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Simpson Field Days

October 25, 2013

The mid sixties is a time in my aviation past that I look back on with great fondness. Although almost my entire working life has been in aviation, the time of my casting off into the world of flying is special to me. It was a sort of total immersion of mind and perhaps of soul as well, in everything aviation and I find the extent of it really hard to describe. Although it would be several years before I would be flying for a living, I think my interest and enthusiasm for airplanes and the people who flew them was at its apex during this era. Aviation consumed me, seeming to come pulsing and red hot from my very core, and there was seldom an hour that I was awake when I wasn't having thoughts aeronautical.

At the time, I was employed as a rep for a national company and traveled three states by automobile, selling their products. I spent days and nights on the road, traveling from town to town, and while I wasn't unhappy with my job, it was something that I did in order to be able to spend time at the airport. Evenings in fine weather and when I wasn't away from home would find me either flying or tinkering with the Luscombe that I owned and based at the Clarksburg airport, about a mile from my home.

But it was a little sod strip that lay about 15 miles south east of the Clarksburg called Simpson Field that became the place that best suited me for the person I was then. My arrival there was like stepping back in time since little was changed from the year it was built and that after all, was the era that called to me.

The airport was the dream of Wilbur Simpson, a returning Air Corps pilot who wanted to train returning veterans on the GI bill. Like hundreds of these little airports built during the great postwar aviation tsunami, it was minimal; measuring just 1,300 feet with little runway to spare, even for the Cubs and Champs that peopled it then.

Almost twenty years later when I a regular there, I only recall two accidents, even with the higher performing airplanes that were using it then. One was when the local college president landed his Comanche gear up (thanks to the grass the only damage was the prop and the exhaust pipe) and the other when a passing Swift had an engine failure and dropped in from such a height that the airplane broke at the windshield, much like an old shotgun breaking open to be loaded.

I had moved back to Barbour County from Parkersburg, in the western part of the state a few years before and first chose to put the Luscombe at Simpson, since it was closest to where I was living at the time. My first landing there did not go well, since the part of the airport I needed to land on kept disappearing behind me, and with a total time approaching 15 hours I lacked the skill to land on the short strip after the 3,000 feet of runway I had trained on. After several tries I mastered the technique and landed without accident, using the 'just in time' method of skill acquisition that would be the hallmark of my flying career.

As I made additional flights from the little field I grew more comfortable and my natural tendencies to get into trouble began to stir. Since Wilbur had by this time been forced to take an outside job to supplement his flying income, he was only at the field in the evening and on weekends. This left the field unsupervised and consequently my flying activities equally unsupervised. This of course meant that I, now with the heady total of about twenty hours, should ask my old friend Murphy to accompany me on a flight. After all, we had spent hours flying paper airplanes together from the hill where our grade school perched. And it was Murphy who, after we decided to build an airplane during our second grade term, reported to me one morning that the project was well underway and he had the seat completed.

And so in was that on a Wednesday morning, after a reconnaissance patrol to insure that Wilbur was indeed absent from the field, we untied the Luscombe and I proudly preflighted it, Murphy looking on with a mixture of enthusiasm and wariness on his face.

We had had a rainy spell of weather and while the morning had cleared nicely, the ground was soggy and soft. I noticed when I taxied out that it took more power than usual to keep the airplane moving and as I did the runup I began reviewing the procedure for a soft field takeoff. Hmmm, I hadn't learned that yet, had I? Well, I would just use common sense and since I didn't want the airplane skidding during the ground run, I would keep the tail extra high, thereby exerting extra weight on the wheels and avoiding the deadly skid.

Using this procedure we trundled and splashed along the short runway without gaining what I thought would be adequate speed, so with about 300 feet of runway left I pulled the throttle and lowered the tail to the ground. The airplane, which apparently thought it had plenty of flying speed, then left the ground, sans help from the engine, floated over the remaining runway, across the highway at the end of the strip and touched down nicely, three point, in a garden.

If the runway was soft the garden was a veritable marshmallow, and without touching the brakes the deceleration threw us against the belts. Probably the only things I did right were to continue to hold the stick back when the airplane tail started to rise and cut the ignition. The tail continued higher and higher and when our momentum finally was sated we were staring bug eyed through the windshield at the ground and the airplane was balanced on the main gear with the tail almost vertical. We paused in that position for what felt like a minute, and then the tail wheel fell back to the ground with a crash.

Need I say next that this was the moment that Wilbur came back for the briefcase that he had forgotten that morning?

After a move to the Clarksburg airport and the passage of a few years, Wilbur had forgiven me and I started dropping in with the Luscombe, now equipped with a Commercial License and a modicum of judgment . Soon I was hanging out and spending most of the time I wasn't working there. The little airport became for me a refuge from the ordinary, from the stress of a job I didn't love and from the debris of a broken marriage. I remember one summer keeping a tent pitched there by the hangar and when the weather was fine on most of the nights I wasn't traveling, I would fly the Luscombe in and spend the night. Sometimes I would lie on the grass until sleep came; looking up at the stars that my heroes had flown under and feel a great peace settle over me.

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