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.
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.
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.
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.