On an overcast, humid June day, I top a high dike built to prevent the Susquehanna River from flooding William T. Piper Memorial airport. The levee gives a wonderful elevated view of the eastern end of the airfield, nestled north and south by steep, tree-choked ridges rising above the once-thriving industrial town of Lock Haven, Pa.
Here's where it all took off for Piper Aircraft, until that dark day in 1984 when the company moved to Florida, and the factory forever closed its doors.
And here today is where more than 70 Piper J-3 Cubs, Vagabonds and a smattering of classic and antique taildraggers have come, for the 26th time, to celebrate Sentimental Journey, the annual pilgrimage of Cub owners to this verdant central Pennsylvania valley.
Below, parked Cubs on the lush green grass line up like niblets of corn, where thousands of Cubs once rolled off the line. Cubophiles from all over the country come to greet old friends, swap stories, compete in fun contests and take folks for rides. There are lunches, poker runs, live music and dancing (to '40s music, natch), awards and as much flying as the weather will allow.
On-site vendors sell homemade ice cream, barbecued chicken, hamburgers and hot dogs, coke and beer. Booths, educational forums and nightly movies (Spirit of St. Louis, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo) give everybody plenty to look forward to, all four days.
More than 200 volunteers, such as Ed Watson and Kim Garlick, help organize the considerable logistics for Sentimental Journey, a true mecca for all things Cub.
Amy Gesch is a perfect example of a new-generation taildragger maniac. A 21-year-old phenom with 600 logged hours, she's also a light-sport CFI with 150 teaching hours. She also flies and reps a Dakota Cub (a Super Cub-clone kitplane) at air shows nationwide.
Gonna set my heart at ease...
—as sung by Doris Day, 1944
I do declare without reservation that Gesch is a reincarnated Piper Cub pilot. She lives and breathes everything Cub and summons anecdotes, factoids and statistics with astonishing speed.
Ms. Gesch not only loves fun flight, but also has mad skills as a stick jockey. In three consecutive visits to Sentimental Journey, she has won the spot-landing contest twice, and also placed second and third. Why four placings instead of three? After winning this year in the Dakota Super 18 (two feet from the line!), she came right back, in the same competition, to fly friend Dave "Speedy" Richardson's PA-11 Cub Special to a third-place finish! Yep...a true Cub fangirl.
Anchoring the other end of the Sentimental Journey age spectrum are Leah Mae Jones, 84, and Len Buckel, 80.
Jones is a former Piper employee who flew Cub ferry flights back in the day. "I gave Bill Piper such a terrible time, he had to give me a job," she remembers as we talk near the flight line.
I ask her the secret to looking so good at 84. "Always find something," she says with a small smile, "to be crazy about."
Her story is classic Cubomania. "I got to know some ferry pilots at Piper when I worked the swing shift. They showed me the fine points of cross-country flying. I was still pretty green; didn't have a license even."
One memorable 1947 flight shows the unglamorous side of ferrying. After flying all night, she and a fellow pilot hitchhiked to Utah, ferried a Stinson to Oklahoma, then a J-3 to Florida and brought a Globe Swift back up East.
"Those days, you were paid 7½ cents per mile...straight-line distance! And that had to cover all your expenses, including the ride home!"
Jones never lost her love of flying, though. In her 70s, she took up soaring. Even after a heart attack in 2003, she flew a J-2 at Sentimental Journey 2004. She's writing a book: Flying With a Herd of Turtles: One girl's view from a thousand feet, more or less.
Len Buckel is another Sentimental Journey mainstay. He's flown his J-3 to Lock Haven 15 times—all the way from California! He figures he's put 75,000 miles on that plane, and leaves two weeks in advance to allow for weather and visits to friends along the way.
"Every year," says Amy Gesch, "Len tells us, 'This is gonna be my last year!' He can't sit in the airplane like he used to so he restricts himself...to only eight tach hours per day!"
On the last day, under persistent leaden skies, Gesch, Speedy, a couple other Cubbies and I fly to a grassy hilltop strip an hour east to the new Eagles Mere Air Museum at Merritt Field. Gesch keeps me sharp from the rear seat of the Super 18 as we fly a three-ship low pass at a ripping 90 knots, antique-looking hangars and pristine historical aircraft blurring by.
One bouncy landing later (curse you, tall balloon tires!), we take in the wonders, which include a feast of homemade potato and macaroni salads, barbecued chicken and brownies and pies, to restore gastronomic equanimity after our pilgrimage.
Eagles Mere is the creation of George Jenkins, a true aficionado of antique aviation. It's a private grass strip—landing permission required—but a public museum. If you're ever near, go! Antique fuel trucks, gas pumps and 22 immaculate, award-worthy airplanes, including a knockout 1928 Curtiss Robin, 1933 Aeronca C3 "Bathtub" and the last remaining Travel Air 10D, honor aviation's glorious past there.
After a bucolic flight back to Piper field, the awards banquet features '40s music from Stardust, a World War II tribute band, and a stirring presentation from the crew of Spirit of Freedom, a Douglas C-54-E turned into a flying Berlin Airlift museum that visits air shows each year.
After the awards, the Cubs lift off for home from Lock Haven's carpet of green as they have since 1937. They'll all plan to return next year: Count on it. Take it away, Doris: "Gonna make a Sentimental Journey, to renew old me-mo-ries...."
"Save Time, Fly Piper"—Not!
In the Piper Museum, a retro electric wall clock has the phrase "Save Time, Fly Piper" emblazoned on its face.
Last April, taildragger wunderkind Amy Gesch, Speedy Richardson, a host of Cub pilots across America and I had the brain-numbing bad luck to discover that Cub flying, in bad weather, is the singular aviating thing most remote from a time-saving experience.
Everything started nominally in our quest to join scores of Cubs headed for Lakeland, Fla.'s annual Sun 'n Fun Fly-In. The culmination would be a formation flyby at the air show, commemorating the 1936 Cub Convoy.
Dakota Cub Aircraft, a very busy PMA Cub parts supplier and kit Cub manufacturer, lives in Brandon, South Dakota. On a crisp, clear morning, Gesch, Speedy and I launched from there in two of the company's Cubs for Florida: Little Airplane, Gesch's name for the LSA-eligible kitbuilt Cub, and Super 18, the 180 hp certified Dakota Cub that Speedy flew. Lucky me, I got to hop back and forth between both planes.
Initially cheered by the 500-mile sunny leg we logged the first day—we even passed a couple J-3s to land in Sparta, Ill., that night—it all flew downhill from there.
A massive weather system caught us from behind. Over the next five days, we averaged about 100 miles per day. Even then, we barely snuck in to Lakeland after a very, very low scud run down Florida's Gulf Coast, just ahead of another weather system, that arrived with a tornado that destroyed dozens of airplanes two days after we arrived.
One of those airplanes was Speedy's Super 18. It was a total loss. Tears flowed that night at Lakeland.
In the end, we missed the flyby. Only four Cubs made it. Of the rest, some gave up and 180'd back home. Some, like George Richmond and Dick Pattschull, persevered. Both men took nine days in their J-3 Cubs to make Lakeland.
"They deserve the Cub Convoy Iron Butt award for that trip!" quips Amy Gesch, who faithfully kept track of everybody en route through a frenzy of texts, emails and Facebook posts.
As she says, wise beyond her 21 years, Cub pilots flight-plan with a calendar...not a clock.
Piper's Aviation Museum
Standing in the hangar of Lock Haven's Piper Aviation Museum (www.pipermuseum.com), Piper historian and board member Harry Mutter regales me with his encyclopedic knowledge of all things Piper. But for my money, the centerpiece of the museum is right here before us: a gorgeous restoration of the first private light airplane to fly around the world: the City Of The Angels, an immaculate PA-12 Super Cruiser.
The museum is chock-full of eye-catching memorabilia, including a Piper Tomahawk flight simulator and the original PA-29 Piper Papoose, a prototype fiberglass composite that Mutter describes as "a lead brick" and was never produced. There's even a store selling fun Cub stuff: T-shirts, mugs and the like.
But the City Of The Angels—now, there's a story. Owned by Mr. Mutter, restored by David Liebegott, it won Rolls Royce's prestigious Paul E. Garber trophy. Mutter has since donated the airplane to the museum.
George Truman, a 39-year-old pilot and former motorcycle racer, thought the Super Cruiser was the ideal plane for a record-breaking round-the-world flight. There was one problem: William T. Piper thought Truman was nuts, and declined his request for two airplanes to be donated for the flight.
Truman persisted. Mr. Piper, concerned over Piper's potential liability, agreed to finance the sale of two used Super Cruisers for $2,000 each. If Truman succeeded, Mr. Piper also promised to dismiss the loan.
"Piper was not one for profanity," Mutter recounts. "But when he tossed the papers at Truman to sign, he said, 'Why the hell do a fool thing like this?'"
Truman and Clifford Evans, in the other PA-12 (this one named City of Washington—now on display at the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center) flew 22,436 miles and set the record. And William Piper, true to his word, tore up those loan papers.
Harry Mutter reflew part of that historic journey years later in the City Of The Angels, hitting all the Canadian and U.S. stops.
Yes, the other Super Cruiser may be in the Smithsonian. But Piper's museum has the one that landed home first! How fitting is that?