Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Our First Airplane

There’s only one “first...” or is there?

Maybe the first flying machine that was truly mine was the Walker Firebaby U-Control model with the Wasp .049 that I won at a local model-airplane contest. The adults, in an effort at getting more kids into the model-airplane hobby, let each of us try to guide a screaming airplane at the end of the strings around the circle. Those who made the most circles would get a Firebaby model. And I made the most, which I think was probably a circle and a half. It was my first actual solo, and I zig-zagged up and down doing my frantic best to catch up. When the airplane finally dove into the grass, I felt like Lucky Lindy at Le Bourget and expected the crowds to cheer. I had actually made a complete circle! I couldn’t believe it. I was maybe eight years old, but I still have that Firebaby along with a myriad of Ringmasters, Veco Warriors and other models that followed.

My first airplane also could be considered to be the one that taught me the most: the bedraggled and slightly damaged J-2 Cub (not J-3, but J-2, re-engined with an A-65) that eventually occupied the space in front of the store where the old Vultee used to sit. It was probably already a derelict, when the wind grabbed it and flipped it on its back. Then it sat around a farm for quite a while until the farmer traded it to my dad for a new mattress. This wasn’t a healthy airplane and it met an ugly, but honorable, end: It became my all-in-one classroom in that it gave of itself to educate yours truly. How many 13-year-old kids have a junk airplane that they can take apart and put back together at will? Talk about the ultimate erector set! And yes, to answer the obvious question, I’m fully aware that I had a charmed childhood, so don’t bother busting me about it.

I had dreams of someday getting that airplane flying again, but they were just that, dreams. There was neither an airport nor a single soul in town who had an interest in airplanes to guide me. Still, I had my dreams. So, with nothing but library books and what little I had learned from building largely unsuccessful model airplanes, I started fixing what I thought needed fixing, not having the foggiest idea what I was doing. From the beginning, it was a doomed project and a doomed airplane. But as the pieces came off and I spray-painted them and tried putting them back on, the process left indelible images of AN bolts, cotter pins, pulleys, stringers and tubing structure on my mind. My understanding of how control and fuel systems worked and how engines were attached to airplanes and how magnetos looked on the inside, along with dozens of other mechanical concepts, gave me a huge head start when, years later, at the age of 15, I took my first flying lessons. That airplane escaped while it was still more or less intact, rescued by someone who knew far more than I did. I often wonder what happened to it.

My next airplane didn’t enter my life until the C-195 in college became my first name-on-the-title airplane.
The 195, like the Cub, had been wind damaged, and I still can see myself and a couple of college friends reenacting that first road trip with the BT-13: This time it was a 195 fuselage, sans wings, tail up in the back of a pickup, cruising down Interstate 35 through Oklahoma City, as if we actually had a permit and knew what we were doing. At one point, a cop pulled up alongside, took a look at the long-haired kids driving the truck, looked at the huge airplane fuselage trailing behind us on its main gear, shook his head and motored on. Must have been the end of his shift and he didn’t want to deal with that much paperwork.

So, which was my first airplane? I don’t have a clue. Any of these could lay claim to being first. Personally, I just lump them all together in a warm, fuzzy set of memories that form the foundation for my life as an aviator. That’s good enough. I really don’t need an official “first.”


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