My friend Tom put me onto another very enjoyable book, In Love With Flying, by Kenneth W. Ford. (Tom also wrote very thoughtful Amazon reviews of this and Dr. Ford’s latest book, Building the H Bomb: A Personal History, which you can find here and here.)

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Ercoupe (wikipedia photo)

Dr. Ford, a physicist who circulated in the very uppermost strata of the profession with luminaries like Wheeler, Fermi, von Neumann, and Bethe, was also a highly skilled pilot, particularly of gliders, and his amateur flying career spanned the golden years of aviation. In Love With Flying resonated with me quite a lot. Dr. Ford began his flight training in an Ercoupe, a small, early-50’s era airplane whose main distinction at the time was having an aluminum skin instead of fabric, and having no rudder pedals. The omission of rudder pedals was supposed to make the craft impossible to spin, which it didn’t, quite, but it did make it pretty impossible to land in a strong crosswind, so quite a few owners modifed them to add rudder pedals. My own father was a very enthusiastic amateur pilot, and one of my earliest flying memories was of riding with him in a rented Ercoupe at age 10 or so.

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Piper J-3 Cub (wikipedia photo)

Also like Dr. Ford, I learned to fly in a Piper Cub, a fabric covered ‘tail-dragger’ with fore-and-aft seating and a stick rather than a wheel, and no electrical system — you started the engine by swinging the propeller by hand, and making sure you were moving smartly backward when it started. I was fortunate enough to attend a high school that offered flight instruction for the princely sum of $9 per hour (1966 prices). Dr. Ford’s description of some of the more exciting moments of flight instruction also brought back a lot of memories — my first flight instructor, in the J-3 (Piper Cub), was an ex-crop duster pilot who was flat out crazy. One of the routine drills in flight training is forced landing practice, where the instructor suddenly, without warning, chops the throttle and declares “forced landing”, whereupon the student is supposed to find a suitable spot to put down, and to set up an approach that will get the plane to that spot at the moment that it runs out of altitude. The engine is left running, and the normal practice is that once the student sets up on final approach and the outcome is clear, power is reapplied and you climb out and do something else, or try again. My instructor had a somewhat different drill that he pulled on me more than once: shut down the engine completely by  surreptitiously turning off the fuel valve, whereupon the sudden silence when the engine quits provides a quite lasting impression. The problem was, he would do this within gliding distance of an actual landing strip, and expected the student to actually land. Having the engine off meant that if you screwed up the approach, or if other traffic showed up at the wrong time, you were in deep kimchi. If you got into trouble, it would be too late to restart the engine — it takes too long to get the fuel flowing again. The first time he did it, I did screw up the approach, and he nearly crashed us getting it onto the runway.

Like Dr. Ford, I also put in some hours in a Piper Supercub, basically a Piper Cub with a bigger engine. The local Civil Air Patrol squadron had one, and my father was an active member, as was I once I got old enough to join the CAP cadet program. Civil Air Patrol’s main mission was to fly searches for missing aircraft (and, in Arizona, often for missing motorists who ventured off the main highways, risky behavior in the Arizona desert in the summer). They didn’t allow cadets to fly on search flights, but I did fly with my father quite a bit on training/practice flights in the Supercub. In those days at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, private pilots had the north runway to themselves, and even though it was a controlled airport with a tower, operations there were pretty simple, you just called the tower for clearance to take off or land.

Dr. Ford also mentions flying an Aeronca Champ. I actually owned an Aeronca Chief (very similar) in the late 70’s. It was a lot like the Piper Cub, except it had side-to-side seating (pilot and one passenger only) and a wheel instead of a stick. Like the Piper Cub, it was fabric covered, and very underpowered — with a passenger on a hot day, you were lucky to get a climb rate of two or three hundred feet per minute. No electrical system again, so the radio worked off a motorcycle battery that had to be taken out and recharged on a charger, and had a tendency to die without warning. No starter, of course — swing the prop to start the engine (I kept a pair of wheel chocks in the back, to ensure that the plane couldn’t try to chase me after I started the engine if the throttle happened to be set too high).

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Aeronca Chief (wikipedia photo)

The Aeronca was based at Sky Harbor, which by the late 70’s was getting to be a quite busy airport, with a lot of airline traffic on both of its parallel runways. It could be fairly challenging coordinating with the airliner traffic on approach, given that the approach speed of an Aeronca is around 60 mph, and airliners are more than double that. The unreliable radio made it more challenging still, and, like Dr. Ford, I did have to make radio-free landings at controlled airports on a couple of occasions when the motorcycle battery went dead. Once it was at Sky Harbor with an instructor (I would never have had the nerve to try that on my own at Sky Harbor, I’d have landed in the desert and walked home first). The instructor calmly circled around just outside the landing pattern long enough to make a nuisance of himself, and the tower finally give us a green light. The other time I was by myself at Hermosillo, Mexico, but that was a much less busy airport; they never did give me a green light but I eventually got bored circling and landed anyway.

Sadly, my adventures with the Aeronca did not end well: fabric covered aircraft do not stand up well to hailstorms. I ended up selling it to an aircraft mechanic for a third of what I paid for it, and he flew off in it (with the hail damage patched with duct tape —  I am not making this up), and disappeared without paying me.

I do miss the flying, though it has been 20 years or so since I sold my last airplane (a Cessna 150 Aerobat, co-owned with a friend) after it got basically impossible to continue flying out of Sky Harbor. Here in the Philippines, I have looked around for somewhere to rent; if nothing else I’d like to give a few of the nephews and nieces the experience of a ride with an instructor. We live close to the Davao airport, and I see what looks like an older Cessna 172 shooting touch and go landings occasionally, but it doesn’t seem to be based here, and if there’s a light plane flight school here, I haven’t been able to find it. Maybe someday. Dr. Ford’s book is an inspiration in that regard — if he and his friends can keep on flying well into their golden years, I guess it isn’t impossible.

 

 

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