When you’re an entry-level RJ pilot, crash-pad living invariably involves too many pilots, not enough showers and few outlets for aviation entertainment. As we settled into a routine, of sorts, my roommate Nick mentioned a mythical Citabria of which he professed partial ownership. “One day, I’ll run out to Louisiana and haul it up here for a while,” he kept saying.
Then, amazingly, “one day” actually came, and Nick’s partners told him to come get it. They had bought a Stearman and the Citabria was only gathering dust.
Road trip! We jump-seated to Shreveport, which is as close as our airline could get us to Natchitoches, Louisiana, where the Citabria lived. The rental car companies had nothing on hand. Nick and I scratched our heads and then saw the TAC Air crew cars lined up, pretty as you please.
We walked in, skirted the counter and spent a few minutes in the flight-planning room to see what to expect for weather and TFRs. We walked back to the desk and asked the pretty girl there if they had crew cars available, provided that we buy some gas.
“Sure do. Here are the keys. Just fill in this clipboard,” she said. We filled in Nick’s name, the tail number and thanked her kindly. “We’ll be back in an hour and a half or so,” we said. No problem.
That and a half estimate rivaled the S.S. Minnow’s “three-hour tour.” We got to Natchitoches as planned, but the hangar door jumped the tracks. We spent an hour and a half dog-cussing the thing, and 15 minutes of spider-monkey crawling on its framework once we figured out the problem.
Finally, we got the door open. “Get that car back, and I’ll meet you at TAC Air,” Nick said.
We should have called TAC Air and told them why we were so long overdue. I don’t know if we were embarrassed at the folly of our mission, or if we’d simply neglected to get their phone number, or what. Regardless, we weren’t the best example of how to use an FBO crew car that day.
I sped back to Shreveport. A visible wave of relief swept over the desk girl’s face as I walked in the door from the street side and Nick simultaneously entered from the ramp side. I think she’d already dialed 9 and 1, prepared to report a stolen car.
“Our plane is that Citabria sitting out back,” Nick said. “Sorry it took us a little longer than anticipated, but you can top it off.”
With a full load of fuel, we taxied out in the Citabria. I hadn’t gotten to look at it in the light before my speedy return of the crew car. Nick had shooed me into the back seat before I could start nitpicking it. I climbed in and we fired up.
The rotating beacon interfered with the radio. There were no working lights in the interior. We just turned the beacon off when we needed to talk and hoped it didn’t block out an important call from the tower.
Airborne, Nick pointed the nose south. At least he thought it was south. I noticed the interstate I’d just driven drifting away to the left and knew better. I had a handheld GPS, but no power cable. I fired it up, saw we were on a course to Corpus Christi and offered a left turn. We rolled out, he picked up a landmark, and I turned the power off. Somehow the weak radios mustered the strength to trigger the pilot-controlled lighting, and we whistled down final, landed and taxied back to the hangar. We camped in the hangar that night, careful not to jam the door again.
I woke at sunrise and spent a while looking over the Citabria in what must have been the longest preflight inspection I’ve performed. I tightened hoses, suspiciously eyed the greasy, leaky struts on the gear legs, and tried to keep from standing underneath it. I wasn’t so much concerned that something would drip on me as I feared the whole thing falling on my noggin. I rolled the hangar door up, ready to go.
But, first, we had to knock out breakfast. The airport car in Natchitoches was a Crown Victoria with the city seal on either door. It’s a great way to guarantee you don’t get parking tickets for parking in a 10-minute parking zone while you sit down for breakfast. By the time we knocked back a plate of biscuits and grits, the sun was making good time across the sky and the haze had set in.
Late we may have been, but it was still early enough to have a few tendrils of fog curling off the Red River as we pushed the power up and staggered into the air for a long day aloft. We crossed the river barely above the treetops, climbed to a comfortable cruising altitude of 1,500 feet and chugged toward the sun. I learned, again, that one swamp looks much like any other when you’re trying to navigate on a sectional chart, and I put a lot of trust in the handheld Garmin’s battery life.
“Man, we’d have to do a lot of swimming if the engine quit,” Nick mused. He thought the Lycoming on our nose had 2300 hours. According to the Lycoming recommended time between overhauls, it was on death’s door. (Looking back, the engine had a lot more time in the air than Nick and I did, combined.) It didn’t even roughen up as we crossed rivers, swamps and flooded pastures. Puffy cumulus clouds dotted an azure blue sky as we left the haze of Louisiana and it reflected a surreal brown sky in the floodwaters east of the Mississippi as we crossed the river at Vicksburg.
We did learn that the engine’s thirst for oil exceeded that of some radial engines, however. We landed in Louisville, Mississippi, with just a tad less than three quarts of oil remaining. I guess if I drank that much oil, I’d be running smooth, too. Self-serve fuel: Check. Self-serve oil: A goldmine opportunity nobody had yet exploited. The airport was deserted. We snooped around, hoping we’d find a deserted oil bottle, a phone number for help from the FBO, anything. We found nothing. After an hour, a transient pilot came back from lunch. By some miracle he had a case of oil in the back of his shiny new Skylane. Obviously unfamiliar with flying rickety old crates across the country, the man nearly trembled with fear as he told us to drop into a large field with a reputable FBO for repairs.
Nick usually had an answer for everything. I think it’s a class they teach at “Harvard of The Sky.” He started to give an answer about how he couldn’t spend a lot of money on his Citabria, and I cut him off. “We’ll swing through Meridian and talk to the mechanics there,” I said. The guy nodded and went on his way. I bet he scanned the news headlines for days expecting a fiery end to us.
We swapped seats and I took the controls for the next leg, my first time flying a Citabria in a decade. My hands fell to the familiar places for power, carb heat and a simple reach over the shoulders for the magnetos. With the power up, the worn no-bounce landing gear extended and collapsed, making for a variable geometry suspension. It had been a long time since I worried about putting a taildragger in the grass by accident, but this time I worried. As we neared flying speed, I yanked back, and we floated in ground effect. It wasn’t graceful, but nobody was looking. We cleared the trees and turned east. An hour later, we banked right to swing wide of Birmingham’s airspace.
I climbed above the ridgelines as we gazed upon high-dollar homes and we worked our way into the pattern at Pell City. We topped off the oil and added some fuel, and in another hour we were rolling to a stop at the hangar in our yard, the prop tips mowing a swath in the clover that I’d let get a little too tall.
In the jet, this trip takes about an hour and twenty minutes. In a Citabria, it takes more than six hours. We floated across the country at 95 miles an hour, never much higher than we felt comfortable falling. We probably left an oil slick on every farm pond we flew over, and I learned that most towns between Louisiana and Georgia have handed the duty of decorating water towers to mediocre-talented graffiti artists who can’t be bothered with including the local municipality’s name in their work.
The Citabria became a fixture in the air around the farm for the next few months, as we struggled to get her worked into shape. I took her up, solo, once. I had plenty of aerobatic experience and figured a loop or a roll would be good for the soul. Three times I tried, and three times I wounded up nearly inverted before I ran out of energy. I shook my head and clunked that no-bounce gear back onto the turf. I pronounced the Citabria with an invisible “h” for the rest of our time together.
When the furlough ax swung and we were left without a chair, Nick headed west with the Citabria loaded onto a flatbed trailer. The engine was tired, the airframe just too far gone. She was headed to a new owner in Canada, who would breathe life into her again. I chased Nick for a few miles on Interstate 20, just to make sure nothing else fell off.
For an airplane that nearly got us arrested for grand theft auto, almost stranded us at an unattended airport and left me hanging halfway through a few aileron rolls, I was sad to see her go.
Jeremy King is a regional first officer who lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with his wife, Amy. His logbook ranges from Aeronca to Zlin. In addition to tending the garden and minding a backyard flock of laying hens, he’s restoring a Piper J-3 Cub that hasn’t flown in 50 years.