Not Doing The Lindy Hop

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The fly (Musca domestica) appeared inside the Citabria’s cockpit ten minutes into what would be a 25-hour round-trip from Iowa to New York. I greeted the visitor the way Jimmy Stewart, as Charles Lindbergh, did in the 1953 film Spirit of St. Louis. And there the analogy to Lindy flying 3000 miles non-stop from a future shopping mall site on Long Island to Paris where he’d become the last person to make the trip without sitting between two 300-pounders who hog the arm rests, ended. Still I was flying a taildragger, solo, across … well, some of the safest terrain on earth.

I had Aera GPS, Foreflight, a radio and paper charts. Lindbergh navigated with little more than compass, stars and a cheese sandwich. He found Paris after crossing the North Atlantic at night. I got lost over the Finger Lakes by day. I stopped every 200 miles to pee and ask directions, details not included in Stewart’s film. Lindbergh stayed awake—mostly—for 33+ hours. I overnighted in a Youngstown, Ohio, motel, so I guess I had one on him when it comes to gutting it out.

The mission was to attend my daughter’s wedding in upstate New York. My wife drove her hybrid. I flew my 7ECA 115-HP Citabria. You know who arrived first … and spent way less on fuel. But we don’t fly old VFR taildraggers merely to get somewhere. In fact, too often we don’t get there, and it’s that almost making it that keeps us returning in hopes of better results. There is nothing worth seeing along the soul-sucking interstate highways, whereas following Eisenhower’s ribbons from a thousand feet up and offset as whimsy demands, unleashes the inner whatever that makes pilots such lousy wedding guests. We always want to talk about the flight, but in a banquet hall filled with groundlings, I’m worse than the guy who insists on showing pictures of his kid’s stinkin’ dance recital. No one cares.

This wasn’t my first aerial trip from America’s corndog-on-a-stick heartland to its Shecky Greene belt in the Catskills. Before my daughter was born I’d made a similar trip in my 1946 Aeronca Champ. Resembling its Champ progenitor, the Citabria sits with her tail on the ground, nose pointed skyward and offers room for tandem two and a few bags. I still own the 65-HP Champ but forsook her for the younger sister, because I actually wanted to get there in time for the ceremony. The Citabria isn’t much faster than the Champ, but it did have modern upgrades, including a starter, eliminating the need to hand-prop the engine, alone, as I had on the previous trip. GPS and a radio added to that high-tech thrill, but flying tailwheel into unfamiliar airports enhanced the arrival factor and elicited pilot lounge commentary:

“Nice airplane. Always wanted to fly a Decathlon.”

“Me, too. This is a Citabria.”

“You should get a Decathlon.”

“OK.”

It’s nearly impossible to fly a taildragger in a straight line, especially the Citabria, which has less interest in seeing what’s over the horizon than what that line between earth and heaven looks like on its side. We could not fly a straight line or hold an altitude on any leg, because over such expanses of the American Midwest and Eastern hills there’s just so much to see that anyone confined to pavement never experiences. But I already knew that before liftoff. Plus, there’s always weather to skirt and never climb above.

Tropical storm Alberto had played out its entrance across the Gulf Coast the week before I’d departed Iowa, and like an actor who can’t hear the audience sighing, “Enough,” he pushed north, reaching for the Great Lakes. No hurricane winds but enough moisture to set pieces on the Midwest chessboard. First, the cumulus pawns appeared, so adorable you just want to snuggle a wingtip into them, and, then, as afternoon stretched to sunset, towering rooks lunged above all in impenetrable lines, their castellated tops sweeping airliners from the sky while shooting Zeus bolts and thunder just because they could … and should, lest they disappoint their merciless embedded King and Queen who only wanted to kill little flies like me. So, a night in Youngstown, famous for something, but hell if I know what, certainly not the Perkins where I had breakfast the next day.

Dawn, and the chessboard was behind. We crawled over the rumpled mountains of western Pennsylvania and inched north toward Lake Erie to avoid low clouds and the fact that I couldn’t see a respectable place to land anywhere in the vast expanse of tree-coated hills if the engine failed. My destination was Cooperstown, New York, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame and an inviting grass strip (K23). Uninviting clouds, though, pointed us to Sidney, New York (N23), 30 miles short but as often happens when flying old airplanes, a great alternate.

“What’s Sidney known for?” I asked airport manager, Klindt, Jr.

“Look at your mags."

I did and saw nothing unusual beyond the oil drips, until he pointed to the data plate, which included: “Made in Sidney, NY.” I’d landed at the motherland of Bendix Scintilla magnetos. The plant, closed since the 1980s in a slick business move that threw many Sidney residents out of work, still stood along the Susquehanna River … the one that flooded a few times, making it difficult to keep all those points and condensers dry. Forget the Baseball Hall of Fame, Sidney housed the Magneto Hall of, I don’t know … impulse couplers.

Sidney, New York, has one of those little airports that exceeds all expectations, especially since my hopes are simple—avgas, rest room, friendly locals willing to give me a lift into town. Gary was better than Uber and drove me the 30 miles to the wedding venue, which happened to be on his way home and included a side trip to the Klindt Family Airport in Downsville, New York. Gary’s grandfather opened the field in 1947 and until it closed in 2016, three generations of Klindts learned to fly there, Gary being the last.

America is dotted with the unmarked graves of dead air fields. Many, like Roosevelt Field on Long Island, where Lindbergh blew the world’s mind in 1927, are long dead, perhaps a plaque in a parking lot to note the murder. Klindt Field was dead but as yet unburied. Its grass runway was overgrown and staked with survey flags where solar panels would soon be installed in an effort to harvest the sun and tax credits.

We stepped from Gary’s pickup truck and walked through the tall grass, in the company of summer wind and red-wing black birds (Agelaius phoeniceus). A good mower could easily bring back the runway, and a can of LPS-3 on the hangar door hinges would have this old air field back on the sectional, where it would ... Would what? Yeah, grass runways are the backyard of my soul, but in the National Airspace scheme, it’s tough to sell romance to customers breathing kerosene and Wi-Fi. I want neither.

This dead airport was little different from hundreds of other memories I’ve explored. A few empty hangars and a lone administration building little bigger than an outhouse were the only clues that for 70 years this had been a place where humans left the planet with arrogant impunity. How I hate to see that arrogance die. Sure, there are thousands of airports with miles of paved runways, launching ambitions to heights above the tallest clouds. But, these vanishing air fields with their weathered shacks and grass-stained lore draw me like that house fly to my Citabria. Pointless but irresistible.

And about that fly? When I’d arrived at Sidney, shut down the engine and popped the door, my passenger seemed to know this was the destination in his hero’s journey. He lit through the opening with 900 miles of aviation adventure inside his flyspeck brain … and flew directly into the open beak of a passing red-winged blackbird. I only hope the irony wasn’t lost on him. Face it, had it not been for our brief ride together, I’d have been scrubbing him off my windshield.

Comments (5)

Being from Iowa
I especially enjoyed your article

In my opinion,
Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic ocean
is the single greatest aviation feat in history!
He was truly the 'lone eagle'
literally flying on a wing and a prayer.

The 1st lunar landing us a distant second
mainly because of all the modern technology
to put it there safely

Dave

Posted by: David Ahrens | July 5, 2018 5:02 PM    Report this comment

Those of us who have been around for a while remember those simple, grass rural airfields well. How sad that learning to fly is economically beyond the reach -- or interest -- of most folks these days. I often think of all the sights that people miss when they're driving. Sounds like an interesting trip.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | July 6, 2018 3:19 AM    Report this comment

Reading your article was like listening to a threnody. (finally get to use that word legitimately).

I too feel that as society evolves, what is "new" seems to displace what is "old",perhaps that is why older persons treasure what was once "new" to them but in the eyes of others has become "old".

Seems like old cars and old airplanes, and probably old boats and motorcycles are treasured objects.

Me? I am still absolutely in love with Beechcraft Super 18's, which in my minds eye is the ultimate escape vehicle. The mini airliner I discovered when I was 11 years old. It's glorious leather and fine wool interior and the marvelous sound of it's radial engines rumbling at idle and rumble-roaring at full power.

Of course in the real world I'd rather fly in a Beech Premier and for longer distances a Dreamliner.

Enjoy your Citabria, and maybe get a bunch of geezers together and go cut the lawn at that abandoned airfield!

Posted by: Richard Katz | July 6, 2018 7:48 AM    Report this comment

Last week, while flying commercial, I looked down from seat 42F and saw some large white block letters painted on an unused runway: AEROPORT DE PARIS LE BOURGET. My heart skipped a beat!

I mentally flashbacked to May 1927, and there are searchlights and cars and thousands of people swarming over that field....and a silver monoplane with souvenir hunters tearing swatches of fabric from the fuselage. What a sight that must have been. I agree with Dave, it was likely the single greatest feat in aviation history.

And to think that today the airport is still there, and still an actively operating airport at that. Check it out on Google maps just NE of Paris. But, sadly not so much remains for the ill-fated airport under the Long Island shopping mall.

Posted by: A Richie | July 6, 2018 9:47 AM    Report this comment

Paul, I love the way you write. My imagination put me with you the whole trip while I marveled and chuckled at your choice of words. I feel like such a dummy when in my old age a can barely spit out the correct words to make a coherent sentence.

I too own a tail dragged, ( though not a classic like your two, so I'm not in your class but I feel somewhat special anyway) and I'm always thrilled when I find a grass field. I feel the few new pilots who are thankfully getting into aviation will miss out on the beauty of what flying was like.

A great book is Zero 3 Bravo about a women's solo flight around the country in a Luscombe many years ago. While published in 1994, you would be sad to find many of the small fields are now gone. I sometimes wish I had started flying earlier to experience those days but life had other plans. I'm thankful to at least have my freedom to fly for now. I hope hope others will find the beauty in it after I'm long gone. It's such a wonderful experience.

Posted by: JOHN KAZICKAS | July 9, 2018 10:09 AM    Report this comment

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