One last airplane ride for Dad

We had slipped between two showers near Van Wert, ducking under a cloud that was surely about to burst itself, and emerged into open sunshine to the west, and a long, gray annular cloud laying across the Ohio farm fields ahead and below, looking a bit like an exhausted roll cloud, its enthusiasm depleted after the afternoon’s deluge, hovering too low to glide beneath, yet still a bit too Janus-faced to climb above. As expected, a line of training storms had redeveloped late on this August afternoon over northern Indiana, but they had not scooted along into Michigan as fast as I had hoped. Best we follow the sunlight for now and keep our options open.

Flying over Van Wert
Over the farms of Ohio, Mother Nature showed who was really in control.

The Fort Wayne controller said the precipitation further north, between us and our destination, Steuben County airport, was extreme; back toward the east it was light, at least on his radar. Pirouetting our trusty old straight-tailed Cessna 150 around and commencing to motor back the way we had come, I started looking for signs that that long, low roll of a cloud wasn’t as duplicitous as I thought. We only had about 30 miles to go as the crow flies, after a three-day trip from Vermont. We had spent the previous day weaving around rain showers and other remnants of a lethargic trough for a good part of the way, stuck between model train villages and the spectacular papier-mache topography of central Pennsylvania below and an annoyingly persistent ceiling above.

Thirty miles over the ground to Steuben County, and, as it happened, with a dash of not-so-subtle déjà vu, a bit over four decades back through time.

My grandfather Russell, Grandpa Green, my father’s father, passed away in August 1975. He had been in Tampa, working on city water system surveys, as he had nearly every summer for decades. He was an only child from a relatively loveless home, narrowly missing deployment during World War I, an engineer who spent most of his life teaching high school and college applied mathematics. He always seemed old to me, balding, with snow white hair and rimless glasses. His ability to sustain a handstand well into his 60s more or less escaped my notice as a child.

I had seen him a few weeks before he died, when I had flown over to Tampa from George Speer’s old Palm Beach Gardens airport. By that time, I had realized what a treasure of history he was, and I peppered him with questions over dinner. But I think I knew. I remember his grip as we shook hands before I climbed into my airplane, and I remember thinking, briefly, that I would never see him again. Within a few weeks, it was clear that when he shook my hand, he knew that for certain.

When he died, I was on a solo hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We knew things were not good; after my first night, I came down to civilization to call home and see what was up. “You’d better come home,” Dad said. I thumbed my way back to my old ’65 Volkswagen and set off on the four-hour drive back home.

Dad and I took off from Chester, Connecticut, in N5072D, our old 1958 Cessna 182, the next morning, headed for Steuben County Airport in Angola, Indiana. Angola was the home of Tri-State College, where my grandfather taught and where both he and my father obtained their engineering degrees. It was near Fremont, where the Jordan Cemetery was, and most of the family on my grandfather’s side was buried there. My grandmother had died four years before, and we buried my grandfather right next to her a couple of days after everyone had gotten there. The morning afterward, Dad and I set off back to Connecticut. He had to get back to work, and I had to get back to college.

The weather was going to be a problem. Neither of us, or the airplane, was qualified for instrument flight. In those days we were still intimate with the sound of hammering teletypes, and when you dialed… as in spun the dial on the phone… the Flight Service Station, a live person answered. But a weather briefing at the Steuben County airport was sorely lacking in visual aids. We ended up landing at Van Wert, Ohio, and later at Lima.

Cleveland
Sliding offshore to avoid clouds – surely they’ll break up…

As I recall, the weather we were encountering was not the weather we had expected, and the frequent stops were to review the situation and wait out some change. One way or another, we ended up going past Cleveland Lakefront airport a couple of miles out over the water at about 500 feet, to slip between showers; immediately to the east the clouds broke up and lifted. We climbed comfortably to 7500 feet, on top of a broken layer, and I distinctly recall that we were certain these clouds would disappear completely as we motored east.

At some point, the generator failed. And we didn’t notice, until the battery failed as well. And there we were; on top of what had become multiple layers of broken cloud, no radios, no fuel gauges, and about three and a half hours of flight already behind us. It wasn’t particularly hard to spiral down through gaps in the broken clouds; the real problem was what to do once we got down below the bottom layer. We were about 1500 feet above the rolling countryside with only a vague idea where we were. We spent 15 or so minutes wandering about looking for some kind of recognizable landmark or any usable airport. We found neither. And then we made what was probably the smartest decision we ever made: we picked out a good farm field and landed.

The farmer was thrilled. No one had ever landed in one of his fields before; it seemed like the high water mark of his entire summer. We quickly determined where we were on the sectional, and saw that there was an airport about ten miles down the river. Dad took a look in the tanks, saw we had a couple of inches of fuel left, and we decided to set off for the airport. Dad had plenty of experience from his teenage years hand-propping airplanes with no electrical systems, and of course that was the only option. First though, we walked the entire length of the field to make sure there wasn’t some hidden ditch that nobody remembered. And then I held the brakes, ran the switch and throttle, Dad propped us off and climbed in, and I lifted us gently and easily out of the farm field. A straight tail 182 is a magnificent airplane, particularly when it doesn’t have a lot of gas in the tanks.

Sure enough, in a couple of minutes there was the airport, and we rolled up to the fuel pumps hoping to keep our little secret… until we got out of the airplane and saw the leading edges thoroughly covered with cow manure. The farmer had wisely called ahead, of course, so there was no secret anyway. We fueled up, cleaned the leading edges a bit, Dad propped the engine once more, and later that evening we landed back in Connecticut.

That was 43 years ago, at pretty much the midpoint of my father’s life. This past winter, Dad finally finished his own journey, after a lengthy bout with Parkinson’s disease. He had absolutely no interest in formal funerals, ceremonies, wakes, or burials. He had, at one point, mentioned that he thought it would be nice if we affixed a small plaque to his parent’s gravestone out there in Indiana.

I spent the day after he died doing the things one does, particularly trying to figure out what to do with his ashes. I chatted with the cousins and sent messages to friends that I knew would want the news. One friend, a pilot at my airline, asked what the funeral plans were. I told her that we would probably inter Dad out there at the Jordan Cemetery in Indiana. Knowing something of his aeronautical passions, she texted back, “Oh, that’d be nice. He’d get one last airplane ride.”

And in that instant, staring at her message, I knew there was only one way Dad was going back to Indiana.

I hadn’t flown a light airplane in nearly three decades, but a couple of very talented young flight instructors at the local flight school soon had me straightened out. They each had just a bit more total time than I report on a year’s worth of first class physicals, but they know their stuff, and gently steered me away from pilot-induced oscillations and back to rudder-controlled stalls, with an occasional reminder about other faded memories like P-factor, primer strokes and control positions when taxiing in wind.

Suddenly, I was aloft over Lake Champlain, quite literally on my first solo flight in 28 years, with the approach controller putting the finishing touches on my Rip Van Winkle awakening by calling out crossing traffic, at ten o’clock, coincidentally also at 3000 feet, subtly nudging me to the realization that there was no TCAS, and that perhaps I ought to actually do something.

Cessna 150
Getting reacquainted with a Cessna 150 after a lifetime flying airliners.

By a stroke of luck, my friend Doug Smith happened to have recently acquired a wonderful old straight tail Cessna 150, and he offered me the use of the airplane for the week or so I would need. Doug’s wizened old 150 was perfect. And pretty close to our 182 in shape and style, if not in floor plan and power. Manual flaps… I love manual flaps. Old radios. Airspeed in miles per hour. There were a few welcome additions… a shoulder harness STC. Great big sun visors that I’ve never seen in any 150 before. Dad and I had learned to fly together in a 1967 Cessna 150. A 150 of that vintage seemed like a perfect ship for the occasion.

And so Dad and I had set off on a Wednesday morning, starting a three-day aerial journey across America, retracing a good bit of his life, just the two of us, in a manner of speaking, taking a last airplane ride, making about 95 miles per hour give or take the wind.

Dad’s first flight had been a memorable ride in a PT-19 at Austin, Texas, given by his big brother, my uncle Wayne, the future physics professor, who was a C-46 instructor during the war. Dale Mollenkopf, the manager of Branch County Memorial Airport in Michigan, had taught Dad the basics of wrangling Pipers, Ryans and Aeroncas during his high school years, and in the blink of an eye Dad was an engineer at North American in Los Angeles, listening to George Welch describe his near-death experience the morning after a gear door popped open when flying an F-100 through a Mach calibration run.

By the time I came along, Dad was part of the powerplant systems group at North American’s Columbus, Ohio, plant, in what is now known as Air Force Plant 85. After straightening out the Navy’s fuel problems with the T-28, he was tasked with fabricating and running the fuel systems mockup for the A3J Vigilante, shortly after I had discovered fire by sticking my finger in the single candle on my first birthday cake. Ever the avid cameraman, Dad had photographed the whole sequence, leaving a wonderful legacy of my learning style in vivid black and white. Thus began the infusion of the family tradition of prudence.

And so it was that, 60 years later, on our second evening, we alighted on runway 28L at Columbus, immediately adjacent to Air Force Plant 85. The following day it rained quite a bit. Careful analysis of several forecast tools and discussions indicated that an afternoon respite in the showers would give us a chance to make a dash north to Indiana, with numerous alternates open along our route if things didn’t move as fast as we hoped.

Sure enough, the exhausted, breathless roll cloud was dissipating, but there was a crisp palette of grays in the sky beyond, while Fort Wayne was clearly visible in sunshine to our right. If that was light precipitation, we didn’t need to mess with it. And beyond that, what if we succeeded? Once we were on the other side of it, what would we find then? We puttered along for five or six minutes, cogitating, as Grandpa Green would have said. Let’s see… two hours airborne, at 5.6 gallons per hour, so we’ve got about an hour before we have to be on the ground if we want to land with any reserves.

Even if we could get around the precipitation, it would take 20 minutes to go this way, and another 20 to go that way. This was not a winning plan. Finally, I said aloud, “You know, Dad… I can’t think of one good reason why we would want to be over on the other side of that weather with an hour’s worth of fuel left. What do you think? Close enough? Let’s land and get a car.”

And with that, I keyed the mike. “Fort Wayne, Cessna 43T… you know what? I think we’re gonna come visit you today…”

More rain arrived as we got the airplane tied down, and the hour drive to Angola was rather wet. My cousin was at Ruby Tuesday’s, and we had a late dinner. The following morning, we revisited many of Dad’s childhood haunts, including the Branch County airport, where Dad had become briefly famous in his Air Scout troop after he succeeded in getting the APU started on the surplus, donated C-46, so the Scouts could power up the rest of the aircraft systems.

28L at CMH
The trip home included many personal stops, like this one in Columbus, Ohio, where the North American plant still stands (left of runway).

We buried Dad that afternoon, back at the Jordan Cemetery, in front of his parents’ grave, next to his grandparents’ grave. It was just the two of us, my cousin Nancy and me. We didn’t have anything else appropriate to say, so I read aloud a poem, written by our grandmother and found so many years ago in our grandfather’s wallet. It seemed to fit. We then retired to a surprisingly delightful restaurant, Timbuktoo, of all the names in the world to choose for a restaurant in the farmland of Indiana, and we spent the late afternoon upholding the family tradition of solving most of the world’s deeper problems over dinner and coffee. Nancy drove back to Chicago that night.

The weather was good the next day. I took off at nine in the morning, stopped three times for fuel and arrived back in Burlington at around seven that evening. It was a long day, but peaceful, certainly no more challenging than a four-leg day in the MD-80. My landings had improved markedly, until the last one at Burlington, on a beautiful, clear summer evening, absolutely windless, smooth, and so I managed to squeeze three landings into one approach, just in case I was getting an airline pilot’s fat head.

It took a few minutes to unload 43T, to pull out my overnight bag, cameras and survival gear. I slipped the towbar around the nose strut and rolled the ship back into its tie-down. I had to knot the ropes back into the lugs in the ramp, since I had taken them with me. Window shades in place, pitot cover on, ropes snug, I gathered my kit and slipped out the back gate.

I had wanted to give Dad a simple, old school flight back to Steuben County, keeping faith with his curmudgeonly dismissal of modernity. And yet, in the end, there was the August weather again, stirring the pot, laying down the gauntlet, and one way or another we ended up making the same decision we did 43 years ago… to quietly and discreetly land, before we got into trouble, before we drew attention to ourselves. Funny, that. Maybe that was the way it was supposed to be all along.

The three pillars of prudence, taking counsel, judging of what one has learned, and exercising command, held great value for Grandpa Green, my father’s father. If I remember anything about him, it was that he had a prudent demeanor, and a prudent expression. His eyes belied an expectation of patience, honest effort, and cautious judgement. He strongly suggested questioning assumptions. He persistently urged the investigation of how you know what you know.

These ideas were the subject of many evening discussions, of which I was but a privileged observer, over copious amounts of coffee and curling pipe smoke. Drawing attention to yourself, on the other hand, was rather plainly frowned upon. Now that I think about it, I suspect that drawing attention to yourself was frowned upon by pretty much everyone buried in the Jordan Cemetery.

Alas, it seems that perhaps we arrived in grand style after all. In any event, Dad is home now. And, thanks to a simple old Cessna, so am I.

17 Comments

  • I was wondering when you were going to share this story with us. It was wonderfully written, as usual, with great imagery. I know your dad enjoyed his last flight!

  • Steve , thank you so much for sharing what is obviously an emotional and was “illustrated” so well. My father passed away last Christmas after a long battle with cancer. He had a tremendous love of aviation. He was witness to American, British, and German aircraft fly over his home in Haarlem, NL during WWII. For a young boy, it was a site of wonder and not the horror of war.

    It may sound a bit morbid, but every flight I take I bring a small vial of his ashes with me for luck and companionship. He was my best friend, super hero, and greatest supporter, and still my co-pilot.

    Again, thanks for sharing this with me and the world.

  • Steve

    Nice story as it brought back memories of my dad who past away last August. He loved aviation and studied mechanics in the thirties at the old Floyd Bennett Field. He always support me to become a pilot long ago

    Thanks again for a great story

  • Loved it! This story makes me enthusiastic about writing of my older brother, my CFI, of whom I learned so much as we grew up. Sadly, he passed in 2014 succumbing to leukemia. Our dad was a dairy farmer, but enjoyed flying the small planes from the grass strionin the farm. All good memories!

  • Love that story. Attending my actual conditions of health, and because I and my son are both pilots, I’ll like, if my death arrived, I could be treated in same way like You treated Your father. Thanks for Your story.

  • Steve:

    What a wonderful article and so beautifully written. Had you not become a pilot I think you surely would have had a successful career as a writer. The first paragraph painted a vivid picture that gently tugged at my mind until it pulled me in…..with the rest feeling like a skillfully written short story that I found myself wishing would not so quickly come to an end. Such fond memories for you to have and cherish of both your father and grandfather. Thanks for sharing this story!

  • Poignant and well written. It’s something for me to ponder as my dad, who served in WWII (Army Air Corps, Air Transport Command), is about to turn 96. Thank you for sharing.

  • I made much the same sad flight on Fathers’ Day back in 1983. I chose that day to scatter my father’s earthly remains at the upper end of Alaska’s Lower Russian Lake. Though my father was living in Florida at the time of his passing, it was his wish to spend eternity in that lake, tightly rimmed by the mountains of the Chugach Range and overlooked by the huge Harding Ice Field and beautiful Skilak Glacier. My wife and I will eventually reside forever in the same beautiful place.

  • What fantastic imagery and great writing. I grew up in central PA, but I never heard it described as “model train villages and paper-mache topography.” Beautiful. I am convinced that being a pilot makes you see the world differently, in more ways than one. God bless you and your family.

  • Wonderfully told, Steve, and brought a tear to my eye. The story illustrates what a magic carpet is the lowliest of basic airplanes, offering a trip not just to a place, but to emotions and memories. May you fly long and well.

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