The last flight I made in my 1953 Piper Pacer, N3323A, was on April 20, 2016. The airplane was in Vancouver, Washington, for its annual inspection before a planned trip to Alaska, and I took advantage of a Portland work layover to take a good friend and his two young boys on a scenic flight. It turned out that sometime during our two-hour tour, perhaps while we were circling Mount St. Helens, the engine began quietly tearing itself apart, eventually dropping a sizable piece of main bearing into the oil pan—all the while running smoothly, indications in the green. I didn’t learn of our close brush with fate until a few days later when the Pacer went into the shop. Within a few weeks, I sold it as-is, where-is, and to my knowledge it has not flown since.
It was a sad end to an adventure-filled 18 months of ownership, but in reality that chapter was closing anyway. Dawn and I were selling everything to buy a sailboat and run away to sea. This too turned out to be a grand adventure, one that lasted nearly five years. We had but one regret during that time: our near-absence from general aviation, and especially the lack of an airplane of our own. Dawn particularly felt the void; I at least had work flying to halfway scratch that itch. We determined to build our post-boat life around a return to general aviation, and accordingly, bought a lot on a grass airstrip west of Seattle and planned the build that is now underway. The only question that remained was what kind of airplane we would purchase, and when.
Last summer, we moved off the boat and, on our meandering way to Seattle, attended Oshkosh for the first time in six years. As with all previous Oshkoshes going back to my first in 1998, I found myself drawn to the few particular rows of vintage aircraft camping that host dozens of fine examples of my ultimate dream airplane: the Cessna195. I find the type an irresistible combination of timeless art-deco charm, round-engine-and-tailwheel machismo, and haul-everything-to-cool-places utility. This time, we spoke to a number of 195 owners and, on their suggestion, joined the International Cessna 195 Club.
Fast-forward a year to the Friday before Oshkosh in nearby Wausau, Wisconsin. Like last year, Dawn and I volunteered for the AirVenture Cup Cross-Country AirRace but didn’t race because of our between-airplanes status. This year, I spent most of my time shooting video footage and interviewing participants for the Race History Team. I was distracted from my duties, however, by the arrival of a beautiful, polished example of a 195, the low rumble of its Jacobs radial sending my heart throbbing. When I introduced myself to the pilot and complimented his fine bird, I mentioned that Dawn and I are members of the type club, to which he immediately responded, “Oh, have you read the book?” I wasn’t sure what he was talking about, so he turned around and grabbed a copy from the 195’s rear seat and autographed the title page for me. “Oh, you’re that Mike Larson!” I exclaimed. I’m pretty terrible with names.
I had, in fact, read Mike’s book, Tales of the Cessna 195 ,shortly after our return from Oshkosh last year. It’s an amusing and quick read of some 279 pages. Mike is not a writer by trade—he’s a retired airline pilot with an entertainingly checkered past—so don’t come looking for high literature here. Instead, the book is a whimsical collection of hilarious and heartwarming stories as Mike might tell them to a group of pals gathered around a campfire, whiskies in hand, on a starlit backcountry airstrip. The first half concerns Mike’s early life and career: enlisting in the U.S. Air Force, skydiving in the wild and wooly early days of the sport, various misadventures as a starving drop-zone operator, and a succession of jobs as crop duster, freight dog, and Douglas DC-8 flight engineer before landing at New York Air and then Continental Airlines. Mike’s meandering path makes my post-9/11 career trajectory look positively mediocre. Industry newcomers will find it an enlightening look at the “bad old days,” back before airlines were throwing bucketfuls of cash at anyone with a pulse and an ATP.
Mike’s first encounter with the Cessna 195 was as a skydiving platform at the drop zone he operated in the early ’70s in Casa Grande, Arizona. Many years later, as a considerably more solvent major airline captain, Mike and his wife, Charmian, bought N8266R, a newly restored 1949 195A. The second section of Tales concerns their adventures with this airplane and with various members of the International Cessna 195 Club. By the end of the book, I was pretty well convinced to run out and buy myself a 195 (not that I needed much convincing). But a quick check of barnstormers.com confirmed that the 195 had followed the rest of the used aircraft market into the stratosphere, and a check of my bank account confirmed that I was not ready to follow it there.
Talking to Mike at Wausau a year later, I discovered that he and Charmian are airpark neighbors and friends with two AirVenture Cup friends of ours, Laura Noel and Allen Floyd (and had in fact flown from Colorado in loose formation with Laura’s Cessna 185). I promised to look for N8266R at Oshkosh, and a few days later, when Dawn and I made our inevitable appearance on Cessna 195 row, Mike introduced us to a number of fellow club members (including some notable characters from the book), and invited us to the club barbecue that night. As we met and chatted with various friendly members of the 195 community—including a surprising number our age or younger—the dream of a 195 seemed a lot more in reach.
Up until this point, we assumed that our next airplane would be another four-seat classic taildragger along the lines of our last: another Pacer, Cessna 170, Stinson 108, Aeronca Sedan, or Maule M4. Dawn has expressed some renewed interest in getting her certificate, which effectively ruled out the Pacer and the Maule. Our revised plan to build a hangar with an attached apartment assumed we’d buy an airplane shortly after the hangar was finished, build the main house in a few years, and perhaps consider the dream Cessna 195 sometime after that. But as we drove westward from Oshkosh this year, we started crunching the numbers. Once our hangar is complete, we realized, and if we’re in no great hurry to build the house, a 195 will be within financial reach—not someday, but now. It helps that the used aircraft market has calmed down a bit and asking prices are returning to reasonable levels.
We have a pretty good knack for blowing our plans to smithereens as circumstances change. We didn’t know it yet, but our plans for aircraft ownership would change again, and soon after getting home from Oshkosh. That, however, is a tale for next month.