Fog over land

It’s Christmas morning and I rise early, not to play Santa to my children, for they are long grown. Today I rise early to gift myself. I’m careful not to wake my wife, warm and snuggled under the covers. She has no interest in this thing that I go to do.

It’s cold and clear as I step outside, the stars like diamonds on black velvet. My pickup truck is covered in frost. I crank it up and toss the headset bag in the front seat, waiting for the defroster to work its magic. Finally, I’m on my way, making the 20-mile drive with Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters singing their Christmas best.

Aeronca

Now this is a gift.

It’s still dark out as I arrive at the hangar an hour before sunrise, for the little Continental likes her heat on cold mornings. I wrap up her cowling, plugging all the places where the heat might escape, and plug in the small electric heater that’s used just for this purpose. She likes about an hour of this when it’s 32 degrees out. The little heater hums as I do my preflight.

All done, I retreat to the warm back room in the hangar and have a cup of coffee. One more check of the weather and local info. No clouds, no wind, no TFRs, no NOTAMs of import. Now I wait. A glance out the window tells me that sunrise is coming, but it seems to be taking its sweet time today. The airport is quiet this morning. I hear no hangar doors opening, no airplane engines idling. I noticed no other cars on the way into this side of the field.

Ah, finally a glow in the east that brightens as the sun is making its way upward. It won’t be long now. About 7:04 the hangar doors complain a little as I slide them open, and the old girl is pushed outside to her starting spot. Alerted by their squeals, I pause a second to watch two pair of wood ducks as they fly through the treetops in tight formation, headed down into the slough just two rows of hangars over. With the hangar doors closed at 7:10, the little taildragger sits chocked, with tail wheel secured to the ground, ready for a flip of the prop.

Eight blades of prime, switch ON, throttle cracked. She’s happy to start on the first pull and settles into a steady chug-a-chug. Official sunrise today is about 7:15, so I untie the tail, pull the chocks and head toward taxiway November. A call to Ground with Merry Christmas wishes gets me the same wishes returned along with instructions to taxi to runway 14 and a report of calm winds. A glance at the windsock confirms this.

At the runway, I check that the oil temp is coming up, run through the CIGAR TIP check list, call Tower (same controller as Ground this morning) and I’m cleared to go. With a little throttle we roll over the numbers and bring the nose around to line up with the centerline. The throttle comes in slowly to the stop, and the Continental relishes the cold as she seems to corral all 65 ponies for the takeoff.

The Aeronca also likes the cold air under her wings, for she’s off the ground quickly. I’m at pattern altitude as I’m turning crosswind at the end of the 5000-foot runway. I level off at about 1300 feet in the calm, crisp air on a left downwind departure. Even though there was a frost on the ground this morning, it’s not uncomfortable in the small cabin. Despite the drafts and the lack of a heater, I’m fine wearing jeans and a flannel shirt as the sun shines in the right rear window, slightly behind me as I head northward to the local practice area.

I scan the old girl’s sparse 1939 panel. Oil temp and pressure: good. Tach: 2150. We’re sitting pretty. The air is smooth as glass, and occasionally I spot wisps of smoke rising straight up from chimneys with no breeze to stir it. I can see for miles across pastures with cattle and horses, and farmlands that now lie barren, awaiting springtime and new seed.

Fog over land

These views are even better on Christmas Day.

I bear a little to the northeast, over a small neighborhood just across the river, where I bank over into a 360 to say Merry Christmas to my friend Buddy. Now it’s northward along the river. The watery snake zigs and zags more or less leading the way from here, and it’s a beautiful sight. What a morning to enjoy a flight!

Three years before, I’d managed to do a Christmas flight, but weather and life hadn’t lined up again until now for another one. Any time is a good time to fly, but this seems a little special. Perhaps it’s your faith, or just the awareness that this time of year brings. Regardless, it’s a good time to reflect and be thankful for this gift of flight. I sometimes still can’t believe that I am able to do this, or that I’m allowed to do this.

One of the things that make this possible is this little airplane that I fly, a gift from a man named Henry Haughton to EAA Chapter 343 about 20 years ago. The chapter restored it just in time for Sport Pilot rules, and they placed it into the care of a flying club formed by a group of its members. Though I wasn’t around the chapter at that time, there were several that put it to good use. She has soldiered on since then, receiving a few knocks along the way, but she’s built solid, and she’s tough. Through the years she’s reminded many pilots that stick and rudder (with the emphasis on rudder) skills are the heart of flying. Her pedals have taught them to dance (the pilot should always lead!).

I continue on my way and then remember a private strip of some friends that I have yet to locate, so a turn to the northwest takes me north of the lake and over the state line into northeast Texas, leaving behind the farmlands and headed toward piney woods. This causes me to pause to remember the words from instructors past: “Where would you land right now if the engine quits?”

With evergreen treetops below, I’m more attentive now. I start looking for the landmarks that will lead me to the private airport. I’m about a mile away before I spot the strip. I circle around to the north and let down for a low approach at 200 feet down the runway, saying Merry Christmas to the Coles, assuming that they’re home. Some other time will do for a landing here.

At the end I start a shallow climb with a slight right turn to the southeast, and head to another airport before I return home. In about ten minutes I’m entering the traffic pattern at Vivian. Full stop landing, 180 at the end and take off again for home. It is severe clear. The buildings of the city are clearly visible at 30 miles away.

Aeronca view

“Up here, it’s good to be aviating with no particular purpose in mind other than the pure enjoyment of flight.”

I point the nose toward a spot generally north of the buildings where the airport lies. I’m in no hurry, and the Aeronca’s slow pace suits me. I meander around the sky, happy to enjoy more of this Christmas morning flight. Down below, presents are opened, new bicycles are ridden, and Christmas dinners are prepared. Up here, it’s good to be aviating with no particular purpose in mind other than the pure enjoyment of flight. No doubt some of my fellow pilots are also flying today, some flying for the sake of flying just as I am, and others perhaps headed to Grandma’s house.

Finally, I decide to start winding up this flight as my family will be waking soon, getting ready for the day’s festivities, and I should be there to help prepare. After a straight-in approach to runway 14, the last part of this Christmas gift is a buttery-smooth three-point landing. I exit the runway and taxi to the hangar, chatting with the controller. He is definitely not busy this morning.

I shut her down, and inside she goes. I don’t mind that there are no bugs to wipe off today. An entry goes into the flight log, and I walk around her once more to be sure that all her parts returned with us. I want to take care of her, for she’s given me a most excellent Christmas gift.

Jimmy McNaughton
Latest posts by Jimmy McNaughton (see all)
43 replies
  1. John N
    John N says:

    Great story! Your writing style is terrific and I feel like I went right along with you that day. Thanks for sharing. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

    Reply
  2. David Edwards
    David Edwards says:

    Man, what a great story, and yes I know it was a gift to yourself. I’m about to take my little 1946 Chief out for a “Day after Christmas” flight. Thank you for sharing that.

    Reply
  3. John
    John says:

    Thanks for that well written story. I became the owner of
    NC83365 this past July and was mentally right there with you every second of the flight. However, my heater on the O-200 works quite well,at least for the front seat. And yes, I still wear flannel pants.

    Reply
  4. George Frost
    George Frost says:

    Jim,

    Your story filled the sky with thousands of cherished remembered flights, and airplanes, from airports that may not even exist, except in memory. Wonderful.

    George

    Reply
  5. Tim Barron
    Tim Barron says:

    Well said Jim. I am left with a wonderful sense of calm and a smile on my face just reading your description of that flight. Peace.

    Reply
  6. Natt McDougall
    Natt McDougall says:

    What a great and peaceful story of flight and faith. You captured the feeling of being off the surface of the earth alone for a little while and what a little time in the air can make a pilot feel like. Merry Christmas!

    Reply
  7. D Marker
    D Marker says:

    What a great story. Thank you for sharing in such eloquent style. I could picture the views and emotions with your descriptions. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, hopefully some sanity will return in 2021.

    Reply
  8. Jonathan Ramsey
    Jonathan Ramsey says:

    As I was reading along I couldn’t help but picture my home airport. The wood ducks flying over head fit perfectly. I also routinely fly a left downwind departure and follow the river to the north. And then I realized it is actually the same airport! Nice to see an article from a local guy, good read.

    Reply
  9. JOHN W LARSON
    JOHN W LARSON says:

    Thanks for the gentle inspiration. I’m headed out now to the hangar for a ‘pure enjoyment of flight’ session. Solo and in flannel lined pants.

    Reply
  10. Eric Marshall
    Eric Marshall says:

    Thanks for the gentle reminder of how precious our passion can be. A pleasant gift with breakfast in bed after a crazy Christmas.

    Blue skies
    Eric

    Reply
  11. Carol
    Carol says:

    Merry Christmas….. could feel the crispness and beauty of your flight through your words.
    Thank you for making Christmas crisper and brighter!

    Reply
  12. Bob Pirando
    Bob Pirando says:

    “I still can’t believe that I am able to do this”. Truer words were never spoken or written. My childhood dream of learning how to fly came true this year after 50 years of waiting. It is probably the most positive thing to happen to me in 2020.

    Merry Christmas and hope that 2021 is better for everyone, everywhere.

    Reply
  13. Robbie Culver
    Robbie Culver says:

    A fantastic read, and one near to my heart. I treasure every flight in “Charlotte” – our 1945 Aeronca Champ.

    A very Merry Christmas to you, and thank you for the wonderful words!

    Reply
  14. Jean
    Jean says:

    Such a touching Christmas morning story! I didn’t find it until two days after Christmas, but enjoyed it just as much. Particularly as I look out at snowbanks and shiver as I think of doing a walk-around in this morning’s temperature! Thank you for sharing. It brought back many memories.

    Reply
  15. Tim Crawford
    Tim Crawford says:

    Great article Jim. Sounds like a perfect way to start Christmas morning. Merry Christmas and thank you for the enjoyable read.

    Reply
    • Ken Jillson
      Ken Jillson says:

      A belated Merry Christmas to you Jimmy!

      Thanks for letting all of us ride along with you in your comfy vintage sleigh. Your stick and writing skills are over the moon!

      Happy trails… ‘til we meet again!

      Reply
  16. Joe
    Joe says:

    Potius sero quam nunquam – what a wonderful story. As only an old “armchair aviator”, I followed your flight on my charts and Google Earth. I still think of the lost opportunities I had to receive my license. Age now prevents it. Stories like yours are what dreams are made of.

    Reply
  17. Gary Kling
    Gary Kling says:

    Great story Jim. It reminds me of my early days in the 140. The stick and rudder days of flying are the best. Have a great post Christmas and a happy and healthy 2021. Gary

    Reply
  18. Lee Dalton
    Lee Dalton says:

    Ah!
    Aeronca, T-Craft . . . .
    Now THOSE were airplanes!
    Thanks for a fine story and may you and yours — and the Aeronca — enjoy many more Christmases together.

    Reply
  19. Richard
    Richard says:

    Only a pilot can appreciate this story.
    ….and only a pilot can appreciate this comment: “Her pedals have taught them to dance (the pilot should always lead!).

    Thank you, Jimmy.

    Reply
  20. Frank Huber
    Frank Huber says:

    Thank for sharing a great Christmas story Jimmy! You have captured the joy of flying nicely. Have a Happy New Year with lots fo flying!

    Reply
  21. Jimmy McNaughton
    Jimmy McNaughton says:

    I am humbled and overwhelmed by all of the kind words and comments from this community, and I count them as a special Christmas gift. I suppose this is the best place to say “Thanks”. I hope everyone had a Merry Christmas, and is looking forward to a great New Year.

    Sincerely,
    Jimmy McNaughton

    Reply
  22. Toode Marshall
    Toode Marshall says:

    For one who closed the hangar door for the last time, your story is so sweet reminding me of the flights in a cool morning with silk air! Thanks for sharing this wonderful flight, you’ve taken a lot of us along. Did you know the backseat was full of aviators? You betcha!
    Toode

    Reply
  23. John Young
    John Young says:

    Thank you for taking me with you on your air journey. Treks in the waking up hours are so special. I am ever thankful for special times like these. May God Bless and give you wings.

    Reply
  24. Mike Keltos
    Mike Keltos says:

    I enjoyed your story and writing style very much. Thanks for posting. I think we are the same age and I started flying lessons this year. Merry Christmas,

    Reply

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