It's hard to get too sympathetic with frustrated airline passengers about the abysmal service and delays they experience when the alternative — general aviation — is so much more enjoyable. Even more so when a 57-year-old airplane can fly cross-country on a schedule and deliver its occupants to their daughter's college graduation when airline flights carrying other attendees had to divert. Howard DGA-15 owner David Schober shared this story about a recent trip that gave him the opportunity to think back on how far we've all come, on aviation's history in the U.S., remembrances of how things used to be and how some things have stayed the same.
March 29, 2001
Thursday, May 18, 2000. My wife Donna and I get up with the alarm at 5:30 a.m.
Today we are going to fly from Clarksburg, W.V., home base of our airplane, to
St. Louis. The AFSS briefer relates how there is a strong low over Kansas City
with a frontal system extending from there to the East Coast. Strong winds and
low ceilings with afternoon thunderstorms are in the forecast, with winds
aloft forecasts of better than 30 knots at 3,000 feet. With the forecast
weather and the West Virginia hills, I think to myself, "I'm glad we're
west of the higher mountains and that we'll be flying an airplane with high
At the airport, the task of preflighting a round-motored antique airplane
begins. Those who fly modern Cessnas, Pipers and Beeches can't appreciate the
task. For example, to properly preflight this airplane without getting at
least some oil on your clothes is unheard of. By the time you position the
ladder to check the oil, add a few gallons, clean the windows on one side,
reposition to clean the other side, drain the fuel sumps, finish the walk
around and push a 4,500-lb. airplane out of its hangar, about 45 minutes of
hard work has passed. Is it all worth it? Ask me later; I might have an
With all aboard, preflight completed and hangar closed and locked, we taxi
to the FBO to complete the fueling process. Our Howard DGA-15 carries 122
gallons of fuel. I've added about 80 gallons of mo-gas and want to top it off
with 100LL. Pratt & Whitneys like to have at least some lead in their diet
to keep things running right.
Wheels off at 9:00 a.m., we climb to 2,500 feet MSL but that's all the
ceiling will allow. That will give us about 1,000' ground clearance over the
western part of West Virginia. As I set cruise power of 1,850 RPM and 27
inches, the GPS shows the effects of that 30-knot headwind: a ground speed of
only 115 mph with an en route time of 4:45. We settle in for a long flight and
tighten our belts for the anticipated turbulence. Once established on course,
I sit back and begin to ponder what brought us to this point in time and why
are we flying a 57-year-old airplane halfway across the country in less than
favorable conditions. My mind races back to find the start of it all.
it start with the beginning of flight? Maybe, but that's a little too general.
Perhaps the more appropriate beginning is August 1, 1927, when Oliver L. Parks
opened Parks Air College at Lambert Field in St. Louis, Mo., in a rented
hangar with only one other instructor, a Standard J-1 and a Laird Swallow as
trainers. From those humble beginnings, Parks Air College would grow to become
the oldest operating aviation school in the country, with a reputation as one
of the finest. In 1946, Oliver Parks sold the school to St. Louis University.
Parks is not only the oldest aviation school, but part of the oldest
university west of the Mississippi.
As the drone of the R-985 continues and the landscape of West Virginia
hills changes to the flatter Ohio farms, my mind races on. Forward to the
stories my dad used to tell of his childhood in the late '20s and early
'30s. It seems that my grandfather's friend, Alec Miller, was into this
"new aviation thing." He had a WWI-surplus deHavilland DH-4.
Forget about licensing and such, the new Department of Air Commerce rules
said a licensed pilot couldn't fly an unlicensed airplane. Alec figured that
an unlicensed pilot could fly an unlicensed airplane and still be legal. In
any case, he gave my dad and uncles rides in the DH-4 and other aircraft he
owned, including a Pitcairn Autogyro. The DH-4 that my dad got his first
airplane ride in eventually ended up in the Air Force Museum after it was
confiscated for, you guessed it, being flown unlicensed by an unlicensed
The turbulence is too much for Donna so she decides to lay down in the
back. Thank God for that large bench seat for three. Flying the Howard is
almost like sitting in your living room, with enough room to stretch out.
Once she is safely settled in the back, I go back to my daydreams.
The author's Howard DGA-15 in its hangar.
Click image for larger version.
This time the setting is the Civilian Pilot Training program and the place
is Cortland, N.Y., in the dead of winter, 1942. Dad's initial flight training
is in Porterfield CP-65s equipped with skis. After completion of the CPT
program, it was off to Pensacola, Fla., for training in N3Ns. Dad's flying
career continued after the war the setting is now the early 1960s, and
we're at Blairstown Airport in N.J.; only the memories are mine now. Dad just
signed a lease for the airport and he's going to run the FBO. The flight
school started with a J-3; an Aeronca 7AC and Stinson 108 were added shortly.
After a few years, the airport owner and other investors decided to start a
parachute center. Dad convinced them that the airplane they needed as a jump
ship was a Howard DGA-15. At this point I was about 10 years old, had been
flying with Dad in the Champ, Cub and Stinson, but when the Howard showed up,
I knew that this was an AIRPLANE. Those days at Blairstown are what infected
me with my interest in aviation, old airplanes, and especially Howards.
The ceiling is dropping a little; we're cruising at 2,000 feet MSL and
the groundspeed is down to 105 MPH. In southern Indiana, if you tune a VOR
to 108.0 MHz, you can pick up a country station. While listening to the
tunes, they announce that the weather service has just issued thunderstorm
and tornado warnings for the area for the rest of the morning and into the
afternoon. I guess there is no need to call Flight Watch. The turbulence is
still pretty strong even though we're over flat land now. Visibility is
still in the 12-to-15-mile range and I still have cloud definition so we
press on. Donna is fast asleep in the back. Good thing the Howard is a
stable platform; I guess that's why the Navy used them for instrument
trainers. If we were flying a newer GA airplane with lighter wing loading,
we'd be on the ground. We pass through a few showers but no thunderstorms
My mind drifts again, to the mid-to-late '60s and my fascination with the
writings of Richard Bach. It started with his magazine articles, many of which
are reprinted in his book, A Gift of Wings. The central character of
many of the articles and books was his Detroit Ryan Speedster Parks P2A,
NC499H. The P2A was designed by Parks Air College, and the first several
airplanes were actually built by students. As a teenager, I figured if a
school could design and build an airplane with the lines of the P2A and the
personality that Richard Bach could attribute to the airplane, that's where I
wanted to go to college.
The pounding of the turbulence has slowed some but ceilings also have
gotten lower. We're now over southern Illinois and down to less than 1,600
feet MSL. The 450 Shetland ponies are still beating away and the GPS shows
we still have another half hour before touchdown at St. Louis Downtown Parks
Airport. My mind continues to recap the past several years.
Another view of the author's
airplane. Click the image for a larger version.
My second daughter, Jennifer, started at Parks (now known as Parks College
of Engineering and Aviation of St. Louis University) about four years ago. She
worked to get scholarships, grants, and loans to pay for her education
herself. Two years ago she was awarded the prestigious Cobro Scholarship.
While a student at Parks, Jen started the Parks Chapter of Women in Aviation,
was active in the student chapter of SAE and participated in the annual SAE
heavy-lift model competition at Daytona Beach, Fla. During her time at Parks,
the University decided to move Parks College from the Cahokia, Ill., campus it
had resided on since 1928 to the Frost campus in downtown St. Louis. In an
effort to help the student population fit in the larger campus life, the Parks
Administration organized the Association of Parks College Students (APCS) and
Jennifer was active in that organization also. Since Jen was paying her own
way, she needed a job. She found one at the St. Charles Airport as a line
service person and after earning her A&P was promoted to working as a
mechanic in the shop.
We're on short final to Downtown, the wind is a little calmer near the
surface but still blowing 190 at 12 gusting 20. I need my full attention now
to get the Howard down with the crosswind and try to keep the inevitable
bounces to a minimum. After touchdown and taxi to Mid Coast, we set about
securing the Damn Good Airplane for the forecast thunderstorms. Five hours
en route with turbulence, low visibility and no food leaves us tired, hungry
and needing to use the rest rooms. Once in the terminal, we take care of the
physiological needs, call Jen to say we've arrived, make arrangements to
meet her later, and find the restaurant.
Friday morning dawns and we find out that Jen's
mother, Cindy, her husband Gary, and Jen's younger sister, Kim were stranded
at Newark Airport the night before. They eventually made it to Chicago and
rented a car to drive from Chicago to St. Louis. Of course their bags were
misplaced and they could get no answers over the phone. Donna and I made the
best of the day searching out antiques in St. Louis's Cherokee Street
district. The Wings Ceremony, a pre-commencement ceremony for the Parks
College students, was scheduled for that evening. Parks is still one of the
smallest schools of St. Louis University. There were less than 100 students
graduating from Parks but the seats of the Simon Recreation Center were filled
with proud parents, relatives, and friends. After all the graduates were
awarded their "Wings," Arjun Ravindra, APCS President, awarded the
Oliver L. Parks Award to my daughter Jennifer. Her hard work had paid off and
now she is one of the only women in the history of Parks to receive that
award. Her acceptance speech was short and sweet and gave recognition to her
two sets of parents.
Saturday was the official St. Louis University graduation and Jen and her
roommates had a reception at their apartment afterwards. A good time was had
by all, but Donna and I had to turn in early so we could be on our way home
the next morning.
Sunday's weather called for the low to be over
Maryland. I knew that we would be facing low ceilings and visibility on the
way home. We waited at Downtown Airport for about half an hour after finishing
the preflight for the field to go VFR. After departure we headed southeast to
Pinkneyville for the RAH Newsgroup fly-in. We fueled up a Pinkneyville (97
gallons for 5-1/2 hours' flying time; not bad for an R-985) and had a pancake
breakfast along with the usual hangar tales. We departed PJY at about 11:30 am
heading east, making it home in time to pick the dogs up from the kennel by
3:00 p.m. that afternoon.
flight home was uneventful but included some more reminiscing of days gone by
and even deeper feelings of pride for my daughter's accomplishments. I also
contemplated how a 57-year-old airplane can fly VFR halfway across the country
on a schedule while modern airliners with all their avionics get caught and
leave their passengers to fend for themselves.
I guess it just goes to show the advantages of general aviation over
commercial flights. We made our flights in the morning before the afternoon
convection starts. While conditions weren't the best, we were able to safely
complete our trip as planned. Even though we flew low altitude, we had
reasonably good visibility. If the thunderstorms had developed along our
route, a diversion of less than 100 miles to the south would have taken us far
enough away from the front to be well clear. We planned our flights so we
would still have enough time to drive if we had to and the only pressure was
to be there a day after our actual arrival.
We also had the chance to reminisce about the underpinnings of aviation in
the U.S. and how we got where we are, about all of the men, women and aircraft
that have gone before, and about our place in it all. A pretty good deal, all