We were a flight of three as we departed JZP and headed to the southeast. The day was clear, with wispy cirrus clouds gracefully painting a winter blue sky. Hotlanta was a schemer’s promise shining to our south and Stone Mountain was a timeless beacon of days long past and a future not yet seen. It was our group’s intent to meet some folks at the Spitfire Deli at Winder and enjoy a day of flying, socializing and just plain fun.
There is something that goes beyond the tangible when the spirit yearns for a day, or even an hour, to revive itself and receives it. I needed this day and I knew in the deepest recesses of my heart that the Good Lord gave it to me; a day of calm winds, blue sky and warm hearts gathering together to celebrate life and living in one the best ways that we pilots know how. The journey of my sister-in-law, Mollie, is nearing its end. She has fought and struggled for each moment of life for the past seven years. It was not a vain endeavor, as she has seen her children grow into fine young adults and has given hope and encouragement to breast cancer patients, far and wide, who have had the privilege of knowing her.
On this Saturday, I left the hospitals, doctors and realities of life where they lay and hopped into my airplane with my best friend, Boonie, to fly my worries away and prove that my own heart was still beating with the rhythms of life. Our flight of three on this fine morning included my Lester, a 1948 Luscombe 8E with a magnificent C-85 Continental engine with the O-200 conversion. The Old Man was leading in his 1946 Luscombe 8A with a modest A-65 Continental, but that will out-climb nearly everything around with his climb prop while burning a modest 4.5 gallons of fuel per hour. Keely was beside him, probably dreaming of the hot dog and fries that would soon be coming her way. Howard and Johnny were right echelon in a 1947 PA-12, with an O-235 C-1 Lycoming engine promising 100 horsepower, but capably accommodating the needs of her companions.
We departed Juliet Zulu Papa in air so smooth I had to remind myself to breathe.
With the Old Man on point, Howard and I were forced to throttle back. Climb performance on a Luscombe comes at a cost. His cruise at 90 mph is much less than if he used a standard or cruise prop. However, I’ve learned that every aircraft owner is vain and has a standard by which he or she must perform. For the Ancient One, his ability to climb at 1,000 fpm in a variety of conditions is worth the cost when most folks stand agog as he climbs by.
In such silky smooth air, I don’t mind throttling back and watching the world pass slowly by. I had my lead man to the right at a casual distance, so I could watch the scenery and keep up my commentary with Boonie without having to keep my eyeball peeled constantly to his aluminum. When life is good, I can tweak my rpms and trim and fly in my space without thought. In bumpy air, it’s work. The longest I’ve done it is 5.5 tach hours, and after that time it’s as natural as breathing fresh, clean, winter’s air.
After my week, it was child’s play.
Our arrival at Winder was like it is most times, at airports where there are multiple runways. It seems there is a perpetual disagreement as to the active runway at these facilities. Modern drivers will brave the crosswind to land on the longer runway while flyers of the old school, who have had wind direction driven into their heads by instructors and experience, will opt for the “”shorter”" runway which favors a non-event landing. In all honesty, I have a grave dislike for landing at these places. Lester doesn’t have a concept of the modern approach to landing. Asphalt is modern to him. Nevertheless, I figured the C-182 driver, who was determined to land opposed to the prevailing wind, had a greater fear of landing his Cessna on 3,600 feet than I had of landing a bucking bronco in a crosswind.
He was probably right.
We parked our taildraggers in the grass, with the other arrivals, for our lunch event at the Spitfire. Such a name was apropos for the day and for my Lester. He’d felt his mama’s mood on the way over, and I could feel him straining at the bit. Every part of him was yearning to point his nose into the wind and fly, but I held him back. Just like I’d held back the fear, pain and anger I’d felt all week. Like me, Lester was ready to know he was more than aluminum and scrap. He wanted to feel the living fire buried down deep in his Continental soul.
I whispered a promise…
We enjoyed the meal and our visit with flying friends, but we didn’t stay long or linger, for fear a telephone call would find us far from home. As our group departed the area, I announced my intent to leave them. No throttling back for us as I promised Lester that he could have his lead. I pushed the throttle forward to my usual cruise setting and fiddled with my trim. Luscombe trim is a delicate thing. There’s a fine line between enough and too much, and with a crank mechanism finding that elusive place called “”trimmed”" can be difficult. That day, I never gave it a thought as I pushed the throttle in another fifty rpms and adjusted the trim. Lester was humming happily at 110 mph, and I just let myself feel.
In the back of my mind, Don Sword’s whispered recommendation for flying his masterpiece called to me. I’d never really followed it, as 110 mph on 5.5 gallons per hour was enough performance for me. But not today. Today I wanted to know what Lester could really do, and he was ready to show me. The air was cool and smooth and even though we were loaded, I had burned my fuel and adjusted the weight wisely, and the airplane felt balanced. I pushed the throttle in another 50 rpms and adjusted my trim.
At 115 mph, Lester’s nose dropped a tad as his tail raised. The engine pulsed with a life that only voodoo magic could have conjured. I’m not sure what words were whispered or incanted as cases, cranks, cylinders and pistons were mated, but I could feel the smooth, raw power pulsating through the stick I held in my hand.
Another 50 rpms and, at 120 mph, Lester was on the step. He was slicing through the air with ease, nose slightly low and tail high with the VSI pegged on zero. He’d found that place that Internet physicists told me couldn’t exist, and the only words my passenger whispered was a reverent, “”My Gawd!”" I almost told him that I feared God didn’t have anything to do with it.
I didn’t ask for more. What I was doing already seemed unnatural in a Luscombe, but Lester was humming through the blue winter’s sky as happy as he could be, and even though they were barely discernible and smooth, it seemed I could feel every stroke of that engine flowing through my veins, and strangely I felt the slice of the prop not at all. Pulling Lester back upon entering the pattern was an unaccustomed sensation. I reined those horses in as best I could, and then used a good slip on final to keep my airspeed pegged. The veil of voodoo magic fell from us as we came back to earth with a delicate thud.
Nearly two weeks later, the angels came to Mollie’s house and claimed that which belonged to God. Another mother was gone and another pink ribbon fluttered helplessly to the ground.