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Flight; Part 4, The Taylorcraft

Pictured above: A 1946 Taylorcraft similar to Litster's, with fewer blemishes.

After I tired of brandishing my Private Pilot’s license to anybody who came within hailing distance I actually used it, flying over to Lodi in an Aircoupe to take cousin Bob for a ride. He was a schoolteacher there, and on non-flying weekends we’d often go fishing or hunting or prospecting. He made me promise to give him what I felt to be the dubious distinction of being the first passenger to fly with me. To my surprise Bob enjoyed it immensely and even complimented me on my piloting skills.

Say what?

Well he did, even to the point of having me come back the following week to give his wife, Sharla, a ride. She was of the same opinion, and when she climbed out Bob climbed back in. For better or worse, my ego was expanding and I began to think this flying business was not so intimidating after all. That was further influenced a few days later when a fellow welder at Crown Zellerbach insisted on a ride and, wonder of wonders, he too thought it was great and wasted no time in spreading the word.

I’m sure all this praise had a lot to do with my change of heart when it came to Jim and Tom Litster’s Taylorcraft. I’d gone for a ride in it once, after returning from Sacramento with my shiny new Private Pilot endorsement, but I’d no interest in it beyond that.

But now, well, I could see that renting an Aircoupe for these folks wanting to go for rides could get out of hand, and I couldn’t bring myself to ask them to pay the rental cost. That seemed unseemly, if you know what I mean. So, knowing Jim Litster was always short of gas money—he had a wife and child at home—I offered to leave his Taylorcraft full of gas after I used it, if he’d let me use it now and then. Needless to say, he jumped at that. Seemed at the time to be a win-win, for sure. Doesn’t it? I mean, anybody with a lick of sense would think so.

It wasn’t easy though. The worst part of operating a ‘taildragger’ like the Taylorcraft was taxiing and landing, because the way it sits back on the tailwheel raises the engine and dashboard to where you can’t see in front of you when you’re on the ground. You have to pivot the entire airplane back and forth down the length of the taxiway to see where you’re going through the side windows. Once you’re on the runway you can watch the edge of the strip out of the side window until you’ve enough speed to tilt the plane to level and take off. Landing was even worse. I had a hard time judging my height above the runway, and you need to stall the plane at just the right height to drop softly onto the tarmac, which I seldom did.

And there were other things; the only electrical system it had was the magnetos which, once the engine was started, supplied the power to keep it running with just enough left over for little port and starboard wingtip lights. As for fuel, well, the gas tank was behind the dashboard and extended into the engine compartment. Its filler cap was centered just in front of the windshield, and it displayed the fuel quantity by way of a wire sticking up through the middle of it. The bottom of the wire was attached to a cork that floated on top of the fuel—you could tell how full it was by how far the wire stuck up. And there were no radios or navigation equipment, and only three bare-bones flight instruments aided by a compass.

There was also a curious and baffling opening on the underside of the plane in the form of a six-inch gap of open space running the width of the fuselage beneath the seat. If you thought you could place something beneath the bench seating, which I nearly did before Jim stopped me, you’d be disappointed when you reached for it again. Nothing but sky down there. You’d also think the wind noise would be noticeable and maybe it was, but there’s so much other noise you couldn’t pinpoint any of it.

And oh yeah, there was still that pesky chore of having to start the thing by manually pulling the propeller. On some occasions there was nobody around to beg into doing it, so Jim showed me how to start it by myself by putting chocks in front of the wheels and leaving it tied down, if I was still at the airport. For extra insurance I would have prospective passengers sit inside and hold the brakes while I pulled the prop.

All that said, it was still an airplane. You and a passenger of your choice could go winging cheaply through the sky to wherever you wanted to go, as long as the wherever didn’t require a radio. Controlled airports were out and so was night flight, neither of which appealed to me anyway.

In learning all this stuff it was necessary to fly with Jim Litster, and he was as competent as they come but also a bit, shall we say, venturesome. He couldn’t stand to fly straight and level for very long. People who enjoy extreme roller coaster rides would love being in an airplane with Jim Litster at the controls, and I have never liked roller coasters of any stripe. It was all I could do to hang on through his loops and spins and snap rolls and whatever other contortions he could come up with. His idea of fun was to gain a whole lot of altitude, throw out a roll of toilet paper and then chase it as it unrolled. The idea was to cut through the streaming target with the propeller as many times as possible before it hit the ground, and Jim wasn’t content unless a blizzard of paper was falling like a Madison Avenue ticker-tape parade. If he ever noticed my white-knuckled gasping he never mentioned it.

In spite of myself I did in fact learn to fly the Taylorcraft with a fair amount of proficiency, but it always surprised me when I’d land a passenger who would later brag about how much they enjoyed it and what a good pilot I was.

In much the same way I was surprised when Tom sold his half of the Taylorcraft, not that he sold it mind you, but that I bought it.

To be continued…


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