Unusual Attitudes: Fly-Ins, Friends, Fond Memories

Those “rites of spring” that signal the start of another flying season.

Unusual Attitudes Stearman

Unusual Attitudes Stearman

** James Hoff and Martha Lunken in the 450
Stearman at Rainbow Ranch.**

When Bob Hoff asked me to speak at the Idaho Aviation Expo, my first reaction (after “Wow, I’ve almost never been to Idaho”) was “What will I say to these Idaho aviators who already take off at 5,000 feet msl, fly through rugged terrain into steep, high canyons and land airplanes with huge tires on incredibly short and rugged strips?” All I know about that kind of flying comes from Google and stories of flatlanders who headed out west with no preparation or instruction and busted their butts. Besides, I am not much of a speaker and usually resort to telling stories that involve my less-than-mature or less-than-skillful prowess in the air. You really need to look somewhere else for a heroine or a role model.

After some arm-twisting, I agreed but had second thoughts when, in late May, I found myself sprinting between distant airport gates to a connecting flight, where I was wedged between two quarterbacks. Yeah, it’s a long way in a Cessna 180, but motoring out over Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming at 130 knots would have been more desirable. The return flight in ’72B would have been a different story, because we threaded heavy weather, stuff that spawned deadly tornadoes from Texas to Wisconsin. In the end, I actually enjoyed the awesome buildups and the wild ride at FL 370, because the noises coming from the obnoxious kid in the seat behind me and the garrulous, obese lady (whose seat-back was in my lap) in front of me were reduced to pathetic whimpers.

I have to admit, the high-altitude view of the desolate plains in Colorado and Wyoming and the magnificent snow-covered Tetons was pretty special. When we’d descended into the high sagebrush desert of the Snake River Valley and landed at Idaho Falls Airport, Bob’s son James was waiting in a big red pickup. Next door, at the Aero Mark hangar, I finally met Bob, his other son Tom, who runs the FBO, and a bunch of people setting up exhibits and seminar spaces for the show.

That afternoon I drooled over “backcountry” airplanes — King Airs and big Cessnas, Diamonds, a Quest Kodiak, a King Katmai, an Aviat Husky and a Kitfox Super Sport. But the clear winners were Bob and Janet Hoff’s red Beech Staggerwing and the polished Cessna 120 his mom learned to fly way back. What an honor to meet Bob Nelson, the man who taught the elder Mr. and Mrs. Hoff to fly in the late ’30s (really), as well as subsequent generations of the Hoff family. At age 97, Bob still holds a CFI and is known as “the man who taught eastern Idaho to fly.”

Maybe it’s a western thing, but people in Idaho are a little more open and friendly to outsiders than we are back east in Ohio. Go to the expo next year and you’ll see what I mean. The exhibits are great and the seminars worthwhile. Dr. Paul Collins, an aviation medical examiner from Boise (and a name to remember), talked with such humor and good sense about airman medical issues, and then there’s Pete and Shiley Nelson of Middle Fork Aviation in Challis, Idaho. Pete talked about hauling everything from fishermen to sacks of cement into wilderness airstrips in his four Cessna 206s with big cargo bellies. Find Challis on a chart and you’ll see what I mean about wilderness. If I ever learn backcountry flying, it’ll be from Pete Nelson.

Then there’s the big, gracious and hugely fun Hoff family. I won’t ever forget flying in a 450 Stearman off the strip on Rainbow Ranch with James, who runs the ranch, which has been in the family for well over 100 years.

When it was time to earn my keep and talk at the Saturday night hangar dinner, I chucked my “dress-up” clothes and donned some white flying coveralls I’d seen hanging in Bob’s office. They were charming — a gift from a long-ago lady flier — and I felt like “Lady Lindy” when he let me wear them. I told a story about my other visit to Idaho, when a Husky owner and I dragged the fuselage of an airplane I’d bent to the Aviat factory in nearby Afton, Wyoming. The airplane didn’t quite clear a fence and ended up nose-down in a cornfield after I let a new student make the takeoff from a 32-foot-wide concrete strip. Yelling “I’ve got it” and trying to wrestle away the controls didn’t work. Telling about such a dumb stunt with a pro like Bob Nelson and Aviat’s Stu Horn in the audience was kind of painful, but, like I said …

The real story was about the bonds forged between people who love to fly airplanes. The Husky owner (not the student) was a retired manufacturing mogul with zero “people skills,” regarded warily by pilots in the area as somebody best left alone. We somehow became friends, and I badgered and cajoled until he opened his strip, his repair station and himself to people. Pilots began dropping in for breakfast at the restaurant down the road, to ask for advice about their airplanes or just to talk. A whole new world opened, and I’m sure those last three years of his life were the happiest ever. Even my escapade with the Husky and the long treks, dragging the fuselage to and from Afton behind his little Mercedes, were joyful. I wouldn’t trade that “wreck” for the world.

Now, fast-forward with me from that Idaho fly-in to the following week in Ohio and another fly-in — vastly different in size, location and purpose but in essence the same. On Memorial Day morning I flew ’72B (right at 1,000 feet over the highest obstacle within a 2,000-foot radius) to a little grass strip for the annual, unadvertised Haas family Memorial Day fly-in breakfast. Hugging Route 50 until I spotted the hangar and the rectangle of green grass where the Paint Creek Valley begins, I smiled when I saw a bunch of cars and pickups but no airplanes. It reminded me of my first visit years ago, when I was so proud of being the only FAA person ever invited and the only airplane to fly in — neither of which sat well with some of the regulars.

Bob Haas was a mountain of a man, both physically and in the hearts of people in this somewhat remote part of Ohio. Most pilots in the surrounding counties brought their airplanes to Bob for big repairs and annual inspections — well, at least the ones who bothered with things like annuals. When he heard grumbling about a “fed,” and a woman at that, he boomed, “Wait a minute, who was the only person to fly in here this morning?” If you were OK with Bob, you were accepted, and it’s been that way ever since. Bob’s passed on, but Ginny and his sons, Mike and Gary, maintain the strip and celebrate Memorial Day with the annual fly-in breakfast.

The scenery over in Ohio’s Paint Creek Valley is, to me, as special as Idaho. Bob’s strip is located where the glaciers abruptly and dramatically stopped and where the Appalachians begin. The hilltops on either side of the valley are curiously flat, eroded over millennia from heights that were once greater than the Himalayas.

The weather improved and airplanes landed, but I stayed in the hangar, captivated by war stories told by some old friends, a group of men retired from the nuclear plant near Portsmouth, Ohio.

Ray Simpkins is a tall, nice-looking man, now well into his 80s, who “engineered” at the plant and who always flew Ercoupes off his little strip in the hills. Any handsome man who loves Ercoupes and can fix stuff is OK by me, so Ray and I have been friends forever. But that day, for the first time, he told me about flying a B-24 in World War II and getting shot down over Yugoslavia during the Anzio landings. After breaking a leg during the parachute landing, he fell into German hands, was hauled over time to various prison camps in boxcars, and was so poorly treated and fed that this 6-foot-2-inch man came home weighing just 110 pounds.

That night I reread Gill Robb Wilson’s poem “The Pursuit of Happiness.”

_Once upon a time the man in the Ercoupe was a boy in a _

Liberator over Schweinfurt ...

_about the business of buying _

_a future for himself — and for _

the land now beneath his wings.

That was indeed grim business.

But this is what he bought

and it is anything but grim —

_this countryside of his _

_on a summer’s day — this _

corner of his airman’s world.

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