I was recently approached by a customer of mine to help him find a new Light Sport eligible “legacy” taildragger. Initially, he had his heart set on finding the right Aeronca Champ (7AC) despite having some very specific purchase requirements. He was looking for longer range tanks, preferred an electric start of some type, and wanted an upgraded engine. After scouring the market, we were unable to find something that either one of us was comfortable with. After exploring the J3 Piper Cub option, we found the perfect airplane in Advance, NC. If you have never heard of Advance, don’t feel bad. I spent a few years of my life in North Carolina, and I hadn’t heard of it either!
This cub was rebuilt by a well known builder after being found stored in a barn since about 1946. In addition to the 85 hp engine (which was a -12 series), the airplane had vortex generators, a total of 36 gallons of fuel through two wing tanks and the header tank, an electric start (no generator or other electrics) and a slew of other upgrades/modifications. Research on the airplane revealed everything had been documented correctly and the price was right.
I am fortunate enough in life to be able to help customers in the acquisition of aircraft and be able to conduct the repositioning flights as well. It makes it quite a bit simpler for the purchase process as I am vested in the airplane and know what to expect when I show up. A pre-buy was scheduled and plans were made to bring the airplane back to Waco, TX. While I do have a fair amount of tailwheel time, flying this airplane roughly 1300 miles was something I wanted some help with. I solicited my friend Matt Skinner to help with the flight. Matt built time in his younger years conducting flight instruction in Cubs and has been around everything from Cubs to Falcon Jets.
As we launched via the airlines to Greensboro, NC, a front had cleared out the weather along our route and 3-4 beautiful days awaited our return flight to Texas. Upon our arrival, the pre-buy/annual inspection had been conducted and the airplane was left “open” for our inspection. Armed with my notes and my pre-buy checklists (both from personal experience and ones downloaded from the Cub Club), the airplane checked out perfectly and was “as advertised.”
Due to the time differences and fund transfers being conducted by banks halfway across the country, we did not get to launch until the following afternoon. While waiting at Twin Lakes Airport, we made the best of our time and enjoyed the camaraderie of a small town airport. The tenants of this field were all extremely hospitable and Matt even got his first flight in a helicopter. We met some very neat characters and got the airplane prepped for departure on the following day. This is the kind of airport that everyone wants to be a part of. Everyone knows one another, and it shows. This is the kind of airport that people write about and when someone envisions a “small town” airport this little airport will forever be engrained in my mind as the epitome of grass roots aviation and camaraderie.
Even though the airplane had the capacity to carry 36 gallons of fuel, with two people and our small bags, we were limited to only about 2 hours of fuel. We made the decision to make our legs about an hour long, give or take 15 minutes or so. Just in case you were trying to do the math in your head, that equates to a total of 13 fuel stops during the trip, as our legs ended up being about 100 miles in length.
All too often we as pilots find ourselves wanting to move up to airplanes that fly faster, higher, and more efficiently than the one we are currently flying. I have quite literally flown aircraft across the country while conducting both ferry operations and for personal enjoyment/travel. These trips have all been efficient and enjoyable, and while I have always enjoyed the trip, the goal is to get where we are going as quickly as possible. This type of mentality does not quite fit when someone mentions flying a Cub or other equivalent aircraft. While they may be efficient with regards to fuel burn and operating costs, they have never been labeled as a “quick” airplane. So while I have had my fair share of flying low and slow, it has usually been on short local flights just sitting back and enjoying being in the air. So flying an airplane at 1000 feet agl (1500 when over rough terrain) at an average of 80 mph across ½ of the US on a true “cross country” trip was a first.
This trip truly turned out to be the most enjoyable ferry flight I have ever done. Being able to look out of the open door when conducting this type of flying and seeing see the beauty and diversity of America is truly something that is indescribable. I highly encourage anyone who has never flown an aircraft “low and slow” to find one and just go up for a few minutes. It has the effect to be able to clear the mind in addition to really get you back to understanding what flying is all about and where it’s roots are!
One of the negative things about flying low and slow is the increased potential for running into both reported and unreported towers, birds/buzzards, and other aircraft. When flying in a local area you have to be cognizant of these types of hazards, however, you usually know the terrain and obstacles and are familiar with all of this around your airport. When we fly across the country in this type of aircraft we don’t have the same luxury. So being in unfamiliar territory and dealing with reduced horizontal visibility means that you have to keep on your toes.
Keep in mind that we are in a Cub and our only communication was via a handheld radio. Other than our Mark II eyeballs, we had no help from ATC for traffic avoidance especially when skirting large sections of controlled airspace. While I understand that some people like the “big sky” theory of collision avoidance, putting around at 80 mph in a small yellow airplane across the country, you realize the sky is not quite as big as it once was. It really worked out well on fatigue by having Matt with me in this aspect as we would switch legs between flying and navigating/scanning duties.
Speaking of flying around in a little yellow airplane, short of old warbirds that I have worked with, I have never seen so many smiles and friendly faces walk out onto the ramps when you pull up to an airport in a Cub. There is something about these little airplanes that warms the soul and puts a smile on people’s faces (especially mine). With that being said, we did experience the full gambit in service and availability of fuel at various airports across the South. Fuel was usually consistently priced and priced as advertised. Most was self serve, which was a good thing, as I would feel bad if someone had to full service our little bird for 4-6 gallons! We did have a minor hiccup with fuel availability due to the flooding on the Mississippi, but we managed to find a tenant on an airport to help us out with fuel.
The only really exceptional noteworthy stop on the trip was at a small airport in the center of Mississippi. I have learned through many years of flying to call ahead to your next fuel stop, no matter what the charts or other publications say. This was no exception. The man who answered the phone showed us typical Southern hospitality and told us, “Come on over, and we’ll get ya’ll set right up.”
As we landed our little yellow chariot, we saw a golf cart pull out from behind a hangar. As the driver pointed toward the fuel farm, I asked Matt, “Is he wearing any pants?” The conversation that ensued had us arguing about how he must have pants on despite the temperature being well into the 90’s in the late morning. I think the attached picture says it all, but when he gave us hand signals to stop by raising both hands together over his head, I think we both grimaced and realized that despite our greatest fears he did not have any pants on, though thankfully, he was wearing underwear.
After engine shut down, he matter of factly apologized for his “nakedness” and directed us to the courtesy van. He told us that he was washing his motorcycle as he motioned nonchalantly over toward a hangar. Sure enough, with the water hose still running, the bike was in the midst of a bath. Now, I am not sure of what to make of this experience, but I can say this much: the man was dedicated to providing us prompt and exceptional service. So much, in fact, that he didn’t have time to put his pants back on before directing us to our parking spot. Thankfully, upon our return from lunch, he was fully clothed and sent us on our way with a wave as we departed the pattern.
As mentioned previously, we saw the devastation from the floods and tornados that have recently impacted the South. There was a swath of virgin timber about ¼ mile wide and more than 2 miles long that had been ripped apart by tornados. Thankfully, it appeared that only one or two homes had been partially affected but were still standing. Again, this is something that we would not have even noticed from “normal” cruising altitudes in another airplane. Although one thing I have come to realize is that “normal” is most definitely a relative word!
Our final overnight stop was in Texarkana due to a malfunctioning fuel farm in Louisiana, lack of hotel services, and one mean thunderstorm inbound from the southeast. The tower controllers there were exceptional in dealing with our poor radio communications and the FBO was very pleasant. While I enjoyed the hospitality of the small town airports, quite a few of them were deserted and locked up on the weekends with no amenities available (to include restrooms). It was a welcome change to come to a full service airport and obtain a “high priced cookie” as I have come to call the cookies available at most larger FBOs.
As we touched down in Waco after 2 days and 15 plus hours of flying, the little Cub almost sighed with relief that we were finally at its new home. It performed remarkably, flew hands off, and burned less than a quart of oil on our whole trip. I am sure the lengthy ferry trip was a huge departure from the normal 30 minute flights around the pattern that it was used to but the little old girl handled the change with the beauty and grace only a little cub could. Hard to believe that an airplane more than 70 years old was able to fly the trip like it was no big deal.
As the airplane was united with its new owner for the first time, I felt a real sense of pride in seeing the new caretaker smile as he crawled over his new yellow baby. After Matt and I got in the car for a ride back home, it felt a little bittersweet that our journey was over. On one hand, my knees were glad to be back in something with legroom, but on the other hand, driving along at 70 mph doesn’t come close to the beauty, grandeur, and challenges that come with flying along at 70 mph!
This was truly a remarkable trip. It is one that will stick in my mind for a long time and the stories will definitely be a part of my hangar flying repertoire. What can I say, I am a lucky guy. As my dear friend Todd Buckley says, “I am living the dream one day at a time.”