Taking Wing: Flights of Fancy

A midsummer's daydream.

Cessna 195
There’s nothing like seeing your beautiful wife in the chrome of a Cessna 195’s prop.Sam Weigel

Ah, summer, the season of the good life. The season of verdant, rolling hills speckled with lazily grazing cattle, of smoky backyard burgers and grilled corn on the cob, of golden beaches replete with giggling children, bronzed skin and the tangy bouquet of salt air and sunscreen.

I hope you enjoyed the summer just passed as much as I did — the months of supremely peaceful early morning daybreaks, listless afternoons in blazing sunshine and smothering humidity, and sublime cool, breezy evenings that last and last, until finally climaxing in a crescendo of crickets and fireflies. For pilots, this is the season of the dawn patrol, and of bumpy afternoons spent dodging towering lines of thunderstorms. For sailors like Dawn and me, it is hurricane season. In June, we and Windbird hopscotched our way up the Atlantic seaboard, ducked into the Chesapeake Bay and found our summer refuge in a well-protected creek east of Washington, D.C. We worked on the boat, preparing her for our return to the winter isles, while I flew my tail off to replenish the cruising kitty. Lately I’ve been taking the Boeing 767 to London quite a bit. This was my summer of red double-decker buses, long walks along the Thames and convivial wood-paneled pubs.

London is where I’m headed again today, or rather tonight. Before tomorrow’s frantic thrum of Heathrow traffic, though, before joining the nightly migration across the North Atlantic Tracks, before willing 406,000 pounds of aluminum and jet fuel and assorted humanity into the air with the lightest touch of my fingertips, I must get myself from DCA to Atlanta on one of my airline’s new Airbus A321s. It’s a pretty easy commute, as commutes go, but nevertheless I am suited up, packed and leaving the boat a full seven hours before sign-in time. I settle into the passenger seat of our truck, Dawn at the wheel, as we crunch out of the marina parking lot and onto the bridge across the creek. Out of habit, I glance right, where a beautifully manicured private grass strip sits tucked among tall trees. My pulse quickens. “Stop!” I exclaim. Dawn brakes to a halt and I watch the shimmering apparition on the far side of the airstrip as it draws closer. The tail comes up, and a beautiful, gleaming Cessna 195 takes to the air just as the first throbs of glorious radial-engine music reach our ears.

And just like that, I’m no longer sitting in our truck, or in my uniform, or on my way to work. I’m in the left seat of my dream airplane, the big Jacobs radial thrumming in my lap. I caress the sculpted control wheel, and the large oak tree at the end of the airstrip slides harmlessly down the right side of the bulging dimpled cowl. Bridge and creek, boats and masts pass under the old gal’s beefy cantilever wings as I bank over our home marina. The countless rivers, bays, creeks and sloughs of the Chesapeake unfold themselves before us as the big polished propeller claws for altitude in the muggy summer air. It’s a perfect day for flying. Where to go? This is an airplane improbably built for business travel 10 years after art deco was cool, and she shows a decent turn of speed for a classic taildragger.

“Was that a Cessna 190?” Dawn asks as the last notes fade and she starts forward again. I shouldn’t be surprised that she recognized it — Lord knows I’ve dragged her to those rows at Oshkosh enough times. Perhaps she just saw me drooling.

“Close. A 195, I think. God, I love that airplane.” Or maybe it’s lust.

“They’re pretty … just not terribly practical,” she says. Dawn purses her lips. “I know I couldn’t get my license in one.” She has a point. I wouldn’t dare take our 195 out on any day in which the crosswind might exceed 15 knots. I doubt I’d have the heart to crank that Jake in any temperature under 40 degrees. My friend Jeff Skiles, having nursed a beautiful Waco cabin biplane along for several years, forswore owning round engines forever and replaced his dream airplane with a utilitarian Cessna 185. Dawn seems to read my thoughts. “You know,” she says coyly, “a 195 doesn’t need to be our very next airplane. …”

A new vision presents itself. Dawn is in the left seat, not of our truck but our next airplane. It’s evidently a Piper Cherokee, but the indicated airspeed and the deeper thrum of the detuned Lycoming O-540 suggest that it’s a 235 model. This is no training flight — I’ve been around long enough to know that spouses make terrible flight instructors and worse students. No, Dawn has her license now, and I’m kicking back as she leads the way on our latest cross-country adventure. I watch her fiddle with the trim, gently nudge the plane onto course, fuss with the mixture, and in a misplaced burst of pride I flatter myself that she’s been watching me all these years. Deep down, though, I know she figures these things out for herself much quicker than I ever did. From taking her motorcycle to Alaska and back as a brand-new rider to standing the midnight watch while making offshore passages on Windbird, Dawn has picked up complex skills with far greater speed than she ever gives herself credit for. I have no doubt she’ll make a fantastic pilot should she choose to pursue it.

And yet, the experience of owning and sailing Windbird has awakened dormant capabilities and desires in myself as well. Against all odds I have become a tinkerer, a problem solver, a handyman who rolls up his sleeves and dives in no matter how daunting the task. I think back to the handful of days that I helped my friend Joe Coraggio with his Long-EZ build. I really enjoyed that. I see myself in my very own shop, cold beer in the fridge and classic rock on the radio, building ribs and welding steel and doping fabric. Days turn into weeks and weeks into years; as the seasons change I see parts become assemblies that become a recognizable airframe — maybe a four-place Bearhawk, or maybe one of those fire-breathing Super Cub knockoffs. I see her rolling out of the hangar for the first time, the engine runs and taxi tests, the breathless first flight as the product of my secret toils becomes an airplane, uniquely and forever my own. I see her on floats, I see us splashing into Alaskan backcountry lakes seldom witnessed by human eyes. I see her scooting fast across the Midwest plains, and can’t resist the urge to pull up into a zooming chandelle, and then a joyful aileron roll. ...

Against all odds I have become a tinkerer, a problem solver, a handyman who rolls up his sleeves and dives in no matter how daunting the task.

Aw, darn. I’ve conflated a couple of my favorite aerial fantasies here. Because on those occasions when I convince myself I’m actually capable of shepherding such a project to fruition in anything less than a decade’s time, I dither on the prospective product of my labors: a kick-ass backcountry bush machine, or a sleek little Van’s RV-8. Mind you, I’ve never actually flown an RV-8, but I have flown my friend Bob Collins’ beautiful RV-7A, and I presume the -8 is more of the same but with tandem seating to indulge those P-51 fantasies we all harbor. The “RV grin” isn’t just marketing hype. It really is one of the nicest-flying planes I’ve been around, a real fingertip airplane, legal for gentleman’s aerobatics, and fast and efficient and comfortable enough to make it a capable cross-country machine as well. Enough mere mortals have built one to suggest that I’m capable of doing so myself.

There is, however, one last airplane on my fantasy list. I have only 25 hours in it, and last flew it 15 years ago, but I still consider the Beechcraft Baron 58 to be the best-flying airplane I’ve ever laid my hands on, better even than Bob’s RV-7. Beech absolutely nailed the control harmony; it’s so smooth, so perfectly coupled, so natural-feeling. It flies precisely like you think it should. The famed build quality is palpable in a way I’ve never felt in any other airplane. It has gobs of performance, and even single-engine ops are not nearly so marginal as with lesser twins. Known ice capability is a game changer for winter ops. If the Baron lacks the fighter-pilot-fantasy element of the RV-8, it is a far more capable cross-country platform, albeit at a noted premium both in purchase price and operating costs.

Alas, I don’t expect to become independently wealthy anytime soon, and thus owning a Baron is considerably less likely than a homebuilt, a Cherokee 235 or even a Cessna 195. That’s OK. Whatever itch the Baron would scratch is already largely fulfilled by my day job flying the Boeing 757 and especially the 767. Les Abend raved about both airplanes in these pages for years before he went to the 777, and I finally understand his enthusiasm. When I transferred into my airline’s 757/767 fleet, it was partly due to an infatuation I’ve had with the lithe, sexy B757-200 since I was 10 years old. It’s indeed a great airplane, with absolutely unmatched performance. And yet I’ve come to appreciate the chunky, aging B767-300ER even more. An additional set of ailerons makes it every bit the fingertip airplane that the Baron is, with similarly balanced control harmony. For all the recent headlines about airline pilots forgetting basic flying skills, there’s a surprising amount of hand-flying on the 767 fleet because it’s so darned pleasurable.

Back to reality. The Washington Monument and Capitol building are in view, and in the distance I see a 737 banking sharply over the Potomac on the River Visual to Runway 19 at DCA. Both Dawn and I miss general aviation flying, but we’re really enjoying our boating lifestyle and are looking forward to cruising the Caribbean this winter. We’re still fairly young, and we know there will be some cool airplanes in our future. In the meantime, it’s fun to daydream myself into the left seat of a few of my fantasy airplanes — and back here in reality, find myself in the right seat of another.