Time warp

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.

mail-2I 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.”

DSC04184I 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.

IMG_0617I 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.

Comments

  1. I can appreciate this article is trying to suggest some optimism, and yet, it still has a sort of depressing nostalgia to it. Most of the reader responses to the article are fully in the depressing nostalgia camp. To new pilots (like myself) this is really frustrating, and it’s not helpful.

    In nearly every GA web publication the comments go like this: “I used to fly back in the good ol’ days when you used a sextant to navigate and fuel was half a cent a gallon. But now everything is terrible, due to [high costs/FAA regulation/modern mindset] and GA is soon dead. Bah Humbug!”

    Well, I am one flight away from my private certificate, and I say the magic of flight isn’t dead. It is expensive; I don’t expect I’ll ever fly anything more capable than a 1980s Cessna, but so what? A cheap iPad app gives it more capability than anything in the “glory days” of the 60s – 80s.

    It would be refreshing if, instead of moping about your flying memories, you would help us youngsters find ways to make our own. Let us benefit from your *positive* passion. It won’t be easy, but shared flights, flying clubs, creative policy ideas, and things no one has thought of yet, can move us in the right direction.

    • Vanessa Jump Nelson says:

      Hi Brett,
      Thank you for checking in with your enthusiasm for “positive passion” in aviation. I really like that phrase and though I didn’t catch which state or even which coast you are on, I want to give you a couple of ideas. Beside flying my Cub cross country from Oregon to Oshkosh, Wisconsin for the 75-year anniversary of the Cub (and being part of the Flight of 75 from Hartford Wisconsin into KOSH), one of the most fun things I did with the Cub this past summer was the annual EAA Chapter 105 Poker Run out of Twin Oaks, where everyone started at a small private grass strip in the early morning, paid their fee, got breakfast and a t-shirt, and commenced flying to about half a dozen airports to pick up a card at each. The potential was for 7 cards if you made every airport, which you went to in no particular order (Dietz OR40, Lebanon S30, Independence 7S5, Tillamook KTMK, Seaside 56S, Scappoose KSPB, Twin Oaks 7S3). Best of five cards was your hand at the barbecue at the end, back at Twin Oaks where EAA 105 is based, which meant if it was foggy at the beach and we only got to 5 airports, there would still be 5 cards. At Seaside airport, they were having their annual open house that day, and hosting a wonderful lunch that included barbecued salmon and pulled pork. My husband was my navigator and I think there were about 20 airplanes that participated in that event, many of them with two person teams inside (navigator & pilot), concluding with a gift game at the end. There were a few “white elephants”, a headset, a couple cases of oil, certificates for fuel at Twin Oaks, and a variety of other aviation-related toys. From start to finish, the flying took all day and we’d run into folks on the Poker Run at the various airports (Tillamook has an air museum in an old blimp hangar). With the “speedy” Cub, the RV’s would pass us but there was lots of giggling, and the radio chatter was friendly “Passing you on the right, Vanessa!” Of course, with a Cub, we were the last ones to arrive at the end, but it wasn’t a race, and even after getting back to Twin Oaks, there was still a barbecue, gift exchange game, and more laughter. That same day, the Oregon Air Tour was taking place in which another dozen or more takers participated in a navigational game that took them sightseeing around a larger part of Oregon to complete their game. Brett, my point is that “The fun lives!” There IS life after your checkride! :0)

      Please come join us at Twin Oaks sometime, where there is a flight school that includes tailwheel transition training in an S-2 (Sport Cub). The first Saturday of every month, from 8:00-10:00 a.m., Chapter 105 hosts a pancake breakfast, where “the big hangar” is turned into “The Aileron Cafe”, and we serve up blueberry pancakes, bacon or sausage, scrambled eggs, coffee, orange juice, and grits, for $5, at 7S3.

      “The spirit lives!” – not just at Twin Oaks, or Lenhardts, or Lompoc or Hollister or Watsonville, but at a lot of places. BUT…it’s up to us to share where the fun is happening. Here’s my “message in a bottle.” I hope other pilots launch a few more “bottles”. We need to share, so others are aware.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zdZ1IHMa0a8

      “Positively passionate about flying”
      ~Vanessa

  2. Joseph Brown says:

    A great article, that yes, reminds me of my youth hanging around our local airport in Redlands, Calif. back in 1972 at 15 years old.
    That hanging around became my first job, pumping avgas and as an unpaid mechanics helper. That job became a paying job in the summer and flight lessons with Saturdays spent washing the three trainers for flight time.
    As others commented in their recollections, working there, after school during school days and all day in the summer, I got to ride ‘shotgun’ in many types of aircraft. I’d ride along when one of the mechanics would fly someplace, or often that owner would go out and shoot landings for his IFR requirements, I’d go along and then we’d stop and have lunch someplace.
    For years I had more hours as a passenger there than solo time. In the 1990′s I’d take my kids out for the lunch flight to a nearby place that might still have an open restaurant or some half day cross countries to keep me current.
    Now, at 55, when I’m at the age that many of those pilots were in the 1970s, always out and enjoying flying, I, like many others, have been priced out of aviation. $130.00 per hour? For a plane that 7 years ago was $65 an hour? Or for the same plane that was $12 an hour in 1973.
    Even our little airport where I now live is more like an ‘compound’ due to all the scare tactics of the governmental rules that’s supposed to “protect us”. No, I’m sorry to see it become the way it has but I also think it will only get worse.
    I believe those last glory days of general aviation were in the 1970s and 1980s and are long gone and never to return, like so many of things of that era.

  3. Bill Pugerude says:

    We are still that way on Lopez Island in Washington state. If a pilot needs help with his plane, it is like a barn building in the “old days”. Every body that can help shows up.
    We “git er done”.

  4. Jerry Brooks says:

    Spending Saturdays and Sundays at the local non-carrier airports like the “good ole days” is getting very hard to do nowadays. TSA and Airport management along with “fence operation” keep everybody but pilots and passengers out of the hometown airports. We have four airports in the local area and all of them have, as they claim, TSA directions to thwart entry of folks that are not pilots or passengers. Too many “little generals” running around playing “big shot” at today’s airports.

  5. Norm Coffelt says:

    Well done Dave. Hope to put ypu in the D17S this summer.

  6. Walter Anacko says:

    I enjoyed the artical by David Nixon and all the comments. Brough back so many fond memories. I am 88 years old, soon to be 89, still flying my RV 6. Still hang around the airport Sat and Sunday like an old hanger bum. Love it, must be in my blood. Good luck to you all. Fly right side up and fly safe.

  7. Dennis Hampton says:

    Thank you for prompting some very fond memories. Every year, my Father would pack us all up in the 64 Chevy station wagon to take to the air show at Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base. I couldn’t wait to get there! Along with the show there were plans they had striped down that you could sit & play in. Talk about Cool!!!
    It wouldn’t be until many years later after my Fathers retirement that I found that he had had the opportunity to work with many of the aviation companies of the day.
    It’s a shame that kids today aren’t able to enjoy the freedoms we were blessed with experiencing back in our day.

  8. Emily Dashwood says:

    Three fairly active flight schools at my airport keep things moving, a good —and inexpensive—restaurant helps, and on a nice weekend transient parking actually begins to fill up. But most of the time, it’s pretty slow.

    Just like lots of other posters, when I was growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, my dad would take me to the airport and we were free to wander. Now, not so much.

    In my opinion, Part 23 is stifling innovation; I’m glad that the issue is beginning to receive some attention. Until that happens, it’s a fairly difficult sell when I take someone on a discovery flight in a 40 year old C-172. They have to really, really want to fly to begin taking lessons with me (which may not be a bad thing, incidentally). Otherwise, we’ll go up, I give an overview of the training process and discuss the cost while their wife and kid wait restlessly in the terminal, and that’s as far as it goes.

    Combine that with our faltering economy and the weakened dollar, and GA becomes rather expensive. It’s also time consuming in an era when we work so many more hours than we did in the ’70s.

    After WWII we may have seen an influx of folks who hadn’t fallen hard for aviation; now those folks don’t come around so much anymore. The ones who remain are the hard core types, more willing to make sacrifices to get and stay in the air. The reality of GA may be that it’s a fringe activity, and we’re returning to that after a few decades of unsustainable expansion.

    In the meantime, I’ve got three lessons tomorrow—we’re going flying!
    :-)

  9. *sigh* I think many of the sentiments expressed in the article and the subsequent comments tell much about the current state of affairs in GA. It’s stuck in a time warp. Most of the pilots are older than the majority of planes flying out there. I think that’s great that the level of craftsmanship and quality our our aircraft industry is so strong that these planes can continue active service for 50+ years….but it is not helping airplane manufacturers sell new planes, which drives innovation and design evolution to stay competitive, nor does it allow for a new “entry level” priced plane.

    I’d like to see a strong upsurge in new pilots from the 20 to 30 age bracket. I’d like to see new airplane models unveiled each year like the major auto manufacturers do. I’d like the FAA to lighten up a bit (seriously). I’d also like insurance companies to go back to 1950 era policy standards for new pilots, hull policies and pricing. I’d like to think flying my kids to a nearby airport doesn’t automatically mean “$100 Hamburgers” but rather a common way we spend time together as a family seeing and learning about this country of ours. This more or less describes the Golden Era of aviation that people so fondly invoke when waxing nostalgic. I wish I had been there.

  10. Jerry Moore says:

    You never forget your early exposure to aviation. When I was a teenager in the 60′s I progressed from Boy Scouts to Air Scouts. One of our sponsors was a corporate pilot who flew out of Oakland, CA. He would take us for a ride in the Corporate Twin Beech when he was going up for training. I think he liked to create some G force to see how much us young guys could take. He even hooked us up with a ride from Oakland to San Jose in a Ford Tri-Motor.

    We had full access to the Oakland Airport. No fences, just follow the rules. There were about seven Boeing Strato Cruisers parked in the infield of the airport. We used to climb all over the airplanes. We would sit in the cockpit and go through all the pre-flight drills we could think of. We even contemplated how we might get one of those big radials to turn over. Fortunately a jump start from my 50 Ford was not going to work.

    Some of these aircraft were turned into the “pregnant guppies” that they transported rocket sections in.

    Great times that you never forget. I did not get my private license until many years later. Still hooked, but haven’t been flying much recently due to cost.

  11. Karl Schneider says:

    I really miss nostalgia sometimes. :D I learned to fly (and damn near lived) at an airport like that one in the mid 1960s. In those days, it was no problem for a young pilot to have the chance to fly dozens of different planes…of the over 200 planes at ‘my’ little airport, I was fortunate to have their owners of more than half of them ‘hand me the keys’ and tell me to go fly. It’s pretty sure those days are gone forever, I seriously doubt any kid these days could manage to hop into dozens of different flavors of a/c with carte blanche to fly them without any official endorsement.

  12. Vaughn S. Price says:

    great memories. all commenters, My airport memories started in 1941 just after Pearl harbor, I rode my bicycle the 2 miles to the Compton Airport, All the Airplanes had their wings and propellers yanked, and the Army was putting in anti aircraft batteries. A man with a mustache came out of the Airport office and asked me if I would watch his office while he went to the post office. I was 11 years old. I spent the Christmas vacation helping him at the airport and at his house. in 1944 I notice an airplane flying, so after school I rode my bike to the Airport the same man saw me and asked me to work for him after school and on week ends, he soloed me in a Taylorcraft L2-A when I was 15, Illegally of course, He raised me. at age 16 I received solo endorsements for 21 different models, at seventeen a had full use of a Fairchild PT-19, a Vultee BT-13, and bought for 400.00 dollars a Cessna UC-78 Bamboo Bomber, at 20 a flight Instructor and at 22 Crop Duster, and then I Bought the Compton Air College from my Mentor Earl Woodley. fast forward I have over 15000 hours General Aviation Flown 139 different models and am at age 82 teaching My Daughter and Grand Daughter how to fly in a Cessna 152,
    #139 was a Douglas DC-3 at Hemet Municipal Airport in So Cal last February. and I do not see any airport with the activities of the 1940′s 50′s 60′s and 70′s

    • Dick Reilly says:

      Ah, nostalgia … there’s nothing it’s equal. I lived in Inglewood and worked at Northrop in the mid 1950s, had a Cessna 140 based at Hawthorne and dropped into Compton from time to time. I now live in Minnesota and have owned the substitute for the California 140, a Cessna 170B, for 49 years. We’re pretty close to contemporaries; I’ll be 83 the day after tomorrow. There aren’t many of us left.

      Regards,

      Dick Reilly

  13. John Ritchie Jr. says:

    Wonderful article, David! This too, could have been May’s Airport near Greensboro NC in the 1970s; I know because I was there! Weekends were spent watching and messing around with airplanes. At sunset, the Cubs and Champs and Tri-Pacers were all rolled back in the hangars, and all that was left was the sound of crickets and tall tales told in the fading light. I sure miss those old times but especially the folks.

    Glad you had such a nice day, sounds like it turned out OK even for Tom.

  14. Dave Leonard says:

    Oh yeah! Been there done that! In 1952 I lived in a small town in Indiana. Down on the south edge of town ( 3 blocks away from my home lol I did say small) lived a “Flying Farmer” I used to watch him do “bumps and circuits” from the fence. One day I screwed up my courage and asked for a ride. Remember this was before there was 5 lawyers for every resident, he gave me a ride (I was 8 years old). It was a piper (might have been a J2 I wasn’t real good at types then). Needless to say I was HOOKED!!! (OBTW I did run home and check with Mom first and she came with to witness it). Thanks Mom!

    I have finally lost my medical after almost 50 years of flying, but, I still remember that flight like yesterday!

    Great piece of writing and, as you can, see it brought back a flood of memories.

    Thank You!

  15. Sam, let the technical stuff go… This was a cool experience that we don’t get to have now since most airports are fenced. I appreciate the point David is making. We miss the Saturday and Sunday neighborhood people poking around the hangers asking us about what we are doing with our airplanes. Those were the good ole days.

    • Thanks Marie, I know a lot of people caught up in the romance of aviation who ” Let the technical stuff go”. Unfortunately they are no longer with us.

  16. Fabulous story. Thank you. Just wish a person could even get on our local airports now, without all kinds of “official” escorts. (Can’t even get to my friends hangar without that escort, and I used to be the ground ops supervisor at that airport, before my retirement.) And too many local governments responsible for those airports are getting so high minded, they want nothing to do with G.A.

  17. Peter Bichier says:

    I agree we still have some of those glory saturdays, but most of the time airports are dead. It also depends on which airport you hang out. I recently moved to Cal. and even though there are lots of airplanes I don’t see people interacting that much with each other. In the midwest first of all you could just walk or drive through right to the airplanes and the pilots. Here I need to go through two gates, codes, and every one looks at each other suspiciously. And of course even if you fly your glider 1000′ over a nuclear plant that does not even have a no fly zone on charts, you can still get arrested because of “national security.” Time have changed, and if you still have access to those airports take advantage of it because those days are dying quicker than you think.

  18. Small GA airports are starting to resemble museums. We have a beautiful little place down here in South Florida (LNA).

    I’ve been bringing my kids there for years, friendly pilots would let my kid’s climb all over their airplanes.

    Encouraging the dream of flight.

    Now the county is coming in soon.

    The future is always un-certain…but a lot of owners on the field are wondering…will the fences lock out the general public? Will the dreamers of the future be able to walk around dream of flight like they did?

  19. Mike Barlow says:

    nice column! thanks for sharing a great experience at the airport!

  20. Reminds me of years ago, say, 1970 or so. Spruce Creek fly in / live there in your hanger home is another good place.

    Yes I miss the 70′s. glad to see this going on somewhere.

  21. William Miller says:

    Thanks for a great piece–reminds me of the local airport in NW PA when I was a kid in the ’70s, and I got to fly w/ my Dad. Thanks again!

  22. What a great article! I edit the newsletter for my local EAA chapter and I would like permission to reprint this some time.

  23. Pumping grease in a prop hub with the zerks in can cause seal damage in some props as well. Every A&P should know this.

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