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In spring of 1969, Bob George and I dreamed of putting a vintage 1936 floatplane on wheels to fly around.
It was Doc Pickup’s old Waco AQC, famous as Alert Bay’s Flying Doctor. It had sat at Pitt Meadows by Altair Aviation for a while, and I was in love with the humungous 330 hp Shaky Jake.
After huffing and puffing we got Old CCW up on wheels, and despite a flat tire, taxied to the pumps for gas, with Bob yanking on a tail wheel rope for steering. Some keen guy turned us in for this, causing us some grief. Sigh!
After years on floats, many brake thingies were missing from the parts box, forcing us to the world for bits. No e-bay those days.
However, in April, a Sport Flying special issue extolled the wonders of South Dayton Airpark in Ohio, and it’s upcoming Waco Fly-in July first. So Hey! I caught a Smoker and jetted down there.
SEND A CHEROKEE
At Dayton International I called the airpark about a bus service. The guy said not easy, they’d send a Cherokee to get me. So, me and my suitcase wait in the terminal, watching for a Piper, cheek to jowl with the mob awaiting connections.
The crowd murmured as a gorgeous biplane taxied by en route to the fly-in, prop sparkling in the sun. What a sight! The pilot, leather helmet, fancy goggles and all, chattered into his mike, I took movies. Sigh.
Suddenly, he taxied through the big jets to the terminal and waved! He was my Cherokee! Lugging my big case across the ramp I was so proud. "It’ll go up front" he yelled, "I’m Harold, buckle up!"
I clambered in the huge two place front pit, and off we went, among the big ‘smokers.’ Peaked caps peered down and chatted. "Whatcha got there?" "Reee-al niiice!" And so on.
We flew along over the city by some super tall radio towers. Suddenly, we pulled a tight turn left, and were surrounded by magnificent old Wacos of all kinds. What a welcome!
A brilliant red UMF-3 closed on the right wing. It was Harold’s own. He’d borrowed Ray Brandley’s Custom UPF to get me, as his had no radios. Yet Harold ran a flight school, towed banners, took rides, and stuff. Those were the days.
South Dayton was magical! Vintage Waco biplanes all over the place. Duty Pilot Daryl Montgomery took me on sightseeing rides, formation flights to "Alert the city!" and a ball cracking flight in his Citabria, through the trees down the twisting river. Wow!
An evening sing-a-long with a player piano in a C-195 hangar ended a perfect day. Fantastic! Next day I met ‘CK’ Elston, a Cincinnati television host, with a mint Cabin YQC-6, similar to ours, for a guided tour of his brake system, STC’d from a Fairchild PT-26. He felt it was better than discs, which were too good if stomped, and put you on your nose.
I was drooling to fly a UPF, and host Harold Johnson sent me off with Walter Recker, an ex navy instructor, for some rigorous stalls, spins and circuits. He said I was OK, so Harold took me on a few circuits.
NOW FOR A ROLL
After a fresh-up next day, Harold climbed out, did up the front belt and said, "Off you go!"
"Where can I go for some whiffodills?"
"About 10 miles off that way. Find that smoke stack to get back."
And off I went, surrounded by sturdy struts and singing wires. Fantastic!
The cockpit was Spartan, big stick, few instruments, and a throttle. The 220 horses grumping away up front felt huge. The wind snatched the top of my helmet. Wonderful.
Setting up for a hammerhead first time in an open cockpit tingles the spine some. No comforting canopy above. Triple check the seat belt! That went OK. Despite the hair standing up on the back of my neck!
Now for a roll. Nose way high to offset rigging drag. It was 15 years since the air force, and recent experience was loops and wingovers in a Fleet Canuck.
Here we go! A little dive, then pull up, stick hard left, some rudder. Over. Over. Really ponderous. Then the front seat fell out!
In apparent slow motion it rattled aft and bonked me on the head. My god! How’ll I explain this!
The old Waco fell into a vertical dive, and I briefly considered catching the seat with a wing strut! Everything was a-shaking, the stick jammed solid, and locked in a dive.
The engine howled like a banshee, and wind screamed through the wires. Glancing over my left shoulder, there was the seat. Wrapped around the elevator horn, clamping it in neutral!
The tail was shaking itself off! And no parachute! Not good!
Walking the rudder to wag the tail and dislodge the seat was useless. Full rudder hardly wags anything! Certainly not enough to shift a big horsehair cushion thing.
I forget the numbers, but the howl speed was pretty high, and pretty green field, cows and stuff were getting alarmingly bigger. Think! Think! Yanking the stick any harder I felt I would break it off. Frantically, I wound back the trim. Flying tail remember?
TENDANCY TO SWEAT
Reluctantly, the old Waco rattled out of the dive, and with throttle to the wall, zoomed up a few hundred feet. Easing back the throttle as she settled level, made the nose fall out the sky! Bang open the throttle, and the nose quit falling, but we still lost altitude steadily, inexorably going down. Had to keep full throttle, or the nose dropped, the engine screamed its displeasure.
One tends to sweat in these situations. But the mind calculates incredibly well under such pressure. I had the smoke stack spotted about five miles ahead. I set up a descending curve around the stack for the runway.
Hopefully this would clear the shopping centre, the marshalling yards, the river, the levee, and arrive over the runway, low enough to chop the throttle and hit the ground, before the nose went vertically down!
Back in the office, they heard me coming. Howling motor and screaming wires, as I shot past the stack. Everyone rushed out expecting one helluva "Burzz jarb!"
Calculating furiously, I angled around the railroads and the river sped below. Would I hit the levee? A guy was on a bike! "Get outta the way!" He scurried off. Then I was speeding over the grass runway, down, down.
"Looks about right!" Chop the power! Down drops the nose. Too high! WHAM! Bedoyng! Bedoyng! The UPF has long stroke gear, hard to pin down after a bounce… but I managed. The seat fell off. The fast landing hurtled me at the far levee. Brake. Brake.
And we are safe, old Continental ticks over like nothing happened. My hands are so sweaty I can’t get a grip on the tail wheel unlock, and almost taxi into the levee. Sigh. I’m shaking a bit.
There’s a big crowd by the office when I pull up and shut down. Don Schmitz bikes up with the seat cushion. "You dropped this," says he.
"You need a stiff Coke," says Harold, "…and then git back up there in thuh saddle."
And that’s what I did. Mind you, the hairs prickled some when I went for that next roll, but hey, that’s what hero pilots gotta do!
Hardy Staub delivered a wonderfully detailed presentation model of Bessy to The Mary and I last weekend, thus finalizing our Retirement Ceremonials. Thank you everybody so much!
COPA Flight 5 flew more than 100 Young Eagles the other week, mostly Scouts, resplendent in their wonderful uniforms.
Cascade Squadron President’s daughter, 9-year-old Cole Clark Desmon, sent us a delightful painting of her dad and his plane at Delta, which has been framed and hung in the old coffee shop. Thank you Cole.
And I guess that’s it…fly safe!
Tony Swain and The Mary. Retired COPA guys.
Photos courtesy Tony Swain Archives