Summers long ago: a 1500-mile trip in a Cessna 120

When non-pilots think about flying, they think about engines and dials and lights and radios. They think about complicated gadgets that they could never understand. What they don’t realize is that flying can be a way to touch an older, simpler time.

In the summer of 1979, I was working in Tulsa, Oklahoma, before starting my senior year at college. An old high school friend of mine living in Massachusetts was being badly bitten by the flying bug. He was a young electrical engineer, two years out of Stanford, with more money than he knew what to do with, and he wanted to learn to fly.

In the grass of Harvey Young, an airport tucked just south of Tulsa International, there appeared a beautiful 1946 Cessna 120. The interior was a bit rough, but the outside was about perfect, a lovely light brown with chocolate trim. It had an electrical system, and even a turn and slip. The radio was a Radair 10, a ten-channel crystal job that, for some unknown reason, had mostly ground control frequencies in it. That didn’t really matter because the transmitter didn’t work very well.

Simply put, I fell in love with this airplane. I couldn’t buy it, but I convinced my buddy that this was the airplane for him. I told him he could learn to fly in this plane, have lots of fun, and then sell it for what he paid for it. After all, the selling price in 1979 was about $5,000 more than the airplane went for new in 1946. The same airplane today would go for more than $20,000 (and I still can’t afford one).

Cessna 120
Not just a machine, but a way to get in touch with another era.

He bought it, hearing the love in my voice, and told me to bring it to him. Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Boston, Massachusetts: a 1500-mile trip in a 30-year old airplane with no nav radio, a com radio that just barely worked, no gyro instruments except for that needle and ball, and a wet compass. This was adventure!

My first concern was a check out in the airplane. I had a good chunk of taildragger time in my log, but it was over several years old, and I never had soloed one. My total time wasn’t bad, but I needed a good check out. I found a young instructor at Harvey Young who flew taildraggers, and we got in the airplane the first sunny day we had. The summer of 1979 was pretty wet.

Going over the panel, I realized there was no mixture control. I don’t know if that was an option in 1946 or just not available. The service ceiling in the POH (such as it was) listed a service ceiling higher than a Cessna 150, so it would have been running really rich up there. You shut down the engine with the magneto switch; no other option.

We got to the end of the runway, went through the checklist, and then I pushed the wheel forward and opened the throttle. The tail came up quickly as that little 85-horse Continental let out its throaty hum. We were just about to lift off when the engine started coughing.

The instructor and I looked at each other. His face was the definition of disbelief, and I imagine mine was the same. Then I called out “Abort!” and pulled the throttle back. We had lots of runway left, so getting stopped was no problem. We got it off the runway just as the engine died.

Remember I said the interior was on the rough side? Well, one of the things missing was the placard around the fuel valve, the one that says which tank you’re running on. It felt like the same positions as a modern Cessna, LEFT-BOTH-RIGHT, but the center position on the 120 isn’t BOTH, it’s OFF, and that’s where we had it. If the taxi had been a couple minutes shorter, we would have been off the ground with the gas turned off. Good start.

I soloed quickly, and then spent a total of about three hours getting to know the airplane and just having fun. The airplane was a dream to fly. The controls were light and responsive, with nary a quirk that I ever found. The cabin had skylights installed, which made for great visibility. Never before (or since) have I had an airplane all to myself and it was a wonderful thing. But now it was time to turn my attention to planning the route.

Flying the VORs was out, and this was way before GPS, so it looked like my alternative was old style IFR—I Follow Roads. To make life a little easier, I called AAA and had them make me up a travel plan, sticking to major highways. Then I took the TripTik route and transferred it to my sectionals. Presto! Instant route!

I did make one change. A friend of mine in Western Massachusetts warned me against trying to fly the infamous “Hell’s Stretch” through the Allegheny Mountains. This is a very scenic route to drive, but it was the death of many an early airmail pilot. In nothing flat the ceiling can come down and the visibility vanish, leaving you to try to squirm your way through while staying clear of cumulo granite. I decided to go further north and follow the Lake Erie shoreline up to New York and then head east.

I had intended to just camp out with the airplane wherever I could, sleeping under the wing in the old barnstormer’s tradition, but I had a last minute companion join me who wasn’t too thrilled with that idea.

We took off and headed up into Missouri. Our first stop was in Rolla, a town I’d flown over lots of times. The power connector on the radio had worked itself loose, and for some reason it seemed really important to get it working again.

Arch
Hard to get lost with that monument out the window.

Interstate 44 slid beneath our wings, and St. Louis loomed up in the distance. Skirting around the TCA, we got a good look at the Arch, the co-pilot flying the airplane while I took pictures. Then it was over the Mississippi and into Illinois.

Remember what I said about it being a wet summer? Well, a front had pushed its way through Tulsa a day or so before our departure, and now we found ourselves running into the back of it once we crossed into Indiana. So somewhere short of Terre Haute, we called it quits for the first day.

The guy at the gas pumps asked us if we were going to Oshkosh. The EAA event was about to begin and we were flying the right hardware. We said no, that we were going the other way, but he still gave us a lift to the nearest hotel.

I’ve looked in my logbook and checked the Internet, but many of the airports we stopped at appear to have vanished long since. Most of them, as I remember, were in the middle of cornfields. Now they’re probably shopping malls or industrial parks.

We kept dodging the backside of that cold front for the next three days. Every day we’d fly a few hours, catch up to it, and stop for the night. We became well acquainted with Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and upstate New York. We went above 3,000 feet AGL maybe once or twice and couldn’t believe how alien the world looked from 5,500 feet. One of our best navigational aids was a pair of binoculars that made it easier to read the town names on the water towers. Pilotage let us down only once, when a huge stretch of new Interstate in western New York blew all our landmarks away.

Our last stop was in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. We spent a day or two with an old friend of mine, walking the streets of Stockbridge, swimming in the farm pond and playing with the dogs. It was a great end to the trip.

The final destination was Hanscom Field (BED), northwest of Boston. It’s a controlled airport, and that little radio’s transmitter had packed up for good. It was putting out nothing but a carrier, so I filed a no-radio flight plan to Hanscom and we blasted off for the big city. This was before the days of the “Mode C veil.”

We found the airport with no problem, but when I tried calling the tower they came back with “Aircraft calling Hanscom tower, say again, you’re unreadable.” I gave them another holler, and then that kind young lady in the glass booth said “Aircraft calling Hanscom, if this is Cessna 76646, click your mike button twice.” I gave her the double click, and she gave us the advisory and cleared us to land. No sweat. Journey over.

It’s been 26 years, but those five days of my life still live on in mind and film. It had its dark side, however. Just a few weeks after the trip ended the young lady who accompanied me, my college girlfriend, killed herself.

I’d had a running correspondence with Gordon Baxter for years. I poured out much of what I’ve written above to him in a letter, some of it more personal. I was not surprised to get a letter back on that parchment stationery with the brown ink he used, but I was surprised to have my own letter fall out along with his. It read:

David,

Thanks for sharing your inner heart with me.

I’m sending back your letter. I don’t know if you keep stuff—but I do know you’ll never tell this story so beautifully again.

Your friend,

Bax

Somehow knowing that what I had to say about her, me, the airplane and our trip together had touched one of the greatest storytellers I’ve ever known made me feel better. Bax is gone, but I still have his letters, my pictures, my memories, and the airplane is still flying. After forty years, you can’t ask for much more than that.

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