By DAVID NIXON
Many of us in aviation today are guilty of the sin of “the way it used to be-itis.”
I’m a second-generation general aviation pilot who spent many a Saturday and Sunday out at the airport in the 1970s with my folks and their friends. The airport was a busy place on weekends in those days. People would barbeque at the hangar or have fly-outs to the coast for picnics. Cubs, Champs, and Cessnas, new and old, were common and affordable. Our local municipal airport even had a campground for pilots. I have many great memories from those days. It is why I fly.
Some may say those days are gone forever. The cost and expense is increasing…pilot numbers are shrinking — not too rosy of an outlook. But one weekend out at my airport I was witness to either a strange time warp or, better yet, maybe things are still like they used to be.
I was beginning the annual inspection on my Piper J-5. Now there is no better way to warm up the oil in an airplane than to go around the patch. It was a cool, quiet,and calm morning at Lenhardt’s AirHaven in Hubbard, Ore., a Cub morning. After a few circuits I was joined in the pattern by a J-3 Cub. We went around the pattern at an interval that ensured a constant Piper presence to the casual observer. After an hour or so I landed and began my inspection.
The J-3 then landed and taxied onto the ramp. The pilot got out and went into the office. It was a beautiful J-3 and I wanted to see it closer. As my oil drained I went over for a quick look. The owner, Vanessa Jump Nelson, introduced herself and told me about her Cub. Her father, Harry, had owned the Cub since the late 1960s. After sitting as a project for many years, Vanessa and her husband had the airplane restored and it showed. She confessed she was a lapsed tailwheel pilot who only recently returned to the fold. In fact, this was only her second flight away from her home airport after being signed-off.
I introduced myself as the owner of the other Cub in the pattern. Through conversation we shared the histories of our airplanes and discovered that they were both delivered new to Portland by the then local Piper dealer, Art Whitaker.
My friend Tom Hinckley witnessed all this and said, “heck, if it wasn’t for the new cars and hangars around here, it could well be 1946.”
I went back to work and thought about what Tom had said. It could well have been 1946, ’56, ’66, or ’76 for that matter. It was just like how it was when I was a kid.
Tom owns a vintage Vultee BT-13. It is a fixture at Lenhardt’s AirHaven and is even left outside on occasion. On this morning Tom was stuck with a mechanical problem. He could not join a formation flight of Warbirds that was going to do a fly-over of a veteran’s cemetery. It was sad to see him grounded as several Stearmans and a Ryan PT-22 taxied by for departure. Tom explained that he could not get his propeller to cycle.
The Wallace family soon joined Tom. The dad, Austin, was with his wife Kristine, and their young daughter Claire. The Wallaces own a Cessna 172 and are regulars at the airport. They stood by and talked to Tom as he worked on his prop problem, while their young daughter just stood and stared at the big airplane.
I hesitated to offer unsolicited advice, but quizzed Tom on what he did. After all, he knows this airplane better than most anyone and he was busy troubleshooting the problem.
I went back to my annual and later saw Tom still working on the prop. From his facial expression I could see that he did not fix the problem. He continued to work on it and then started the big old airplane. Austin, Kristine, and Claire Wallace stood back and watched. They were all captivated by the sight and sound of the big old airplane running, especially Claire. They all looked at the big airplane and smiled. Tom, on the other hand, wasn’t smiling. The prop still didn’t work.
Taking a break from my work I walked over to commiserate with Tom. I, too, had found a problem with my airplane that was going to be time consuming and expensive to fix. Tom laughed at our run of luck today. I again listened to Tom, and then he asked me, “What do you think?” Not having too much experience with the big Ham Standard props, I ran through what had been done. Tom said it had been serviced with grease per the service manual. I casually asked, “you removed the zerk fittings when you greased it, didn’t you?”
“No, why?” Tom asked.
“Well, you have to remove the zerk opposite of where you are greasing so that the grease has someplace to go, to leave the hub, otherwise it fills the prop hub and it won’t move.”
“That sounds reasonable,” said Tom, ,who soon had a zerk fitting off, operated the prop and, low and behold, it cycled.
He then relubed it with the zerk fitting off. He climbed up the wing and into the cockpit to start the big Pratt and Whitney.
Again Austin, Kristine, and Claire stood safely to the side. I watched as well. Claire held her parent’s hands and watched the cloud of smoke swirl around the old airplane as it rumbled and roared. We all grinned. You could see Claire loved it. Another pilot in the making there, I thought. Tom’s face lit up in a smile as the prop cycled just fine.
“You’re the man!” Tom exclaimed to me as he shut down the Vultee. No, I was just helping out another pilot/mechanic/owner. I like to hear and see the big old Vultee fly as much as the next guy or that little girl.
I like to think that someday, 20 years from now, when that same little girl grows up and is out at the airport with her family, she will be able to say, “When I was an airport kid, there were days when my folks took me out to the airport and the hangar doors would be open. Cubs and Warbirds were common and parked outside. I even remember a woman flying her dad’s J-3 Cub. People were friendly and helped each other out.”
After that weekend, when I think about the glory days of general aviation, I realize they are only as far away as the next Saturday out at the airport.