A funny thing happened on the way to nowhere

I had a Luscombe years ago. As you may recall, a Luscombe is a small two-place vintage aircraft (in this case, 1946). A Luscombe has a stick, a tailwheel, and a 65-horsepower Continental engine. The performance characteristics of a Luscombe are almost identical to those of the old Ford Tri-Motor “airliner” – 50 mph lift-off; 65 mph climb-out; 92 mph cruising speed; and 60 mph on final approach to land.

While the Ford was like a flying truck, the Luscombe handled like a sports roadster when flying solo. When carrying a passenger, the Luscombe still handled well, but required more precision and mental planning during aerobatic maneuvers.

Luscombe
The Luscombe is a fun airplane, but things can get uncomfortable for passengers if you don’t pay attention.

Like most “sporty” planes, the Luscombe, when flown with practiced precision, was like dancing to familiar music. It was a sense of joy without a sense of fright. Uncoordinated, the world suddenly surrounded you with a strange and uneasy countenance. The pilot always felt this; the passenger even more so. The exception was, that to a non-pilot passenger, even co-ordinated unfamiliar attitudes felt, well, unfamiliar.

My colleague, Jim, was a non-pilot, but always good for adventure, and just enough risk to cancel boredom. He wanted to take an airplane ride.

On climb-out from Riverside Airport (OH36), we flew over Zanesville and then turned right, leaving the Y-bridge receding to the southeast. Over the crystal skies of the Dillon Lake area, we observed Dick Alkire flying his Pietenpol, an early homebuilt, open cockpit, parasol airplane with a Ford Model A engine. The sky was big with few clouds, and just the lake looking like a large pond below. We both rocked our wings to acknowledge each other. As we glided up alongside, Dick’s Pietenpol seemed as if he had put it in slow reverse, no other visual references being around to contradict our senses.

We were alongside each other for a moment, then Dick and I exchanged faint waves, which was our own secret invitation to dance. In the old days, with guns aboard, it would have been called a dogfight. With us it was a dance. Of course, my friend Jim had never danced through the sky before. The sky was our dance floor; our seats were down and our cabin headliner, with its small skylight, was up. The world below was not involved. The force was with us. The force called “g.”

I don’t remember who started first; I think it was me. I pulled into a steep bank and Dick pulled in behind.

I looked at Jim, who was now sitting 45 degrees below me, and said, “OK?”

“I’m fine,” he said.

As Dick followed my maneuver, he turned a little wide. I glimpsed him off my port rear quarter tightening the turn toward my tail. Dick dressed the part. Open cockpit, leather helmet, goggles, and even a scarf; it was quite an effect. Two Walter Mittys flying through the sky. As we engaged each other in this aerobatic dance, my focus narrowed. I was emotionally alone in the cockpit.

Pietenpol
Who wouldn’t want to dogfight a Pietenpol?

For about 20 minutes, we maneuvered through the sky, sometimes popping up on the other’s starboard, and sometimes on his port. It was all exhilaration and delight for the pilots, but not for passenger Jim. Being caught up in the moment, I had failed to attend to the needs of his inexperience. This problem dawned on me just as I pulled vertical into a hammerhead stall and kicked the rudder at the moment of stall to point the right wing straight up and the left wing to our shadow on the ground. Just at that moment I glimpsed Jim between my eye and the right wing tip. He was staring at the dashboard pale and pallid with just a hint of pucker in his expression, but no hint of emotion. He appeared captured, as if by a giant entomologist’s pin, pinned against, what was very literally, a door to the sky.

The image was just for an instant. Gravity works fast, and we were soon accelerating vertically down through the sky toward the widening pond below. We passed 120 MPH as our wings rolled horizontal and we began to feel the gathering force of “g” as we recovered from our dive.

The serious business done, we turned toward Riverside Airport and landed behind the Pietenpol. We were returning from nowhere.

“Quite a ride,” was all Jim said as he hunched his six-foot frame to disembark.

While walking toward the hangar door, I noticed he never quite regained his stature.

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