Michelle and I had been keeping our eyes open for a possible aircraft for more than a year. But when we finally saved up enough money for a down payment, we couldn’t find anything that caught our imagination.
We decided to make the rounds of local airports, found several Aeronca Champs and a Piper J-3 Cub for sale … but they were all pretty ratty, so we passed.
A few other aircraft stand out in my mind…
A friendly pilot at King City Airport told us there were two WW2 Harvard trainers for sale at Malton Airport, (now Toronto’s “Pearson International”). We went to investigate and were surprised to discover these were big, 600 hp, radial-engined aircraft, used to train fighter pilots during the war. (Americans called their version T-6’s or SNJ’s.) The man who was selling the big birds told us we could have our choice of planes; the one with the half-time engine was $2,400.00, but he wanted an additional $100 for the one with the brand new engine … $2,500.00 in total.
As that was a price we could afford, we seriously considered the deal. But when we asked how much fuel the big plane used, the man said, “Oh, about 72 gallons an hour on takeoff. But that drops back to around 32 gallons an hour at cruise.”
Sweet Ra, even using the 32gph number that would still mean a direct operating cost of $12.50 an hour. (Gas had just gone up to 39 cents a gallon, and there were rumours it might go even higher.)
We decided to pass on the deal, and pressed on to the Toronto Island Airport where I had learned there was a P-51 Mustang for sale (CF-LDN, if I remember correctly).
As soon as we saw it, we knew the WW2 fighter probably used even more gas than the Harvard. And when we learned it burned anywhere from 85 – 110 gallons an hour, that was the end of that. Besides, the Mustang only had one seat, needed a new cylinder, and was going for the outrageous price of $12,000.00 (Canadian).
“You might get him down to $10,000.00,” the salesman said. “And don’t forget – it’s only going to go up in value.”
Yeah. Right. I imagined there must be a lot of pilots out there who’d want an airplane that burns $33.00 of gas an hour …
(Sidebar: Mind you, any one of those planes would have made a pretty good investment. As I write these words, that $2,500.00 Harvard would sell for around $160,000,00. As for the $10,000.00 Mustang … well, it would go for around 1.8 million!)
We returned home disappointed, but picked up a copy of The Toronto Daily Star on the way. And there, over supper, I saw a want ad, which read, “For Sale: Luscombe Silvaire. Good Condition. $3,500.00.”
A Luscombe! Now there was a nice little airplane. The little two-seater was a taildragger, like the Cub and Champ, but had an aluminium fuselage and cruised much faster. When I remembered one of the Barnstormers in “Nothing By Chance” had flown a Luscombe in “The Great American Flying Circus,” I reached for the phone.
On March 10th, 1971, I drove up to Markham Airport and met an East Indian gentleman who owned the pretty little white Luscombe with a thin red stripe down its side. The registration on the tail was, CF-XSY.
Hmm. XSY – kinda like … Sexy … Sexy Silvaire.
The little Luscombe looked, and felt, like an aerial Sports Car. You didn’t so much sit in the plane, as lie in it – feet stuck out ahead of you. This particular plane was an 8C Silvaire; a rare 1940, pre-war model, with a 75 hp engine and extra wing tanks.
(Trivia Alert: If the “S” on a Luscombe cowling is inside a diamond, it has 65hp. If the “S” is inside a circle, it has the 75.)
The instrument panel had nothing but basic instruments.
There was no radio and no electrics of any kind, which meant you had to throw the prop by hand to start the engine. That may have been a drawback for some, but it made the plane even more appealing to me.
I told the man I was interested, so he offered to take me on a demo flight.
One of the first things I discovered was that the Luscombe certainly placed its occupants in close proximity to each other. The Cessna 150 trainers I had flown felt downright roomy in comparison. The owner apologized for this, but as Michelle and I were both lightweights, I wasn’t too worried.
(Sidebar: I weighed 118 lbs until I was 28! Now I weigh … more.)
My first flight in the Luscombe was a memorable one. It wasn’t the greatest of days to be flying, so I was somewhat surprised when the pilot kept climbing up through holes in the clouds until we emerged “on top.”
“Oh well. I guess he knows what he’s doing,” I thought…
After letting me try the delightfully, sensitive controls for a while, the man said we should be starting back down … then asked if I could see any holes in the clouds.
I thought HE was watching.
After informing him there was a solid overcast (or “undercast” in this particular situation), I noticed the pilot was beginning to look very worried.
“Can you descend through the clouds on instruments?” I asked.
“Um … no. Can you?” he answered.
“… No,” I said as I began looking for any sight of land below.
15 fruitless minutes later, it suddenly occurred to me that I should ask how much fuel we had on board. The owner proudly pointed out the fuel gauges built into each wing root.
Both were approaching “empty.”
“Well,” I thought, “this just keeps getting better.”
If I hadn’t been so terrified of spins, I might have suggested spinning down through the clouds … but just as I’d all but given up hope, I caught a glimpse of land through a thin cloud layer directly below.
“Got a hole,” I yelled, so the owner happily gave me the controls and let me try for the faint opening.
By the time we got to the clouds, the hole was filling in … but the ground was still visible, so I stuffed the nose down, left the throttle wide open, and went for it.
A few grey moments later, we popped out under the clouds … and there was Oshawa Airport, right in front of us.
“Too bad it has a tower,” the man said. “We can’t land there without a radio.”
“We can if there’s an emergency,” I countered, pointing to the fuel gauge (which now clearly indicated “Empty”).
“Good point,” he said, banking towards the airport.
The tower flashed a bright green light at us on final approach. It was the first time I’d received a light signal to land and I remember thinking that was really cool.
Five minutes later, we were safe on the ground and I was overseeing the re-fuelling while the owner dealt with annoyed Air Traffic Controllers in the tower.
Actually, they were pretty good about it. After reaming him out for flying in such crappy weather – with so little fuel – they proceeded to tell the man he’d done the right thing by landing at the airport.
“They told me,” the man said, “it’s much better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air …“
“… Than in the air, wishing you were on the ground,” I finished.
“Oh, you’ve heard that one,” he said.
“All too often,” I answered.
An hour later, the ceiling lifted and Oshawa Tower gave us another display of pretty green lights to get us on our way.
Twenty minutes after that, the little Luscombe was lined up to land at Markham Airport.
I was just about to tell the owner, I’d like to make an offer on the plane when the wheels touched the ground and all hell broke loose. The right tire SCREAMED as it hit the asphalt, the Luscombe swerved and started to go up on its nose. As the wide-eyed pilot yelled, “What’s going on?” and the cabin filled with the stench of burning rubber, we both leaned back as far as we could and prayed the plane wouldn’t go over.
Several long moments later, the Luscombe finally slowed and the tail fell back onto the runway with a loud BANG!
The owner killed the engine, and we sat still for another long moment before climbing out of the plane.
“Looks like the right brake locked up,” he said, examining the smoking wheel.
“Looks like,” I answered.
The owner looked up at me and said, “Not exactly the best demo flight…”
He knew he’d blown the sale, and I knew I’d have to be insane to buy this thing.
So both of us were quite surprised when I said …
“Give you $2,500.00 for it.”
I don’t believe he even blinked before answering, “Sold!”
I looked back at the little Luscombe and tried to take in the moment.
We had done it.
I was 22, Michelle was 18, and we were the proud owners of our very own airplane!
There was, of course, the small problem of learning how to fly it.
Other than my dawn patrol in Des Chorley’s Fleet Canuck, I had never flown a taildragger. And, by all accounts, the Luscombe was one of the hardest to land.
“Ask ‘The Polish Air Force,’” said the owner. “I’m sure one of the Jans can check you out.”
And with those words, “The Markham Era” of our lives began.
Watch for Episode #18 of Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear,
on Sunday July 25th, 2010
Abridged excerpt from Glenn Norman’s book, “Living On Stolen Time”.
Due for release in the fall of 2010.