(February 2011) — The call I was looking for came through in mid-May, offering me a gig as a stage manager at a big summer stock theater in Dayton, Ohio. This would get me out of the summer heat in Miami and would be a step up from the theater at which I was working. The Dayton War Memorial Theater was a much bigger venue than the one in Miami, with a house capacity of about 2,500 seats, unusually large for summer stock theater. A great opportunity for a 24-year-old kid.
I called Willie Stoia, my partner in a 1952 Cessna 170B, and advised him that I would be taking the airplane to Ohio for the summer — with his blessing, of course. At the time Willie was working at Pan American World Airways with an A&P rating and moonlighting from his shop in Hialeah, Florida, replacing fabric control surfaces on DC3s and other aircraft with aluminum.
About the airplane, Willie had gotten wind of a wrecked Cessna that had been ground-looped in Jacksonville, Florida, and was for sale "as is." I bought the airplane, and Willie and I rented a big flat trailer and drove up to Jacksonville to dismantle N2222D. With lots of rope and packing blankets, we brought it back to Hialeah amid catcalls along the highway, such as "Was anyone hurt in that crash?" or "fugitive from a junkyard!" Willie, with my questionable help, rebuilt the 170B. The arrangement was that I would supply the funds and Willie would provide the sweat equity, which turned out to be a good combination. We heard a rumor that the airplane had been owned by Zack Mosley, creator of a comic strip called "Smilin' Jack." The cartoon ran from 1933 to 1973.
With a new prop and left landing gear, fuselage underbody repair, wing repair and a great paint job, we were ready to fly. We included a new interior and a state-of-the-art Narco Omnigator (I'm really dating myself). Willie test-flew the airplane and approved all of the repairs, and it passed the FAA inspection, but with some reservations. Because the wings were not symmetrical, on power-off stalls the left wing would stall gently before the right wing. "Not a problem," Willie assured me. But be advised that with a power-on stall, it's a different story — I found myself upside down with fuel running out of the overflow — and with nose down and power on, she was as forgiving and under control as a normal 170.
When the scuttlebutt got around the airport that I was planning a trip north, I got a lot of free advice on how to navigate over those "big" mountains in Georgia. Other pilots came up with road maps for following different highways and advice to "be careful to fly high enough." Well, with the Omnigator, I never saw the mountains from 10,000 feet, my assigned altitude. What I did see was an Eastern airliner on the same altitude, just in time to avoid a collision. I'm not saying I was close, but the captain in the left seat had a mustache, both heads were down on the panel, and I was buffeted by their turbulence. Whew!
My plan was to stop in Middletown, Ohio, where my aunt and uncle lived, to spend the night and then to fly the short distance to Dayton the next day. I arranged to fly over their home at dusk and to gun the engine to signal that I had arrived and they could pick me up at the airport. It was late when I arrived at Aeronca Field (yes, that's where the Aeroncas were manufactured) and almost dark.
Dumb Thing No. 1
Aeronca Field was a big grass field with no lighting of runways, but I knew where it was so I approached very carefully in the dark. I made a slow straight-in approach and turned on my landing light, and suddenly the earth came up rather quickly. I applied power and bounced down pretty hard, I think tail first, but I was in one piece.
The next day I flew up to Dayton and landed at the small field south of town next to the river. That's where "two triple two" spent the summer. The War Memorial Theater is a jewel in the middle of town and a great facility for a summer stock venue. It is a huge theater with scene docks and dressing rooms, a far cry from tent theaters and sawdust floors.
Dumb Thing No. 2
One day the producer came to me with what he thought was a brilliant marketing idea. He said, "Bill, what do you think of dropping leaflets over the city advertising next week's show?"
My response was "You've been watching too many World War II movies." Followed by "Have you seen the sign as you enter town that states 'Dayton, Ohio, the Cleanest City in America'?"
I was sure there were littering laws in the city. His answer was that he had family connections to the city fathers and could get clearance. The next obstacle was the FAA and, surprisingly, it said, "No problem as long as you maintain legal altitude and clearance from the city." A few days later the producer arrived at the theater with two cartons of 5-by-7-inch pamphlets hawking the next week's show.
We drove to the airport and got airborne in preparation for our pamphlet air raid over America's Cleanest City. With the producer in the back seat shoving reams of paper out both windows, we merrily dumped leaflets over Dayton. Listening to local radio traffic, I heard someone say, "There's some nut up here dropping leaflets." That would be us, and about that time I began to experience a subtle sluggishness on the yoke when I attempted to trim level. I imagined it would be like icing conditions, but I'd never flown in cold temperatures with this airplane and anyway it was July in Ohio at 2,000 feet. On this 170 the windows hinge from the top, so I could look back by poking my head out the side. What I saw were hundreds of pamphlets wrapped around the leading edges of the horizontal stabilizer, which scared the hell out of me! I shouted to the producer to hold up on the drop; we had to land immediately.
I made a hot approach to the airport, touched down with chirping tires and taxied to my parking place. Of course as soon as I lost airspeed the leaflets blew off the control surfaces and caused a blizzard of paper on the airport runway. I said to the producer, "Now we're in big trouble for littering the airport." He assured me that he would handle cleanup.
A couple of days passed with no negative repercussions, but on the third day, the box office called me with a phone message that Wright Patterson Air Force Base was on the line. Yikes! I answered the phone meekly and was advised by no less than the Strategic Air Command to stop dropping leaflets in the vicinity of the airport because the paper gets in the intakes of the jets, causing damage to the engines. I humbly apologized and assured them I would not do it again. Nothing from the city of Dayton, so I guess I was off the hook. As a result of our "air raid" we had standing room only for that show, and we were the talk of the town!
Dumb Thing No. 3
The summer season wound down and I prepared to return to Miami for the winter. My plan was to make a final refueling stop in Orlando, Florida, at an airport that shares the runway with my "friends," the Strategic Air Command. Because the runway is about two miles long, I requested a midfield takeoff after refueling, but was denied. While taxiing out I experienced a tendency of the airplane to crab to the right, probably due to my hard landing at Aeronca Field in Ohio. I was forced to taxi all the way to the end of the runway and, of course, the left pedal was fading by the time I got to the run-up area. I did the run-up and called the tower for takeoff clearance and was cleared. When I taxied out on the active, I didn't have enough brake to line up on the runway. … What to do? Hoping the tower was not watching, I unbuckled, opened the door, hopped out onto the runway, picked up the tail and pointed the airplane down the runway. Jumping back in, applying full power, I was on my way before anyone was the wiser.
Even today I still marvel at my good fortune that I'm still walking around, and I sure hope the statute of limitations has expired for littering "the Cleanest City in America."
To see more of Barry Ross' aviation art, go to barryrossart.com.