What era would you consider general aviation’s golden years? A fellow pilot asked me this question recently and it was quite thought provoking. Today’s glass cockpits, avionics, and electronic charts are wondrous devices that make technology from the 1990s seem positively quaint. But what about the exciting and innovating days of the 1950s and 1960s, or the early 1970s when gas was still cheap, airplanes were abundant, and the interiors oh so groovy?
I crossed mid- field, announced my intentions, and entered the pattern on the 45 for runway 13. Runway 13 is an expansive 5000 feet long and 150 feet wide. More than enough needed for my rented 1985 Piper Warrior. More than enough indeed, after all, this airfield wasn’t built for my Warrior but rather for a warrior of another type.
In late 1952, the sole Royal Australian Air Force contribution to the defence of Darwin was two Wirraways, a Lincoln bomber and a Dakota. A few weeks before my first arrival at Darwin, one of the Lincoln pilots, Warrant Officer Jack Turnbull, a former Spitfire pilot, wrote off a Wirraway in a crosswind landing. The Wirraway was tricky to land in crosswinds and Jack had lost control and ground-looped seconds after touch down. He exited stage left quickly as it caught on fire.
“This remarkable account of a remarkable flight first appeared in the January, 1945, issue of Air Facts. Hurricanes haven’t changed a bit but hurricane research flying sure has.” –Ed. The airplane we use is a B-17, but it’s a lot different from most 17s. The turrets are off and so are the guns and the armament, and instead there is a lot of test equipment that we don’t talk about out loud.
Birds did it. Bees did it. Even uneducated fleas did it. But every time a man strapped wings to his arms and stepped into the void, he simply ended up splattering himself. It felt as though winged creatures mocked mankind for mocking them. Then one day in 1809 a man stood up and did what any wealthy guy does when he keeps losing a game: he changed the rules.
Back in February of 1958, my father and I took Leighton Collins’ first Cessna 182 back to the factory in Wichita, where it was traded for a brand new Cessna 182 Skylane. I was eight years old and the adventure was the first time my father had taken me beyond local flights, usually from Linden Airport in New Jersey. It was also a gamble for him
I heard that many, many times as a young man. You see, I was born with 20/400 vision in my right eye. Today we call that a lazy eye condition. It could have been corrected before the age of five if only they had known. In school when I took a vocational aptitude test, pilot came out on top. Surprisingly enough, minister and funeral director came out on the bottom. I wonder how many pilots would like to make their avocation the church or a funeral parlor? So, I was doomed to a life behind a desk, or so I thought.
Look, I rarely fly during the wintertime. VFR, warm blooded, no way to get to Lincoln Airport except on the motorcycle, that’s me. Instead, I—nerd alert—build model airplanes and—double-nerd alert—read and reread The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright (Volumes One and Two). Don’t hate me—I led a wasted childhood.
Note to the reader: This is the first chapter of a book that I started but will probably never finish. It was to be about the history of general aviation as seen through the eyes of two Collins boys, Richard and Leighton. Richard wasn’t born in the time covered by this first chapter but I have my father’s logs and papers to use in covering this slice of the good old days.