And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew -
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
This title refers to high wire performers who spice up their act sans a net to cushion the impact should they miss a bar or a catch. I think it applies to the stories I am about to tell.
Back in olden times, about fifty-three years ago, I received my first Student License to fly solo. For one reason or another, I didn't take the written or practical exam for a Private license. Instead, I would get another physical and find an instructor willing to give me a check ride and endorse my ticket every two years. This went on until 1957 when my father in law, Bill McDavid, pressured me to use my GI Bill to get my Private, Commercial and Multiengine Rating. He had recently obtained the distributorship for Aero Commander and had it in the back of his mind to make me a part of the sales team. He also gave me time off with pay to finish as quickly as possible.
I signed up with Joel Quinn's Flying Service in Pearland, Texas. At that time, a student on the GI Bill had to complete a minimum of forty hours solo and dual instruction combined. I had a lot of hours from my days with Frank Hogg, the man who taught me to fly and quite a few with the Civil Air Patrol. All that wasn't worth anything, I had to start from scratch on the GI Bill.
One of the last requirements was a solo cross country of at least a hundred miles. My friendly banker in Weatherford wanted to see my smiling face and I decided, with Joel's blessing to combine the mandatory cross country with business. I arrived early on the date of departure, had my flight plan approved by Joel and asked which plane I would be flying. He had just purchased a new Aeronca Champion with a hundred horsepower engine and a Narco Super Homer radio. The only plane thus equipped in his fleet. I walked out to find a beautiful little green and white Champ with wheel pants and less than fifty hours total time on the Hobbs meter.
In 1957, we didn't use radios much. We flew from an airport without a radio and seldom flew in to one with a tower. We used the old light system for permission to land, taxi or any other instructions from the tower. The first thing I did was get in trouble with the radio. I dialed in what I thought was a VOR that would take me to Waco. I didn't verify the Morse Station Identifier, and after a while discovered I was headed for Beaumont which was east of my destination. For some reason, Joel didn't want me to land at Waco, a controlled airport. Instead he told me to land for fuel at Mexia.
I found the airport, landed on the grass strip and taxied to the fuel pump. I stepped out in to about three inches of red clay. They had a lot of rain in Mexia that year. I refueled, checked the oil, visited with the owner who was a friend of Joel and taxied to the end of the runway for takeoff. The airplane seemed a bit sluggish and required more power to taxi. I attributed this to the higher elevation of the field. This wasn't too bright on my part since the field was only five hundred feet higher than Pearland!
The takeoff and rest of the trip was uneventful. Just before I landed in Weatherford I buzzed our dealership to alert my friend Lee Caraway to come pick me up. On final, I glanced at the OAT and saw it was 19 degrees, plenty cold with a wind from the southwest. I had barely touched down in a three point attitude when the airplane ground looped to the left. I had no idea what had caused this until I got out and saw the wheel skirt upside down under the left main tire. So much for a pretty new airplane. Lee had witnessed the loop and ran down the runway. With his help, I was able to kick the offending skirt off. It was packed with the red clay frozen hard as a rock from Mexia. Are you ready? Mistake number two.
I told Lee to hop in and we would taxi back to the tie downs. Just before I turned off, Lee asked if I could take him around the field. Illegal as all get out but I was full of myself and bulletproof. I headed in to the wind, did a quick run up and started down the runway. I had the tail up and almost flying speed when the airplane suddenly darted for the right side of the runway. I lifted the wheel with hard left aileron and took off. When we looked, the right skirt was upside down, just like the other one. As Apollo 13 said, "We have a problem."
I tried to persuade Lee to step out far enough to kick the skirt loose. He opened the door but claimed it was too far to reach. I didn't trust him to fly while I tried it so we cruised around the airport trying to come up with a plan. My instructor at Pearland had insisted I become proficient at one wheel landings. Bless his heart! I told Lee we could either fly around until we used all the fuel or we could try something I had in mind. On the left side of the runway in the grass, water had accumulated in a small depression that was almost two hundred yards long. My plan was to land in the water tail down on the left main and allow the skirt to hydroplane until we slowed down. This meant a crosswind-downwind landing in order to keep the left wing low. I set up as slow as I dared and everything went very well. As soon as the right wheel touched, I started applying light brake and rudder on the left with just enough power to keep the tail on the ground. I sure didn't want to nose over. We landed with the airplane straight ahead and parallel to the runway. Joel was not happy with the treatment his new airplane had received but I pointed out it was his idea to land at Mexia and that is where all the trouble started. I just didn't tell him everything.
This photo was taken from the Ercoupe Network site.
My next faux pas also involved Lee Caraway. John Young, the Sheriff of Parker County owned one of the first Ercoupes ever built. These were pretty neat little airplanes with the rudder, ailerons and elevators all hooked together. Worked well for coordinated turns but could be troublesome in a crosswind. They had to be flown on to the ground when that condition existed. Later on they came out with a modification that added castering wheels and some had kits installed that allowed independent operation of the control surfaces.
John's airplane had a large red star painted on the side with JOHN YOUNG SHERIFF in large letters under the star. He stayed in hot water with the FAA because he only had a student ticket and had been caught several times taking passengers for rides. Did I mention that I had piddled around and had not taken the tests for my private? I had moved to Weatherford at my father in law's request to put out a fire in his dealership there. In my haste I failed to take the test although Joel, who was also a designee examiner, said I would ace it.
Now what prompted Lee and I to pull the next stunt is beyond me. At the time, there weren't any airplanes for rent at Weatherford airport. I had flown John's Ercoupe a couple of times. He only charged enough to pay for the gas. John called one day and asked if I would fly it to Azle and refuel it. When I told Lee he wanted to tag along so like a Jim Carrey movie, "DUMB AND DUMBER" I agreed. Summer time and about six we took off from Weatherford and headed for Azle, about twenty minutes away. I had never landed at our destination and thought I knew where it was. Well, when we arrived at the spot, someone had moved it. I started flying an ever widening circle looking for the grass strip. No luck. I glanced at the gas gauge which is a wire attached to a cork float sticking up out of the gas tank. I guessed we had about ten-fifteen minutes of fuel left - too little to return to Weatherford and Meacham Field was out of the question. I looked down and there was FM 730, the highway between Azle and Weatherford. A nice long stretch about a half mile out of town looked like DFW to me at the time. I set up and landed in front of a house whose occupants were on the front porch. They had never seen an airplane land on the highway before.
We were in luck. The man of the house came out to the highway and asked if he could help. He agreed to take Lee to Azle to purchase ten gallons of fuel. We poured the fuel in the tank and after I ran it long enough to assure myself it would be okay for a one time ferry flight, we took off for an uneventful trip home. I called John that night to tell him what I had done and offered to drain the tank. He told me not to worry about it, that he had fueled with automobile fuel lots of times!