just understood them, I could manage them.  I knew I could take one apart and put it back together as long as I could draw a list.  But there seems to be one mechanical subject I’m weak on.  It’s called a carburetor heater.  I don’t even know if these exist on cars or land type vehicles, but I do know the Aeronca had one.  Bill told me that if I ever flew in cool moist weather, I should turn on the carburetor heater to keep the engine running.   Now I had this sister-in-law, Frans brothers wife.  She had firey red hair and a body that was rock hard.  Gail was one of those women who just do not stop talking.  So, we decided, I don’t remember the details, that I would take her for an aerobatic ride.  My common practice since my very first day with the Aeronca was to come back to the field high and then play with spins and loops etc, lose altitude and finally come into the pattern and land.  I took Gail for the ride and she was jabbering like usual in the back seat.  I did a few maneuvers and explained them to her.  She seemed ok.  Then I did a loop which went well, then I explained how we did a spin and pulled the plane straight up till it stopped forward motion.  Now Bill Mowry had told me that it would/could happen, and it did, and that I would dive and the propeller would rotate but the motor would start and I tried and he was right, and it was God awful quiet.  Gail asked what was wrong…I told her the motor stopped.  She asked “Are we going to die”?  I said, I’m not planning on it.  Then I did the same thing I had done for months…took my time, planned my entrance and took the plane Very Quietly down and onto the landing strip, right about the middle of the field.  In that couple minutes…Gail did not make a single sound.  When the plane stopped, she got out and ran all the way back to the hangar.  I had to prop the engine and taxi it back.  I, We, had survived a dead stick landing.

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