A Tale of Flying Legacies

It was a cool September evening when Tim Knutson caught up with me at Signature Aviation in Minneapolis. He had arrived in uniform, the black visor to his cap angled upward in a casual flair. Tim is a 737 copilot for my airline.

We exchanged pleasantries and walked out the door, rolling our bags toward Tim's 172 parked on the far perimeter of the ramp. He had told me that it was the "rattiest" 172 out there. That wasn't far from the truth. Even in the dim yellow glow of the distant floodlights, I could tell that the paint and the interior had seen better days. This was Tim's airport car. He had been using it for four years to commute to work just as his Dad had done.

Although Tim's chatter with ATC was professional, it was easy to tell that both sides of the radio knew each other's routine.

We were soon across the state border into Wisconsin. Tim had an intimate knowledge of nearly every town, if not every bright light. I followed his finger as he pointed in various directions. As we came within a couple of miles of Tim's farm, I strained my eyes to find the four runway lights that Tim had promised were there. Tim pointed to four glowing amber pinpoints at the far end of the blackness below. He was confident. I had my doubts. With a faith similar to Moses parting the Red Sea, I put my trust in Tim as he turned onto the base leg. When we descended low enough for the strobe lights to scatter off the approaching blur of dark grass, I held my breath. Tim was already flaring the airplane. I braced for the impending impact that never came. We touched down with a graceful thud.

We taxied by the front door to Tim's home, rolling through an open hangar door adjacent to the house. The cedar siding of the cavernous hangar glowed yellow in the bright fluorescent overhead lights. I found out later that the siding had been cut from trees on the 320-acre farm. The walls were spattered with airline paraphernalia that Tim and his father had collected over the years. A couple of snowmobiles were parked against the far wall. An old and well-used 150 sat in a corner. I was immediately envious of Tim's "garage."

We walked a few steps toward the side of the house. Upon entering the kitchen, I was greeted by two beaming toddlers and Tim's wife, Dawn. I had been warned that Owen, the three-and-a-half year-old, required his guests to view the first 12 minutes of The Great Waldo Pepper. I fulfilled my obligation later the following evening. There was no need for sound. Owen knew the entire dialog.

After dinner, we trotted out the door toward the other hangar, where the introduction to the adventure would begin.

With the lights turned on, I was greeted by the sight of a bright yellow N3N, sitting high on its haunches. The radial engine made the airplane appear larger than I had imagined. Although N3N owners cringe at the comparison, the open-cockpit biplane is often mistaken for a Stearman. It was built from 1936 through 1942 by the government-owned Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia. Except for the wing covering, it has all rigid metal construction. Avid N3N owners will tell you that the spars and stringers were made from dirigible framing. One look through a fuselage inspection cover had me convinced.

Tim's airplane was powered by a 300-horsepower Lycoming engine. Brian Anderson, a local A&P who would join us in the morning, owned an N3N with a 450-horsepower Pratt & Whitney engine. Despite the performance differences of the two airplanes, Tim assured me that bigger wasn't necessarily better. His grin betrayed him.

We awoke the following morning to a cool, gray overcast. The dark, green grass was beaded with drops from a pre-dawn rainshower. Soon the Knutson farm came alive with activity. Bruce, a Northwest A320 captain, rolled down the driveway after turning off the grass runway in his 172. The throaty sound of a radial engine announced the arrival of Brian Anderson in his glowing red-and-white N3N. In between the introductions and the good-natured ribbing, we helped Tim roll the N3N out of the hangar. Since the 172 was also to be part of the day's activities, we rolled it out of the other hangar. Bruce would take command of that airplane, flying Tim's sister Heidi and Tim's son, Owen.

Why all the activity? Tim and Brian had been approached by an elderly gentleman at Oshkosh during the 2003 EAA event. The elderly gentleman had pointed at Tim's N3N, stating that he had flown the airplane. Not just the airplane, but that airplane. He introduced himself as David Niven. Lieutenant Niven had been a flight instructor in the Navy Civilian Pilot Training program (CPT) during the days of World War II. He had flown 210 N3Ns in two years' time, Tim and Brian's airplanes being two of them. His logbook was undeniable proof.

Upon invitation, David had climbed into Tim's N3N as though it was still 1942. And the story gets better. David Niven is 92 years old. He still flies his own 150 at least once a week from his home airport in Iola, Wisconsin. He won't even give anyone the opportunity to assist him in pulling the airplane in and out of the T-hangar.

Impressed with David, Tim offered to bring both N3Ns to Iola so that the former Navy flight instructor could reacquaint himself with old memories. Because of Tim's benevolence, we would all get the opportunity to meet a flying legacy.

We departed the Knutson farm with the fanfare of waving family and friends. I sat in the front cockpit of Tim's N3N, thanking myself for remembering to pack thermal underwear. As I pondered an encounter with the rain, I was reassured that getting wet wasn't an issue until the airplane stopped moving. That profound revelation proved its truthfulness during a fuel stop on the return home.

Life couldn't get much better than a one-and-a-half hour formation flight over rolling Wisconsin farmland in an open-cockpit biplane. Once I mastered the art of folding a sectional in the open air, I tried to convince Tim that it was my superior navigation skills that had kept us on target. The GPS was only a back-up, of course.

After punctuating our arrival with an obligatory formation low pass, both airplanes rolled up to the main hangar. The 172 arrived later, carrying a rather airsick but brave three-and-a-half-year-old.

Wearing his Navy dress khakis, Lieutenant Niven greeted us with an indescribable grin. His old uniform needed no adjustment. In a flurry of greetings and story exchanges, David ushered us into a well furnished luxury hangar where we were offered the opportunity to participate in Friday's fly-in lunch with members of the Central County Flyers.

With lunch a quick memory, David donned his Navy leather jacket. Not needing a second invitation, he slithered into the front cockpit. The seriousness in his expression didn't hide the excitement in his eyes. Like spectators at a rock concert, we watched David and Tim taxi into position at the departure end of one of the grass runways. Cameras were poised. We weren't disappointed. As the N3N roared past our position, Tim made a simple statement about who was flying the airplane. His arms were raised in roller coaster fashion. That earned laughter and a round of applause.

David Niven's face upon his return was not big enough for his grin. It didn't take him long to accept the offer of a repeat performance in Brian Anderson's airplane. At the end of his second flight, holding back tears, David gave a surprised Brian an awkward hug. It was a mere 60 years ago that David had flown the N3N.

After countless handshakes, we left in a flurry, once again performing an obligatory fly-by. Our formation flight home went by in a flash. Tim had only one more obligation. Owen had pleaded for a ride. Tim delighted his son with a routine buzz job over his neighbor's farm.

When the evening progressed over to the TV, I was given the opportunity to meet Tim's dad. He had been captured on videotape while flying a DC-9 trip as a captain for Northwest Airlines. At the age of 56, Tim's dad had died of cancer. Tim and his dad had worked the airplanes and the farm together. Tim had lost his mentor and his best friend. The pain was still in his eyes. The lifestyle that his father had built was now being enjoyed by Tim's young family. Tim refused to take any credit.

It wasn't until later that evening that I realized how many legacies I had really encountered. I had met a man who had probably saved the lives of countless Navy fliers because of his guidance. I had met an airline pilot who had left his son the gift of a flying lifestyle. I had met a fellow airline pilot who had taken time from his farm and his family to enrich the life of a man he respected. Like his father, he was giving a part of himself to others. In the words of a Dan Fogelberg song, Tim was "just a living legacy to the leader of the band."

And someday it seems, Owen will become a living legacy to Tim.

Les Abend
Les AbendAuthor
Les Abend is a retired, 34-year veteran of American Airlines, attempting to readjust his passion for flying airplanes in the lower flight levels—without the assistance of a copilot.

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