Do you remember the first airplane you flew? For many people, this event is right up there with your first kiss.
And some aviators are lucky enough to find their first and make it their own many years later. Randall Patterson of Palm Coast, Fla., is one of those lucky people. He owns the very 1947 Aeronca L-16A that he logged his first hour in.
“It’s the first entry in my first logbook,” the 75-year-old Patterson explained, patting the cowling affectionately. “I figure I started my flying career with the airplane and I will end it with the airplane!”
I caught up with Patterson and his Aeronca in the liaison warbird area of SUN ’n FUN. Dressed in an olive-drab flight suit, he was more than happy to tell me about his very special airplane.
“Aeronca Champs were used by the military in World War II as liaison and artillery-spotting aircraft,” he said. “They could take off from unimproved fields in a very short distance. It doesn’t have much of a range because it only holds 13 gallons of gas, so after about two hours in flight you can see where you going to land, whether you like it or not.”
In the post-war years the Champ was used extensively by the Civil Air Patrol. Patterson was first introduced to the airplane as a CAP member in California.
“I put about 20 hours on it,” recalled Patterson, who now has more than 22,000 hours. “Then the CAP decided that they didn’t want any more airplanes that needed to be hand-propped to get them to start, so the aircraft were sold as surplus. At the time, I didn’t have the wherewithal to buy it. They were sold for $300 to $400!”
At the time, Aeroncas were a popular training aircraft and the CAP surplus birds were snapped up quickly.
Then, as now, flying was a relatively expensive hobby. Patterson shelved his flying to go to school, intending to get a job outside aviation.
“When I got out of school I got a non-flying job and went back to flying as a hobby,” he said. He continued building his hours and adding tickets, then decided that a career in aviation was what he wanted. “I went to work at Flying Tigers and spent virtually my whole career there until the last two, which were with FedEx, and somewhere down the line I moved to Florida.”
Patterson continued flight instructing on the side. In the late 1980s someone at his airport bought an Aeronca and came to him for tailwheel instruction. That opened the door to the acquisition of Aeronca 9-1-Charlie.
“His insurance company wanted to know how much time I had in Aeroncas. I got my first logbook out and started totaling up hours and it got me to thinking, ‘I wonder where 609-1-Charlie is?’ So I called the FAA and they gave me the name and address of the guy who now owned the airplane. He lived in Reno, Nevada. I called information and found out the man was listed!”
That man is Ed Riley. Patterson placed the call, telling him he would like to buy the plane.
“He told me that it was not for sale, and that he was in the process of restoring it back to its original, as in fresh-from-the-factory condition,” Patterson said. “I asked if I could come to Reno and take a look at it, and faxed him a photocopy of the first page of my number one logbook. He called me back and said ‘Randy, if I ever decide to sell this airplane, you will have the first crack at it.’”
Patterson made a trip to Reno during a West Coast layover.
“I saw the airplane in the back yard. It was just a skeleton. It had been sandblasted down to bare metal. So I went and tripped around for another year, flying around the world, then I called him and asked how the restoration was coming. He said ‘we’ve got everything covered now.’ I asked if I could come out and take a look at it. He said yes.”
This time, the wings were laying against the wall of the shop and the fuselage was covered.
“I spent the day with him. We had a nice visit, then I went back to work. Another year went by, then I gave him a jingle and he said it was finished. I asked if I could come to Reno and fly it and he said ‘absolutely,’ so I did.”
The Reno area is dotted with short runways carved out on federal lands. According to Patterson, the pair spent the better part of the day flying in and out of these private airstrips.
At the end of the day Patterson left with a heavy heart. “I figured that was the last I’d ever see of the airplane, because he told me that he wanted to trade the airplane to a museum for an airplane that the museum had too many of.”
Another year went by and then Patterson received an email from a FedEx pilot who lived in the Tahoe area telling him “there is a guy down here in Reno with a Champ for sale.”
It was Mr. Riley.
Patterson quickly made contact with him and was told that he had first dibs on the airplane.
“He asked, ‘do you want it’? and I said ‘YOU BETCHA!’ and BAM! I answer the email with YES!’
Patterson’s wife was a little shocked when he announced he was flying to Nevada to buy an airplane. “She was staring at me with stony eyes,” he chuckled. “She says ‘Did I just understand that you bought an airplane?’ I said ‘yeah’ and she asked, ‘Didn’t you think that was something that we should talk about?’ and I said ‘no, the outcome was gonna be the same — there wasn’t going to any discussion.’ She asked ‘can’t you buy an airplane like that here?’ and I said ‘no, I can’t buy THAT airplane here! That airplane is very special! She asked, ‘Well how much are you paying for this airplane?’ and I said ‘I don’t care, whatever it takes! I want that airplane! I said don’t worry he won’t rake me over the coals.”
He was in Reno by the next morning.
“Ed picked me up at the airport. We spent the day flying the Aeronca so that I could get real comfortable, then I handed over the check and headed for home. I didn’t take a radio. I didn’t take a GPS. It was just me, and the airplane, and the map. It took me seven days, that’s about 35 hours, to fly back from Reno.”
He wasn’t worried about the long trip home, he said, because for its age, the Aeronca has a relatively low-time airframe.
“It only has 3,000 to 4,000 hours because after it left the Civil Air Patrol it was bought by someone who put it into a garage. It was then sold again and put into another garage. It was never really flying until Ed Riley bought it,” he said, adding he had complete confidence in Riley’s restoration job.
“The airplane was built with a hacksaw and a welder and a pair of pliers. You can make anything on the airplane if you have the old part to use as a template. There is a lot of documentation on the airframe. You can have it made. Nothing on this airplane was built by a controlled machine. There is nothing intricate on this airplane — everything is flat with holes drilled in it.”
Patterson does much of the maintenance himself, and what he needs assistance with he turns over to a friend who is an A&P and IA.
Today, Patterson flies the Aeronca out of Flagler County Airport, (XFL) in Palm Coast, Fla.
Patterson, who flies the vintage bird every chance he gets, especially enjoys coming to fly-ins like SUN ’n FUN — 2012 marked his 20th visit to the show — where he proudly wears a military flightsuit and poses for photos with his airplane. He’ll even point out the faux bullet holes in the side of the fuselage which, he notes, add a layer of realism to the airplane.
“They weren’t armed, but they got shot at,” he said. “The paint scheme on the airplane was the last of its kind. My airplane, serial number 1124, came out of the factory in November 1947 right when the Air Force took over the Army Air Corps, and everything came out of the factory with US Air Force markings on it.”
He spends much of his time giving people rides in the Aeronca.
“I’m very involved in aviation. I love giving people rides,” he said. “I have met a lot of people who have had a romance with an Aeronca at one point in time.”
When Patterson talks about flying the airplane, he get a gleam in his eye like a man who has seen the realization of a dream.
“I am very comfortable in the airplane. I can go out and turn the prop six times, put the switch on, and in one whack the engine starts. It’s almost like its eager to go flying.”
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