Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Piper Cub Heaven

Sentimental Journey 2011 at Lock Haven, Pa., where it all began

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 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.


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