Flight Through History
The clock on the bedside table read a quarter to midnight when the phone jangled me out of a deep REM sleep and the voice on the other end said, "Jim, I just bought a restored J-3 Cub from a guy in Durango and could you bring it to me?"
I'm not sure what I mumbled in my stupor but he continued, "Sorry for calling you this late, this is John in Oshkosh. I'll call you in the morning with details."
I fell back into the arms of Morpheus wondering two things, how was I going to get to Durango and how was I going to get a plane with less than a 10,000 foot service ceiling over those 12,000 mountain passes.
I was far more coherent when John's call came the next morning and answered both questions; the guy had agreed to deliver it to Black Forest. "It's been rebuilt from the ground up and is just like a brand new airplane," he explained, adding that it would be there the next day. What he didn't mention was that it hadn't been flown since being rebuilt.
There it sat in the middle hangar at the gliderport, brilliant Cub yellow with a black electric stripe running from the engine with cylinders poking out in the air to the bear emblem askew on the fin. Looked just like it did the day it rolled out of the green building at Lock Haven. I noticed the registration numbers, N-99998. They seemed strangely familiar but I passed it off as just being an awfully good poker hand.
Two men were just finishing the task of installing the wings. He had solved the problem of getting it to me by hauling it over the mountains on a trailer. I met the owner who told me that he had been a crew chief on a B-17 during WW-II and had been wanting to learn to fly ever since. However, he had just been diagnosed with cancer and wouldn't be around long enough to do much of anything. He was selling the airplane as part of clearing up his affairs before he passed on.
He had found this airplane as a basket case and spent the last seven years painstakingly restoring it back to new condition. Then he dropped the bomb; he wasn't an aircraft mechanic and the ship hadn't been flown. He did temper my shock a bit by telling me that his neighbor, who was a licensed mechanic, had helped him quite a bit and had signed off all the repairs in the logbooks. I spent the rest of the day going over the ship with a fine-tooth comb, checking every bolt, nut, cotter key and safety wire. I felt a lot better when I didn't find a single thing amiss.
He told me that the engine had the required two hours of ground running time since being remanufactured by a certified engine shop. After operations had ceased at the gliderport, I took it up for a test flight. I hadn't flown a Cub in perhaps thirty years but I did have skads of time in its big brother, the Super Cub.
It flew surprisingly well with the left wing just slightly down in level flight. A turn on the left strut turnbuckle solved that. I'd flown a number of new airplanes out of the factory so what was the difference, I reasoned. I filled the 12-gallon fuel tank to the brim, rolled it into the hangar and closed the door. I wanted to be off at daybreak the next morning.
Even though I had aviation charts, I decided to turn this into a nostalgic adventure by using Texaco road maps for navigation like we did when the ship was built in 1946. After all, it had no radio so most of the information on the charts would be useless anyway. I'd be navigating by roads and highway maps show them better than aviation charts.
The 65 horsepower engine would carry me along at a solid 60 miles per hour while burning about four gallons of fuel an hour, so with only a 12-gallon tank, 180 miles would be the absolute range. For comfort, it was better that they be no more than 150 miles apart. The first known airport in a direct line was McCook, Nebraska, 250 miles away but with no airports across northeastern Colorado, I would have to go straight east to Burlington and then back toward my course. I called a friend in Omaha, Nebraska and told him I'd spend the night there and would he meet me at a small airport where they flew gliders.
It was three days before Thanksgiving and several degrees below freezing when I rolled the ship out the next morning. I strapped my backpack under the belt in the front seat and tossed a set of tiedown ropes and a couple quarts of oil in the small luggage bin behind the back seat. I had some snacks and a bottle of water in the pockets on either side of my backpack so they would be easy to reach in flight. I had my doubts whether the engine would start on a cold morning so I pumped the primer three or four shots, pulled the prop through a couple times and turned on the switch. One pull and the little engine puttered happily to life. That was reassuring.
After the engine warmed enough to run smoothly at power, I checked the mags and went rolling down the runway. The little engine that produced 65 horsepower at sea level would only crank out about 45 at the 7,200 feet elevation where we were. After a long takeoff roll to build up flying speed, I lifted into the air, did a cropduster turn at fifty feet above the ground and headed east just as the sun poked its head above the horizon. No need to climb any higher because the ground dropped away to the east and every mile put me higher above the ground.
I glanced at the compass in the middle of the Spartan instrument panel and it read east. I hadn't checked it before I left so turned to the south; it still read east. A one-eighty back to the north and the compass still read east. Then I noticed the heads of the four screws holding it in the panel; they were silver; steel instead of brass. The magnet in the compass was locked onto the steel screws and wasn't about to move. No problem, there were section lines and roads to follow.
In addition to the non-working compass, there were the two engine gauges on the right, one with dual hands showing oil pressure and temperature and the other the tachometer. Oil pressure was 20 psi and the temp was barely above the peg. Even in midsummer temps the oil never got much above 200 degrees but on a cold morning like this, it would never get above just warm. The engine was running smoothly at 2150 rpm.
On the far left was the airspeed indicator and next to it the altimeter, neither of which were really useful in a ship like that. It would only go 60 miles an hour and you could guess at how high you were. In fact, since you flew the Cub from the back seat, a student never saw any of the instruments until the instructor climbed out and he went solo.
The only other gauge was a piece of wire sticking out of the gas cap in front of the windshield. There was a joke that it didn't tell you how much fuel you had, but how much you didn't have. It was just a big cork on the bottom of a piece of wire. It stuck up about six inches when the tank was anything more than half full and only moved down when you were less than that. When the bend in the wire hits bottom, you were supposed to have fifteen minutes of fuel remaining. What it really meant was when it started moving down, you needed to start looking for an airport. When it hit bottom, you'd better have found one.
The Cub was the ultimate in simplicity. The ignition switch is above the left window where it could be reached from either seat as well as seen by the person cranking the ship so he could assure himself whether it was on or off before he touches the prop. There was a throttle lever for each seat and just above the left toe of the rear pilot was a pair of knobs, one which turned heated air to the carburetor in case of ice forming and a the other the cabin heat. There was also a crank that looked like it was made to raise and lower the windows in an old Ford that operated the trim tab so the ship would fly level. The Cub was rather trim sensitive and had to be adjusted about every fifteen minutes as each gallon of fuel was burned out of the tank.
Small eastern Colorado towns with strange names crept beneath the wings as I motored into the rising sun. It was warm on my face but the cold air whistling in around the window and door made the down jacket I was wearing feel very comfortable. My feet were cold even though the cabin heater was on. About all it would warm is the right foot of someone in the front seat.
I flew over a woman who was feeding chickens in the yard by scattering grain she carried in a pan. She looked up and waved. I rocked my wings. A bit further along I spotted a pickup truck chasing a cow across the prairie. The cow kicked up puffs of yellow dust each time its feet hit the ground and a cloud of dust boiled from under the pickup as it bounded across the rough ground. The cow surged down into a gully and up the other side as the pickup skidded to a stop. The cow stopped and turned around as if to say in cow language, "Can't catch me!"
Nearly an hour had passed and Limon began to grow in the windshield. A little closer and I could see the golden arches of McDonalds at the exit from the interstate. I had left without breakfast, so a cup of coffee and an Egg McAnything would taste great right now. The Limon airport was a couple miles away but no one was ever there. I even considered landing in a wheat field nearby, but settled for some water and cheese crackers from my backpack.
Seventy-five miles and eight small towns lay between Limon and Burlington, nothing to do but watch the cars as they passed me on the four lane below. Occasionally one would spot me flying at about 500 feet and flash their headlamps. Wheat fields are all a mile square so I clicked my watch as I passed over one fenceline and stopped it at the next. Fifty-nine seconds; sixty-one miles an hour, not even a breath of a tailwind to help me along. At least there was no headwind either. Each town had a tall, white grain elevator and I could always count at least three towns ahead.
Two and a half hours in the air, I turned a short final and glided over the interstate to land at the Burlington Airport. Chirp, chirp, bounce, bounce, bounce. I had forgotten how difficult it is to make a smooth landing in a Cub with its fat tires that want to bounce like basketballs. As I rolled to a stop at the fuel pump and killed the engine, a pickup truck came roaring up. "I was having breakfast at the DQ when I saw you landing. Nice looking Cub you have there," he said as he handed me a cup of DQ coffee and dragged the hose over to the ship. I finished the coffee, hit the bathroom, thanked him and paid for ten gallons of fuel. It was burning four gallons an hour, right on the dot. He spun the prop and I was back in the air after no more than fifteen minutes on the ground.
A hundred twenty miles, two hours, and no roads or railroad to follow from Burlington to McCook, Nebraska. Just head off at about a 45-degree angle to the section lines and you can't miss it. Two highways cross at McCook so if you hit either of them, just follow it to town. Besides, you can see the two big white grain elevators twenty miles before you get there.
While a boy less than half the age of the Cub pumped eight gallons into the tank, he looked inside and asked, "Where's the radio?"
"Doesn't have one." "How do you know where you're going," he asked.
"Just follow the map," I replied as I headed for the office.
"Anything to eat here?" The guy behind the counter motioned toward a freezer. Inside were frozen hamburgers, hot dogs and burritos. I nuked a hamburger in the microwave and took a bag of chips from a box. No breakfast and now this for lunch. I filled my water bottle and was back in the air because it was over four hours and another fuel stop at Grand Island before Omaha.
I checked the weather while fueling at Grand Island. A cold front had stalled out across the area and Lincoln was reporting low clouds with light snow while fifty miles to the north, Columbus and Omaha were clear. A bit of a detour but not much so I followed Highway 30 to the northeast. It wasn't long before scuddy clouds to the right pushed me further north.
I'd been in the air a bit over an hour when I finally made it around the end of the low clouds and turned east toward Columbus. The sun was sinking rapidly toward the western horizon and I began to doubt that I would be able to make it Omaha before sunset. I'd still have enough light to land up to half an hour after sunset.
I heard a few quick chirps from the engine and suddenly it began to shake and the rpm dropped to about 1700. I could tell that it was running on only three cylinders and knew that there was not enough power to keep me in the air. A small town lay just ahead and I had enough altitude to reach it. I wanted to land as near help as possible and figured I could find a suitable field near there. I looked along the roads leading out of town because I knew if they had an airstrip of any sort, it would be next to one of them. Sure enough, about a mile from town I spotted a grass strip with a hangar next to it.
I tied the ship down and found the problem immediately. The top sparkplug on the left rear cylinder had unscrewed and was hanging on the plug wire behind the cylinder. The good thing was that it hadn't fallen off but the bad thing was that particular plug was the hardest one to get to. In order to tighten that plug, the cowling and the baffles that direct air over the cylinders would have to be removed.
I knocked at the door of a house across the road from the airport and asked the lady if she knew who ran the airport. She invited me inside and called someone. A few minutes later a pickup pulled up outside. It turned out that he had an airplane in the hangar and was a tractor dealer in Genoa where I had landed. I told him the problem with the engine and that I needed a room for the night and something to eat. I also needed to call my friend in Omaha so he didn't scramble the CAP to search for me when I didn't arrive. I got my backpack out of the ship and just before closing the door, I also took the fat envelope containing the ship's papers out of the luggage bin. For some reason, people rummaging through an airplane will take the logbooks and other papers even though they are totally useless to them but absolutely essential to have with the airplane.
Genoa has a motel of sorts. A man had closed off his two-car garage, put a wall down the middle to make two rooms, which he rented. They shared a common bath. The people were leaving just as we arrived so they told me to make myself at home and leave ten dollars on the dresser. Then we went to the only cafe in town where I could also make my phone call. After I finished dinner, he handed me the keys to his pickup and said, "I just live a block away, meet me here in the morning for breakfast."
There was no TV or anything to read in the room so I opened up the packet of the ship's papers. Sure enough, there was a stack of FAA Form 337s covering all the repairs made during the rebuilding process as well as a number covering the years before. I started thumbing through the logbooks to trace the history of the ship. The last time it had been flown was fifteen years before when it had been damaged by a windstorm. It had been sitting for a long time and gone through three owners before the man who rebuilt it. Further back it had belonged to a flying school who trained people under the GI Bill. There were several notations of repairs after students had either ground looped it and damaged a wing or used the brakes too hard and stood it on its nose. I flipped to the first pages of the original logbook and was shocked to see the name of the pilot who had flown it from Lock Haven to Wes-Tex Aircraft in Lubbock, Texas; it was me! No wonder the registration numbers had seemed so familiar. The other interesting thing was that the flight began on the same day as today except 40 years before in 1946. I had flown perhaps half a dozen new planes out of the factory in those days while building the required 200 hours to get my commercial license. Things were a bit different then; a person paid their own way to the factory just to get the flying time.
It was just getting gray in the east when I arrived the next morning to find him already there, reading a newspaper and having coffee. As I sat down, he shoved a strange looking wrench across the table to me. It took me a few seconds to realize what it was. It was a special wrench made just for tightening the top plugs on Continental engines. "Where in the world did you get this?" I asked.
"A fellow who works for me used to work on airplanes years ago and when I explained your problem, he dug through a tool box and came up with it."
With the special wrench it took only a couple minutes to screw the plug back in and tighten it, something that would have taken an hour or longer without it. I checked the rest of the plugs while I was at it and found two others that were loose and might have come out at some point. It's amazing the strange things that one can forget when doing repairs.
I thanked my benefactor and four fuel stops later, the last some fifty miles out of Oshkosh during which I called John and told him to notify the tower that I would be arriving without a radio. The FAA rule is that the only way one is allowed to land at an airport with a control tower is to notify them by phone no more than an hour or less than half an hour before your arrival. They want to know the direction you will be coming from so they can watch for you.
The tower turns their rotating white and green beacon on at sunset and I was at least ten miles out when I spotted it. At three or four miles away I saw the lights on their main runway go off and those for a shorter one across the north end come on, indicating the runway which they wanted me to use. Then they shot me a green light from the tower. I rocked my wings in acknowledgment, flew a short pattern and touched down on the runway. I saw a car coming toward me, flashing his lights. Then it turned around and led me to John's hangar. Sixteen and a half hours in the air, I was cold, hungry, tired and ready to get out of that airplane. Somehow flying a Cub seemed a lot more fun when I was eighteen than now that I was fifty-eight.
I flew back from Milwaukee early on Thanksgiving morning with the plans to
hop in the Cessna 210 and fly on to Texas where my wife was already with her
sister. The only problem was when we arrived at Colorado Springs, the snow was
coming down and I knew it was much heavier in the forest which was 2000 feet
With the gliderport closed, there was no way I could call someone to come after me so I hopped a cab. The higher we climbed toward the trees, the worse the roads became until half a mile from the house, he could go no further and I had to trudge through the snow from there. I wrote this story as a magazine article which was ultimately published in Plane and Pilot, then with nothing else to do other than watch the snow come down, I decided to write a novel about the flight. During the next four days while the snow piled up to more than three feet deep, I let my mind run a little wild. The result was The Flight.
After two or three failed attempts to get the story published, I was finally successful in the fall of 2009. You may buy the book by clicking the book cover below.
ASLO: The history of the Piper Cub aircraft is amazing. Check out the intriguing video HERE.
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