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The crisp November air has a bite to it, the morning is still and quiet, and the grass shines with frost. Tread carefully. I prime the Champ, check the ignition is off, and pull the prop through exactly six times. I reach into the cabin and turn the mags on, then return to the prop and pull her sharply to start.

Charlotte, the Champ, does not feel like starting. It’s cold, and I have interrupted her morning rudely by dragging her out onto the grass and tying her tail down. She makes me work for my fun today, and it takes a few more tries before the engine sputters and coughs to life.

I return to the cabin, to verify the oil pressure is up. The air has a definite sharpness in the prop blast as I walk to the tail to untie Charlotte. She politely stays in place as I neatly bundle the tie down rope and toss it gently in the baggage sling, then clamber into the forward seat and pull the chock from the right wheel with the long rope we have for just such a purpose.

The ten minutes it takes her to warm up are spent relaxing in the cabin and contemplating the flight west/southwest to Cushing Field (OC8). Out on runway 36, a Cessna from the flight school departs and breaks the silence with her purr. I’m not the only one going flying this morning.

The oil temperature gauge finally comes off the stop and I ease the throttle in to pull off the grass onto the taxiway. No hurry, not in an old taildragger. She is constantly reminding me to be kind, be gentle, be smooth. Stick full aft as she rumbles onto the asphalt, then stick forward and left to keep the wind behind us on the top of her elevator and right aileron. I can hear Nick Selig’s voice in my memories as I do so, reminding me to fly her from the chocks until I shut her down at the end of the flight.

I slowly waddle down the taxiway to the run-up area and turn Charlotte at an angle, checking to ensure I have left room for anyone else who wants to get by. Her wings are long and I try to be a friend to others who are operating an aircraft at Clow today.

Brakes on and held tightly, stick back, power slowly up to 1500 RPM. Everything with Charlotte is slow and smooth. I let the power settle for a moment before turning the key switch to one mag, then back to both, then to the other mag, watching and listening as I do so. No surprises. Back to both, and then a slow and easy tug on the carb heat. As expected, there is not much change in RPM with a small Continental engine on a cold morning. But no coughs or stumbles, either.

A check that the primer is in and locked, verify my trim is set, and then double-check the radio and intercom are on and set. It’s time to go.

It’s a short taxi to the end of 36, down past the retention pond where several geese sit on the embankment, reminding me it is bird season and to take one extra look as I depart.

A quick scan at the end of the runway for traffic as well as birds, and then a radio call for departure. Out onto runway 36 and I ease the throttle in as I reach the centerline, stick full aft, and use the rudder to keep her pointed straight as I check the engine RPM and verify the airspeed is off the peg. Full power now, stick full forward, more rudder, and it is a short roll in the cool air. She flies off the runway smoothly and I smile at the revelation, the instant of flying. This is one of the most magical moments of any flight – leaving the ground in an aircraft under my control. It is a powerful experience.

As she climbs out, I watch very carefully for any feathered friends who are out and about, but there are none. I hear someone call departing Naper Aero, and make a mental note to keep an eye out for them. Soon enough, I am turning crosswind and making my radio call, ensuring I stay over the greenway between Clow and 95th street, just in case…

A short crosswind and it’s time to turn left for the downwind departure, and another radio call. Now I focus on maintaining my airspeed, checking the gauges, and looking for traffic, while also looking for my next out should Charlotte decide this is a good moment for a test. She putters happily instead, and I watch my ground reference, making small adjustments for the slight breeze.

grass runway

After the departure, I focus on maintaining my airspeed, checking the gauges, and looking for traffic, while also looking for my next out.

A turn on course as I am abeam the approach end of 36, and I look for my heading of 248 degrees. About 24 miles of low and slow flying ahead of me. I let Charlotte dictate the pace, and at 1800’ I ease her throttle back to 2150 RPM, using the trim to find the sweet spot she loves. Looking out at the wingtips, I see that slight downward angle that tells me she’s there. Her airspeed settles in and so does she.

As I head towards Route 59, my traffic scan has an extra emphasis, as there is a VFR corridor that goes north and south here. The traffic from Naper stays north of me, and soon enough I am out over open fields and country roads. Chicagoland is behind me and rural Illinois ahead. I find Route 71 off to my right, and follow it with my eyes, looking for my waypoints. A tower, an intersection of roads, and a distant red building. Right on course.

open fields

Soon enough, on this early flight, I am out over open fields and country roads.

Friends I do not know pass ahead of and above me. Traffic no factor.

The flight is short, but wonderful. Flying a Champ is all about the experience, and Charlotte delivers every time. I gently tug the cabin heat to the on position, in faint hopes of keeping my toes warm since I forgot my electric-heated socks this time. What passes for heat is enough to keep my toes from complaining.

The cold air makes the Continental engine perform as if it has more power than it truly does, and the wonderful dense air is kind to Charlotte’s wings. It is morning’s like this that are well worth the extra effort involved in the mission, and the added layers of clothing are no burden for the experience. The oil temperature and pressure remain on a rail, unmoving. That’s a good thing. Fuel looks good.

airplane wing

It is morning’s like this that are well worth the extra effort involved in the mission.

Fly along, look for traffic, check those gauges. Look for a place to land in case she tests me. Smile. Repeat.

Soon enough, Cushing’s hangars are off in the golden fields I see ahead of me. I switch to 122.7 and hear a Luscombe depart runway 18. The wind is just slightly different here than there, and I announce my position and intentions. Carb heat on, slowly, and throttle back, also slowly. There’s a theme with Charlotte.

I let the nose come down slightly and the Champ begins a descent. Small adjustments in course and trim have me exactly where I want to be, turning to a 45 degree entry to the left downwind for runway 18 at 800’ above the ground, which just happens to be over a country road on the east side of Cushing. A short radio call, just in case anyone is here. A scan for other aircraft.

Rudder first. You lead the turn in an airplane with wings this long. Right rudder, slight right stick, then level her out on the downwind. Another short call, and another scan for traffic. As I pass abeam my landing point, I gently pull the power back, and begin to add trim. The airspeed settles in at 80 mph indicated as I continue to reduce power and add trim. A beautiful moment, this.

Again, left rudder before the stick, a short radio call, and the stick comes back just….so….70 mph. The runway is ahead and left, and I begin the turn to final with another scan for traffic and radio call, left rudder, left stick. Slight pitch up for 65 mph, and a check of my glide path. All good. I won’t make the news by snagging the wires. I touch the power to keep the engine clear in case I need it.

A quick glance at the gauges, then total focus on my landing. I want a wheel landing in the grass. It’s easy, once you know how to do it. Wait. Wait. Now. I ease off the glide and level out, skimming the grass. Hold it. Hold it, don’t flare, just hold it. The wheels touch the morning dew and I can hear a slight hiss as they spin up. The oleo struts absorb the landing and I hear a rumble – touch down. Carb heat gently off, trim forward, and power on slowly. Charlotte eases back into the sky.

I glance off to my left at the area along the south end of runway 18. He’s there. The friend I don’t know, yet we have become friends because I fly to OC8 often. He and his dog are always there. The dog never runs onto the runway, yet races around happily. I envision him as a Border Collie, though in truth I have no idea. I have never met the man, nor the dog. He stands, watching.

He waves. I waggle wings. I can see his smile as I wave back, the dog racing off into the weeds. He passes behind me, and I fly off with a smile on my face for a moment shared with friends I do not know.

Robbie Culver
Latest posts by Robbie Culver (see all)
44 replies
  1. Dom Bucciarelli
    Dom Bucciarelli says:

    “She flies off the runway smoothly and I smile at the revelation, the instant of flying. This is one of the most magical moments of any flight – leaving the ground in an aircraft under my control. It is a powerful experience.”

    This spoke to my heart. An overall beautiful essay.

    • Bibocas
      Bibocas says:

      I would like to do the same this autumn and winter. But my two cancers, unfortunately, don’t allow me to achieve what was before a dream of my heart.
      You, Mr. Robbie Culver, are one of those blessed than can and Your’s joy make tears appearing in my eyes, but not by jealousy, believe me.

      • Robbie Culver
        Robbie Culver says:


        My heart goes out to you. I am truly an incredibly lucky, blessed man and I try to never forget this.

        Thank you for your words.

  2. Ed Marquis
    Ed Marquis says:

    Wonderful, and gentle, read. I suspect any pilot can reflect, and smile in the balance of a discipline for safe flight with the joy and privilege of simply being in the moment.

  3. Mike Sheetz
    Mike Sheetz says:

    It seems now that far too many younger pilots just look to GA as a way to either build time, play with technology, or just to get there! I grew up at a time where grass strip flying was the norm, and any early morning or evening flight was a way to enjoy the romance of flight. A post WWII flight school from the grass strip of our family farm provided my first exposure to the aviation disease! Not till age 62 was I able to get my PPL, but the few flight times I get now are a definite highlight in my gilded years! Thank you for your beautiful sharing!!

    • Robbie Culver
      Robbie Culver says:

      Thank you Mike!

      I try not to get too judgmental when others do not see the romance of an everyday flight, or the beauty in doing pattern work, or maybe look down a bit on the Champ.

      But I agree there are many who seem to miss out on these moments for various reasons. I hope this shares those memories with some.

      I truly appreciate your words. Thank you!

  4. Gus Piliotis
    Gus Piliotis says:

    Hi Robbie,
    Very descriptive, (very detailed) and puts me beside you in the cockpit. You captured the perfect moment of flight! Keep up the safe flying, I wish you all the best, enjoy aviation it’s a fantastic experience.

  5. Richard Williams
    Richard Williams says:

    Robbie, your writing put me in the right in the cockpit with you & captured the essence of a personal & intimate flight, beautifully. I fly out of Victoria BC and your writing does remind me to focus on savouring the true essence of flying, as much as the hamburger on arrival. A lovely day-brightener on this Sunday morning. Thanks and safe flying, my ‘friend’.


    • Robbie Culver
      Robbie Culver says:

      Thank you Richard!

      BSBD is a skydiving term – dark humor – “Blue Skies Black Death”

      I know Casey from a past life jumping out of airplanes.

  6. Dave Stark
    Dave Stark says:

    Such a nice read! Like a wonderful red wine with my steak. Thank you for sharing. You cause me to wistfully regret never following my desire for a pilot’s license. At this point in my life I know how your old Champ felt on that cold morning. Be safe, Robbie.

  7. Ted Fagerburg
    Ted Fagerburg says:

    Great story – thank you ! Reminds me of fall sunset flights in OO-LVZ from EBTX. Good luck to Bibocas and hope that he can take some flights – even if he isn’t the PIC. Happy Landings from far away Belgium.

  8. Jeff Rowland
    Jeff Rowland says:

    Ah… shades of Gordon Baxter’s prose. Keep telling these stories if possible. For sure, continue to build these wonderful memories. How lucky we are. Thanks!

    • Robbie Culver
      Robbie Culver says:

      Jeff, that is high praise, but I am no Bax – you honor me with the comparison. Thanks for taking time to read and comment.

  9. Jo MacDonald
    Jo MacDonald says:

    I am neither a pilot or passenger, but your descriptions help me understand why you love your aviator life. I was pleased to be able to catch your feelings without necessarily understanding all of the terms. Keep up your writing, Robbie!

  10. Jayne Emory
    Jayne Emory says:

    I often suspected that Beryl Markham, the first female pilot to fly west across the Atlantic, had a ghost writer. Her book, “West with the Night” was so beautifully written that I didn’t believe a pilot could be a great writer as well. After reading your beautiful essay, I now know that this is not true.

    Thank you for your story. Please share more.


  11. Alphonsus Hobbins
    Alphonsus Hobbins says:

    Great piece, brilliant writing. My first lessons were in a Champ Citabria, completely hooked! Now when I pull out my Eurostar I thrill every time that I can ascend into flight and all my troubles fade away! I felt I was with you on that flight, very descriptive. I try to fly every December 17th to honour the Wright Brothers that brought the magic of flight to us all. Safe flying and keep writing. EI-DRW

  12. Peterson Conway
    Peterson Conway says:

    Wonderful read! Way to stay with a simple experience, know that it was worth telling, and trimming all the fat away. Like life.

  13. Dennis jones
    Dennis jones says:

    This story reminds me of my first solo flight in a Piper PA 12 on my 16th birthday in September 1954. I rode my 1950 Cushman scooter to GreggCounty Memorial airport (GGG) after school with less than nine hours of instruction time my instructor made one trip around the pattern and then removed himself from the airplane as he made one statement: remember to trim a little bit nose heavy and experience flight with out a passenger in the rear seat! I was on my on and felt more capable and responsible than at any other time in the first16 years of my life. There is a transition when the wheels support less and less weight and the wings support more and more weight. The moment the Piper PA 12 left the earth behind more quickly than ever before will be etched into my memory forever! For the past 69 years I have experienced that feeling no matter what kind of aircraft was taking flight! Enjoy every flight fast or slow or short or long or high or low or hot or cold.


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