The Places You'll Go
Baron - 4
Baron - 3
Baron - 2
Baron - 1
the Cassutt - 2
Up in WV
Rico - 2
on the Roof
Hand Me Down Flying School
I think about the aircraft that populated our flying business in
the late sixties, I realize what an eclectic mix of airplanes it
was. We had two, four and six place airplanes, very old
airplanes, one almost new airplane and even a twin in the person
of an old Aztec. Each had a role in the business and each one
had a distinct personality that I still remember.
birth, except for colors and optional equipment, airplanes are
pretty much identical to the brethren that share the production
line. In 1977 while working for Cessna I parked my new 310
demonstrator on the ramp at Allegheny Airport in Pittsburgh
while I went inside to meet with someone. I returned a half hour
later just in time to see a gentleman thoroughly preflighting my
310. I watched from a distance while he did a text book
preflight inspection. He drained all the sumps and inspected the
fuel sample for dirt or water, he checked the oil in both
engines, then slowly circled the airplane, poking this and
As he mounted the wing to enter the
cockpit I walked up and gave him a friendly hello and asked
where he was headed. Akron, he said, and I asked if I might ride
along. He looked confused, and asked me why I wanted to ride
along. I replied that this was my airplane and I probably should
stay with it. Then I pointed to an identical new 310 parked
three spaces from my airplane and smiled at his embarrassment.
As airplanes age though, they gain their real identity
in the aircraft world. An aircraft salesman friend of mine once
wisely observed that when you buy a used aircraft you are also
buying it's history along with the airplane. What kind of story
do the logbooks and the FAA records tell? Was it treated kindly
by it's owners and by the years? Has it spent time in the open,
or was it one of the lucky ones that were tucked away from the
elements? Is there damage history? How has it been modified or
updated? As the years pass and the hours pile up, the aircraft
moves farther and farther from the machine that it was when it
rolled out the factory doors.
When we started our
flight school in 1968 we had a very limited budget for buying
trainers, so most of our airplanes were old when we got them.
This turned out to be a good thing since we didn't have to
amortize the cost of new airplanes, which as it turned out,
allowed us to sell flying at about half what the other schools
in the area were charging.
As our student business
grew I loved watching the old airplanes earning their keep. We
called it 'gathering honey', and the patina of use and age they
wore gave me a feeling of satisfaction and of well
I guess, now that I think about it. I loved the fact that they
could still work and earn money in spite of their age.
Cub and the Aeronca Champ were twenty three years old when we
purchased them, the Piper Super Cruiser twenty two, the Cessna
172 a relatively young eleven years of age and the Citabria the
baby of the family at only three. I had less money in these five
airplanes than the cost of one new Piper 140. I felt as
fortunate as a farmer with five sons.
If the Champ had
been a car it would have been the one you drove to your job at
the coal mine. It carried the marks of a working life, and in
fact it came to us without refurbishment from a flight school in
New Jersey, which had lost it's airport to urban sprawl. It had
an almost new engine though, and a heart of gold too, and it
soon earned the name 'Little Willie Fly', which was duly painted
on the cowling. In summer we took off the door for climate
control and in winter we wore insulated overalls to keep warm,
since the heater was no better than the air conditioner.
found our Super Cruiser tied down at an airport a hundred miles
to the south if us, looking just a little lost I thought, as if
it had been retired early and found that life boring and wanted
to go back to work.
It had been covered with linen,
which though weathered, was still punching in the green in spite
of having been stored outside. This airplane too had a very low
time engine and with our 'no refurbishment before it's time'
program, it was ready to start earning money. It became our
second most popular trainer and a familiar sight in the sky over
Buckhannon, with 'CHARLIE BROWN painted on the bottom of the
wings in giant letters, to create our very own aerial billboard.
None of these molting Matilda's though, could hold a
candle to our J-3 Cub. That airplane redefined the term 'rough',
and took the 1-10 scale right down through zero and on up to
about 5 negative. It looked as if it had been rebuilt outdoors
in Alaska, by a drunken prospector, working at night by lantern
light. During a blizzard. If the FAA had ever taken a more than
a cursory look at it from a distance, it would have been
grounded until it was rebuilt. The fabric covering was so baggy
that it gave the impression that the airplane could taxi the
first six inches or so before the fabric started to move.
you might reasonably ask, did I buy it? I would like to blame
the bad light or demon rum, or something else, but it was only
my bad judgement being pushed by a need for a trainer quickly
and the instant availability of this airplane. I don't know,
maybe I thought it would grow into it's fabric.
aside though, it did it's job of getting students into the sky,
and it soon sported the name 'Old Yeller" on it's nose, due
to the particularly loud muffler that it wore.
was the right combination of price versus value and it proved to
be a good addition to the flight school. The more advanced
students liked a chance to move up to a 'modern' aircraft and
since it had a working radio and (gasp) gyros, it gave us an
airplane for the students to take their check rides in. It was
however, unfortunately and completely spring loaded to ugly with
a very shabby blue paint job.
Several times I
overheard mutterings among the students and renters that
revealed the general impression of the airplane was, um
I mention this only because I found it interesting that when we
had the airplane painted, and without doing another thing to it,
it became to the same pilots, in a perception becomes reality
sort of thing, 'the pride of the fleet', a 'sweet airplane'.
But he Citabria was my baby. Since detailing most of
the other trainers would have been much like attempting to
polish a cow pie, this airplane got all of my cosmetic attention
and ablutions. It fairly gleamed when it rolled from the hangar
and the morning sunlight danced on the rich Hershey Brown dope
of the wing's sunburst. No kamikaze bug stayed on the leading
edges more than a few hours before they were carefully wiped off
and the interior got a vacuuming every few days.
wonder if it would be possible today, nearly a half century
after my own grand experiment in aviation, for a young
instructor to gather a few cast off airplanes and build such a
business. Is there a place in this highly technical, glass
cockpit, GPS world of aviation for a flying school that ignores
convention? Is there still a niche for a business that dedicates
itself to getting students into the air as inexpensively as
possible, using old airplanes and flying from a rural airport?
think there is, and if I could somehow find my way back to my
twenties I would happily prove it.