Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear (Ep.#19)“Enter Richard Bach”

                Over the next few months, I worked hard with the Luscombe and while Widge and I made several memorable flights, I still didn’t really consider myself “in control” of the airplane. All too often, I felt I was merely going along for the ride – especially when a crosswind was blowing.

                Then, early in June, 1971, we were shocked to receive a call from Richard Bach. He told us Bellanca had just asked him to ferry one of their newly-reincarnated, two-cylinder versions of the old Aeronca, now called “The Bellanca Champ.” Richard thought the ferry flight would make a good story for “Air Progress” (the magazine he wrote for at the time), but he needed air-to-air shots for the article.

                “Could you arrange that?” asked Bach.

                “Absolutely,” I answered … though I had no idea how.

                Robin Lawless, our fellow “Winter Wonderland Flying Circus” veteran and CFTO cameraman, was also a pretty good photographer, so he agreed to take the pictures if I supplied the camera plane.

                The only problem was … he wanted the doors off. Both of them.

                My Acrophobia almost blacked me out at just the thought of that idea … but I really wanted to fly with Bach, so – I reluctantly agreed.

***

                We arranged to meet Bach at Buttonville Airport, but when we got there, it was pouring rain and a line of thunderstorms blocked Richard’s path.

                However, as the final thunderstorm blasted its way across Buttonville, we saw a tiny Champ-looking airplane make its way down final to land in the grass of Runway 15 (well, it was grass back then).

                And what an approach Bach made!

                He came in high, then slipped the airplane left, and right, all the way to the ground. And when he kicked the Champ out of its final slip, somehow the slip, the flare, and the touchdown all merged into one extraordinary moment of “three-wheels-rolling” on the grass.

                In truth, I never actually saw “a landing.” One moment, the Champ was in the air. The next moment it was – somehow – magically on the ground.

                As I forced my jaw closed, I clearly remember thinking: “I’m gonna’ hang around this guy, ‘cause I want to learn how to fly like that!”

                The little Champ “chugged” its way over to “Leavens Aircraft” (who had purchased the airplane), the prop stopped, and out climbed – no – “unfurled” a giant of a man with a slightly-stooped posture, a thick, bushy moustache,  and a distinctly bent nose.

                (Sidebar: Even Richard’s ex-wife, Bette Fineman, has no idea how Richard’s nose got that way. It was apparently straight in early pictures . And then it wasn’t. As for me … I never asked.)

                After Richard cleared customs (which must have taken all of 10 seconds), we walked out to meet him and Bach’s giant hands enveloped ours as we shook hands and heard Bach’s distinctive laugh for the first time. Always accompanied by a smile, it’s kind of a musical, “Uh –Ha –Ha – Ha – Ha – Ha!”

                Once the little Champ was tucked safely in Leaven’s hangar, we made arrangements to do the photo shoot on the following day. Then Richard forced his tall frame into the back of our car and we drove him to our basement apartment (where he was going to spend the night on our couch).

                On the way home, Richard took in every tiny sign that he was indeed in “a different country.” He thought it was really neat (in the parlance of the time) that signs on the highway were in English and French, and the signs in the middle of the road read “centre lane.”

                “Centre?”, Richard asked. “You guys really spell it that way?”

                “Um … yes. Because that’s how it’s spelled” we responded in some confusion.

                This observation was followed by that distinctive Bachian laugh.

                Richard also insisted that we stop for supper “Somewhere with Canadian food.”

                Widge and I looked at each other in confusion.

                “Canadian food…” Did such a thing even exist?

                In the end, I think we went to a pancake house, so Richard could try real Canadian Maple Syrup, with a side of “Back Bacon.” But I think all of us were a little disappointed that there wasn’t really that much of what one could call “Canadian Food.”

                “Remind me to make you some of my pan-fried Bannock one of these days,” said Richard as we ate.

                To our great regret … eventually, we did.

                After supper we went back to our little basement apartment where – as far as I can remember, I spent most of the evening picking Richard’s brain on just about every question I could think of re Barnstorming, landing taildraggers, and – especially – landing off airports for real.

                Did he really do that? Was it actually possible to just land in a field?

                Please remember, I was 22, going on 16, completely “star struck,” and I remember a lot of grinning from Richard as the questions poured out of me.

                The Cheshire-Cat grin he shared with Michelle (who has never been star struck by anyone) seemed to say, “All in good time, Glenn. All in good time.”

                I made sure to wake up extra early the following day. Widge had offered to make Richard tea or coffee the previous night, but we’d learned he drank neither.

                “Well what do you drink?”, the semi-annoyed Widget asked, to which Richard answered “Vanilla Milk.”

                We paid attention as Richard showed us how to make the concoction, so we planned to make him some the following morning. But as we exited our bedroom, we discovered Richard was not only awake, he’d also folded up the couch, carefully stacked all the sheets and blankets and was now calmly writing in his Journal.

                In truth, I don’t know if he actually slept at all.

                I don’t know what it was about Richard … but the guy didn’t seem human!

                ***

                The plan for our “Photo Shoot” was to rendezvous at Markham Airport (as Buttonville had a tower, Richard had a radio, and we didn’t).

                Widge, Robin and I managed to remove both doors from the Luscombe just as Richard “chug-chugged” in from the west.

                Bach told us what he needed in the way of photographs, then told me to takeoff first, climb to a thousand feet, throttle back (the Lusc was a lot faster than the Champ), then do a series of 90-degree banks, which would allow him to catch up.

                Richard told me I was to be the eyes of our little formation – that it was my responsibility to watch out for other traffic as he would be watching me, and little else. I didn’t quite understand, but listened attentively to everything he said.

                Eventually, we were ready to go, so I propped the little Lusc, climbed inside with ease (given the lack of a door), and strapped myself in so tight, it hurt my legs. Once Robin was ready, and Bach nodded from his Champ, I taxied to Markham’s centreline where – to my shock – I realized Bach had taxied to a very close position alongside.

                “Oh, My God,” I thought. “He’s going to do a formation takeoff!”

                I tried to ignore Bach as I made as straight a departure as I could … and I soon forgot him as the ground dropped away beneath my missing door.

                OH MY GOD!!!

                For the first time, I understood what my very-first flying instructor had meant when he said, “The door just keeps the wind out. It’s the seatbelt that keeps you in the airplane.”

                I tightened my belt even more and tried desperately not to look out the side as we climbed to altitude. I almost forgot to make the 90 degree turns Bach had requested, but when I saw how far behind the Champ had become, I quickly made my first left turn.

                I was fascinated by the way Back cut diagonally through my turn – across the aerial triangle our courses were making – and he was almost level by the time I finished. I turned my attention back inside the cockpit, checked the gauges, throttled back some more, checked for traffic, then turned to see if Bach was any closer.

                OH MY GOD!

                Bach was now flying in such tight formation, I felt I could reach out and touch his Champ’s wingtip. I mean, he was close! And I could almost hear his Bachian laugh as he chuckled at my stunned reaction.

                After a few seconds (where, in retrospect, he must have been gauging how much he could trust me), Richard nodded, chopped the Champ’s power, then dived down beneath our Luscombe’s tail.

                “Where’d he go?” I asked Lawless.

                Robin’s “Oh My God,” told me Richard was now on the other side, moving into position – close – for the aerial photographs.

(Photos by Robin Lawless)

                I could barely see Bach from my pilot’s seat. But as Robin blazed away, his occasional directions to change headings told me Bach was signalling his intentions. I did as I was told, watched like a hawk for traffic, then finally heard Robin say, “That’s it. We’re done.”

                A few seconds later I heard the Champ’s engine as Richard darted underneath, poured on the power (all 60 hp), then pulled back into tight formation, with that same Cheshire-Cat, moustached grin.

                We had planned to finish our photo session at a small grass strip just north of Buttonville. As it was inside their control zone, Richard handled the radio and I simply kept as close as I could to his Champ. As Bach pulled into the lead, I tried my very first formation flying and was pretty impressed that I managed to get as close as three wingspans away.

                Bach couldn’t seem to understand why I was so far out.

                We landed at the little grass strip (my first landing at an “uncertified aerodrome,”), so Robin could take the ground shots Richard needed.

 

(The Bellanca Champ’s tiny, two-cylinder Franklin didn’t take up much room and had to be mounted on a long engine mount.)

(Everything you need to go flying … sorta.)

When Robin was finished, we had to fly back to our respective airports; Bach to Buttonville, Robin and me to Markham. We said goodbye there, because “powerful  people” were going to drive Bach to Toronto International Airport for his flight home … but as we parted, I had the distinct feeling Richard would rather have stayed with us.

As we shook hands, he told me to give The Widge a hug, then – cryptically said, “Nice job. I’ll be in touch soon.”

I had no idea he meant really soon, or that less than six weeks later, we’d be flying together on an aerial adventure to the American mid-west that would change Widge and me forever.

But before that happened, Michelle and I got the chance to become Barnstormers for real!

***

Watch for Episode #20 of Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, “Barnstorming”

On Sunday, August 8th, 2010

Abridged excerpt from Glenn Norman’s book, “Living On Stolen Time.”

Due for release in the fall of 2010.

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