Some years ago, when I was flying midnight charters, another pilot and I dropped off a bunch of machine parts at Detroit City Airport, gassed up and headed east at 5 a.m. As it frequently is during a Detroit winter, the weather was drizzly, cold and low.
We climbed up through the overcast and broke out between layers into a stunning sunrise, the kind that ignites the entire horizon into a thin, blazing orange ribbon. Real Saint Exupery stuff. As co-pilot, I thought it my duty to remark on the view being the sort of thing only pilots get to see.
"Yup," said my companion, Craig, adding after a long pause, "then the #$^&^%@ left engine catches fire or some damn thing." His comment succinctly framed a philosophy I happen to share, that being that I live in mortal fear of being mistaken for one of those bubbly morons who go through life perfectly capable of appreciating undiluted beauty while being completely unaware of the looming train wreck. If that sounds cynical, just remember that cynicism is the smoke that curls up from burned dreams. A romantic I ain't.
So I'm worried that what I'm about to say here suggests I'm losing my edge. I have fallen in love with airplanes. Again. Specifically, a J-3C Cub, a quarter of which I bought a couple of weeks ago. I flew my first Cub in 1972 and over the weekend, when partner Greg Woods was checking me out, it all came flooding back—that skip of excitement when the engine catches on the first blade, the whiff of exhaust you get in a right taxi turn, the kinda-sorta throttle response, the spoon-in-oatmeal trim system, if you can call rope and a crank a system.
After we got down and nudged the thing back into the hangar, I sat on a step stool looking at this stupid thing trying to figure out why such antiques are so intoxicating. They aren't the best fliers in the roost—in fact, they float more than they fly. On a good day in the pattern, they climb well enough to get you to 400 feet in time to turn back onto the base leg. Cross country planning requires a calendar and if you don't rapidly get past the oh-God-no-brakes phase into the thank-God-no-brakes phase, you'll just embarrass the hell out of yourself trying to drive the thing around, much less land it.
Yet, still the blasted airplane is more fun and far more challenging to fly than any modern LSA, with the exception of the Cub clones from Legend and Cub Crafters. Park a Cub on an empty ramp, and you'll soon have gawkers. Yes, it's really a Cub. Yes, it was made in 1938. Yes, it has no radio or lights. And no, I don't know how fast it goes because I never look at the airspeed indicator.
Slow, underpowered, cold, uncomfortable and all the utility of a broken claw hammer, yet still I love it. Maybe it's just…the romance.
Please, someone just shoot me.