Flying Lessons: In Praise of Old Spam Cans

Spam cans may not be the coolest status symbols on the block but they're affordable, practical, and functional.

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Lane flying her beloved spam can
Cheetah over the fields of California.

I'm not sure who first came up with the term "spam can" to designate a basic, fixed-tricycle-gear, aluminum airplane. Spam itself originated in the late 1930s, and Hormel, the manufacturer of the soon-to-be-ubiquitous pork shoulder/ham product, actually started calling it "Spam" to make it sound jazzier. It needn't have bothered.

One of the defining characteristics of Spam, of course, aside from its less-than-mouth-watering taste, was its packaging. It was vacuum-packed in cans of aluminum so thin that the top could simply be peeled away. Which is undoubtedly the link. A spam can, whether a disposable ammunition box (Chrysler produced a bunch of ammo containers known as "spam cans" during World War II) or an inexpensive aluminum aircraft, came to mean any cheap, somewhat flimsy and mass-produced aluminum container.

Calling something a spam can, in other words, is not exactly a breathtaking compliment — something every single "spam can" airplane owner knows all too well.

New airplanes are admired for their pristine looks and advanced technology. It's cool to own a new airplane. It's also a status symbol, because to buy a new airplane, you have to have some serious cash in the bank. Same goes for a high-performance single, twin or other get-there-go-fast design.

Antique, classic and sport planes have their own panache. A tailwheel of any kind signifies someone willing to trade off ease of operation for excitement or nostalgic experience. An aerobatic plane is cool because it's a lot harder to fly (it's built to do anything but stay level and upright), and flying one entails more risk. An old classic is cool because it says that its owner has a bit of timeless poet in the soul.

Spam cans offer no such panache, status or coolness. A spam can speaks of a pilot who wants to be in the air but doesn't want to have to work overmuch at it — in the air or on the ground. Fixed gear. Single engine. Easy aluminum construction, well suited to the less expensive tiedowns outside. Tricycle gear to make every landing easier. A Piper Warrior or Grumman Cheetah is not, never has been and most likely never will be a status symbol. At least, not within the ranks of aviation.

I even wrote about the embarrassment of owning such an uncool airplane, back when I first bought the Cheetah some 12 years ago:

"It should be a simple enough question. I can see that reflected in the perplexed eyes of everyone who asks. And yet months after buying my new plane, I still find myself stumbling painfully over the answer. Time after time, the interchange is the same. 'So, you've bought an airplane!' some innocent bystander remarks. I nod proudly. Then comes the inevitable follow-up. 'What kind?'

"My eyes drop guiltily to the ground. I shuffle my feet and stuff my hands into my pockets, stumbling for explanation as I struggle to meet their gaze. 'Well, you see,' I begin, 'what I finally decided was that living here in the Los Angeles basin, it's really not a good putt-around place, you know, so what I really figured I needed, or what was most important … ' Thinking, perhaps, that I didn't understand the question, my confused listeners try again. 'Yes,' they interject, 'but what KIND of airplane did you buy?'

"There is no escape. With a guilt-ridden sigh, like a Catholic at confession, I own up to it. 'A Grumman Cheetah,' I say in a voice full of apology, half expecting a bolt of lightning to come and strike me down for my sin. Because for someone indoctrinated into the Society of True Believers of Old Tailwheel Flying Machines, I have done the unthinkable. I have committed the unpardonable heretical act, a crime worthy of excommunication or worse. I have bought the forbidden — a modern machine with a training wheel in front, with aluminum for wings, something 'anyone' could fly. I have bought … the proverbial spam can."

In the past 10 years, an additional criticism has been added to the pile. A spam can, brokers tell me with a shake of the head and a pitying sigh, does not have glass. To hear some of them talk about it, anyone who owns an airplane built between 1960 and 1999 might as well just relegate it to the junk pile.

"Nobody's buying anything that's not glass these days," one broker told me. "They just don't sell."

Terrific. I now own an airplane that's not only uncool but also, apparently, unmarketable.

It's not that I have any delusions of grandeur. I own a 33-year-old airplane. Which means that it has the same kind of troubles that a 33-year-old house has. Something is always in need of improvement or repair. And sometimes, that's frustrating.

A few weeks ago, I called my friend Marty and asked if he wanted to go flying. Marty lives up in California's Sierra Foothills. But he owns a 1965 Cherokee 180 (which makes my spam can look positively new!), so we made arrangements for him to fly down to Livermore, where I keep the Cheetah, and fly to lunch somewhere.

The day of our flight, however, he called me, downcast. His Cherokee had a collapsed nose strut and needed a new gasket. The shop didn't have one there. It was a $5 part, and he could fly the Cherokee without fixing it … but neglecting a $5 gasket fix and ending up with a thousand-dollar strut repair seemed like a stupid risk to take, just for lunch.

Two weeks later, we met to depart for our rain-check lunch, and I set about preflighting the Cheetah. One of the things about having owned an airplane a while is that you know more than you even realize you know about what's "normal." It had also been a bit since I'd flown my plane, so I was looking more closely for anomalies.

In any event, I opened the left side of the engine compartment and went to check that the primer lines were tight. The front one was fine, but the back one was, well, there was no back one. J.R., who takes care of my airplane maintenance for me now and who also owns a spam can, assured me via cell phone that having three primer lines could be perfectly normal for an O-320 engine (turns out he was right — primer line configurations differ widely). But still, I could have sworn there used to be a fourth one. Something just didn't look right. So I had Marty put a hand inside the engine compartment while I primed the airplane, just to check.

"Whoa!" he said with alarm, jumping back as I squirted primer into the engine. "There's fuel spraying in here!"

Loose fuel spraying in the engine compartment is a definite "no go" item on the checklist. Once again, old airplane aches and pains had nixed our flying plans. (Turns out my fourth primer line had been removed when my JPI engine analyzer was installed nine years ago, and the line had been only crimped closed. For some reason, it had come undone, causing the fuel leak. Most likely, it wouldn't have been a problem in the air, since I fly with the primer locked. But, still. You don't mess with fuel leaks. I got it fixed.)

Where that sixth sense of something being amiss came from is a subject for another day. The point is that old spam cans have their frustrations. And yet … J.R., Marty and I all proudly own old, unremarkable, uncool and, if some people are to be believed, unmarketable spam cans. What's the appeal?

"Where else are you going to get an airplane that can carry a thousand-pound load, go five hours on less than 50 gallons of fuel and fly 120 knots for $35,000?" Marty asked. (J.R. bought his 1964 Cherokee 180 for $12,000, as a basket case, and has transformed it into a beautiful flying machine. One of the benefits of being handy with airplanes.)

It's true, though. The Cheetah doesn't quite have the useful load of a Cherokee 180, but all our planes can carry at least three people over a practical distance for a reasonable cost.

"You can't really say 'economical' and 'airplane' in the same sentence," Marty said with a laugh, "but the 180 is one of the most economical airplanes to own. The insurance is less than $1,000 a year. It burns nine gallons an hour. Annuals are reasonable, and the California property tax on it is next to nothing."

Marty sighed. "I sometimes think about the allure of buying a new 182 and flying it away," he admitted, "but when you run the numbers, it just doesn't make sense."

None of us have any glass in our airplanes, aside from the portable GPS units we carry. But if it weren't for these $30,000 to $50,000 spam cans, we wouldn't be in the air at all. And while I wouldn't turn down a Cirrus if I were given one, I've got to believe that Marty, J.R. and I are not the only pilots out there for whom all those new airplanes are simply out of financial reach.

Our little spam cans may not be the coolest status symbols on the block. But they're affordable, practical, functional, and they give us the sky. I'm not sure there's a whole lot more that really matters, in the end.

These old spam cans also have one other distinctive advantage, which was emphasized at the EAA AirVenture show in Wisconsin this year. Torrential rains had flooded the field in Oshkosh, leaving very little airplane parking room. So the field was closed to all but show and vintage airplanes. Another spam can-owning friend of mine, a controller from Chicago named Kent, called me cheerily after landing at Oshkosh with his teenage daughter Jenna.

"How'd you get in?" I asked incredulously. "The field was closed!"

"Turns out the [Cessna] 182 is now old enough to be a classic," Kent replied with a laugh. "I'm parked down on the show plane line."

Now that, my friends, is definitely cool.