Growing up near a grass strip

I am one of the very early baby boomers, having been born in 1946. I really knew very little about the war back then, but grew to know many relatives and neighbors who had been part of that time in history. My dad’s older brother had been a gunnery instructor during the war. He had been trained as a pilot, but was too valuable as an instructor to be sent to the front. His commanding officer kept getting his orders changed so as to retain him.

My uncle and his friend opened up a flight training school after the war on our family’s Northern Indiana dairy farm with a 3000-foot grass strip and farm-engineered hangar. Many former military pilots and a lot of local people took lessons and rented planes. I was enchanted with all the activity.

My father, a dairy farmer and family man, supported the war effort by remaining on the farm supplying milk and meat. He learned to fly and was quite a good stick in his own right. I had several opportunities to get some early flight instruction from him.

The first two aircraft the flight school had were a Piper Super Cruiser and a PA-11 Cub. Once a Piper Tri-Pacer became available, the Cruiser was traded so as to add the faster four-place. Over the 1950s and early 1960s, the field was a very active place. I often witnessed some interesting aircraft activities.

Tri-Pacer
The Tri-Pacer does drop like a rock with no power.

One of the first sights of an aircraft doing something it was not designed to do involves the Tri-Pacer leisurely sliding on its nose. I was busy driving a tractor in an adjacent field looking directly at the grass strip. I watched as the Tri-Pacer, coming in on approach, seem to descend a little early to the runway. It settled on its mains, but once slowed it dropped on its nose, sliding some 200 feet over the sod.

I approached the aircraft and the two pilots to inquire about their arrival. Apparently the student pilot had allowed the speed to decay, allowing the aircraft to clip a wooden fence post. Fortunately the post gave way and lowered the wire fencing enough to clear the main gear. The nose gear took a beating, as did the prop, but as I recall, the rest of the plane was spared – as were the pilots.

A second mishap involved a young neighbor who had learned to fly. He was using the PA-11 Cub to help round up some feeder calves. Seems that another neighbor had received a load of range-fed calves to finish out in his feeder lot. Of course, coming off the wide open range, these animals were quite squirrelly. Apparently they got out of the lot into a large field of rye that was held in set-aside, out of crop production. Well, allowed to mature, this rye can reach upwards of six feet tall. Driving a tractor chasing feeders can be problematic.

Apparently some of the rascals just would have nothing to do with the pen. So, “Cub Cowboy” said he could use the aircraft to alert others of feeder calf whereabouts. All went well except for one feeder calf in the corner of the field. Dropping low over the animal, “Cub Cowboy” got the main gear and then the prop tangled in the rye. With full power on, and after hitting the steer, the Cub somehow continued airborne. The wrapped rye slung off the prop and a slow steep climb to avoid a neighbor’s house began. As you would suspect, the Cub stalled in a tree right next to the house, finally making its way tail-first back to the ground.

“Cub Cowboy” got a knock on his head, and the PA-11 got a wickedly bent fuselage. As I recall, the feeder steer didn’t make it. I think that pretty much ended any steer chasing. Oh yeah, my dad was listening to a New Orleans radio station on New Year’s that year. They were reminiscing about events of the last year, and, yep, you guessed it, the Flying Cowboy from Indiana was one topic cited.

Another incident also involved the PA-11 Cub – this time by a local flying dentist. I was present to watch this episode unfold. Seems the dentist did his mag check while facing downwind at the approach end of the grass strip. Reducing power slightly, he made a quick 180 turn and started takeoff roll. Some of you may know that often the end rows of corn are not as large as others. Now with full power on, tail up, and moving briskly, the Cub accelerated down the left side of the grass strip. The left wing sticking out over the corn began to drag as taller corn began to tug on the wing.

I’m sure a lot of right rudder was in play, but the corn won. The little Cub finally circled to the left, main gear catching the dead furrow left by a plow, went up on its nose, pirouetted a full 360 and came back down on its gear. Well, I was about as shocked as the pilot. Needless to say the Cub needed some nose repairs.

Still another incident involved a J-3 Cub that was hangared on the farm. We three elementary school kids had been biking around the farm when the J-3’s pilot/owner showed up. We helped pull the plane from the hangar and turn it toward the west and the grass strip. The pilot crawled in the back seat, did his warm up, and proceeded to firewall the throttle without even taking the runway. We were all surprised at this. As it was there was about 150 feet of taxiway to get to the runway, and that taxiway lay due west.

A field of early wheat lay across the other side of the grass strip. Apparently, the pilot had done this routine often during the winter and thought nothing of doing it again. If he didn’t get off by the time he reached the opposite side of the runway, a short run over the very short wheat was not a problem in the cold.

Now this would be different. This was now Spring. Accelerating down the taxiway the little J-3 couldn’t get airborne before reaching the wheat. Wheat immediately wrapped around the main gear pulling the aircraft further down, and the Cub dipped its head to the ground and went vertical.

PA-11 on grass
Operating off a grass strip introduces an entirely new set of concerns.

It stood straight up for what seemed like 10 or more seconds as if it was trying to decide to go on over or not. Finally it fell back onto its main gear almost silently as the now early headed out wheat cushioned its fall. We three pre-teens rushed out to assist the pilot. As we arrived, the pilot stepped out over the door sill onto the ground. Stepping back and looking at his now damaged aircraft we heard him say in a raised voice, “Now that was a damned stupid thing to do!”

The Cub had a broken updraft intake manifold, a damaged and plugged-up oil radiator, and a lower cowling dent. But, that wooden prop had stopped straight horizontal and didn’t even have a crack in it. Still amazes me about that yet today.

The pilot had failed to consider the now warmer air, and the wheat was no longer just some short grass; it was in early stage of heading out. These changed the equation just enough to spoil one pilot’s plans for a mid-morning flight around the patch.

Finally, one more story. My dad had to replace the very front casting on our Farmall M tractor. It had gotten cracked while confronting a concrete wall. (No, I didn’t do it!) Anyway, my dad flew the PA-11 Cub over to the supplier in Illinois, and had someone help him strap it in the back seat. I mean, come on, I think that thing weighed about 400 pounds. Anyway, my dad was able to get the Cub back in the air after a long takeoff roll and nurse it back to Indiana. Who says Cubs can’t do farm work?

My fascination with flying was stirred way back as a lad, but my venture into piloting waited over 50 years. I was fortunate to have my older brother as my CFI get me through training and I received my private license at age 62. I treasure those flights of instruction with him, but we lost him to leukemia in 2014. Now retired, I fly out of KMQJ on the east side of Indianapolis after joining a flight club, and am active with EAA and AOPA.

I wonder if others have memories of those very different times in general aviation.

12 Comments

  • Mike, I’m delighted to read your stories of yonder days, when men were men, and men often messed up in airplanes! I’d like to think we’re better pilots today, but reading accident reports suggests we just make bigger, badder, and more spectacular splats.

  • Hunter, glad you enjoyed my musings. I look back on those days with a smile. We didn’t have today’s technology or conveniences, but they were very good days non the less. General aviation’s roots and growth were very evident back then. Your observation of today’s aviation incidents is right on. We aviators today may be safer per the numbers, but sadly some still find ways to be a statistic. I pray we are able continue to find ways to enjoy our aviation passion yet not contribute to those negative numbers.

  • I know Mike and have enjoyed hearing about some of his youthful antics and experiences on numerous occasions. The one question I have is about his bio. Having flown and played golf with Mike I’m wondering how he could say that he enjoys golf.

  • Oh, Larry. Some people may not recognize my game as golf, but I still enjoy playing with friends like you! I’m fortunate to still be active flying and playing golf. Others have not been as fortunate as I. Each day of beautiful weather to engage in either is a blessing.

  • Mike, we loved your story!! Especially the J-3 story! Tom says, “Just tell Larry to always play ‘best ball’…that way you won’t have to chase yours around or hunt for them. When I get to a water trap, I always have a ball with a big smile on it, because I know it is fixing to go swimming.” (Becky) Y’all need to include this duffer hubby in one of your games…and it would have to be best ball, because winter would be upon you before you could get the first nine holes played.

  • Thanks for the story, Mike. I’m another Hoosier and I spent time as a kid at Shank on the West side of Indy. My dad had his planes hangared there from the late 50’s & I was lucky enough to take lessons in a J3 when I was in my teens.By then they had a paved strip but we used the grass for the cubs. I soloed but never got my ticket, something I regret these days.

    • Scott, did you think again of getting your ticket? Our flight club has made flying affordable for me. Buy in was reasonable, and dues and hourly rate very affordable. I got my ticket at age 62, now nine year ago. Still healthy and recently go my medical back even after having 3 heart stents placed a year ago. I know of a couple of other flight clubs open to new members. Nice to hear of someone having had similar aviation experiences as I. If the interest is still there I know of 2 flight clubs that may have openings. Good luck!

  • What a great story Mike! It almost seems like a whole series of Keystone Cops or Laurel & Hardy adventures!!!

    Having also been born on a farm in 1946, I know that out in the country things were done differently than by those born in the city. For example my brothers and all of our friends regularly drove the trucks, cars, motorcycles, etc. on the local public roads as soon as our feet could reach the pedals!

    Cops? We didn’t have any that far out! We didn’t even have any state troopers in our county. We also didn’t have phones, TVs, or running water. But we certainly lived free from government regulation!!

    BTW: I can’t help but wonder. With all that flying going on all around you, why didn’t you learn to fly back then as well?

  • Michael Cowan, you asked about the length of time for me to get my license. Just about the time I was old enough to really get into lessons the flight school on the farm moved to Warsaw, IN as my uncle became airport manager and opened an FBO including a Piper dealership. I also had other interests, began college shortly after high school, got married, and began teaching in high school. The interest was always there as evidenced by my over 25 years now of attending AirVenture. Access was limited until I was nearing retirement. My brother CFI had a nice Cherokee available to us through some friends of his, and he didn’t charge me anything for instruction over some 3 years building time. Oh, I threw some funds at him occasionally, and I covered the fuel. The aircraft’s two owners didn’t fly it much and even added me to their insurance. Heck of a deal. My flight club of 15 members makes scratching my aviation itch very affordable now. Thanks for sharing your story. Growing up in the country definitely has its advantages.

  • Great to read of your training and experience, brother Mike Sheetz. So glad you are able to enjoy many interesting passions in your retirement. Another hopeful want to be, and a soloed student pilot in my younger days..Sister Carolyn

  • What great reading. Takes me back home. You see, I am from Southern Indiana, born in 1947. Our farm in Clark county was just a couple fence lines from Haps airport. Dad always used to accuse me of watching the planes when he would find 20 feet of beans plowed up from the row. He never said anything about how crooked he had planted them. I went for a ride in a Champ, flown by a neighbors Air Force pilot son, when I was about maybe six. Scared the life out of me. But when older, around 16, I went up in a Tri Pacer, and later in a 172. Soon as I graduated from high school, my parents moved me to Arizona, in 1965. My first paycheck never made it past the airport. First lesson in a C 120. Long story short, I got my ticket in September 1968. Flew a number of different aircraft, belonged to the flying club, and now haven’t flown as PIC since 1983. Yeah, I miss it.

  • Gary Kendall, I can just see the wheels turning. Those were good days. You need to find a friend that still is flying and get that itch scratched. Your ticket is still good, just get your medical set up again which is not that hard if your health is reasonably good. The sport pilot ticket doesn’t require a medical just a current driver’s license. Then all you need is a sport qualified aircraft to share with some buddies and you’re good to go. AOPA can help set up a flight club. They have the resources. Good luck!!

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