Back in February of 1958, my father and I took Leighton Collins’ first Cessna 182 back to the factory in Wichita, where it was traded for a brand new Cessna 182 Skylane. I was eight years old and the adventure was the first time my father had taken me beyond local flights, usually from Linden Airport in New Jersey. It was also a gamble for him, as my father was the get-it-done aviator more than a stay in the cockpit Dad, fawning over a rambunctious son.
Probably he figured I was so nuts about airplanes and had flown with him so much, that not only did I know not to play with the door handle, but could actually fly the airplane somewhat straight and level. Unknowingly this was honing instrument skills, flying the big artificial horizons of those days, not being able to see over the instrument panel. In today’s vernacular of child care, the kid was so hyper-focused on airplanes that it was aeronautical Ritalin. Not long after the trip my father wrote it up in Air Facts. Where the article fills in some evaporated details, I remember the trip from an eight year old perspective where life was simplistic, short term, rapid and anything airplane. From my perspective, on this trip less was said and more was learned than most anything of my flying career.
We left in the afternoon of February 20, no doubt circled our house, on the west heading out of Linden, where my mother would dutifully wave. Dive on the house and pull up into a few circles but don’t spin in. It’s been known to happen even today. There was a young moment of personal loss, being the first long time away from Mom, antagonized as I ate one of her fantastic macaroons with a thermos cup of milk. Dad broke the trauma as the sunlit ridges of Pennsylvania had my father telling stories of flying the Allegheny Mountains, how it was called “Hell’s stretch” in the mail pilot days, then he pointed at a little beacon light flash way out on top of a ridge.
“See that light”? He said.
“Well that’s called an airway beacon and remember it, because they won’t be around much longer”.
Amazingly today, the State of Montana has the clever foresight to keep a bunch going in some of their mountain valleys and passes.
My father was always listening to something on the airplane’s radio, usually weather related. His article alludes to being pretty excited about all the radio and navigation “now” available, so maybe this was the beginning of what we take for granted today. I do remember he had a habit of leaving VORs on the “ident” feature, maybe from low frequency radio days, and it could drive you nuts. Years later in my own aviation career, I was reminded the VOR “ident” was still on.
We approached Columbus towards dusk, and everything was kind of flat with farms, fewer trees and a feeling that you wanted to roam. I liked it then and still do today. As we approached the big runway to the south, I was eye-boggled with all the airplanes at the North American factory, surrounding ramps and evidently could name them all, but shouted it all out while we were on short final. His article says “we had a chat”, but I also remember a barking of “Quiet” and some other terse word. When, years later, the big push for “sterile cockpit” came along it brought a chuckle. A nice fellow waved us to a stop at Lane Aviation and it was the first time I’d enjoyed the relaxed pleasantness of Midwestern folks. Dad’s logbook says I flew 30 minutes.
The whole trip had a few nights on the road, so I don’t remember which motel event was where, but one was more like a home. After supper, the owners, a nice family, invited us to their living room where Dad chatted with the folks while I was fascinated with someone playing an electric organ, the first one I had seen. It was great diversion for my father. Then at dawn, a train whistle woke me and bolting from bed I threw back the window curtain soon enough to see the big diesel and cars flash by, with the scene of middle layer clouds lighted on yellow-pinkish, pre-sun sky over distant wide open horizon. The Midwest struck again.
Back at Lane Aviation I met Foster Lane, the man behind that show and Ohio Aviation Pioneer. Probably anyone who has flown around Columbus and holds any tenure knew Mr. Lane. He generously made my day by handing over a little Cessna sales card with a color picture on one side. As the trip continued, when I wasn’t trying to hold altitude, scanning the sky for airplanes or contemplating the intriguing new country, the card and picture was pure intellect. About 1987, when a shiny new 727 copilot, I wandered over to see Mr. Lane on a Columbus layover, he remembered the little blond headed kid and we had a great time chatting about everything. He was a generous and dynamic man.
In retrospect the middle clouds at dawn were a warm frontal thing, because heading west from Columbus we turned around about the Wabash River diverting to Terre Haute, Indiana. We had encountered freezing drizzle even though we were VFR below clouds, and there was some recollection of worrisome aura within the cockpit as the freezing evil began building on the bare aluminum wing strut. Some other airplanes joined us in Terre Haute for the same reason, probably making a dent in my head that the ice thing was not good for airplanes.
I think a lot of general aviation pilots have, at one time or another, been weathered-in at Terre Haute. I would years later, and could smugly say my first time was back in ’58. As we waited for the weather to pass my father was saved from a questioning and babbling eight year old who watched F-86s taking off. Anything that flew with deafening noise and maybe fire glowing from its rear end was great.
Things got better and we headed for St. Louis. Possibly this was the leg where we flew along VFR below the clouds and a DC-3 cruised by on our right. It wasn’t going much faster than we were so it gave a prolonged “neat” factor. I could read the “Lake Central” on fuselage top, then as it pulled away, kind of a black and white picture of shrinking, silhouetted DC-3 against the gray sky with darker flat Midwest below, wings thinning to pointed tips, the humps of half wheel below the engine nacelles with the big broad fin and rudder.
Sadly I don’t remember too much about St. Louis, but the article says I was nuts about seeing F-101 Voodoos sitting around at their factory. He also showed me where his former Monocoupe had been built around 1930, which I’m sorry not to remember. Evidently we also chatted about when Charles Lindbergh was part of the scene there. He remains one of my most admired aviators. Evidently we made a weather bureau stop, which we did often whenever flying somewhere, so obviously that started a wonderful habit for me. Today, I really miss a good weather facility, the clacking of teletype machines, smell of ink and orderly sequences hanging from clipboards that let you think, plan and ponder for a decision. Today, it’s an iPhone! With good weather forecast the next day, we spent the night. 30 more logged minutes of probably wandering heading and undulating pitch.
The morning brought a run to Kansas City, which in those days was, well, TWA. There was another weather bureau visit and Wichita was down in fog. Waiting it out…another concept for me to think about…I remember a sunny day and we visited a Douglas DC-4, still in TWA’s natural aluminum unpainted garb, relegated to cargo work. It was alone out there, but ready to roll with a metal ladder hanging from its door. We shinnied up the thing, and although looking like a thousand feet down was a cinch being a tree climber back home. Inside the DC-4, I told my father; “it stinks in here!” He laughed and said that was the smell of monkeys that had been carried from India. Evidently the stink would never leave, but it was fun wandering around in the airplane. Before monkeys, this DC-4 and others had been C-54s, used in WW II with Air Transport Command, lugging brass, cargo and the tragic casualties of war. Then they flew many of the early transoceanic routes in the later 1940s into the 1950s. TWA dragged them all the way to Athens, Cairo and the Mideast. He said the “4” really didn’t have long enough legs to make it a solid transoceanic airplane.
Either before or after the DC-4 we had lunch at the restaurant in the airline terminal. I recall a big, very open seemingly high ceiled room, with uniformed waitresses zooming about a busy afternoon. Plates clanked, silverware clinked and the sun shown thru big windows. Dad had said I needed to try their chocolate pie, so after whatever I ate, along came the pie which of course I remember. A scurrying waitress came along and my father calls out a name like Dottie, she swings around and says: “Well Bob Buck!” Evidently she had worked there a long time, as after their nice chat he mentioned she was there when he was flying a desk in Kansas City as chief pilot, which was 13 years earlier.
The Wichita weather was showing hope so off we went, which was VFR until about 20 miles out. The story was that while he’s trying to get a clearance, I’m all excited looking out the window at some white-faced cows down below. He offered vague basics of what he was going do in the clouds, which was fly the airplane by the artificial horizon and we would “shoot” what is called a GCA approach off McConnell Air Force Base, just south of the Cessna delivery center strip. If we saw the ground in time, we would break off the approach and land at Cessna. I vaguely remember descent and heading calls, and something like “holding course nicely”, to which my father commented “how about that!”, and I mumbled “but it’s your job” or the like. Perceptive little creep.
I kept looking out the side window, looking at the tire of the 182 waiting for something other than white. Suddenly some light brown winter grass began to appear, clouds shredded away, he pulled that big flap lever up from the center of the cockpit floor, pulled back the big knobbed throttle of those days and we were low final to a narrow landing strip surrounded by about eight million Cessnas out in the grass. I think my mouth opened but remembering Columbus the words stopped between the voice box and chin. Evidently the panoramic white world of 182 cloud flying kind of spooked me. As we taxied to parking, I said that it seemed we wouldn’t make it because when the radio guy said we were a mile and a half out I couldn’t see the ground. That would change with time.
Our overnight visit to Wichita was the first time I met Dwane Wallace, the man who made Cessna. I remember his tall stature, friendly smile and gentle, calm Midwest voice. He gave us a tour of the factory, and my biggest memory was a B-52 stabilizer sitting leading edge down in its jig. They made them on contract back then and it was BIG, and only the tail! I actually remember feeling Mr. Wallace’s pride in showing us Cessna’s work, and justifiably so!
The next morning the weather was on again the deck, so we had time. Somewhere a secret handshake was made and suddenly there was a new 182, called a “Skylane”, the first year they made that model. The 182 we were leaving was bare aluminum with black and a light trim, maybe yellow, with N-numbers still on the wings in those days, this one being a big N182LC. I remember staring out the window at that, too. The Skylane was totally painted, this one yellow, black and cream in the amazingly bizarre and angular styles typical of the 1950s. It also had wheel pants which were supposed to make us faster but would require adjustment to my side window viewing, being used to looking at a tire not a small upside down canoe. There were more instruments and gadgets on a professional aviation-looking black panel, not something of semi-maroon like it came from a Chevy Bel Air. Evidently the map pockets on the cabin’s side were also worthy of excitement. But up on the glare shield was the cream of the crop – a Tactair autopilot! Its little black box carried a nice selection of silver knobs nicely engraved in black numbers. We were going to outer space!
The weather gave us enough ceiling to leave, but not without an IFR climb to on top, a far less spooky and frankly stunning event as we blasted off to Indianapolis. Leveling off, the knobs all pulled and tweaked to fit the settings off the little wiz-wheel computer that Cessna provided. Dad began to fiddle with the magic Tactair. Hands off, it worked, and he even let me fiddle with a few knobs in gentle banks, climbs and descents. We ate sandwiches and flew like one of his Constellations, the clouds parted below and it seems there was an attempt to teach me map reading but with a kid’s eagle eye was distracted spotting airplanes. A little over three hours we made Indianapolis. Despite our little electronic friend, his log book says I flew 20 minutes.
Evidently the day was later, as we decided to stay the night, but not before we wandered the ramp and around hangars. Ramp and hangar wandering is, after all, part of aviation and even better with an understanding companion. There was a TWA Connie behind a hangar undergoing an engine change, amidst gantries, pieces of cowling, tools and pools of oil that make asphalt slimy. Somewhere an airline flight was a mess, crews screwed up, and passengers stuck.
Dad took me into a big hangar and introduced me to the famous air racing pilot Roscoe Turner. Also he famously had a pet lion named Gilmore, the name of the sponsoring oil company, who young at the time flew with him complete with parachute. Gilmore actually lived until 1952, when after he died was stuffed and kept in the Turner living room. After his racing career ended in 1939, Roscoe became a successful business man, including his Roscoe Turner Aviation in Indianapolis.
I had vague ideas who he was, but realized a much better picture of him being THE Roscoe Turner on seeing his famous Meteor racer, silver with a big 29 on the lower right wingtip, hanging from the ceiling of his hangar. It was obvious the Meteor wasn’t for shooting landings on Sunday afternoon. At that time I didn’t know it had a huge Pratt and Whitney 1000 hp engine dragging around 4,400 lbs. on a 95 sq. ft wing of 25 ft. span and a 51 lb./sq. ft wing loading. In the Meteor, Roscoe won his second and third Thompson Trophy, the only person to ever do so, and the last win just shy of 300 mph. He still sported his little mustache with waxed ends and if I recall was quite dapper. Impressed, I would have done anything to hear the Meteor roar.
A beautiful morning with a great tailwind, we headed for home. Away went the open Midwest and wild adventure, back to the rolling hills and trees of the east. The Tactair had my father as content as over the ocean in a Connie and we hummed towards New Jersey in that quiet aura of the last leg home. Tweaking the Tactair to start our descent, and although he didn’t say in his article, I bet we made the usual dive-zoom of our home with my mother waving again, then added an excursion down Prospect Street and circled my school. Evidently the lousy weather had made our trip longer than planned and I was missing my first day back from winter vacation. My father understood this was not totally a heartbreaking event and I was definitely getting an education. An eight year old may seem low on attention, but it’s amazing what they pick up. It had to be osmosis.
In retrospect, and in many ways of thanks to Leighton Collins, this trip very probably kick-started my love of airplane travel as well as tightened a father-son bond. The two of us would make many general aviation trips together, including a 1974 transpacific flight in a Cessna 402. The event no doubt furthered my enthusiasm of aviation, began a respect for general aviation that brought friendships, career and set in motion habits of flight that have served quite well. In 2009 my own son and I made a 7,000 mile journey around the United States in a Cessna 170. But that’s another story!