August 8th, 1971.
This was the day that changed our lives forever.
Our now, four-plane formation flew south and a little west out of Oshkosh, which was pretty much empty by the time we left.
By now The Invitational Cross-Country Adventure “trio” had evolved into quite a nice, tight-flying group, and Stu added his nimble Luscombe by flying a “high-cover, zig-zag” pattern over our little, aerial armada.
It only took about 45 minutes to traverse the 50 miles to Rio, Wisconsin and I was straining to be the first to spot the legendary town when it emerged out of the morning haze. But Michelle’s eyes were sharper than mine, and her finger suddenly slashed out and pointed to a small town up ahead.
I spotted Rio right away … but finding the airport – Cowgill Field – turned out to be a bit trickier. I was looking too far out, and Rio – like Old Lehighton – was very close to town.
Bach’s wing flipped up, moving all of us into echelon-right, and we had practiced so much on the trip that our “fighter-pilot-peel-off” must have looked quite impressive from the ground … if anyone was watching.
However, it looked pretty deserted down there.
The others landed first and I couldn’t figure out why they were all landing so long. But as I slipped down final, aiming for the start of the runway, I soon realized why everyone else was touching farther down: a) There were wires across the adjoining road, marked by large orange balls, and b) as impossible as it seemed … the first five hundred feet of the runway appeared to be interrupted by a somewhat steep hill! We banged in some power, floated over the wires – and touched down right at the top of the hill. No biggy as there was still some 2,200’ left … but strange nonetheless!
We taxied back in, cut the engine, climbed out … then laid our eyes on a scene right out of the opening of Richard’s book, “Nothing By Chance.”
There was the flight shack – the very one where Richard, Stu, and Paul Hansen had stayed during their legendary summer of Barnstorming back in the mid-sixties. The first thing I wanted to check was if the famous “Warm Morning” wood stove was still inside. It Was! … and I couldn’t help but wonder if Richard’s storied “mouse,” or its descendants, were still here too.
As we hadn’t eaten, Richard decided our first goal should be the Diner, featured so prominently in his book. It was on that walk that I began to understand what made Rio Wisconsin such a perfect destination for Barnstormers. It’s just a short, five-block walk from Cowgill Field to Lincoln Avenue – Rio’s main street – and the picturesque houses were right out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
The seven of us (don’t forget Stu) made our way to the Diner, though I was disappointed that the “EAT” sign mentioned in the book was gone, and that the waitress Richard had tried to take flying had also moved on to a more promising vocation.
Nevertheless, the inside of the Diner was just as Richard had described it and we were soon downing a tall stack of pancakes, topped with real maple syrup.
As we ate, Richard asked how we all felt about doing a little Barnstorming when we were done.
Are You Kidding Me???
The idea of Barnstorming in Rio Wisconsin – with two of the three “originals” from “Nothing By Chance” – was so far beyond a dream come true, it’s impossible to describe. However, I had one nagging thought. I knew Richard still charged his standard $3-a-ride, but we were “foreigners” and really couldn’t work “for hire” (especially as I only possessed a Private [non-commercial] license).
When I mentioned my concern to Richard, he asked how we Barnstormed in Canada. I told him we’d made up a sort-of-legal sign which read “The Great Canadian Flying Circus: No charge, but your generous donations gladly accepted.” I wasn’t sure how that sign would stand up in court (especially in a “foreign country”) but Richard liked it … so when we returned to the airport, I dug it out of our baggage compartment and put up the sign alongside the highway.
By now, word of our arrival was spreading around town and several of the “characters” from Richard’s book were beginning to arrive. We met Al of “Al’s Arco,” and Lorne Gilbert, a local “magnate” who ran the town’s main industry, “The Racine Glove Factory.” Both were more than happy to see Richard had returned and we were pretty much told the airport was ours for as long as we wanted to use it.
As we all unloaded our airplanes and prepped them for carrying passengers, we were amazed to see an ever-growing pile of “stuff” emerge from Stu’s Luscombe. I’d swear Stu had everything he owned in that little airplane, and not just the usual camping paraphernalia we all had crammed into our tiny aircraft. Stu also pulled out items such as a hammock, a portable barbecue – complete with bags of charcoal – and the final, unbelievable item … a bicycle! – Not one of those midget, collapsible bikes, but a full-sized, ten-speed bicycle (albeit, dismantled)!
As an experienced Barnstormer, Stu saw no need to go without his creature comforts while Barnstorming … but I still have no idea how he got that mountain of gear into such a tiny airplane!
Richard went over “The Barnstormers’ Code” one more time for the benefit of all of us. The Pilots were reminded that the goal should always be for every passenger to find the sky just the way they’d hoped it would, that we’d only fly places where we had somewhere to land (should the engine quit), and the number one rule … no matter what it cost our airplanes – or ourselves – the passenger always walks away. (And in the decades to come, there were many times when those rules became my mantra.)
Michelle was already an experienced passenger-loader, but our “hippies,” Chris & Joe, were given very explicit instructions re the loading and unloading of passengers while whirling propellers were anywhere nearby.
Once briefed, with planes ready, we prepared for our first customers … but nobody came.
It’s one thing to Barnstorm with an old biplane, and something totally different to try and attract passengers with light aircraft which would only appear to be “antiques” to those “in the know.”
Our Luscombe was built in 1940 (exactly 31 years before that very date as a matter of fact), and Richard’s clip-wing Cub came out of the factory a year earlier in 1939… but our little four-plane fleet still looked pretty “normal,” so it was going to take some time to get a decent line of passengers to sign up for a flight.
Richard told us not to be too concerned. After all, most of Rio’s inhabitants were at work during the day. Our busiest time would come between supper and sunset.
In order to try and drum up business, I offered to make a few circuits of the town – just to let people know we were there. But after two flights, there was still no sign of any takers, so I took “Hippie Chris” up on a third flight – then gave up.
While we sat there, waiting for Rio’s workday to end, I looked at our little Luscombe then suddenly said to Richard “You know what I really want to do? I want to learn aerobatics.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I regretted them (because stalls and spins still terrified me). But Richard’s response was to raise an eyebrow then say “Well why don’t you go and do some?”
“BY MYSELF?” I said.
“Why not?” Richard responded. “I’m guessing you’ve already read how to do them, right?”
I thought of the well-worn copy of Duane Cole’s “Roll Around A Point” buried deep in the Luscombe’s baggage compartment and said “Well, yes … but … BY MYSELF???”
Richard could see there was no way I was about to do that so he sighed then came up with an alternative suggestion. “Okay. Suppose I install an ‘Anti-Crash’ device in your Lusc? Would you do it then?”
I looked at the man as if he was insane. “An Anti-Crash device! What the heck is that?”
Richard smiled, then answered “Me.”
I circled Rio’s runway about 4,000’ above the ground, checked for other traffic, then turned and looked nervously at Richard (who had somehow managed to cram his 6’+ frame into the tiny passenger seat).
“Looks clear,” I said.
Bach nodded then asked me what I was going to do first.
I thought carefully then said “A loop.” (Why? Because I’d read it was one of the easier aerobatic manoeuvres).
Bach nodded his agreement then had me tell him exactly what I planned to do. I went through the steps carefully and when he was satisfied that I’d got it right, he nodded again then said “Go ahead.”
Oh My God.
I couldn’t believe I was actually going to do a loop, but as I couldn’t think of any way to back out with Richard sitting right next to me, I eased the nose of the Luscombe down and waited for my airspeed to hit the right entry speed.
“Don’t forget to ease off back pressure at the top,” was all Bach said. “Otherwise your loop will end up looking egg-shaped.”
I barked out a quick, nervous “Rog” … then I was pulling back … and back … and back, and – there was the Earth, upside down! I eased off back pressure on the stick, pulled the throttle closed … then watched in amazement as we dove vertically towards the ground!
But I remembered to keep pulling back and was just about to think “I’ve Done It” when the little Luscombe suddenly hit two “bumps.”
I looked at Richard in horror. “What was that?”
Bach grinned at my fear and said “You just hit your own wake turbulence – the sign of a perfect loop. Now what are you going to do next?”
WHAT? I hadn’t even had a chance to let the fact sink in that I’d actually looped an airplane – MY airplane – perfectly (if he was to be believed) … and already Bach wanted to move on to the next thing???
I covered my ecstasy by quickly responding “A Hammerhead Turn,” then told Richard how I’d do it. He nodded again, made sure I double checked for traffic, then we were diving for speed. As I started to pull up, Bach told me to look out the side window and push forward once we were going vertical. I hadn’t looked out the side during the loop, and when I did this time, my acrophobia came roaring back with a vengeance.
Oh … My … God! We are going STRAIGHT UP!
Afraid of running out of airspeed, I stood on the left rudder pedal – expecting to see the world pivot through 180 degrees. Instead, the little Luscombe did … well, to be honest, I don’t know what it did. But somehow we seemed to be falling upside down and my “Anti-Crash Device” quickly took over (thank heavens).
Once he got us straightened out, Richard grinned and said “You’ve got to wait until the airplane is almost completely out of airspeed – almost hanging on the prop. THEN, you kick in left rudder – but put in full RIGHT stick at the same time. Okay? – Again…”
HUH? Hadn’t we narrowly avoided death? My heart was still racing and he wanted me to do another one???
But I knew (as I’m sure Richard did) that if I didn’t do another one NOW, I’d never try it again.
I stuffed the nose down, pulled back on the stick until we were going straight up – checked – then waited until I could feel the little Luscombe slow to a crawl. I stomped on the left rudder pedal, banged in full right stick, then watched in stunned amazement as the airplane rotated perfectly through 180 degrees and headed straight down.
As I pulled back to level flight, I glanced at Richard.
All he said was, “There you go.”
The less said about my first attempt at a barrel roll the better (other than Luscombes – apparently – will go 180 mph!) But my second roll went around beautifully, so Richard told me to land – after which he got out and said, “Go practice.”
While he walked back to talk to the others, I glanced at my wristwatch.
My total “aerobatic check-out” had taken just under 30 minutes. And though I’d go on to do Air Shows in the years ahead, that thirty minute flight with Richard was the only aerobatic instruction I ever had! (The rest I learned from books.)
By the time I came back from my practice session, I was thrilled to see a small line of people gathering to take a ride. Chris and Joe were loading passengers into Stu and Richard’s aircraft, so I just taxied in behind them and waited for Michelle to bring me my first, honest-to-goodness, Barnstorming passenger from RIO, WISCONSIN!
Talk about surreal…
I felt I was living in a dream.
By the time the day was over, I’d carried a grand total of six passengers and – when added to my aerobatic sessions – was completely exhausted.
Once the sun went down and we’d all adjourned to the famous (to me) Rio Flight Shack, Richard put some logs into the “Warm Morning” stove and we all sat and talked about what the day – and the trip – had meant to us. There was a touch of melancholy in the air as we all knew we’d have to go our separate ways the next day, so Bach – who must have known what we were all feeling – fixed that by offering to tell us the original “Shaggy-Dog” story.
For those who’ve never heard it, I won’t spoil the story by telling you the punch line. Suffice it to say that Richard took well over an hour to tell the tale – in mind-numbing detail – and Joey Giovenco was snoring his head off by the time the saga finally (blessedly) came to an end.
After the bleary-eyed survivors groaned at the finish, we lay down in our sleeping bags and watched the glow of the fire through the screen of the Warm Morning stove.
I doubt it took me more than two minutes to fall asleep.
Early the next morning, the planes were all packed and the moment finally arrived when Richard’s “Invitational Cross Country Adventure” must come to an end. Stu was headed south, Richard, Lou and “the hippie kids” were heading back east, while Michelle and me were heading deeper into the American Mid-West to Barnstorm with other friends.
We tried to keep our farewells down to a brief hug and “See ya” … but as we taxied out for takeoff I noticed Michelle and I were both very quiet.
We broke ground, banked around for one final wing-waggling goodbye to the waving dots that were our friends … down there on the ramp at Rio, Wisconsin.
And it was right about there that we lost it.
I mean – tears were streaming down both of our faces, which shocked us when we looked at each other and realized we’d had the same reaction.
It was Michelle who spoke first.
“Our lives will never be the same, will they?” she said.
I thought about that for a second, then looked at this woman I loved so much and simply answered “No…”
Rio, Wisconsin, Richard, Stu, Lou and “The Hippie Kids” faded away and merged with the horizon as The Widge and I flew on into Middle America – and the beginning of our brand new lives.
Postscript: Michelle was right. Our lives would never be the same. The things we learned on “The Invitational Cross Country Adventure” – not just from Richard, but from Chris and Joe as well (if not more so) – would transform our lives the instant we returned home. For there, on the bulletin board at Markham Airport, was an ad for that extremely rare 1937 Thruxton Jackaroo Biplane (a 4-seat Tiger Moth) I’d fallen in love with the day I laid eyes on it. I’m shocked to learn from my log book that the only time I flew the Luscombe again was to go and do a deal for the Biplane. After that, we sold our beloved first airplane so we could buy “T.J.” And by the following spring, I’d quit my job as a Film Editor, Michelle had left her job as a Dance Teacher, and the two of us, along with Richard, were planning “The 1927 Trans-Continental Air Dash (of 1972)” (an idea we all came up with, which would involve a much longer “cross-country adventure” involving more antique airplanes and a whole new group of Pilots). And despite Richard’s sudden, phenomenal, totally-unexpected success with “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” we still managed to fly nine airplanes across the continent (and started learning to be Writers along the way).
We’ll post some of the tales that followed on WhyFly from time to time… But to read all of the incredible – unbelievable – adventures we’ve had in the air, you’ll have to wait till I finish my book “Living On Stolen Time.”
I’m on page 203.
Standby for more information. <vbg>