Three thousand feet above the North Dakota prairie, on a warm, clear-sky morning, Mike Paulson gets a smile on his face. “Check this out,” he says.
Mike takes his feet off the rudder pedals and puts the airplane into a bank to the left. Almost immediately, the nose squirrels hard to the right. “Adverse yaw,” he says, correcting the turn. “It’s been engineered nearly out of new aircraft, but not this one.” He puts the airplane into a bank to the right and the airplane dances again.
We’re flying a 1947 Cessna 140, tail number Nine Zero November. It’s a classic, a taildragger. Clean and sleek. Rounded wingtips and tail. This is the kind of airplane that gets all the attention, that causes pilots to linger on the ramp, peer inside the glass, then sigh and smile. It’s all round dials, a Venturi tube on the side. This is old-school flying, old-school love.
“You try,” he says. I take the controls and bank left, bank right, each time watching the airplane do something else. It’s an easy correction—just a bit of rudder, and the airplane is as graceful as a wish—but there’s something else. This is deep-core fun.
We’re flying from Fargo, North Dakota, to the grass strip at Arthur, North Dakota. We have no reason for doing this other than the sky is clear, the winds are calm, and we want to be flying. The airplane is just back from an annual, and low compression caused some concern. The 140s came with an 85 hp Continental engine, but a previous owner upgraded to the 100 horse. Now all four cylinders are new—a top overhaul—and Mike has been breaking in the hardware.
We fly over the grain elevator in Prosper, North Dakota, follow some railroad tracks, check out farmers who are tilling brown fields and getting ready for planting. We’re sightseeing. No moving map, not even a transponder. We’re following our curiosity. Both of us know the land here well enough to know where we are and we’re not in a hurry.
This isn’t about speed, I think. This is flying. Just flying. This is holding a bird in your hands.
Mike is the flight school manager at the Fargo Jet Center. He learned to fly in a Grumman Yankee, is rated for ATP multi-engine, and is one of only five flight examiners in North Dakota. He’s flown everything from ultralights to jets, yet the 140 is the airplane he loves. “I wanted something to go out on the weekends,” he says. “All the weekend breakfasts and fly-ins. I wanted something different.” He pauses. “When I fly the work airplanes,” he says, “it’s work. I’ve always kept this one separate.”
The 140 is no pretender, though. Mike has flown his from Fargo to Pennsylvania, to Ohio, to Montana. He’s landed at all 89 airports in North Dakota and completed the passport book. He’s also about halfway through the Minnesota fields. He has about 800 hours in the plane since he bought it.
“I’m thinking the 140 is the oldest airplane to see all those fields,” he says, clearly proud of the feat. Earlier, Mike showed me photographs of Nine Zero November at all 89 fields, pictures by tattered windsocks, old hangars and rusted beacon towers, as well as the clean, high-tech and modern.
I fly the airplane into the pattern at Arthur and then Mike takes over. I’ve landed on grass before, but never with a tailwheel. So I get to watch as he coaxes the airplane down, all feel and conversation between airplane and pilot.
“This airplane is coming up on 70 years old,” he tells me. “It has a personality.”
We stop, get out, take some pictures, then head back up. Just for fun, we circle for a touch-and-go. And it occurs to me that we love the very old because they’re intimate. Flying this 140 is all nuance, history, experience, trust and desire. Old love.
Scott Olsen is a professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He holds the world and national records for the fastest flight across North Dakota in a Cessna 152. Scott’s books include “Hard Air,” “Never Land” and “Prairie Sky.”