First Time Flying Open Cockpit


We pilots are second to none in our adoration of firsts: First solo; first crossing of Lake Erie in a Savoia Marchetti amphibious biplane to smuggle whisky from Canada during Prohibition; or the first time you taxied over a runway light and inscribed a jagged scar into the elevator when first flying your new Citabria with everyone watching and laughing not with you but at you. Granted, some firsts are best forgotten, but it wasn’t my fault, nor do I admit doing it. That runway light should never have been placed where I’d taxied while waving at the camera. Can’t expect me to see and avoid everything. (FAA note: “Yes we can.”)

The unique thing about embarrassing firsts is they can’t be first again. Taxi over a runway light a second time, and you’re not “more unique” but simply a mook who doesn’t learn from mistakes. When firsts succeed, though, many worlds emerge. That first solo in a Cherokee 140—seemingly the most complicated aircraft on the ramp—led to the Boeing 777 check ride you aced last month. Sadly, as an instructor, I’ve had students who’d made their first solo only to quit flying and return to molding butt prints in a TV-facing Barcalounger. No telling what motivates.

I’ve contemplated but never striven to fly a fistful of throttles or warbirds at airshows—laudable deeds both. Instead, mine was a need to linger inside dusty hangars with dustier old pilots who worked on, more than they flew, old Stinsons, Navions and Stearmans—my heroes and more often my ghosts.

Although my first solo was in a Cessna 150, it was a ride in a 1940s Fairchild PT-19 above Watsonville, California, that cemented my appreciation of aviation’s past. By then, I was a private pilot and airport bum-in-training. Bumhood certification demands attending events where senior bums gather to take pictures, brag about performance (not just a guy thing) and finagle rides in something they’ve never flown. For me, in 1976, it was open cockpit, a term which requires quick etymology.

According to unimpeachable Internet sources, where truth is never an obstacle, the word “cockpit” originated in the 17th century British Royal Navy and referred to the “coxswain’s station (or pit),” wherein rudder controls were located. Dissecting “coxswain” would involve the French, who bristle whenever the British appropriate their words, then boil off all flavor and serve with Marmite on toast.  But “cockpit” has an older, less nautical meaning.

While doing research for a novel with a muddled theme, linking 1930s aviation to illegal gambling in Los Angeles, I learned that in the 16th century, “cockpit” referred to a pit in which cock fighting occurred. How this term leapt from tall ships or vile blood sport to aviation’s lexicon is anyone’s guess. Let’s agree that inside a Cessna 172 you occupy either a cabin or cockpit, your choice. If you take a fuselage, cut holes in the top, add rakish windscreens and leather combing around the rims, then you have an open-cockpit airplane and access to a dimension of sky that cabin pilots can’t fully appreciate. Yeah, there’s unabashed snobbery in play.

The Fairchild PT-19 premiered in 1939 and was a primary trainer (PT) during WWII. It doesn’t get the head-turns that Stearmans and Ryans usually glean with their gravely radial engines, but the long-nosed PT-19 is equally classy and maybe more so with its oboe-smooth, inline Ranger engine. It’s a matter of taste. Over 3600 PT-19s were manufactured, and when the same airframe sported a radial engine it was designated a PT-23 or PT-26.  That’s the rough sketch.

After pestering a PT-19 owner for my first open-cockpit ride, I entered a world of unlimited possibilities with nothing above (or inside) my head. As with other firsts, you can fantasize about the anticipated joy until convinced you know exactly what it’ll be like, only to be disappointed. To me, open-cockpit flying exceeded expectations. Back then I rode motorcycles, so when transitioning to topless flight it was clear this was motorcycling in the sky.

Open-cockpit mind has little to do with transportation, except for transporting the pilot into new realms. It took decades, but when I bought a Marquart Charger biplane, I challenged my penchant to remain close to home and flew it from Iowa to Watsonville. Three thousand round-trip miles of sunlight crushing my flying helmet as I watched the summer desert crawl by, and, to paraphrase Hunter Thompson, somewhere near Barstow, dehydration began to take, and I thought this was possibly the dumbest trip ever.

It was. But wasn’t. It served little purpose and didn’t advance human achievement one millimeter. Although, it did teach me the importance of drinking lots of water while flying low across the desert southwest without a lid overhead. But my first solo crossing of a vast expanse of, frankly, intimidating terrain in an open-cockpit biplane exposed a beauty no earthling can imagine, and few will seek. Their loss.

It also showed me that when you fly 1500 miles in 1930s comfort and arrive at the airport where you took your first open-cockpit ride decades earlier … no one really notices, because there’s always someone with a Mustang, gleaning all the wows. Then sunburnt and spent, I had to retrace the exhausting route home again. But, yeah, all worth it, even if unlikely to be repeated.

Open-cockpit flying isn’t for everyone. Then, again, neither is Zumba. Open-cockpit Zumba, though, could be an interesting first. Point is, if you need a point to fly with your head poking outside the fuselage, then open-cockpit flying might not be for you. That’s fine, because the sky is big enough for all open minds to discover there’s no correct reason to fly, only lame excuses not to.

And yes, that aerial whisky-smuggling bit was sorta true and inspired the nonexistent Netflix series, Bootleg Skies. I mean, c’mon, Flix! Do I have to write it for you? Call. We’ll do lunch.

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  1. “We pilots are second to none in our adoration of firsts”

    And it doesn’t cost you a case of beer like other aerial pursuits (ask the other Paul to explain that).

  2. Lovely, evocative writing, as ever! And timely – on Saturday I flew in to a grass strip in the UK (Compton Abbas) and watched Steamans and a Moth giving joy rides to an eager public. I wondered then, what it might be like to fly in an open cockpit. Now I know. 🙂

  3. Paul, the PT-26 still had the Ranger engine. It was a PT-19 produced primarily by Fleet in Canada with an enclosed cockpit to ward off the chill which accompanied the breeze in their colder climes. I love the -19 and the -26 with their beautifully harmonized controls. The last -26 I flew still had its original Morse key in the rear cockpit.

    • I must agree with the comments made about the Fairchild. Although the Ranger engine really drinks runs very smoothly and sounds beautiful in flight,particularly the PT 26 with the 6 pipe” header” exhaust.The controls are not only well harmonized,they are incredibly smooth,as all surfaces move with push pull rods,no cables except the trim. Even the throttle and mixture are push rods.
      Yeah,I own one.

    • Yes, Alex, you are absolutely correct. I muzzied-up my PTs, which is always embarrassing. Thanks for the heads-up.

  4. Just finished reading your non imaginary book, Bootleg Skies, and if they made it into a series I’d get Netflix!
    Also, I was reading about a high dollar carbon fiber bicycle handlebar, and they called it a cockpit, possible article idea, I’m sure you could make it entertaining!

  5. Back in the late 70’s I used to hang out at Flabob airport and one of the hangers I visited was Ed Marquart’s. I did assist in a very small way on a couple of his build projects. He was a stereotypical old aircraft mechanic

  6. I based my first plane,an Aeronca 11AC at Flabob. Art Scholl was still on the field putting retractable gear on his Chipmunk. 1971-72

  7. There so much wonderful, descriptive, sage, and captive “wordology” in this delightful piece that I feel I am at a smorgasbord, made up entirely of all my favorite foods! Where do I begin?

    “We pilots are second to none in our adoration of firsts”.
    My first chance to touch, and eventually wiggle a true aircraft flight control, was at Roselle Field, within the O’Hare TCA, sitting in a derelict T-50 Bamboo Bomber still in Air Force silver sitting where parked since surplussed after WWII. As a budding airport (kid) bum, I adopted that airplane as my own. After a few years of control wiggling, I was crushed when I arrived one day to see a smoldering pit of embers where “my” T-50 stood just days earlier.

    “Instead, mine was a need to linger inside dusty hangars with dustier old pilots who worked on, more than they flew, old Stinsons, Navions and Stearmans—my heroes and more often my ghosts.”
    I initially watched from a distance, an older gentleman work day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year restoring a Cessna 195. As a long term airport bum, I had managed to solo a Cessna 150, graduating from “my” T-50 to a shiny, then new, C-150. That took several years. I never saw that Cessna 195 fly. Never saw that aircraft owner fly. Never saw it outside the hangar. But it was a beautiful jewel.

    “Sadly, as an instructor, I’ve had students who’d made their first solo only to quit flying and return to molding butt prints in a TV-facing Barcalounger. No telling what motivates.”
    I too, had several friends join in our collective thrill of flying, all of us soloing, yet only two, me and another Jim ever get our PPL. No telling what motivates. No telling what continues to motivate.

    “Open-cockpit mind has little to do with transportation, except for transporting the pilot into new realms.
    the sky is big enough for all open minds to discover there’s no correct reason to fly, only lame excuses not to.”
    My first and so far only opportunity to fly in an open cockpit airplane was a Marquart Charger. What a thrill to see, smell, and be a part of the sky. It is still amazing to me, how much the lack of Plexiglas makes such a drastic difference in the thrill of flying. I even got to “wiggle” the stick some doing a few climbing and descending turns. An absolutely delightful airplane to fly. I agree, there is no correct reason to fly, only lame excuses not to.

    Thanks for the memories. Can’t wait to put butt prints in the old Bo!

  8. I get it. There’s an airport in Washington, MO (about an hour west of St. Louis) that at one time was managed by a retired Ozark Captain named Carl Cochran. He ran a Stearman flight school and would let you fly on local solos once you were signed off. I only flew them a couple hours, but sort of felt like I had figured out the landings. Those were a couple of the most memorable hours in the air I’ve ever had. I also get the trip that was “worth it, even if unlikely to be repeated”. I used to have a 1976 Jeep CJ-5, and I got the notion that it would be a good idea to drive it cross-country 4 hours in the summer heat with the top down. Not as cool (in all senses of the word) as a Stearman flight. I drove home after dark for nicer temperatures.

  9. Paul–that’s “some pretty good writin’ fer an Iowa Boy!”

    I just finished up giving a tailwheel endorsement and required 10 hours of dual in a PT-19 last week. I flew a PT-19 for about 150 hours in 1967-68, and hadn’t touched one since–but that was good enough for the insurance company. It all came back right away.

    The PT-19 originally had a 175 hp Ranger engine–that was not enough, so it was increased to 200 hp. That was not enough either. As they say in Iowa, “It is not a ‘Barnburner!” (They gave the early PT-19s to the Tuskeegee Airmen, but replaced them when the airplane couldn’t outclimb the surrounding hills on hot days).

    What it DOES offer is the very best handling of the over 340 unique airplane types I’ve flown. The controls are aerodynamically and mass balanced–you can flick the ailerons from stop to stop with one finger. The split flaps are connected to the trim–no change with flap extension or retraction. No control cables–control rods instead for precise control. The result is the easiest to land tailwheel airplane I’ve ever flown.

    Starting the engine requires a choreographed ballet between pilot and the person actually doing the work. A couple of shots of prime and pumps of the throttle with the mags off–the crank is inserted in the side, and the prop turned over 12 blades to insure that oil has not leaked into the inverted cylinders and created “hydraulic lock.” “Switch on” to the left mag, and it usually fires right away, and the starting crank is carefully placed by the crewman into a small door by the pilot’s feet. There is no electrical system, so fuel is lifted from the wing tanks with a mechanical “wobble pump.”

    There aren’t many PT-19, 23, or 26 aircraft left due to their open cockpits and wooden center sections–they are prone to rot. For anyone looking to sample the Fairchilds, the folks at Fagen Fighter Museum offer rides in a PT-26–and if you’re a pilot, will let you fly.