There are certain flights every aviator has on his or her bucket list and flying across the United States in an open cockpit biplane has to be one of them.
Summer Martell, a pilot from Port Townsend, Wash., can check that one off her list. In August, Martell and two friends made the journey from Washington state to Dayton, Ohio, to be part of the second annual Ladies Love Taildraggers Fly-In.
The event, held Aug. 12-14 at Moraine Air Park, attracted nearly 50 aircraft and some 300 people from all over the country. You didn’t have to be a woman to participate, notes Martell, you just have to love airplanes, especially taildraggers.
When she’s not making her living flying a corporate jet or acting as a Designated Examiner for the FAA, you’ll probably find Martell behind the stick of her 1931 Student Prince.
“If you’ve never heard of it, don’t worry — it’s only one of three airplanes that came out of the factory in Portland, Ore.,” she laughs. “These aircraft builders thought they were going to make a small run of sport trainer biplanes, but the Depression hit so they ran out of money. My biplane was the last one they managed to finish.”
The Student Prince was bought by her father, known in the Port Townsend community as “Flyin’ Brian.” She credits him for igniting the spark of what was to become a burning passion for flight.
“My parents divorced when I was 5,” she recalls. “I was living with my mother in Palmer, Alaska, and when I was about 14 my father was learning to fly. He was sending me Richard Bach books where he heavily underlined the passages and had notes in the margins. He was clearly very enthusiastic about this.”
Her father learned to fly in Cessna tricycle gear aircraft, but soon made the transition to tailwheel.
“He saw the Student Prince in a hangar at an airport and he said it smiled at him and he knew he had to have it,” she says. “Then he started sending me photographs of him and his newly acquired Student Prince.”
Martell soon moved to Port Townsend to reconnect with her father and learn to fly. She soloed at 16 in the Student Prince, which her father christened “Lady Summer.”
“It was a huge experience,” she says. “I remember getting airborne and getting so enthused and suddenly noticing that my instructor’s head wasn’t there. Then I was looking around and got less enthused as I thought, ‘Oh! I hope I can do this!’”
Soon Martell was barnstorming with her father.
“I was the ground crew. It was my job to load passengers and collect the money and lug gas cans, while Dad kept the engine running because the Student Prince has no starter — you have to hand prop it. We would fly to airports up and down the Pacific coast and put up a sign that said biplane rides.”
Fast forward to this June. Martell, now a 9,000-hour corporate pilot, was on a layover in California when she saw an article about an organization called Ladies Love Taildraggers.
“When I was in my room I looked them up and they seemed like a really great group,” she says. “I applied to be part of the group by submitting some photographs and an article about myself and the Student Prince and they were so warm and welcoming and enthusiastic. They said, ‘hey we’re having a fly-in in Dayton in August, would you like to come?’ and I thought ‘why not’? … if I can get the time off work, why not?’ Then one thing led to another and, sure enough, on Aug. 7 I found myself heading east in my biplane.”
Martell was accompanied her close friend Chrissy Bishop.
“Chrissy isn’t a pilot, but she has the same adventurous spirit I do,” Martell says. “She’s really fun and she’s low maintenance and she has a great sense of humor. She is a farm girl, so she’s handy and I knew this would be a great experience for her. She had never done anything like this before. She’d never been separated from her husband of 11 years for more than a few days at a time, so this was a big deal.”
As part of her duties, Bishop had to learn how to hand-prop the Student Prince.
“It has a Kinner B5-4 engine on it with an impulse coupler,” Martell explains. “It you throw the prop too hard it won’t start. Often men will muscle it too much. I gave Chrissy a safety briefing and taught her how to do it. As the trip progressed she got more and more comfortable with it.”
Martell notes that Bishop, who grew up on a farm, remarked that the propeller was like a bull, saying “I don’t fear it, but I respect it.”
Another friend, Jerry Ryder, also joined the adventure, flying his 1956 Super Cub.
“He was flying off my wing,” Martell says. “He had to throttle back and fly at low cruise to stay with the Student Prince because it cruises at 80 to 85 miles per hour.”
Martell knew she was about to embark on something special because of the reactions from other people she told about the trip.
“I heard over and over from people who would say ‘this is something I’ve always wanted to do’ and I would say ‘then why don’t you come?’ and they’d have their reasons — and their reasons would win.”
The idea of taking a trip across country and stopping in places where you don’t know anyone can be intimidating, but not so much if you’re flying an airplane like the Student Prince, says Martell, noting that flying an unusual antique airplane can open many doors.
“It is really kind of a golden key,” she says. “You show up in something that interesting and that beautiful and that rare and the barriers kind of melt.”
When it came time to plan the flight, Martell says she was conflicted. In some respects she wanted to embrace the Golden Age of aviation and fly strictly by pilotage and dead reckoning, but she also didn’t want to take any foolish chances.
“When I started the trip, the Student Prince had just come out of a complete restoration and had about 50 hours on it,” she says. “The engine had just been rebuilt and I didn’t know for sure what the engine was going to do for fuel burn. I had the internal struggle with the barnstormer in me. I’d been flying all my life in a biplane with no electricity and no radio to ‘oh gosh should I take a GPS?’ and I knew my taildragger friends would probably tease me. I started the planning using a paper sectional and plotting course lines.”
She eventually decided to take along a handheld Garmin GPSMAP196 and her iPad with the Foreflight app, along with paper charts.
The flight was a series of short hops and refueling stops as the Student Prince’s tank holds just 21 gallons. With a fuel burn of seven to eight gallons per hour, flight legs were limited to about two hours each.
They flew a total of 25 legs on the trip. There was no hard itinerary, Martell notes, saying that if there was a runway that looked appealing they landed.
The stop in Ackley, Iowa, was particularly enjoyable, she recalls.
“It is a tiny little town with a grass municipal strip. It was an unscheduled diversion and put us slightly off our course but I saw it on the last leg of the second to last evening we were flying east bound. It was a beautiful evening — the moon was rising, the sun was setting, the air was smooth, it was gorgeous — and I looked slightly to the south of our intended route and I saw this little open circle, which denotes a grass strip. As a taildragger pilot, you are drawn to them.”
The two airplanes landed and soon the townsfolk came out to see the visitors. The “two girls in the airplane” became the talk of the town.
“They were all welcoming, asking what we were doing, and they had us over to their hangar for a BBQ, and they all came out in the morning to see us off. They were completely taken with what we were doing. They brought a reporter from the local newspaper to do a story. It was so old school, it was like going back to a Norman Rockwell painting.”
Martell says the trip gave her a deeper appreciation for the beauty of our country. Most of the trip was flown at 2,000 to 3,000 feet AGL, which put them close enough to smell the land they were flying over, particularly a field of sunflowers in the Dakotas.
“We have freedoms that no place else on Earth has, including the freedom to get up and fly,” she says. “We have beautiful geography and topography and beautiful people. The heart of America is alive and well, as far as I am concerned.”
Martell supplied a running commentary during the journey on her blog, SummerSky2011. She was inspired to write the blog by Sophie Lucas, an 11-year-old who is a member of the Ladies Love Taildraggers group.
“Sophie is completely into airplanes — she signs off as Future Pilot,” Martell says. “I thought if this little 11-year-old girl is this interested, I am going to write about it.”
“We landed right before sunset at Moraine Airpark,” she recalls. “We had been pushing so hard to get there before the sun went down. Chrissy and I were hooting and hollering as I pulled off the runway and we waited for Jerry to land. We taxied in together and there was a crowd of 30 people. We had a bottle of champagne in the cockpit before the prop stopped turning! People were so happy and there was a lot of hugging. There is a huge sky family that we had never formally met, but they were watching our Spot-Tracker on this huge monitor in their hangar so they were on pins and needles the whole time we were on our way in.”
For the next few days Martell, Bishop and Ryder hobnobbed with aviators from all over the country.
“The ladies with their taildraggers are a very diverse group,” says Martell. “They come from all walks of life — there were grandmas, young professionals, wives. All were feisty, with that fire in the belly and, of course, they all had beautiful airplanes.”
When it was too windy to fly, the group did a little hangar flying.
When the weather was good enough, they took to the air, taking photos. After those flights, there would be BBQ and more hangar flying.
Martell also had the opportunity to give Sophie a flying lesson.
“I had the front stick put in the Student Prince when we landed,” she says. “It was a big deal for this 11-year-old girl to log some Student Prince time and she did great!”
Martell decide to create a memento of the trip by having people sign a panel of the Student Prince. She had a mechanic remove the panel with the “Lady Summer” inscription, then gave Sophie the job of taking it around to people to have them sign the back side.
“She was so into her job,” Martell smiles. “She had everyone at the fly-in sign the inside of it and then we put it back on.”
Within a few days the airplanes departed Ohio for home. “There were promises of more visits and lots of ‘see you next year’s exchanged,” she says.
Martell hopes more pilots will go on their own adventures.
“Most of us get busy with day-to-day obligations we put on ourselves and we harbor dreams that we don’t bring into fulfillment,” she says. “That was me as well, but when I finally decided to step out and take it on — not knowing what the weather was going to be, not knowing if my airplane was going to fall apart — not knowing, but deciding to do it, it was magical.”
For more information: Summersky2011.wordpress.com