It’s a rarity for Ginger and me to get away from the airport. It’s even rarer when we have time to visit friends at their events. Therefore, if enough time comes free, we always try to sneak in a trip to a event hosted by someone else. This November, it was the Veteran’s Day Fly-In at Ron Alexander’s place, Candler Field.
Moving antique airplanes is a funny business. When it comes time to push, nearly every owner is silently nervous but physically spastic about the help he needs but does not want. To make things worse, the abundant volunteers often seem to run at the airplane from all directions as if the machine had an injured leg and wolves were descending. Witnessing this, the owner quickly imagines the inevitable damage, weighs it against the potential cost of exposure to the elements, and says “Ok, puuuush.”
There is another side to this experience though, being the volunteer. If you have ever helped an owner reposition his or her mechanical eighty year old baby into a tight hangar, you understand that in this manner one can quickly ascertain the disposition of said owner. Human dispositions may vary widely but when it comes to aircraft owners, there are basically two types; non-pilots and pilots.
The first type is the guy who wants the tires to hit the same tracks on the hangar floor, demands the tires sit on carpet squares, and insists on checking everything you do despite the fact you obviously just checked it yourself. Once it is in the hangar, he drapes a cover over any opening, hangs from the airplane a special gadget he made to catch drips, and finishes with a ritual. This ritual, or rain dance as I call it, usually involves the random checking and double checking of random odd items on the aircraft, the wiping of key aircraft surfaces to remove any traces of flight, positioning of aircraft control surfaces to neutral, and a final inspection of that one thing he is worried might break, whatever it is. The next or second type is the pilot.
In this case, the owner's biggest concern is not the hangar floor but that his flying machine is airworthy and remains so. Therefore, although he might share a few traits with the non-pilot, the reasons for his madness are much different. This is the guy I met back in November, when I placed my hands on the struts of his Curtiss Robin; “Ok, puuuush.”
As I pulled up the next morning to collect on Richard's offer to fly, a cold clear blue sky awaited. Climbing into the pilot’s seat, I listened carefully to what he had to say. Well, actually I listened as well as I could. Underneath me though, wicker crackled like a saddle announcing the mount a horse and out front metal plinked as it cooled from Richard’s warm up flight. These little details made it difficult to stay focused and yet I somehow managed to gather the Robin does nothing unexpected, you fly it mostly with rudder, and “it flies like a Cub with a thousand pound bomb strapped to its belly.” That last bit is typical of Richard’s sense of humor. Thankfully, this is all you need to know to fly a Robin and just when I was about to shut the door, Richard grabbed it.
Sitting there, looking out at Richard with him looking in at me, the air took on a brief feeling of seriousness. “I’ve never done this before, just letting someone fly my plane" he said. "It feels like I’m sharing a girlfriend with a stranger. Are you sure you’re up to it." Being the first person let loose with another man’s plane is a great honor, but being set free with another man’s girlfriend is something else altogether. Therefore, I assured him I was up to it “and oh yeah, she’ll be needing some rest when I get back.” He closed the door and I cranked the engine.
Leaving the ground in any old Curtiss is an incredible thing, but leaving the ground that day in that Robin is something I’ll never forget. There, in one machine, existed a true vintage design from the early days of aviation, a panel layout that only five years later would have been unthinkable, an enclosed cabin that would be the future of aviation, and a powerplant that unfortunately would not. In that plane was engineering from the twenties before flying was truly figured out, some clues to the future when it would be, and a pilot born one year before man stepped on the moon. That is my kind of flying.
Now again, I realize some of you Pitts guys will still want to stir me up over the idea of traveling in a Pitts and the Bücker guys will want to stir me up for comparing a Bücker to a Pitts, but however you feel about either plane, the one big difference between the two comes down to the practicality of ownership. In such a runoff, in my opinion, the Bücker would always win, despite its rarity. And this is coming from a guy who thinks highly of the Pitts design.