The phone rang within 10 minutes of placing a classified ad for my Continental A65-8 engine. A kind and calm voice informed me that he was making a standing offer and I could take my time to consider it. I returned Dave Stevenson’s call the same day and accepted his offer.
He and his wife, Helen, showed up a few days later, cash in hand, and we had a pleasant exchange as he loaded the engine in the back of their minivan. That was 18 years ago, and we’ve stayed in touch ever since.
The proverbial hands of time have flown by, allowing Dave to achieve a special milestone on June 15, 2019 — one that perhaps few pilots ever have the thrill of celebrating. He flew his Aeronca Champ that day to celebrate the 75th anniversary of his very first solo. Four days later, he celebrated his 92nd birthday.
Dave’s interest in aviation began when he was in grade school and the country was in the depths of the Great Depression. He was enthralled with building models and reading every airplane magazine he could find or afford to buy.
“Nickels and dimes did not come easily,” recalls Dave. “The local book store kept models and supplies and would let kids put model kits on lay-by. I could put a dollar model kit (maybe 4’ wingspan) on hold and pay it off in a few weeks with income from my paper route. The only airplane magazine the local news stand sold was Flying Aces. At 15 cents I didn’t miss an issue. There was a new Phineas Pinkham story in every issue!”
Learning to Fly
By the time Dave was in his teens, there was a city-owned sod strip near his home in the Piedmont region of North Carolina.
“An air show promoter from Charlotte, Haskell Deaton, leased the Statesville Airport and hired Ruth Shaw and Martha Hutcheson to run the airport and provide instruction. Compared to today, the public’s interest and enthusiasm was at a high level. A lot of students came and Sunday passenger hopping kept the operation busy.”
Dave and his friend, Paul Rhodes, were among the first in line for flying lessons. Highly motivated, the two friends were soon working at the airport, sweeping the hangar and office, washing and fueling airplanes, and selling rides on weekends.
“Ruth and Martha took us under their wings — I was Ruth’s student and Paul was Martha’s. They kept us at the same stage of instruction, and on June 15, 1944, we were both ready to solo,” reminisces Dave. “Paul won the coin flip and soloed first, then I was next. We were the first students to solo at the new airport, and we both soloed in NC35795, a 1940 J-3 with a 65-hp Lycoming engine.”
Sweet Sixteen the day he soloed, Dave turned 17 on June 19. Paul was just a couple of months younger. They logged a few hours of solo time that summer. Dave recalls one of them very well.
“The Charlotte Army Air Base was home to a group flying Douglas A-20 attack planes. The A-20 had two radial engines — each cylinder had only a short exhaust stack — so the noise level was impressive and the pilots, usually in flights of two or three, seemed to enjoy buzzing the airport at little more than tree-top height,” says Dave. “I was just taking off on a solo hop, and had reached about 300-400′ agl when a noise — much, much louder than a J-3 Cub was capable of producing — suddenly burst on my eardrums. Before I had time to panic, a flight of three A-20s flew directly under me in tight formation.”
On another flight, Dave let his curiosity lead him into a little aerial adventure. The Cub was flown solo from the rear seat and the students weren’t allowed to fly with the door open.
“Naturally we all were curious what the view from that front seat would look like. I decided that it would be fun, when well away from the field, to try that seat. After all, when properly trimmed, the Cub would practically fly itself. I unbuckled my seat belt and, in a semi-crouched position moved toward the empty front seat. The Cub immediately responded to the shift in weight by nosing down. That was no problem, but it surprised me sufficiently to make me want to get my hand on that front seat control stick quick! But as I swung my leg over the seat and planted it on the floorboard, I managed to capture the stick up my pants leg. The Cub performed a few gyrations while I untangled myself and quickly returned to the aft seat. That satisfied my curiosity for a while!”
World War II
Dave and Paul were just completing their second quarter of their freshman year in college in the spring of 1945 when they realized they’d likely be drafted. So Dave dropped out and enlisted in the Navy.
“By that time, most of the aviation cadet programs had been curtailed, so the only possibility of even getting close to airplanes was the Navy Combat Aircrew,” explains Dave. “I was fortunate enough to be assigned to a unit at Norfolk that serviced Helldivers and Avengers.”
Dave spent a portion of his time in service in Norman, Oklahoma, and was able to rent a Taylorcraft L-2 for a couple of flights, and later visited Martha Hutcheson, who was then running an airport in Tulsa, and logged a little J-3 time.
GA Pilot and Mechanic
After being discharged, Dave returned to college and earned his private pilot certificate in 1947. He took his checkride in a Champ. The flight consisted of three-turn spins to the left and right, and the written test was merely a single page of questions.
In the 1970s, he earned his commercial certificate and instrument rating. He also acquired his A&P, and was a partner in a maintenance operation at Meadowlake Airpark (12TN) near Kingston, Tennessee, after he retired from the Boeing facility at Oak Ridge.
Through the decades, Dave has owned and maintained a number of airplanes. His first airplane was a basket case 1940 Piper J-4 Cub Coupe. He made it airworthy and flew it for a couple of years before trading it for a Rearwin Cloudster.
After a year or so, he traded the Cloudster for an 85-hp Champ, which he recovered when its fabric didn’t pass a punch test. He’s also owned a Stinson, Cub, Ercoupe, and Woody Pusher. Dave still owns an Aeronca 7AC Champ and a Morrisey 2150, which he keeps in his hangar at Meadowlake.
Dave installed Whitaker tandem gear on his Cub, and recalls, “In the air, the Cub was surprisingly unaffected by the addition of that extra set of wheels and associated hardware. I was never able to discern any penalty in airspeed — as if airspeed was ever a concern in a Cub! But it was a different story while maneuvering on the ground because turning was difficult. I never tried to taxi over any obstacle like a log or rock, which is exactly why Art Whitaker designed the gear. For certain, the big tundra tires do it as well or better without the turning problem.”
Memorable Cross Countries
One February, Dave volunteered to fly a Stinson 108 from Portage, Wisconsin, to Meadowlake Airpark for their flying club.
“I took off with full tanks and quickly began to love the Stinson. When it came time to switch tanks, the selector snapped into the detent just like it was supposed to. About a half hour later, over the flat country of southern Illinois, the engine quit,” recounts Dave. “There were lots of choices of fields to make my first landing in a Stinson. I landed without a scratch in a partially thawed field. Quick examination revealed the reason for the stoppage. The Stinson fuel selector valve is located on the firewall with a tubular shaft back to a handle on the panel. The shaft is squared to fit over the square shaft of the valve and secured with a cotter pin. The pin had fallen out and the snap when I switched tanks was the squared shaft pulling out and then snapping back, leaving the valve unmoved, but the handle indicating the other tank. Pliers easily completed the tank switch, and with a push from a pair of bystanders to get rolling, I was back on my way to Tennessee.”
One June, Dave flew his Cub from Meadowlake to Sentimental Journey in Lock Haven, which turned into “an exercise in endurance, but enjoyable —even though I was watching big trucks on the interstate leaving me behind,” he recalls. “It was a full day up and a full day back, and something you want to do just once!”
Through the years, Dave has seen many changes in general aviation. Speaking positively, he says, “one is the vast improvement in navigation aids available to even the low budget, grass strip flyers, and the growth of the homebuilt movement, which is a significant contributor to the entire aviation scene.”
Nine years ago, Dave received the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award and the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award. So far, he’s logged more than 2,400 hours of flight time, and looks forward to adding many more entries in his logbook.
On a personal level, there’s another strong positive for Dave and his flying. His wife, Helen, though not a pilot herself, has always been his staunch supporter. In fact, Helen has gradually come to the point where she’ll admit that she enjoys flying. Dave and Helen celebrated their 69th wedding anniversary in August — with a flight in the Champ!