The loss of an old friend

I just lost an old aviation friend. The news came in unusual fashion, as an email with graphic photographs of the body, but no note about what happened. The damaged nose, the broken limbs— one separated from the body— it was hard to take. She had been pretty, perky, always ready for a good time. But now it was over.

Aeronca
A good friend, before she met her unfortunate end.

Who was she? My lovely 1946 Aeronca Chief, of course, the one I’ve written about here previously. In earlier stories, I related my efforts to improve the airplane, with an 85 hp engine and electric starter, new engine mount, new seats, new cables, new tires, Hooker safety harness, new instruments, overhauled brakes, and much more.

And when I had gotten it just so, it was time to give up flying and let her go to another caretaker. I was fortunate to sell the Chief to a passionate flier from the southeast, and hoped he would be a faithful custodian of this charming airplane. The Chief had never been registered outside Indiana in its entire life post-Middletown, Ohio, so I sent her away ruefully, wishing she could have stayed nearby. I was selfish in that hope, because I wanted to see her now and then.

Apparently, the gentleman to whom I sold the airplane had changed circumstances a few years later, and sold her a short time before the accident. The shocking pictures I received without explanation led to a web search revealing what happened. According to the FAA inspector, the pilot was landing at a residential airpark, and upon touchdown, the airplane veered left, off the runway. The left wing hit the windsock support pole, spun the airplane around, taking out the prop, right wingtip, and the right landing gear.

The FAA registry suggests that the airplane’s corpse now belongs to an insurance company. It appears from the photos that the airplane is not economically restorable, needing a prop, engine teardown and repair, possibly engine mount and firewall, two new wings, extensive fuselage frame and landing gearwork, and a recover and repaint. So, off to a salvage yard, I suppose, unless some EAAer in love with Aeroncas buys the wreckage and does the rebuilding him- or herself.

I have no idea why the airplane left the runway, but my experience with it included unintentionally getting my left shoeheel on the heel brake, and nearly losing control. The FAA inspection found no issues with the wheels or brakes. At any rate, it’ll be chalked up as yet another loss-of-control crash on the NTSB’s hit-list of GA problems. Happily, the accident pilot was unhurt. I like to think my girl (and Hooker’s harness) protected him.

This affair made me think again about the bonds pilots can form with specific airplanes. Some, of a mystical bent, think their airplanes have souls, of a sort, and can feel emotions and express them in various ways. My first airplane, a 1966 Cessna 172, became like a happy puppy for me; my wife used to joke to friends that “Hunter has gone to the airport to pet his airplane.” When weather was too much for an aged taildragger (and aged pilot), I would sit in the Chief, thinking about flying, rehearsing taxi, takeoff, and landing. The rattle of the hangar doors in the wind, the unique smell of small aircraft, and the airplane’s many experiences would evoke my father’s flying stories, my training in Minnesota, treasured aviation friendships, remarkable flights…

Looking at the pictures, I had a sudden urge to visit the Chief’s lifeless body, and lay a floral wreath across her broken nose.

4 Comments

  • In 1955 I was building time and a friend of my brothers owned a Chief. The plane wasn’t in the best of shape… it had a lot of ringworm. The guy would match my time rubbing out the ringworm with dope with flight time. The deal was if I spent an hour choking on airplane dope and damaging my brain he’d let me fly the thing for $10.00CDN. Back then dope had an entirely different meaning than today.

  • Sure planes have a soul. And every time I fly, back on the ground I caress my plane. She took me up, gave me pleasure and returned me safely to the Earth. She deserves it.

  • My first airplane was an Aeronca Chief, N9459E. She carried me through many adventures and misadventures. On the last day of moose hunting season in 1958, her engine failed and I put her down in a marsh full of 8-foot scrub willows. If you know where to look, you can still see her sad carcass, midway between McDougal and Skwentna, along the Yentna River, Alaska. The plane cost only $1,400, and I made my last bank payment on the following Monday.

    Although it was only four days after her annual, the sediment bowl had dropped off in flight, leaving me no choice but tot land where I could. A truly sad day . . . I was lifted out by a passing Curtis Robin on floats.

  • I sold my Cessna 120 four years ago. I purchased as a near basket case. I nurtured him (He told me he was a guy plane, not a female.) back to full health over a 10 year period.

    The last annual inspection revealed large cracks in the gear box structure. I could not afford the repairs, plus I had elected to go Light Sport (120’s are 100 lbs above the LSA weight cut off.) So, he was sold to a restorer. I have no idea what has transpired since the sale, but the registration is still active.

    I sure do miss the little guy and now that I have moved south, finding a reasonably priced hangar is virtually impossible. So much for Florida’s boasting it is aviation friendly.

    The 120 was my first and last real airplane. I own a Phantom fat ultralight, which I’ve flown once, but it lacks any kind of pizzazz.

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