SOUTH TEXAS FLIGHT OF FANCY
It was one of those infrequent South Texas winter days…a hard clear sky with scant wind, and temperatures in the 50s. The type of weather that made you think about which coat to wear…and the choice was dependent on the activity to pursue outside, but outside was where I wanted to be.
After my weekend morning chores were finished, I decided to mosey out to the airport to look over some things. The airpark was quiet…no aircraft noises…no people …it was the epitome of solitude. I raised the hangar door of Hangar #2 and gazed at the little red ’46 Taylorcraft that was illuminated by the eastern sun. I am always struck by how well that restoration looks. Tennessee Red and Dakota Black are a handsome pair on this little 2-seater. The low angle sunlight streaming through the door opening highlights the dust on the wings, so the first order of business is to wipe the aircraft down and polish the windscreen. Although I had planned on working on the Aeronca project today, I decide that flying the red T-craft is the thing to do. I pushed the ship out of the door and after chocking the wheels, roped the tail to the tie down in the grass. The airplane looks perfectly at home while sitting on the winter rye grass.
NC43306 was a Deluxe Model BC12-D born in Alliance, OH in February, 1946, and was a product of pre-war and post-war construction. The pre-war doors, optional “D” windows, and additional wing tanks made this aircraft a unique amalgam of structural beauty that was discarded later that year due to financial “considerations”. This aircraft was also fortunately sold to a buyer in South Texas, where it remained in the region for its entire career. At the beginning of its career, it belonged to the Corpus Christi Naval Flying Club. I found it in Fredericksburg, TX where it had been relegated to the corner of a hangar for 5 years. It was quite forlorn appearing in its patina of dust and collection of mud dauber nests. The owner was quite anxious to sell and terms were easy to negotiate with a fresh “annual” being signed off by his mechanic. Although the airplane was flyable, the engine was difficult to hand prop to start, and undoubtedly, there were hidden problems to be found. It would not take long.
During the pre-flight inspection, I eye the aircraft’s lines while thrumming my fingers on the fabric flying surfaces. The tympani of “rag wings” is so much more enjoyable than the “oil canning” of metal surfaces. The stretch of fabric over ribs, longerons, formers and stringers evokes a period in aviation that is but a memory to most pilots. The tail wheel demands the respect of a committed aviator who understands that this aircraft will not tolerate inattention. Although once considered to be “conventional gear”, most modern pilots rightly fear this unstable configuration, and secretly hope to be able to master it. I still approach ground maneuvers with trepidation and planning. After the walk-around, I open the engine cowlings to inspect the 1930s designed Continental A65-8-F. It is a pretty thing compared to what I first saw when I purchased this aircraft. Then it was dull gray, oily and dirty. Now it is clean and bright in Oldsmobile gold with yellow ignition wires. The reconditioned antique Bendix Scintilla SF4RN-8 “lunchbox” magnetos are resplendent in shiny black paint with polished aluminum data plates, and the Bendix Stromberg NA-S3A1 carburetor is almost a memory for most aircraft mechanics. The major overhaul of this engine was my first task, and its completion strengthened my resolve to restore the airplane to its rightful glory.
Upon completing my initial flight home with my new purchase, I thoroughly inspected the ship. My main concern was the difficult engine starts as they indicated possible power plant troubles. My finding that the oil was dark was also a concern as I expected to have new, clean oil after an “annual” inspection. An oil change made me suspect that the previous owner’s inspection had been extremely cursory, as the oil screen was clogged with debris. I began to think that some serious engine work may be in the future, but little did I know just how quickly the future would arrive. A few flights later, the left wing fuel valve located in the cockpit broke and spilled gasoline into the cabin. At this point, I decided to remove the left wing from the fuselage to inspect the wing root. Once I opened the wing root to inspect the wooden spars, I found the spar butts to have dry rot. The airplane was not airworthy, and would require a complete disassembly for me to appreciate if it could be restored at a reasonable price. It was obvious to me that an engine overhaul would also be in order. This would be a 2-3 year project if I could take it on. I had to remind myself that this aircraft was greater than 60 years old! It was a daunting prospect….and took 3-1/2 years to complete.
I continued my pre-flight by inspecting the propeller. The McCauley 1B90 “Klip-Tip” metal prop looks good on this ship, but the Sensenich wooden prop I found this year would be more historic and authentic for a 1946 vintage. I will try the new prop in the spring as I will need this metal prop for the Aeronca project. After verifying that the magneto switch was “off”, I pulled the prop through a few revolutions and heard the carburetor suck gasoline. I decided that aircraft was good for flight. At this moment, my friend Ed, “El Cubano” to me, came by and asked if I wanted to fly to Lockhart, TX for BBQ. The real reason for the flight was to meet up with “RV” builders in Lockhart and talk shop with them. Ivan, another RV owner was also arriving to make the flight. As the RVs are 3 times faster than my Taylorcraft, I laughingly asked them if I could meet them for dinner! Ed said they would wait for me at Lockhart.
I close the hangar door and prepare for engine start. I hear the RVs on the other side of the field start up and they begin to taxi out to the runway. I double check that my chocks and tie-down line are secure, and also verify that my magneto switch is off. Hand propping an aircraft engine is serious work with no margin for error. I crack the throttle ¼” and pull the blade through without success. The second blade pull starts the engine and I move to the pilot side of the ship to idle the throttle at 600 rpm. I confirm that I have oil pressure and then move to the co-pilot side of the ship to remove the chock from that side. I repeat this maneuver on the pilot side and place the chocks behind the seat. One last look at the engine instruments confirm that all is well, and I verify that the throttle is at idle before untying the tail rope. I then enter the cockpit and buckle my seat and shoulder restraints. I set the altimeter to the field elevation and verify that I have oil pressure and temperature. I turn on the portable GPS unit and set Lockhart (50R) as my destination. It is east of my field and 46 nautical miles away…it will be an easy flight over gentle terrain. I taxi out to the runway and back taxi on runway 16. The checklist is short and the run-up good. I call out my intentions on 122.8 MHz and begin the roll on 16. I push the control wheel forward and the tail lifts up. The ship lifts off almost immediately and climbs upward eagerly. This little engine loves these cool days. I turn out east and declare I am leaving the airport pattern. Ed calls in and tells me he and Ivan are crossing IH-35 22 miles ahead of me. They are already half-way there! I decide to climb to 3,000’ MSL and can just seem my shadow at my 8 o-clock. It is a beautiful day with nothing except blue sky seen through the skylight.
The engine turns effortlessly at 2,250 rpm and I seem to imagine that I can faintly hear the valve train clicking along with the staccato of the exhaust. The flight instruments are sparse for 2009 standards…but state-of-the art in 1946. Airspeed, altimeter, engine rpm, slip-skid indicator, oil and temperature gauges are all that I need to fly this little beauty... The elevator trim adjusts easily in the smooth air and the aircraft flies hand-off. The only irritant is the crackling interference in the headphones from the upper engine deck unshielded spark plugs that I cannot get the squelch to completely abolish. There are many pilots calling in on the Unicom frequency today…122.8 MHz is the most common in this sector. Lockhart seems to be the destination for quite a few airplanes. As they all seem to be RVs, it seems I will be the odd-man out by way of arriving equipment. By the time I cross IH-35, my friends are in the landing pattern at Lockhart. I tell them I am 17 minutes behind them. They choose to ratify that statement by ignoring me.
It is always amazing to me how far you can see when flying. At my current altitude, I can clearly see 10-15 miles and the airport picture is obvious. I start my descent and enter the pattern at 1,300’. I pull carburetor heat and throttle back to 1,200 rpm while trimming for 60 mph. I call a continuous turn to final on Runway 18 and set up on the centerline. I set my sight picture to infinity and cross the threshold at 55 mph with a left SE crosswind. I pull the throttle to idle and the mains lightly touch with the tail wheel following immediately. Yoke to my belly and I taxi off of the active. I pull up to the RVs and cut the magnetos. The GPS records the flight at 0.6 hours. I exit the cockpit and lift the tail to walk it back into the parking slot. I chock the wheels and go to find my friends.
When people think of rag wings, they think of “Piper Cubs”…those ubiquitous little yellow ships that seem to be everywhere. The “Cub” was born in 1930 and was designed by C.G. Taylor. The first model of the Taylor Cub was the E-2, originally under powered with 40 or less HP of various test power plants, but, all the same, it was a very interesting tandem seated 2-place ships of the day. The 40 HP Continental power plant was introduced in the early spring of 1931. The first E-2 production models were manufactured under CAA Group II Approval #2-358 issued on 06-15-1931. The Continental powered 40 HP ships were later manufactured based upon ATC #455 on 11-07-1931. Bill Piper joined Taylor as his business partner. After the usual acrimonious discussions that ensue between “creative genius” and hard “business acumen”, Taylor left the company. Piper went on to continue the Cub line with the famous J-3 and J-4 series that most aviation enthusiasts are aware of. In fact, the name “Cub” seems to encompass all 2-place fabric covered machines of the genre. Taylor set out to build a new airplane that would outperform the Cub. His result was a 2-place, side-by-side, model with a 65 HP engine that he called the Taylorcraft Model A, and later version, the Taylorcraft Model B. The post-war version was the BC12-D. The” C” stood for the Continental motor of 65 hp known as the Continental A65-8-F, the “12” standing for 1,200 pounds gross weight, and the “D” denoting post-ward modification of the BC12 series.
I entered the hangar of Ted Jones where I see 3 RV aircraft in various stages of completion. The hangar is suitably named “The Plane Place”. These high-speed metal beauties are wonderful to behold, and their craftsman are the new generation of sheet metal experts. To establish my bona-fides I mention that I am also crafting a RV-8 with a 200 hp engine. I am asked what I flew in with, and I mention that I am in my newly restored Taylorcraft. Much to my surprise, all of the occupants of the hangar want to see the aircraft, and we walk back up the flight line to where she is chocked. I spent a lot of time going over my restoration work with these men, and I am gratified to see they are true airmen…interested in anything that flies and how it is constructed. The engine seems to fascinate them, as they are all flying with bigger iron up front of their machines. They are very complimentary and tell me stories of the Taylorcrafts they flew when they were younger. I am then invited to join them for BBQ in town. We load up into various vehicles and drive a mile into Lockhart.
The Chisholm Trail BBQ restaurant is old-style Texas with open pits smoking various types of meats. It is “no frill”...just line up, tell the gals what you want, and they cut meat until you ask them to stop. Home made sides are arranged for your pleasure. The pickles are typical South Texas German/Polish style…large, garlicky, and with a vinegar bite you usually do not forget. The onions are full flavored, and guaranteed to stay with you for the day. Large bread selections are usually available…biscuits that weight a ton, and corn bread hot from the oven. I mention to the cashier that I am pretty sure the corn bread is not as good as to what my mother used to make, and she assures me that is probably correct…and although it is good, I am right on this. The fare is true to what defines Texas BBQ, but I am again struck by the fact that the sauce at each BBQ place seems to define their style. The place is full of locals…Ed, Ivan and I seem to be out of place, even though we talk the lingo and tell the usual colloquial style jokes. We are asked where we came from.
Ted Jones asks me to ride back to the airport with him as he wants to talk about the Taylorcraft. He asks if he can come by 1T8 at Bulverde to see the shops. I am very gratified by this request. I tell him I need to get back as I am much slower than my friends, and we want to get together at Bulverde. I say good-bye to my new friends, and walk back to the red bird. Another pre-flight and then Ed says he will swing the prop for me. First blade gets it going, and I taxi out to the runway where she is pointed south for the take-off run. Another easy, short run puts her back into the air and I set 2,500’ as my final altitude. I hear Ed and Ivan call out a take-off of a flight of 2, and I wait their catching up with me. A few minutes later, they tell me they are going to pass on either side of me and I am surprised as to how close they zip past my wings, do one-half rolls, and then reform as a pair rocketing out of sight ahead of me. They are doing 180 knots compared to my 85 knots. I can imagine what my father felt like when he was flying that Boeing B-17 at 160 knots over Germany while the Luftwaffe pilots were attacking him at 300 knots…it is both amazing and unnerving.
I cross Canyon Lake and head for my ranch property to look over the outbuildings. Everything looks peaceful, and I then fly over my friend Mark’s house where I see him waving in the yard. I circle down and see my mare in his corral…all is good. I reset the course for southwest and get ready to over fly the Bulverde Airpark…there are always helicopters flying there due to the school using that field. As before, there are fewer ships out today that I expected. The pattern entry is easy and I do a long curving approach from downwind to final…putting the left main down first and touching the right afterwards…I hold the tail up until the empennage cannot sustain lift and the tail gently drops to the tarmac. The taxi to the hangar is slow and easy. I shut down the engine and sit for a few minutes…just savoring the time alone with this little machine. I push the ship into the hangar and refill the nose tank by hand with 5.5 gallons of 100LL AVGAS one quart at a time. The GPS had recorded a total flight time of 1.3 hours and I later calculated my fuel burn to be 4.23 gph. This engine now has 27 hours on it and it is performing according to book values. I am very pleased.
The Taylorcraft factory built almost 4,000 airplanes in 1946 and was out of business by January, 1947. The post-war years were hard for the aircraft builders as the military and civilian pilots trained during the war were mainly interested in getting back to school, getting married, and reaching for normalcy in their lives. Although the Taylorcraft was a superior airplane compared to the Piper Cub and the Aeronca Champion, its side-by-side seating was not as popular as the tandem seating in the other ships. There are more “Cubs” and “Air Knockers” flying today than “T-Craft’s, and they are worth more money on resale. The T-Crafters are a small group, but adamant in their love for these beautiful machines. We are trying to save them one airplane at a time.
I walk into Hangar #1 where the 1946 Aeronca 7AC Champion project is still up on saw horses. The wings and empennage structures have been recovered and are in the doping process. The wiring harness and the electrical junction control box are installed in the fuselage. I completed the engine controls and flight controls last week. The air driven generator and the battery box are finished, and the intercom system is almost completed. The fuselage is beginning to undergo its cover. I can finally see that this pile of parts will fly this summer as NC2241E. Like the “T-Craft”, this “Air Knocker” has been a South Texas airplane for most of her life and began her career with the Randolph AFB Flying Club. I found her in a hangar in Edna, TX where she sat for many years waiting to fly again. Her owner had “gone West”…his bride didn’t want to part with his aircraft, but good judgment overruled emotional ties when she realized that this bird would fly again. I decided that a masculine brown based interior would do, with Tucson Cream and Insignia Blue as the outer colors. Her sister ship is in the hangar behind me. Ivan restored his “Champ” 15 years ago…the serial numbers are close to one another. Although I had intended to sell this airplane after I restored her, I am beginning to think she will stay here for a long time as this airplane reminds me of my childhood...
My 1st logged flight in the spring of 1965 was in a Citabria taking off from Meigs Field on the Chicago Lakefront. I was soon to be 14 and I was going to a Civil Air Patrol summer flying encampment in Southern Illinois to learn to fly sailplanes. Although I had been taught to fly by my father when I was 8 years old, I needed a “legal” flight prior to sailplane training. The Citabria is an aerobatic airplane that is a direct descendant of the Aeronca Champion…with a beefed up fuselage and a much larger engine. Both are capable of aerobatic maneuvers. I performed my first loop in that Citabria over sparkling Lake Michigan with the skyline of the Magnificent Mile to the west of me. It was a thrill I will never forget. It is a thrill I am looking forward to again.
It is time to head for home. I close up Hangar #1 and walk to Hangar #2 to make sure the T-craft is tucked in for the day. I brush up against the 1965 Centurion that is in the back corner of Hangar #2, and marvel that I have relegated this classic Wichita, KS “spam can” to occasional flight status for my now infrequent professional trips. It was my 1st restoration project, but it does not have the romance or panache of the antiques. I shake my head in wonder when I recall that I have owned this C210E for 19 years, and flown it all over the United States. It is in mint condition with a full IFR panel, but the 300 horses it generates do not get to canter very much. It is from another, younger time in my life. I will need to find a good home for it…maybe to one of my younger siblings.
I seem to have come full circle to my starting point...tube and fabric airplanes birthed in the 1940s...stick and rudder…fragile man and flimsy machine…the wonder of existence in a natural environment...enjoying an experience not fit for the timid.
RB “Doc” Hecker (EAA 789419) is a FAA Senior AME (20969) who retired from the US Army Medical Department in 1997 after 26 years of service. He holds a Private/Instrument certificate for ASEL and ASES. He has logged over 3,000 hours and prefers small, intimate airparks. He has restored a 1965 Cessna C210E (N4904U), a 1946 Taylorcraft BC12-D (NC43306), refurbished a 1947 Taylorcraft BC12-D (N43928), and is currently restoring a 1946 Aeronca 7AC (NC2241E). His other projects include building a RV-8 (N51TX) and preparing to help restore a Taylorcraft F-19 (N3556T). He has previously owned a Cessna C-172 (N61785), a Grumman AA-5B (N74447) and a Mooney M20C (N10AD). In his free time, Doc practices medicine in San Antonio, TX. He is a member of EAA Chapter 35 of San Antonio, TX, EAA Chapter 92 of Orange, CA, AOPA, and the Gulf Coast Wing of the Commemorative Air Force.