Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear (Ep. #20) “Barnstorming”

Two weeks after Richard’s visit we learned there was going to be a fly-in for antique aircraft at the Mountain View Air Force Base, about a 1 hour flight east of Toronto. We were really intrigued by the antique-airplane aspect of this event and while our little Luscombe looked fairly modern, its 1940 construction date meant it was a legitimate, pre-war, classic aircraft.

We decided to go for the whole weekend, packed our camping gear into the tiny baggage compartment behind the Luscombe’s seats, and prepared to depart. But when we called to get a weather briefing, we were told conditions were marginal – with rain forecast for the next three days.

Initially, we were going to leave on the Friday, but the weather made that impossible. Saturday wasn’t much better. But the more I looked at the sky, the more I became convinced that the weather wasn’t that bad. In the end, we decided to take off and head towards Mountain View. If we didn’t like the looks of things, we could always turn back, or land at another airport.

The flight was a pretty easy one. All we had to do was fly south to Lake Ontario, then follow the shoreline to the almost-an-island peninsula of Prince Edward County where Mountain View was located. I’ll admit we were pretty close to acceptable weather minimums but we were legal, and it was only the last few miles that had me wondering if we’d pushed things too far.

We hadn’t, so it wasn’t long before the big WW2 runways of Canadian Forces Base Mountain View appeared out of the mist. And as there was barely any wind, we simply picked the runway in front of us and slipped in to land.

The welcome we received took us completely by surprise. The event was a joint venture of The Royal Canadian Air Force Association and the American Antique Airplane Association. The AAA’s president had flown in ahead of the weather in a 1931 Stinson Jr. S, but other than that, only a handful of airplanes had managed to arrive. So the organizers were delighted to see us.

(Sidebar: It should be noted that Michelle got to fly the Stinson Jr. S. I did not. Grrrr.)

The weather on Sunday turned out to be even worse with only a few more aircraft flying in to the Air Show. Unfortunately, the drizzle didn’t stop people from driving in, which made things even worse for the organizers.

Michelle and I could see that these good folks were afraid they’d have a complete disaster on their hands, so we quickly offered to do whatever we could to make the event a success. When they asked what we had in mind, we said the weather was good enough to hop rides … so if they gave us the go-ahead, we could do a little 1920’s-style Barnstorming.

When I think back on this from way up here in the 21st century, I’m amazed they agreed. After all:

a)      Mountain View was a military base.

b)      It had a control tower.

c)      We didn’t have a radio.

d)     I was 22 and had been a pilot for less than 4 years.

e)      I only had a Private license.

f)       I’d been flying the Luscombe for less than 4 months.

g)      We didn’t have any insurance (though none was required in those days).

Despite all of the above, the organizers quickly okayed our plan, so – for the first time in our lives – we began Barnstorming for real!

Michelle and I quickly fell into a smooth pattern. She would have the next passenger ready, unload the first, then strap the new one into the right seat while I got the airplane prepped for flight. By using the grass areas of the airport, instead of the runways, I could get into the air quickly, give my passenger a good 10-minute flight, then land and return to my “loading bay.” Once we got into the swing of things, we managed to do the entire trip in less than 15 minutes.

It only took me a few flights to become hooked on Barnstorming for life. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but there is something utterly magical about taking someone terrified of flying up into the sky, then watching as that fear drops away and turns into awe – in seconds.

The beauty of flight does it all. I don’t have to say a thing. As a matter of fact, I prefer not to say a thing. (I know – unbelievable, isn’t it?) My job is to make sure every passenger finds the sky the way they hoped it would be. If I do that, they’ll figure everything else out for themselves.

And the gift my passengers give in return is – they keep flying fresh by allowing me to see the sky through their eyes with every new flight.

In all the decades I’ve hopped passengers, I’ve never had one return to Earth without that look of wonder. (And I’ve never had one passenger throw up!)

Way back then, on “Day One” as a real Barnstormer, my log books show we hopped 30 passengers. Not only that, but we took part in every “pilotage competition” the Event had planned. I didn’t pay any attention to how we did, I just wanted the Air Show organizers to have something for their audience to watch.

So when it came time for the winners to be announced, I was more than a little shocked to discover I’d won awards for Short-field Take Off, Spot Landing, and the Youngest Pilot in attendance (an award I will never win again).

To be honest, I found the whole thing embarrassing. As I walked off with my armful of trophies all I could think was – I wanted to bury them in the baggage compartment as quickly as possible. I mean, there were only a handful of airplanes in attendance, I thought my take off and landing left a lot to be desired, plus … the only competition I really value is the one you perform against yourself.

I never returned the trophies for engraving and they’ve been in my attic ever since. The last time I came across them, they were badly corroded – which is just fine with me.

(Sidebar: I will, however, admit to feeling annoyed that I lost the “bombing competition” to a Smith Mini-plane, and decided I’d have to work on that sometime in the future {story to come}.)

Mountain View was a crucial weekend for Michelle and me in many ways. We made a lot of new friends who would become very important to us over the next few years … and one who would become one of our dearest friends for the next 39 years (as a matter of fact, we saw him yesterday!)

Tom Dietrich, had been hooked on building Model Airplanes almost from birth. But Tom, and his friend, Frank Evans, had decided to attend the Mountain View Fly-In because they were toying with the idea of restoring full-size aircraft.

Michelle and I got to know both of them over that weekend, and the last thing Tom said to me was, “If you ever come across an Antique Restoration Project, would you let me know?”

None of us knew how much that one innocent question would change all our lives.

Nor did we know Tom would go on to create the now-mythical “Tiger Boys” (or that both Michelle and me would be flying for him 30-plus years later.)

But I’m getting ahead of the story…

One more short, but crucial, tale before we move on:

Two weeks later we flew the Luscombe to the annual EAA Fly-In at Lake St. John Airport – about a half-hour flight north in our speedy little airplane.

Shortly after we landed, I saw a pile of airplane wrecks buried in the weeds and made my way back to see if there was anything interesting lurking there (I was thinking of Tom). But we had barely reached the twisted flying machines before a mosquito scored a direct hit on my temple. I was feeling dizzy within seconds and Michelle had to help me back to our tent where I basically lay down and passed out.

I was awakened by the strangest sound I had ever heard: a bizarre “blatting” from four short stacks as an airplane swung in to park right next to our tent. I forced my woozy self to my knees, peered through the tent flap and saw – well actually, I had no idea what I saw.

Because there, in front of me, was the strangest biplane I had ever laid eyes on. It looked like a cross between a Tiger Moth and a tadpole … and it had a cabin!

What on Earth?

Two pilots walking by commented on the strange flying machine.

“What is that?” asked one (with disdain in his voice).

“A Thruxton Jackaroo,” answered the other. “Four seat Tiger moth. Butt-ugly, isn’t it?”

As the first pilot chuckled, I shook my head.

Because, in truth, I had never seen such a beautiful aeroplane.

I stared at it – mouth open – for several long seconds…

Then I passed out again.


 Watch for Episode #21 of Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear,

“Bach’s Invitational Cross-Country Adventure – Part One.”

On Sunday, August 15th, 2010

Abridged excerpt from Glenn Norman’s book,

 “Living On Stolen Time”

Due for release in the fall of 2010.

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