“The Jans” were Markham Airport owner, Jan Lewandowski and CFI Jan Falkowski, but Lewandowski called himself “John” to avoid confusion. Both men were decorated WW2 veterans. Both had flown with the Polish Air Force and the RAF. Falkowski, a great bear of a man, was the most famous of the pair. This former Squadron Leader of the legendary 303 Polish squadron had escaped from Poland when the Nazis invaded, flown in the Battle of Britain, shot down 9 enemy aircraft, been shot down himself, then escaped from a German POW transport.
After the war, he became famous all over again when Jan, his wife, and two others crash landed in the B.C. Interior and had to survive in the wilderness for several days before being rescued.
Jan had written a book on his adventures titled, “With The Wind In My Face,” and browbeat everyone he met into buying a copy.
Jan was always accompanied by his big black dog. “Jet” must have been well over 100 in people years. Moving was an obvious effort for the animal, but the big brute still managed to intimidate anyone who was foolish enough to annoy Jan – which was just about everyone – because Jan was not the kind to suffer fools gladly.
John was the more introspective of the pair and ran the airport with the help of his long-suffering wife, Irene. His dealings with Falkowski were complicated, to say the least, and the two men obviously shared a strong love/hate relationship. The basic problem seemed to be that John was happy with the life he’d made for himself at Markham Airport, whereas the itch to roam still burned brightly in Jan.
The pair’s problems would come to a head every spring when Jan would get an offer to go crop dusting “down east” in some converted WW2 bomber. John would inevitably warn Jan that if he left this time, it would be for good. Soon after this, Jan would invariably leave. John would then have to hire and train a new Chief Flying Instructor … and just about the time the new CFI was catching on, Jan would return and want his job back.
We were there once when it happened.
The door SLAMMED open, Jan strode in, and with his booming deep voice, announced, “Hello everybody. I’m baaaaaack!”
A furious John came out from behind the counter, snarling, “No, Jan. Not this time. I warned you. It’s over.”
As Irene sighed (already knowing the inevitable outcome), the new CFI watched the confrontation warily and quietly asked, “Who is this guy?”
No one wanted to tell him.
As John raged on at Jan, the big fighter pilot just laughed before slapping John on the back and saying, “I know. I missed you too.”
Jan then looked around the room and, with his thick Polish accent, asked, “Who is new CFI?”
The man stepped forward to introduce himself, but before he could speak, Jan cut him off with, “Thank you for looking after my job. But I back now. You can go.”
The new CFI went white, then turned to John for help … but by this time Falkowski had worked his magic and Lewandowski just sighed and shook his head.
We understand this had happened many times before.
On the day I asked about a checkout in my new airplane, Lewandowski was behind the counter.
“Ever flown a taildragger?” John asked.
“Couple of circuits in the right seat of a Canuck,” I answered.
John nodded, then asked, “No brakes in the right seat of a Lusc, right?”
I had to, regretfully, shake my head.
Lewandowski thought about this then said, “Okay. Come out early tomorrow. Taxi your plane until it feels good. Go fast enough to get the tail up, then chop the power and try to keep it straight. If you survive that, I’ll do your checkout.”
I agreed to his conditions … though I couldn’t help but think they might not have handled the situation quite the same way at Buttonville.
The next day, I was at the airport by 6 am – but I didn’t hold out much hope for flying. It was a miserable grey day, the ceiling was low, and the visibility couldn’t have been more than a couple of miles. But I figured I could at least practise taxiing, so I hand propped my airplane … my airplane … for the first time.
For the next two hours, I taxied up and down the runway – going a little faster each time – until I started to feel a bit more comfortable with the little airplane. The Luscombe was not like the Cessna 150’s I’d flown to get my license. Even Des Chorley’s Fleet Canuck felt “stable” by comparison. The Luscombe’s narrow landing gear and “short-coupled” distance from main wheels to tailwheel made the airplane very twitchy on the ground. As soon as you got any kind of speed going, the tail felt as if it had gained a sudden irresistible urge to trade places with the nose. You had to be ready to stop that turning tendency with the rudder pedals. If you didn’t, the tail would come whipping around and you’d suffer the indignity of a “groundloop.”
Groundloop too fast and that ignominy would include the breath taking sight of the airplane rolling itself into a ball. That was why modern aircraft had the third wheel up front, like a tricycle. This design was a lot more stable, but that toothpick of a nosewheel required a nice, smooth surface for landing, which pretty much wiped out all possibilities for landing in fields.
If I wanted to be a Barnstormer, I’d have to master taildraggers. Those big main wheels could soak up a lot of abuse.
By the time Lewandowski arrived, I had managed to terrify myself by taxiing fast enough to get the tail in the air and back down again. John watched for a few minutes then flagged me down and started climbing into the passenger seat.
“Okay,” John said. “If you were going to kill yourself, you’d have done it by now, so let’s go.”
I peered at the low grey overcast in confusion, and said, “Go where?”
John pointed to the sky before adding: “Don’t worry about the weather. We’ve got enough ceiling for our needs.”
I took the man at his word, though I figured he’d bring us right back down when he saw how bad the conditions were.
I had forgotten John flew in The War.
The take off was straightforward. The little Luscombe didn’t accelerate as fast with two of us on board, but it got airborne in less space than a 150, and headed skyward at a fair enough rate.
As we passed through 800 feet, we began running into the bottom of the clouds, so John told me to head south towards Markham. “The land’s lower there, so we’ll have a bit more room,” he explained.
“More room for what?” I wanted to say. But I was afraid of the answer, so I didn’t ask.
As we flew south, John had me do a few turns. Unlike the Cessna 150, the Luscombe actually required you to pay attention to the rudder. But the few turns I’d done during the initial demo flight had clued me into that fact, so I managed to do a passable job.
Lewandowski nodded his approval, then looked at the altimeter and said, “Okay. We’ve got pretty close to a thousand feet – so, give me a stall.”
Wh …Wha … WHAAAAT?
He HAD to be kidding. You weren’t supposed to recover from a stall below two thousand feet, and this maniac wanted me to begin a stall at one thousand???
I waited for John to tell me he was kidding … but instead, he gave me an annoyed look and said, “Well?”
Oh … My … God …
Shaking my head (and most of the rest of my body,) I chopped the power and held the nose up while the speed bled off.
“Back more,” said John. “Back, back, back …” he pressed as he helped me along with his own stick.
The nose pointed to heaven, then with a definite, “That’s it. I’ve had enough,” the Luscombe stalled and we were pointing straight down – at the ground – which was amazingly close, and getting closer with every moment.
I released the stick, let the nose drop even lower (if that was possible,) then pulled out of the dive as fast as I dared.
“Not bad,” said John, tapping the altimeter.
I was shocked to discover I’d only lost 250 feet (instead of the 500 I’d been used to in the 150.) Not bad, indeed … but thank God that’s over.
“Now let’s see a spin,” said John.
WH … WHA … WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT?
This time I actually said, “You’ve got to be kidding.”
John shook his head then answered, “Not a full spin. Just get it rotating, then you can pull out.”
I looked at the altimeter. We were scudding along just below the clouds and still barely managed a true thousand feet. I looked at John, but he’d found something interesting to watch on his side and was ignoring me.
I toyed with telling him about my terror of spins, but didn’t bother because I knew he wouldn’t care. So what it came down to was – did I tell him I couldn’t spin, or did I just do it; knowing full well this would inevitably result in both our deaths?
I was so angry at being put in this position, I decided, “Bugger it. At least I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing I took him with me.”
And with that, I chopped the power, pulled up the nose, waited till the wing was about to stall, then stood hard on the rudder…
OH … MY … GOD!
The nimble little Luscombe, dropped over into a spin and was almost through one complete turn before my shaking foot could slam in the opposite rudder. With the ground racing up, I released backpressure then hauled the Lusc out of the dive – so hard, I felt myself being squashed into the seat from the G load.
John grunted his approval, pointed to the altimeter (which I was amazed to see had only dropped 500 feet,) then said, “Okay – back to the airport.”
Thank heavens. I figured he’d want a Lomcevak next.
As we slid down final, all I could think of was the Luscombe’s reputation as a ground-looper. In my mind’s eye, that tiny tailwheel was just a few feet behind me – getting ready to trade places with the nose the moment my attention strayed.
“Then my attention better bloody well not stray,” I thought. And I concentrated like never before as the runway rose up towards us.
Then it was …back … back some more … then all the way back, and …“Fu-glump” went the gear as we touched down, and ran straight as an arrow down the centre of the runway.
“Wow,” I thought. “That was lucky. If the rest of my checkout circuits are half as good as that, I’ll be happy.”
John grunted his approval as I pulled off the runway and did my “after-landing checks.”
“I wonder how long it will take to check me out,” I thought. I’d heard 5 to 7 hours was about normal for taildraggers, so I figured I’d probably need around 9 before Lewandowski turned me loose in something like the Luscombe.
As I prepared to taxi back for the next circuit, John suddenly said, “Stop here.”
“Huh?” I thought. “What did I do wrong?”
“Give me a call next time there’s a good wind,” said Lewandowski as he opened the door. “These things can be tricky in a crosswind.”
And with that, John climbed out, closed the door and left me alone in the airplane.
WH … WHA … WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT?
He’s sending me solo? My taildragger check out is over after (I looked at my wristwatch) … 39 minutes?
IS HE OUT OF HIS MIND?
No, no – I’ve heard about things like this. He’s playing with me. This is a test. He’s waiting to see if I’m stupid enough to think I could really get checked out in a taildragger in 39 minutes. Then – the moment I start taxiing back to the runway – he’ll spin around, come right back, and say the whole thing’s a joke.
I tentatively eased in the power, started heading back towards the runway, then turned to watch John come racing towards me.
Lewandowski was back at the flight shack.
He opened the door, went inside, and only then did I realize – this was for real.
As I taxied the Luscombe back to the far end of the runway, I was suddenly aware I was on the verge of fulfilling my lifelong dream. This was really happening. I was about to go solo in my very own antique airplane. But as the moment approached, my reaction was not at all what I expected…
For as I taxied along the damp brown grass on that long ago, March-grey day, I had to pull off to the side and stop because, to my complete and utter surprise, I was very gently … weeping.
It was one of the most extraordinary moments of my life.
I was barely 22 years old, and yet I was about to take off in my very own airplane.
The gorgeous little machine, enveloping me with its reassuring vibrations, was mine.
I had wings.
I could go anywhere I wanted.
Whenever I wanted.
I was about to know what it really meant to be … free.
I ran my hand lightly across the 1940 instrument panel … carefully set the trim crank for takeoff, took the stick in my left hand, then gently eased the throttle in as far as it would go.
With very little urging, the tail lifted itself into the air.
A bit of dancing on the rudder pedals was all it took to keep us straight … then, with an ever so gentle tug on the stick, the wheels’ rumble ends and … we … are … air born.
As the ground dropped away, I was staggered by the smoothness of the air. There wasn’t a bump in the sky. We climbed up into the heavens as if sliding on well-lubed rails, and I didn’t so much fly the plane as “will” it through the air.
“Lindbergh was right,” I thought.
When you find the right airplane, it’s no longer a case of “You and a machine” …
Together, you truly do become, “We.”
Watch for Episode # 19 of Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, “Enter Richard Bach”
On Sunday, August 1st, 2010
Abridged excerpt from Glenn Norman’s book, “Living On Stolen Time”
Due for release in the fall of 2010.