Flight; Part 5, The End.
And so I unexpectedly became the semi-proud owner of one half of one airplane, which, being a 1946 Taylorcraft, wasn’t a whole lot to begin with. It was a genuine airplane though, number N95828 displayed in big red lettering that took up most of the fuselage on each side. The significance of that was it would be hard to miss by observers taking notes, which could get a pilot in trouble if he chose to, say, fly beneath the bridge that spanned the San Juaquin River. I don’t think I could have gotten in trouble as an accomplice when Jim Litster did that but I held my figurative breath for a couple of months anyway. Nothing came of it, which was probably too bad because it may have prevented me from doing some of my own spur-of-the-moment stuff:
Uncle Pete, who was also my boss at the paper mill, had a red and white 20’ cabin cruiser he’d often take out sturgeon fishing on the river. It wasn’t hard to recognize even from an airplane, and I spotted him one sunny afternoon anchored on the far side of the deep-water channel used by freighters. I didn’t intend to do anything stupid and I doubt very much if I’d even thought of it if I hadn’t been hanging around with Litster, but it occurred to me that I hadn’t ever buzzed anybody, and away I went. I came in from the far side of the river, flying beneath a set of those high steel-towered power lines, throttle wide open, descending until I was two or three feet above the water, getting spray on the windshield, the 65-horsepower Continental engine screaming like a banshee. I found myself cackling maniacally, stupidity meter maxed out. There were three of them on the boat standing up and waving me off, unsuccessfully, and then dropping to the deck as I yanked the control wheel back.
I have to say it was positively exhilarating. For a while. I eventually came to regret it, but probably not enough. Uncle Pete though, after he calmed down, thought that stunt was pretty nifty and so did Leon. However, Eldon said the next time I tried that his wife would sue me for causing his demise.
So I almost never did anything that stupid again.
And then Litster struck again, this time with my blessing; we’d come to a three-day weekend in which both of us wanted the Taylorcraft, Jim to attend a weekend fly-in at the Cloverdale airport and me wanting to take cousin Bob prospecting at Alleghany, a tiny town in the Sierra Nevada mountains. So we compromised, agreeing to spend Friday morning in Alleghany and then flying to Cloverdale—125 miles west—in late afternoon to camp overnight there for Saturday’s competition. Bob would have to take a rain check as the Taylorcraft only held two people. He was always lucky that way.
I’d prospected around Alleghany before and had been befriended by a big two-fisted, hard-drinking, red-headed Irishman who was also, somehow, kind and generous. When he found out I was taking flying lessons he showed me a nearby, if sketchy, homemade landing strip on the side of a mountain and said if I ever flew in to overfly his house revving the engine and he’d come out to get me. So Litster and I tried that and sure enough, here he came in an old Dodge pickup.
When he returned us to the ‘airstrip’ a few hours later Jim and I were both a little wobbly on our pins since we’d refused to refuse the hospitality of this boisterous Irishman. He slapped us both on the back and tossed us a six-pack of Olympia as we climbed into the Taylorcraft.
I know. With friends like that…
Because we left a little late and got a little lost and battled a little headwind night was falling before we got to Cloverdale. Jim spotted the running lights of another aircraft which he glommed onto and followed, much closer than was prudent, right into the airport, and he actually made a pretty fair landing in spite of the darkness and our self-inflicted, um…disabilities.
That was the first incident that had me seriously rethinking the wisdom of me being a pilot, but a few weeks later I ended up buying the rest of the Taylorcraft when Jim moved away. Yes, I know. It’s hard for me to believe too.
The next wisdom-shaker was a prospecting flight to Columbia in the California gold country with cousin Bob. It was a turbulent, windy day, so we put down as soon as we arrived at Columbia’s airport. I had trouble steering it on the ground, and the problem turned out we’d lost the steerable tailwheel, somewhere. Fortunately there was a service hangar open and the mechanic was able to replace it. After the repair Bob and I were sitting beneath the wing studying a map of nearby gold streams while eating the lunch Sharla had packed for us when we were startled by a loud clanging. The right half of the cowling—the sheet-metal engine cover—had fallen off and dropped to the tarmac. It’d slipped its moorings because, as we discovered, its latch had been crudely baling-wired shut.
Baling wire? That’s something I should have noticed on my initial walk-around that morning. Both Bob and I were running out of confidence. He was already a bit shaky because I barely caught him about to drop his camera through the concealed gap in the floorboard a thousand feet above San Juaquin Valley.
So the heck with prospecting; we retreated back to Lodi through strong winds and heavy turbulence, our combined will power apparently holding everything else together. We were barely able to land in Lodi because of the crosswind, and when Bob deplaned he couldn’t refrain from kissing the ground. I waved bravely and flew, sort of, back to Antioch, where I avoided a crash landing there too, but not by much.
The final straw was the 100-hour aircraft inspection that was required shortly afterwards. An FAA certified mechanic had tightened up a few things and modified a few others and signed off on it, but when the engine started the throttle was wired backwards and instead of a fast idle it revved up to just below redline. Had I been in front pulling the prop myself I would have been lucky to escape with scarring like Graham’s Saint Bernard got after he wandered into a propeller.
Oh, I tried. I made seven flights, by count, in the next couple of months but I never recovered whatever patched-together confidence I’d built up, and cousin Bob had gotten over his fascination with flying too.
So I sold Taylorcraft N95828 to an older gentleman who flipped it upside-down before I even got out of the parking lot. I’d tried to warn him not to slam on the brakes while taxiing downwind but he’d interrupted, saying;
“Son, I’ve been flying planes since you were in short pants. I don’t need you to be schooling me.”
He was right. Between the Antioch Airport and the Taylorcraft there was enough schooling to go around for all of us.
Pictured above; a similar Taylorcraft that met a similar fate