Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Travel Air Trifecta

A few years back our good friend Glenn Frith called with a problem.  Sitting in Seattle Washington was a beautiful Travel Air 4000 with his name on it.  His home was in Ft. Meyers.  That’s a problem alright and I had an idea how to fix it.  A few weeks later, along with some friends in a Pilatus chase plane, we would start the journey home.
Previously in NORDO News, I wrote about our time in Spokane.  That was our first stop.  This  is from the second.

Just arrived.
When we arrived in Kalispell with the Travel Air, the rest of the crew was waiting.  The day’s goal had been discussed and we were on a mission.  Mike Fizer and Mark Twombly, both from AOPA, were on hand and expecting to get an air to air photo shoot completed by sunset.  Mark was writing the story of our trip and Mike was to work his magic behind the camera.  There was just one problem, a photo ship.
When a photo shoot is over and the photos pop off the screen, I always lament one thing; if only people knew how much effort actually went into those frames.   It may seem easy but every photographer knows the nightmare.  It’s extremely difficult to gather into one patch of air a qualified photographer, a suitable airplane to shoot from, a pilot who can both fly and work the photo plane in a way that suits the photographer, and a pilot who can fly the subject plane the way the photographer needs to get the shots.  Although a good photographer can pull something from very little, a great shoot needs all these things to converge at one time.  If any aspect is unclear, or anyone involved feels unsure about the outcome, it’s not going to work. Unfortunately, on that day, the guy I had hoped would fly the photo ship wasn’t into it.  Thank God for Hank.
Hank and Ray, our hosts.
We had come to Kalispell for three reasons.  First of all, I love the place.  Secondly my friends, Hank Galpin and Ray Sanders, were there.  These two guys are true antiquers and we wanted to get them in on the article.  As a bonus, both of them own interesting aircraft.  One of which is Hank’s Travel Air 6000.  The 6000 was the third reason we were there.  He had said he would let me fly it if I ever made it back to Kalispell. 
Mark Twombly enjoying a ride in the 6000.
So here was our original idea; what could be better than stunning photos of a couple of Travel Airs over Flathead Lake?  That was my thinking at least.  Then our photo pilot didn’t seem up for it.  Thankfully, Hank jumped in and offered the use of his plane as the photo ship.  Although this meant the two Travel Airs shoot wouldn't happen, on the upside the photographers would be getting an amazing ride in an extremely rare machine.  Everyone was happy.
This photo was taken by Mike Fizer from the Travel Air 6000.
With the mission briefing complete, we were off.  An hour or so later we were done.  During the shoot we had flown the shoreline,crossed cold deep water, and flown along the mountains.  Once on the ground, everyone guessed which frame would be the best.  When I was asked my opinion, I suggested one of three; the one with the sun in my eyes, that one where I was “ten feet down-twenty feet back”, or possibly the “hold it right there” shot.  But, in reality I didn’t care.  It had been a good shoot and the day was over.  Tomorrow there would be more.
Glenn was kind enough to let me fly for the shoot.  Photo by Mike Fizer
The next morning, after escaping a sleep coma induced by the previous day’s flying, we repositioned the Travel Air to Ray Sanders’ place.  Situated in the middle of a wheat field just north of Flathead Lake, it was the perfect location to get some detail shots for the article.  It was also a wonderful place to relax and talk airplanes.
Jim Jarvis watching the excitement.
Put a few old planes in a field, along with a handful of pilots, and before long fun is going to happen.  To start, Hank offered a ride in the 6000 to everyone in the group.  It may not be cheap to fly these old crates around but what’s the point if you don’t?  That would be the theme of the day.  Recording the sight as it taxied past, all I could see were smiles.  The Travel Air was casting its spell.
When our friends returned from their flight, those who weren't antiquers when they left, were  when they landed.  In fact, as their feet touched soil once again, I’m sure they were imagining themselves in their very own 6000.   Then Hank stepped out with a question for me, “Do you still want to fly it”?
Inside I was thinking, “Does a bear crap in the woods”.  What came out was much less dramatic; “Sure”.  To anyone listening it may have sounded unappreciative but Hank knew better.  A few minutes later we were in the plane and I was in the left seat.

Whatever it was it was important.
While flipping switches, latching belts, and making sure everything else was just right, Hank briefed me on the bird’s characteristics.  Somewhere in there, the words “I’ve never let anyone fly it before” were spoken.  The fact he was double checking with himself to make sure this wasn’t a mistake made me want to put him at ease.  Yet, I was sure I remembered other people flying the plane so I decided I had heard him wrong and moved on. 
Breaking ground in the old girl was something I’ll never forget.  At another time in my life, just seeing one would have been a treat.  There’s only a handful left and even fewer that actually fly.  Yet somehow there I was flying a pristine example. Like those before me, it didn’t take long to imagine one of my own.
Much easier to fly than expected, but nowhere near sprightly, the 6000 is a combination of truck and Bentley.  Easily one of the era’s finer forms of transportation, later they would find their niche as bush planes.  Due to this, several survived to be restored back to their elegant glory.
Flying once again over Flathead Lake, only this time in a larger airframe, I did my best to make friends with the plane.  Slow flight and turns revealed characteristics similar to other aircraft of the era.  Make the inputs for a turn; then wait.  It’s not really like that but compared to what most people fly, if they were to get in this plane and cruise around, that’s exactly how they would perceive it.  Furthermore, once a bank starts, its angle definitely wants to increase.  Nearly all old aircraft have some tendency to do this.  Roll into it pretty good with the 6000 though and you’ll find yourself doing an equal amount of work to keep it from banking further.  But hey, that’s typical of these old birds so you deal with it.

Some pilots I know who've flown a 6000 really talk them down as a barn with wings.  Flying a New Standard would fix that notion.  Like most vintage planes with less than stellar pilot reports, this Travel Air's reputation is a victim of modern misconceptions. Those who fail to understand these planes were once new, also forget each model was originally built for a purpose and sold to someone who needed what it offered.  The 6000 could transport five passengers in relative comfort for significantly less money than other aircraft of the day.  Viewed with that perspective, it was and still is an amazing machine.
Click on the photo to see more information and detail.
Rolling wings level headed back towards the farm, I took the opportunity to smell the roses. Flying a plane like this without taking it all in would be criminal.  Therefore I relaxed and looked around.  To my left was a crank down window where my elbow was perched, my right hand worked the throttle, and my left hand held the wheel.  Through the glass raw scenery passed,  while the engine conjured up spirits which  would show me the world through their eyes.  Simpler, more free, and demanding of skill, their time was one of man and machine; peril and excitement.  They lived in the sky and on that day so did we.
There I am starting my first Travel Air 6000 flare.
Lined up on final, Hank made sure to remind me he had no brakes and therefore I was on my own.  What he was really saying though was, “Don’t screw this up”.  Fortunately the Travel Air seems to have a groove which it finds on its own and tracks to the runway.  There it has the ability to make an average pilot look good as it alights ever so nicely and rolls straight to a stop. Turning to taxi back, my smile gave me away. I too was imagining my very own 6000 (Still saving my pennies Hank).
Who cares about a little oil on the windshield?
Leaning over to look down from the window as we swung into our spot, the last thing I remember was the view; wing struts going there, landing gear here, and large diameter wheels holding us up.  Some aircraft are old but they don’t feel it.  The 6000 is not one of those.  Windshield fairings, the control column, wicker seats, cylinders in your face, and the drag inducing devices mounted outside remind you continuously of her age. Therefore, it was truly a special feeling to have been at the controls.
Stepping from the plane and wanting to remember the moment, I turned to see what I had just flown. It was then that Ray asked what I thought of it.  “I WANT ONE” was most likely my answer.  Whatever it was though, he didn't need to hear it to understand the flight had made my day.  Then, without pause, he asked if I would like to fly his.  “Could I?” is what I think I said but I honestly do not know.  My mind was spinning with the excitement of a fourteen year old boy who had just walked in on Mila Kunis and Emma Stone making out.
Standing with Ray at his hangar I still could not believe my luck.  As the doors were pulled open, the hangar drained of darkness until another plane in the lineage was revealed.  Having started the day in a Travel Air 4000, gone on to a 6000, and then found myself in front of this wonderful little blue and white 16E, it was a Travel Air dream come true.
Ray is saying to me "Pay attention".  Well actually that's what I think it looks like he is saying.
Once in the sun I couldn’t wait to fly her but there were things left to do.  Get the oil from the cylinders and grease everything; check out the cockpit and ask how it all works.  Anything odd?  How about the trim?  Ok anything else?  Yes; yes I see; ok; great; let’s see how she flies.  Am I strapped in?  Yes I’m ready.  Brakes on.  She’s hot!  And with a swing of the prop she was  running.
There’s something I love about five cylinder radials that most aviators do not; when they are running it’s extremely obvious.  Why?  With cubic inches spread between so few combustion chambers, every time a cylinder lights off, you get a kick in the pants.  Pilots therefore complain how they shake.  I suppose they also complain about heavy breathing.  Not me though; that’s the heart of the old girl and the more fire inside the better.
Pushing the power up caught me off guard.  I didn't expect it to climb so well.  Leveling off high over the far end of the runway a steep turn seemed necessary.  The roll rate was also surprising.  Stalls were non-events and throttle application was like a slap to a horse’s rump.

Wait, let me clear up something.   If you have flown really high performance aircraft, you may not be that impressed by this machine.  But, compared to other aircraft of the day this plane is a hoot.  In fact, with both planes sitting empty, the 16E and a 450 Stearman have the same power to weight ratio. 
This was on the panel of the 16E.
Do more powerful planes exist?  Yes.  Is there anything from that era that is more responsive?  Possibly.  But is there any other plane from 1932 that is such a sleeper?  I don’t think so.  
Despite its manageable size (28’10” wingspan), sprightly performance, and rarity, the 16 series is widely overlooked in vintage aviation circles.  At certain times of the year, there are places where you could swing a dead cat and hit an RNF Waco (another great airplane) yet they often bring a 50% premium over the much rarer Travel Air. Come to think of it, the last time a 16E sold, only a few years back, it had sat for a year, maybe two, when it finally went for around $50,000.  That was an award winner.  Nobody ever said the vintage market made sense.
On short final in the 16E.   
Taxiing in and to a stop by the two other Travel Airs, it was hard to believe I had just flown the range of the breed; small, medium, and large.  A great day had peaked and was winding down.  Lined up on the field, both friends and flying machines were captured on "film" for posterity.  The scenery was amazing, smiles abounded, and memories had clearly been made.  Then Hank thanked me for flying his plane.
I had been wrong.  As it turned out, others may have been in the right seat at the controls but he had never let anyone fly it from taxi-out to shutdown or from the left seat.  When I heard him say earlier that he’d never let anyone fly it, he wasn’t kidding.  Having deposited a ton of sweat equity and money in this old girl, it was his baby.  But he also wanted to share the plane with others.  Inside though he was hesitant to allow others to fly it.  It's a common struggle for today's antique owners and that’s why he thanked me.  “You may have just opened the door to others flying it”, he said.
The Trifecta
The good old days of antique aviation are over.  The truly vintage birds are no longer flown the way Cubs and Champs are today.  Most instead have found homes in what could best be described as micro-collections.  There they are pampered, flown only to the same handful of events each year, and rarely touched by others.  Fortunately, they are also saved.  The question though is why?
I think that’s what Hank was getting at when he expressed the desire to let others fly the plane.  Why are we saving them if nobody is enjoying them?  And that is why I enjoy the company of people like Hank and Ray.  Somewhere deep down, they believe there’s more to these machines than fabric and tube and they do their best to live it.
Another thanks goes out to the Ft. Meyers crew for including me in this journey.  I didn't forget you; you'll get your own story later.  Thanks again to Hank whose generosity turned me into a kid, and Ray who opened the door to something I did not expect.  You have shepherded the souls of these old crates into a new generation and given me the gift of memories impossible to repay.

L to R: Glenn Frith, Sorin Lupu, Jim Jarvis, Ray Sanders, Hank Galpin, Rich Davidson
Front: The great dog that knew how to pose for a photo.
Purists may argue that not all three of these aircraft are Travel Airs.  Yes, each side of this argument has its merits yet both involve minutia.   Therefore, if you would like to learn more about the different Travel Air and Curtiss Wright Travel Air aircraft, minus tedious debate, check out this link.

Flying vintage planes is serious business.


Randy Sizemore said...

Brought back memories of when I was learning tailwheel flying from a couple of brothers. One of the airplanes we used was a Champ. It was unique for a couple of reasons. It had a skylight; and the brothers had learned to fly in this, their family airplane. And I was told no one else had soloed it before. But then one day they turned me loose in it. I will not forget the specialness of that flight, and the gesture of trust extended to me that day. That's what's in the heart of true aviators.

Tobe Hampton said...

Such a great article! I worked in Bozeman for a month about 7 years ago, and got to fly right seat with Hank, as you say, a very generous pilot indeed! Still my favorite flying moment, memorialized in my logbook as "1/2 Introductory flight, Travel Air 6000".