Mark Watson of Pensacola, Fla., can sum up his first trip to Sun ‘n Fun with a line borrowed from Charles Dickens “A Tale of Two Cities:” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
Watson owns a 1942 Taylorcraft L-2A that was in the Vintage Parking area during last month’s fly-in. It won the award for Outstanding Aircraft in the Antique category. It also was one of the planes heavily damaged when a tornado tore through the grounds on Thursday, March 31.
During the show Watson’s airplane was a visitor magnet. Often there was a small crowd around it, with men of a certain vintage discussing the similarities and differences of the Piper versus Taylorcraft Cub designs. That’s because the Taylorcraft looks very similar to Piper aircraft of the same era. The designer, Clarence Taylor, did work for Piper at one point.
During Sun ‘n Fun, Watson’s L-2 was parked next to a couple of Piper Cubs, which led some visitors to think the airplane was a Piper with a military inspired paint job. They were surprised to learn that the high-wing airplane was built by Taylorcraft during the war and used for pilot training and transport activities.
The L-2 is sometimes referred to as a “Grasshopper” not because it is green, but because of a landing allegedly witnessed by General Innis Swift, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division. He noted the landing consisted of a couple of short hops and the nickname stuck. The airplane is known for its short field capabilities.
“It is a real warbird,” Watson said proudly. “Although none of the Taylorcraft went overseas, they were used in the states for training.”
Watson’s airplane is authentic, right down to the type-face used on the panel placards and the cartoon image of a snarling grasshopper on the cowling. Watson noted that he had informational placards about the airplane made up and for a time they were hung from the propeller, but when the wind and rain started hammering the airport, he wisely moved them inside the airplane, putting them on the back seat so they could be seen through the plexiglas turtle deck.
While Watson’s plane attracted a lot of attention at the show, he was rarely around it, because he was busy working as a volunteer member of the Trash Raiders, the group that works so hard to keep the airport tidy by picking up trash.
“My friends back home recruited me,” he said, bowing his head so that I could more clearly see his burgundy baseball cap emblazoned with the wings logo of the Trash Raiders.
Although he was a first-timer at Sun ‘n Fun, he laughed when asked if he is new to aviation.
“I have been flying since I was a teenager,” he said. “I’m a retired Naval Aviator, I flew back seat as an RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) in F-14.”
Watson has owned the L-2A for about a year and a half. “The previous owner did the restoration in 2005. It’s basically a brand-new airplane,” he said. “It has all wood ribs, wood spars, leading edge and all brand new glass and covering. It has a bigger engine than the original L-2s. They had 65-hp engines, this one has a C-85 and the Don’s Dream Machine STC for an O-200.”
“I did the cosmetic work to bring the airplane up to show quality,” he added. “We were the Champion Warbird at the South East Regional Fly-In last year.”
When I caught up with Watson the morning after the tornado, his airplane lay partially on its landing gear, partially on its belly in the soft muck.
“It landed on the right wing, but I think the spar is okay. It broke the tip of the wing and the aileron got crunched. It was tied down, but the ground is so soft because of the rain that several airplanes got ripped out of the ground. It got picked up and bounced around and it broke the landing gear,” Watson said as he crouched by the engine compartment and carefully drained fuel from the aircraft so that the wings could be removed. “It wasn’t full of fuel. It holds about six gallons in each wing tank and two gallons in the header. That gives me about two hours in the air and then I have to look for a place to land.”
Watson, like so many other aircraft owners that morning, was still assessing the damage, yet thankful that it wasn’t so much worse.
“I was over there, about 100 yards away, when it happened,” he said, pointing to the tree line north of the vintage area. “It was scary! We were all ducked under the tables. I saw some airplanes where the tie-downs were even broken.”
Several of Watson’s friends helped him the morning after with the dismantling.
“We need to get the fuel out of it and the wings off because we plan to truck it home,” he said.
“Do you plan to repair it?” I asked.
“Oh heck yeah!” he replied enthusiastically, then grew somber, remarking, “I sure hope the judges got a chance to see it before the storm hit.”
A day later he learned that his Grasshopper won the award for Outstanding Aircraft in the Antique category.
Talk about a sweet ending to a bittersweet week.