Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear (Episode #25)
“Bach’s Invitational Cross Country Adventure – Part Five”
By Glenn Norman
When we awoke on the morning of August 5th, 1971, it was to discover that – after four days of barely flyable weather – the sky had finally cleared and our route to the west looked good all the way.
And, man, did Bach make up for lost time; we were in the air as soon as the sun was up and the planes were packed.
My old log book (#1 of 6) tells the story:
Lehighton, PA to Lewisburg, PA.: 1.3 hours.
Lewisburg to Du Bois, PA.: 1.3 hours
Du Bois to Portage, OH: 1.5 hours
Portage to Fremont, IND.:1.3 hours
Fremont to Kendallville, IND.: 1.4 hours.
That’s just under 7 hours of flying in three, very small, very slow old airplanes (as Richard’s Cub was the slowest, we had to make sure we maintained his cruise speed), and at each gas stop Bach would turn leadership of the formation over to another pilot.
So – on a hot, turbulent August day – we were either navigating like crazy, while maintaining the right speed and height, or we were formatting as tight as we dared under Bach’s critical eye.
By the time we reached Kendallville every single one of us was beat, and all we were really thinking about was sleep!
And that’s when it happened…
While the F.B.O. was topping up the Cub’s tanks, he suddenly looked at its Pilot and said, “Hey … Aren’t you Richard Bach?”
As we turned and looked at Richard, we saw his face fall … and he paused for a beat before finally (and reluctantly) nodding.
Although I’d worked in the CTV National News room for several years and had seen “The Public’s” reactions to our “Anchors,” this was my first real glimpse of “fame.” And I have to say … I didn’t like what I saw.
The FBO rushed off to “…tell all his friends,” and as he disappeared into the flight shack, Richard looked at us, then – almost embarrassed – asked if we wouldn’t mind flying on to just one more airport.
We’d never seen Richard look like this before and even though we were all bushed, everyone immediately agreed that this was probably a good idea.
We were only back in the air for about 20 minutes before our three-plane formation touched down at the little airport in Wawasee, Indiana. The sun was going down as we landed and I can’t remember what we did for food. But what I do remember is that it only took about three seconds after our heads hit the pillows before all six of us were fast asleep.
Seven hours flying in a small, antique airplane is a very long time.
An early take-off the next morning saw us skirting the south end of Lake Michigan – and the city of Chicago; one of the busiest airspaces in the world.
As none of our planes had radios, we had to stay well away from the big airports and their controlled airspace – but it was still pretty shocking to see airplanes just about everywhere you looked.
After the now-standard 1.5 hours of flying, we touched down at the University Airport at Lewis, Lockport, Illinois. We hastily topped up our tanks, grabbed the usual peanut-butter cups from the vending machine (yuck), then prepared for the next leg of our trip.
Bach put Lou Levner in the lead for this stretch and as soon as we took off, Lou started heading north … which was the right direction, but not quite the right heading. Lou put a little too much east in his course, so instead of landing at Hartford, Wisconsin, we ended up at a little airport called Aero Park instead.
Richard had been frantically giving hand signals to Lou to change his course, but Lou misinterpreted Bach’s gestures and simply waved back. So by the time we landed at Aero Park, Richard was fit to be tied.
I felt bad for Lou. To be honest, I was glad he was leading on that leg because it was pretty tough navigating around Chicago and I doubt I’d have done much better. But Richard was steaming, and after a few choice words, he propped his Cub, climbed into the plane, then took off right there from the ramp.
We watched in disbelief as Richard headed directly towards a pair of tall trees, then simply stood the Cub on its side and went between them.
As we were in grave danger of losing our leader, Michelle and I quickly propped the Luscombe and took off after Richard (though we did use the runway).
The Luscombe was a lot faster than the Cub, so it didn’t take us long to catch up … and when we did, I decided the safest move was to slide into tight formation on Richard’s right side. We must have sat there, watching Richard steaming, for over a minute before he noticed us. And when he did, Bach seemed genuinely surprised. But Richard’s expression quickly turned into a dark, challenging look that had me worried as to what he’d do next.
I found out soon enough. Bach suddenly banked into a steep left turn and it took full power – plus everything I had – to stay with him. After a bit of that, Richard straightened out then started making all kinds of abrupt moves. I knew what he was up to. He wanted to see if I’d been paying attention to our “formation lessons” and could keep up with him.
I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard in formation as I did during that short flight and the perspiration was pouring off me as I doggedly fought to stay with him. Bach’s eyes were on me all the time and I swear I saw them widen just an instant before he suddenly banked right towards me!
I couldn’t believe Bach was making such a reckless move – and in that nanosecond, I also realized he never would.
So when he pushed in full opposite rudder to keep the Cub from actually turning towards us, I matched him rudder-for-rudder with the Luscombe … and we both hung there, slipping through the sky … until Richard suddenly broke into a wide grin, straightened the Cub out and resumed his normal heading.
A few minutes later, Lou caught up and gamely tried holding formation on the left … but the crisis was over. Bach was smiling and I had the feeling I’d somehow just graduated the “Richard Bach School of Formation Flying.”
Nothing more was said of “The Aero Park Incident” as we topped up the tanks at Hartford because Bach was now drilling into us exactly how we had to approach and land at our destination of Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
Because we had no radios and because the huge, annual Oshkosh Fly-In was in full swing, we had to follow a very specific course as we approached the field.
Bach wasn’t taking any chances. He took the lead, and we were glad he did because as we searched for the airport, I suddenly said, “Oh there it is – right next to that giant car park.”
Michelle followed my pointing finger then said, “… Those aren’t cars, they’re airplanes!”
She was right. They were airplanes. And a lot of them were in the air!
My jaw must have literally dropped as I saw the sky full of buzzing aircraft … and I stuck to Bach like glue as he lead our little formation in to land.
I vaguely took in a green light from the tower as we touched down on the grass next to the east/west runway. Bach had landed first and was being given directions by a ground handler wearing a silver EAA hat. Once he was done, I pulled up next to the man and was instantly given directions to a tie-down where the other Luscombes were parked.
“Oh. We’re travelling together,” I said, pointing to Richard’s rapidly-disappearing Cub. “No way,” said the man. “He’s parking with the Cubs. You can’t go over there.”
As the man seemed adamant (and annoyed), I thought our little group was about to be broken up, and all I could think to say was, “Well, Richard told us to follow him.”
The penny dropped. The man realized where he’d seen that Cub before and – with a look of awe in his eyes – said, “Is that Richard Bach?”
When I nodded, the man instantly abandoned his post, jumped on his mini-bike and rushed off in pursuit of Richard.
Michelle and I looked at each other in confusion, glanced at Lou (who looked equally perplexed), then shrugged and trundled off in the same direction.
Which explains why a Luscombe and a Taylorcraft were parked in the middle of the Cub area during the Oshkosh Fly-In of 1971.
No one dared say a word once they realized “Richard is here,” and I remember him smiling almost sheepishly at us as he was surrounded by Oshkosh dignitaries then quickly whisked away.
And we didn’t see him again for the rest of that day.
Watch for Episode #26 of Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear
“Bach’s Invitational Cross-Country Adventure – Part Six”
… whenever I get it done. [g]
Abridged excerpt from Glenn Norman’s book, “Living On Stolen Time”. Due for release … whenever I get it done. [vbg]