It was a postcard from my father in Washington state, a beautiful line drawing of a Waco ASO biplane on the front, and the words, “Come on down!!!!!” enthusiastically written in his distinctive scrawl. It was his response to my query as to whether or not I could come to live with him and learn to fly. For him, it was a doubly gratifying request, not only did his teenaged daughter whom he’d spent very little time with want to live with him, but she also desired to partake in his own newly found passion. Airplanes. And I hate to admit this, but just now for the first time ever, it has dawned on me that perhaps my response was just what my dad had been hoping to foster all along. You see, I had begun receive a great deal of “propaganda” from him. Several books on flying from the notorious aviation authors, Richard Bach and Ernie Gann. I devoured their stories of windswept hair, greasy goggles, barnstorming, dead stick landings, and the bond of aviation that transcends societal norms. The stories I always liked best were the ones about women pilots and the magic of connecting with others through flying. Dad would mark up the books with underlines of his favorite passages, exclamation marks and comments in the margins. His enthusiasm was contagious. And then there were the photographs…..
Recently licensed as a private pilot, and heavily influenced by pilot friends of his who were passionate about old airplanes, Dad succumbed to the charms of flying stories that made landing in a newly mown hayfield with bugs in ones teeth sound like a transcendent experience. He was thoroughly under the spell of vintage airplanes and the adventure they promised when he decided to purchase an airplane of his own. It was the early 1980s, and the little Cessna 152 he’d learned to fly in and rented once he became a licensed pilot was perfectly appointed with all the modern amenities a pilot could wish for. An electric starter, radios, a heater, lights, and an enclosed cockpit covered in metal. The interior was even resplendent, and true to the era, the seats in the 1974 airplane were upholstered in bright orange plaid. It even came with a cigarette lighter! And to sweeten the pot, the engineers at Cessna had upgraded their more modern designs with a nose wheel. A ground steering device designed to make controlling airplanes during the ground rolls of takeoffs and landings significantly easier. This was accomplished by moving the steerable wheel from the back of the airplane under the tail, to the front, under the propellor. Due to the physics involved and the greater visibility offered to the pilot, the invention and implementation of the nose wheel on newer airplanes drastically reduced the number of ground loops. These were unintended maneuvers that resulted when pilots lost directional control of their airplanes during the ground roll portion of a takeoff or landing. A ground loop could vary in severity, from the mild departure off the runway surface with no damage to the airplane, to a swerve so wicked that an airplane could tip on its landing gear, dig the outside wingtip into the ground, break the landing gear, hit the propellor and thus damaging the engine. No matter the severity of a ground loop, one thing seemed an almost uncanny certainty. If a pilot were unfortunate enough to ground loop their airplane, at least one bystander would be present to witness the occurrence. The proverbial salt in the wound. So needless to say, the invention of the nose wheel was a tremendous improvement. Not only did it save many airplanes from damage incurred in a ground loop, perhaps even more importantly, it saved countless pilots the shame and humiliation of being known for putting their airplane in the weeds. The Cessna 152 that Dad had flown all through his flight training, had a nose wheel. But so strong was the siren call of flying wires, fabric wings, and oil stained flying helmets, that my father turned his back on modern aviation and its conveniences, safety, and practicality. And he purposefully pursued just the opposite. He didn’t have a specific make and model of airplane in mind, but he had a fully developed idea of what it would embody. And that is why, when he spied a 1931 Student Prince biplane through an open hangar with a for sale sign on its propellor, he instantly knew. In his own words, “It smiled at me”.