Taking Wing: A Plane of Our Own

Bringing home the machine of boyhood dreams.

It’s Saturday morning in small-town America, circa the early 1990s. My five younger siblings, flannel-clad in pastel jammies, are sprawled across the living room furniture watching Bugs Bunny gleefully thwart Elmer Fudd’s latest wabbit-hunting schemes. Mom is in the kitchen whipping up a batch of pancakes for her hungry brood. Dad and I are on the living room floor, hunched over the yellow pages of a month-old Trade-A-Plane that I purloined from the local airport pilot lounge. “Wow, Dad, look at this one!” I exclaim, pointing to a three-line ad for an early-­model 172. “Four thousand total time and under 1,000 on the engine, and they’re only asking $18,000 for it!” Dad agrees that’s quite a bargain and I circle the ad in red ink just as Mom pokes her head around the corner. I can see the disapproval on her face and know that Dad will hear about it later. “Don’t get his hopes up like that, Dave!” she’ll admonish. She needn’t worry; I’m fully aware that we can’t afford an airplane. We never actually call on any of the circled ads. It’s just a nice dream that my dad and I share.

Twenty-some-odd years later, I’m in the left seat of a classic yellow taildragger forging its way deep through the northern Rockies of Montana. The late afternoon sun glints spectacularly off freshly powdered peaks, while ice-sculpted cirques and forested valleys recede into cool shadows. I bank to follow a winding road through the snowbound wilderness and marvel again at the light, smooth control response from this short-winged little bird. I glance across the panel at the oil pressure and temperature gauges — both steady in the green. I just picked up the plane in Kalispell, and everything is new and unfamiliar. Now that the long-awaited day is here and my childhood dream has come true, it seems surreal. This humble, time-worn little airplane is my very own.

When Dawn and I decided to buy a plane, we narrowed our search down to three models: the Cessna 170, Stinson 108 and Piper Pacer. We wanted a classic, economical four-seat taildragger with a well-supported airframe and an active type club, and those three fit the bill. Our budget called for something in the $20,000 to $30,000 range, in decent shape with a strong engine and no immediate repairs or upgrades necessary. Each model has its strong and weak points. I have 70 hours in the Cessna 170 and love its art deco styling, docile handling and ease of maintenance. Its performance is underwhelming, though, and nice examples are usually out of our price range. Stinson 108s are solidly built airplanes with a reputation for impeccable manners, a large, comfortable cabin and a generous useful load — but their Franklin engines are longtime orphans, making repairs a frustrating exercise in parts hunting. Piper Pacers are diminutive aircraft, with a sub-30-foot wingspan and a fairly small cabin, and are known for sporty, short-coupled ground handling. However, they offer respectable performance and load-carrying capability at a very modest price, parts are plentiful, and there are many STCs available to turn them into capable bush machines.

We wanted a four-place airplane to share with friends and family, like my brother Steve and three-month-old puppy, Piper.|

Over the next few months, I looked for worthy specimens on barnstormers.com, in Trade-A-Plane, on airport bulletin boards and by talking to knowledgeable acquaintances. The most promising leads were usually already sold, too expensive or too far off the beaten path. The first plane I got serious about was a nice 1948 Stinson 108-2 in nearby Wisconsin. A local Franklin guru had overhauled the engine only 400 hours and eight years ago. However, further investigation revealed that it was a now-rare “light-case” Franklin, which is susceptible to stress cracking and subject to a recurring Airworthiness Directive (AD). The owner offered to lower the price in response to my concerns, but I ultimately decided to walk away. The risk of a cracked case on a rare, orphaned engine wasn’t something I was willing to take on as a first-time owner.

A few weeks later, I was perusing Trade-A-Plane when an ad caught my eye, initially due to the location: Kalispell, Montana. My airline has a direct flight there, and it’s a “mere” 880 miles away. The 1953 Piper Pacer appeared to be in fair condition with 700 hours on the engine and several desirable mods like oversize tires, vortex generators and a skylight. I called the owner and flew out to look at it a week later. N3323A was built as a Tri-Pacer 135 but was later converted to a taildragger and repowered with a 160 hp O-320. It was actually in better shape than the photos suggested, and it flew beautifully. The logbooks, STCs and Form 337s were all in good order. My vintage-airplane-owning friend and fellow scribbler Jeff Skiles (also the copilot from the “Miracle on the Hudson” flight) had stressed the importance of solid paperwork; he helped me decode the results of the title and record search. Dawn and I talked and decided it was the right plane for us, so I put in an offer. The owner returned a slightly higher counteroffer, and I accepted with a few conditions. We had a deal.

The next two weeks were a blur of bank paperwork, insurance quotes and a hunt for a T-hangar at nearby Flying Cloud Airport (KFCM). By mid-December, the pre-purchase inspection was complete and the only thing that remained was to bring our new baby back to Minnesota. One potential snag was that my insurance required a checkout. Fortunately, the inexhaustible Mr. Skiles has both Pacer time and a current CFI ticket and was keen to come along on a cross-country adventure. His pilot history form reportedly caused a twitter among the AOPA insurance staff, but they didn’t hold his one $40 million claim against him! Our first attempt was thwarted by weather, always a consideration when crossing the Rockies and northern plains in wintertime with a VFR-only airplane. On our second try a cold front cleared out just in time and the fog held off long enough to get the plane out of Kalispell. The understandably emotional previous owner, Paul VonLindern, gave me a few last-minute operating tips and shook my hand as he handed over the keys. A few minutes later I lifted off in my own airplane for the first time and pointed it east toward its new home beyond the mountains.

Confident that all geese are well south for the winter, Jeff Skiles and I enjoy a sun-dappled morning flight east of Helena.|

Jeff brought along his Stratus ADS-B box with his iPad running ForeFlight, and it proved to be an invaluable asset. Shortly after we cleared Marias Pass on the east side of the Rockies, the Great Falls TAF was amended to forecast the return of dense fog that evening. Helena, however, was to remain clear, so we continued south along the foothills to Montana’s picturesque state capital. After a hearty meal and a good night’s sleep there, we were back at the airport early the next morning, departing just after sunrise. Great Falls and Billings were both reporting low IFR, but it was clear sailing for a pretty flight across the Big and Little Belt Mountains to Lewistown. After refueling we slipped under a band of low stratus, following U.S. Highway 87 eastward and a series of river valleys northward to remain VFR, and eventually wound our way to Sidney, Montana. Higher ceilings prevailed to the east for our next leg, but the Stratus alerted us to snowfall around Jamestown, North Dakota, so we altered course southeast to Aberdeen, South Dakota. The winter sun was fading fast when we departed on the home stretch, and I got to try out the Pacer’s dated but adequate cockpit lighting. We landed at Flying Cloud just after 7 p.m. and put the plane to bed in my new hangar. In all, it took just over 10 hours to traverse nearly 1,100 zigzagging miles from Kalispell to Minneapolis; after that long second day, the Pacer was already feeling like an old friend.

A week after bringing the Pacer home, I landed at a snowy, windswept Princeton Municipal Airport, frequent bike-riding destination of my youth and former source of purloined Trade-A-Plane issues. My parents met me at the pilot lounge. Dad admired the Pacer from various angles, drumming its fabric softly and running his calloused hands over the polished propeller. Mom, never a huge fan of flying, put on a brave face and complimented the ­condition of the interior as she folded herself into the compact backseat. With Dad strapped in beside me, I started up, taxied out and took off over the landscape of my airplane-obsessed past. In every place, a memory somehow connected to dreams of flight, and my parents ever present, cheering me on through years of teenage angst.

“Here, Pops, you fly,” I said, and he gingerly took the control wheel and dipped the wings over snow-covered fields. “Think I might be able to teach an old dog some new tricks? I’m putting in dual brakes for instruction, you know.” I expected Dad’s standard dismissal of the offer — that he’s happy to simply fly with me — but he remained silent, eyes moist, savoring the moment. After we landed, he got out and gave the plane a final pat on the nose. “Nice airplane, Son!” Dad said with a hug as we walked back to the lounge. I thought back to those Saturday mornings perusing Trade-A-Plane together and knew he couldn’t be prouder if I’d brought home a brand-new Bonanza. My Pacer is 62 years old, and now that I own it, I notice all the places it shows it. It’s a fairly slow, basic VFR airplane. I don’t doubt that I’ll put far more money into it than I’ll ever get back. But I’ll never forget that this classic little taildragger represents a dream come true — not just for myself, but for my father as well.

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