I Learned About Flying From That: Bringing it Home

Flying skills don't always transfer to new aircraft.

Barry Ross

Barry Ross

** To see more of Barry Ross' aviation art, go
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(November 2011) In November 1954, having accumulated a bit more than 26 solo hours flying 65 hp Cubs and Aeroncas, and having become an aircraft owner several months before, I was supremely confident in my flying abilities. Nevertheless I deferred to my medical school classmate, Ed, a veteran, older by 10 years than most others in the class and, most impressively, a former B-29 pilot; this latter accomplishment was gained in the last year of the war but did not require dangerous duty, that is until his last mission as a civilian pilot.

The airplane of which I was part owner was a 1939 Taylorcraft, having 40 rather tentative horsepower, miraculously achieved with a single magneto and carried aloft on fabric wings of uncertain lineage. Though I was proud of this purchase, the siren call of more horsepower (65), all metal construction and greater speed led my airplane partner (another classmate and student pilot) and me to a 1946 Luscombe 8A obtained with a cash outlay of $475 each.

Now for the mission: We needed to fly the Luscombe from its home at a West Memphis, Arkansas, airport to our home base at Wilson Field just east of Memphis Municipal Airport. I would fly Ed, the legal pilot in command, in the Taylorcraft to West Memphis and check him out in the Luscombe so he could bring the newly purchased machine back to Wilson Field in Tennessee. Harry Wilson, dealing in cash only in his half-completed concrete-block airport office — stray cats crawling under and over glass display cases filled with dusty World War II instruments — presided over his two grass runways, carved from surrounding pastureland, hidden behind hedgerows and home to several derelict T-50 Bamboo Bombers shading high grass growing wild underneath. This airport was his pre-Depression dream, now his post-Depression albatross.

Harry, one of those unforgettable characters who enrich our aviation memories, added fuel to the Taylorcraft, put the few dollars I paid for the 25-cent-per-gallon gas in his pocket and helped us push the airplane back from the single fuel pump. As Ed climbed into the right seat of the Taylorcraft, I had a twinge of anxiety because of his size. Although short, he was rather obese, and I could swear the airplane leaned more to the right as we taxied to the far end of the longer of the two grass runways, spun around, added full power, such as it was, and accelerated ever so slowly toward the southwest. I was flying this leg and didn’t know enough to worry. Finally the wings generated just enough lift to leave the turf behind. Ahead, that bordering hedgerow sure was close and we sure were low. We did clear the hedge as I held my breath and Ed squirmed in the seat beside me. Across fields, which years later would give way to urban sprawl, we skirted Memphis Municipal by five miles, crossed the Mississippi River, located Bowen Field on the outskirts of West Memphis and glided to a landing on the south end of the single north-south grass strip.

Bowen Field was a typical agricultural operation of the era, with a single hangar maintaining several Stearmans used to keep the boll weevil beetles under control in the cotton fields then common in this part of Arkansas. After preflighting the Luscombe, I moved around to the unfamiliar right seat and Ed climbed into the left seat for his first flight in this airplane; I assumed that his military experience would make this ride a piece of cake. The steerable tailwheel facilitated his taxiing past the single hangar on the east side of the strip to the south end. Ed checked for full control movement and pushed full throttle, and as the 65 horses kicked in, the craft lifted easily from the runway and climbed to 500 feet by the time we crossed the north end. Just beyond the end of the strip, traffic on Highway 70 flowed east and west en route to Memphis and Little Rock.

“What a dangerous place for a highway,” I mused as we climbed on the upwind leg. Ed seemed to handle the little Luscombe well, and I relaxed. After all, Ed was an experienced pilot. Turning downwind, Ed remained closer to the runway than I was used to, but with my limited experience I assumed he knew what he was doing. Remaining at cruise power he turned base, then final, decreasing power only slightly. We were high. Ed nosed down aiming at the end of the runway. We were fast. “I guess this is the way B-29 pilots fly!” I thought, then quickly realized that this was no B-29.

Still high and fast, we passed over the approach end of the runway. Halfway down the runway Ed slammed the wheels onto the turf. Looming ahead was the highway embankment now appearing much higher than the runway, perhaps by as much as four feet. I had not appreciated this before, but now this was an obvious and dangerous fact and we were not going to stop.

“I’ve got it!” I shouted.

I pushed full throttle. Gratefully the craft accelerated rapidly and we were flying. I eased back on the control stick; we began to climb as the embankment and highway grew closer in the windscreen. With inches to spare we cleared the obstruction and continued our climb to pattern altitude. Miraculously, traffic had abated at just the right time; otherwise there would have been a midair collision between a Luscombe and a semitrailer. Hands shaking, Ed reached in his pocket for a cigarette. We didn’t speak for a few minutes as we left the pattern to recover our composure.

“That was close,” Ed said.

“Sure was,” I agreed, then said tentatively, “We need to keep the airspeed about 65 on final.”

After a few more circuits Ed got the feel of the Luscombe and no longer flared as if he were sitting high in a B-29 cockpit, nor did he approach using B-29 V-speeds.

Later in the day he successfully ferried the Luscombe back to Wilson Field and I returned the Taylorcraft to what was to become its final resting place. Sold to and flown for too few hours by someone who could not afford Harry’s tiedown fee, the airplane sat forlornly as rotting fabric became a shroud over the rusting steel frame.

Ed certainly learned a lesson that day on how flying skills don’t necessarily transfer to different airplanes; regretfully he never regained an interest in civilian aviation. I learned that sitting in the right seat can be a scary place, especially for a student pilot; however, I did continue my flight training and earned my private license before I obtained my medical license. Eventually, I obtained an instructor’s certificate, becoming comfortable in the right seat. In the many years since those youthful days, I am grateful that on every flight I continue to learn about flying.