It was June 30th, 1996, the day before Canada Day (the Canuck version of our southern neighbours’ July 4th celebrations), and The Widget wanted to visit her parents in Belleville.
Normally, this would have meant a drive of at least four hours from our rural Ontario home. But on a Long Holiday weekend, I could easily see that stretching into 5 or 6 hours … long, tiring hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
As I thought about that, I broke into a huge grin … because in October of ’94, the Widge and I had purchased a 1955 Piper Tri-Pacer, and it was tied down at a Glider Strip just 5 minutes away.
To anyone who knows me, the idea of Glenn “Fearless” Norman, ace taildragger pilot, trundling around the skies in a nosewheel airplane (especially one nicknamed, “The Flying Milk Stool”) would seem anathema. And they would have been right. However … in late ’94, Widge & I were Head Writers on the Canadian TV series, “Mysterious Island,” and after a long stretch of poverty, the money suddenly started pouring in.
We were sitting in a donut shop in the tiny hamlet of Primrose when The Widget suddenly said, “You know … it’s about time you bought yourself another airplane.” I looked up in shock as Widge continued, “I know you hate flying my Pietenpol—and there’s lots of money coming in—so if you don’t do it now, when will you?”
She had a point (I did/do hate her Pietenpol <g>), so I bought a copy of The Toronto Star newspaper, opened the classified ads to “Section 599—Airplanes for sale” (I had it memorized” <g>), and there—all by itself—was an ad for a 1955 Piper Tri-Pacer with a 150 hp engine.
I grimaced and tossed the paper down on the table. “Nothing but a Tri-Pacer,” I said. “Can you see me flying one of those? I’d never hear the end of it.”
“How much?” asked the Widge.
“Didn’t look,” I answered.
Widge curiously spun the paper around, read the ad … and her eyes got very wide.
She didn’t say a word, just pushed the paper back to me.
I couldn’t see why, but I read the rest of the ad and discovered the asking price was … $9,800.00. And that was in 1994 Canadian Dollars!
I’ll admit my jaw dropped open, but I’ve been around airplanes too long to know that there had to be a catch.
“Engine’s probably shot,” I said.
Widge re-read the ad. “Half-time with a recent top overhaul.”
“Then it’s got to be the fabric,” I countered.
“We’ve recovered planes before,” Widge shot back.
“I know, Widge … but … it’s a TRI-PACER. You know, the one with the third wheel in the wrong place?”
Widge just shrugged and said, “So buy it, fix it up, re-sell it, then get a real airplane.”
Now there was a thought.
But we were on our way to someplace else, so I just shook my head, tossed the paper in the trash can and started making my way out to our car.
Ten seconds later I was back, retrieving the newspaper from the garbage (as the staff and customers looked on curiously.)
Widge stood in the doorway with a smirk as I rushed to the pay phone. All I could think to say was, “I gotta’ know.”
Widge nodded her head. She’d figured that part out LONG before me.
Two hours later, we were driving along a dusty country road following convoluted directions the Tri-Pacer owner had given me.
“Gotta’ warn you,” he said. “I’ve had about twenty calls and several other folks might get here first.”
Remembering that, I pressed the accelerator a little harder, soared over a hill and there—ahead on the right—was a farm … with a white Piper Tri-Pacer parked out front.
And the closer we got, the better it looked.
We were delighted (and relieved) to discover we were the first ones there, so the owner calmly gave us a tour of his plane.
It wasn’t half bad. As a matter of fact, it was pretty darn great—so why the low price?
The owner cranked up the 0-320 Lycoming—an engine dubbed as “bullet-proof”—and the motor started on the first rotation.
“Like the ad said—it’s had a recent Top Overhaul,” said the owner (over the engine’s unhesitating purr), “But I wouldn’t feel right selling it without a fresh C of A, so that will come with it.”
“ARE YOU KIDDING ME, “I wanted to yell. “SO, WHAT’S WRONG WITH IT?”
As the owner shut down the engine he said, “Of course, it’s going to need cover—the fabric’s pretty well shot.”
I turned and looked closely at the fuselage. It was covered with “ringworm,” as were the wings … but as I looked at the finish a bell started ringing deep in the dusty recesses of my brain.
“Could I take a look inside the wing?” I asked.
“Sure,” said the owner as he popped an inspection plate and let me peer inside.
I ran a fingertip along the inside of the wing, pulled out my hand and looked closely for any fabric flakes under my nails.
There weren’t any. The fabric was fine!
“Um … so what did you paint this with?” I asked, already knowing (or hoping I knew), the answer.
“Enamel,” the owner answered pleasantly.
“EUREKA!” my brain screamed. Enamel & dope expand and contract at different rates, so it wasn’t the fabric that had ring-wormed, it was the enamel!”
“$9,800.00?” I said.
“Not a penny less,” said the owner.
I grabbed my cheque book and started writing.
While we waited for the annual to be renewed, I started reading up on Tri-Pacers and was surprised to learn the wings were nothing but shortened J-3 Cub wings. Wow! That was my favourite wing of all time, and that fact began to stir my curiosity about the little four-seater.
Still—there was the matter of that great honking nosewheel up front—same size as the mains (though several pilot reports claimed its position just aft of the propeller, combined with a massive mounting system, made a prop strike nearly impossible. You’d have to collapse the entire front end of the airplane before the prop could hit the ground).
Despite my extreme tailwheel bias, I found myself becoming more and more intrigued by an airplane some called “The best-kept secret in aviation.”
One quick circuit with the owner was all I needed to make sure I could get the “Tripe” up and down in one piece. And despite the four seats, and modern things like flaps, the Tripe felt very much like a Cub going fast … very fast indeed. At cruise, I could get an easy 127 mph out of the bird—that’s two mph faster than a 172 (and oh, how I enjoyed inching past those quarter-million-dollar Cessnas in my $9,800.00 Tri-Pacer).
Not only that, but the Tri-Pacer had a bunch of rubber bungees hooked up to the ailerons and rudder pedals. They were there so the plane could self-coordinate its turns … sorta. But I quickly discovered the flip side; in calm air, you could fly the Tripe with your feet! It was like having a poor man’s Auto-Pilot and I quickly fell in love with the feature.
However, it was only when we landed on the rippled grass surface of our local Glider Strip that the Tripe really showed its Cub origins.
Nosewheel, be damned, those bungee shock absorbers soaked up the bumps like they didn’t exist, and I was shocked to discover I could easily taxi the Tripe over surfaces I would have crawled over—at a 45 degree angle—in Michelle’s Piet.
We had planned to clean the Tripe up and sell it as quickly as possible … but after a few more flights, I was beginning to have second thoughts.
I think it was the takeoffs that finally sold me on the plane. When I was by myself, I could put the throttle to the wall, haul the wheel all the way back, run a few hundred feet, then yank on full flaps and—Pop—the Tripe was airborne.
Of course, you had to play “ground effect” for the next few hundred feet—gently lowering the nose as the Tripe made its way up to real flying speed. But then, up he’d go—like a Viking Warrior on his way to Valhalla.
As for landing … with three passengers and myself on board, I could bring the Tripe in—hanging on the prop with full flaps—then “chop and drop” just before we crossed the threshold. Using this technique, the Tripe’s mains would “chirp” onto the very first bit of pavement, after which I’d let the nose drop, then haul on full brakes (activated by a Johnson Bar hanging down beneath the panel). After a while, I could land the Tripe so short, I actually had to taxi forward to reach the first turn onto the runway … with a full load!!!
WHAT AN AIRPLANE!
And what a damn fool I’d been to ignore it…
But … that’s not what I want to tell you about.
The story I want to acquaint you with is that 1996 Canada Day flight from Cedarville to Belleville.
The weather couldn’t have been nicer; CAVU all the way, with a nice tailwind to boot! Widge and I jammed our immediate world into the baggage compartment and rear seat of the Tripe. (On every trip, I like to bring along everything I might conceivably need to keep me from becoming bored. It’s a character flaw—but the Tripe handled my eccentricities with ease.)
We lumbered our way across the Glider Strip, took off, climbed to a couple of thousand feet, then levelled off and pointed the nose in the general direction of Belleville.
Once we climbed above the mechanical turbulence, the air was like silk and it was quite easy to fly the Tripe with nothing but my feet.
So Widge and I sat there, sipping tea from a thermos, munching on Egg Salad Sandwiches and just enjoying the view as Southern Ontario rolled briskly by beneath us.
As a matter of fact, the ground seemed to be blazing past. (High Performance pilots please hold your Guffaws. We were used to antique biplanes, and Michelle’s 77 mph, flying death trap—er—Pietenpol.)
It was as we flew due north of the city of Toronto that it hit me.
Looking south down Highway 11 (Toronto’s main north/south thoroughfare), all you could see were bumper-to-bumper headlights, fading off into the centre of “The Big Smoke.”
Looking north, the view was the same, only this time it was red tail lights that faded into the distance.
It seemed as if everyone in Toronto was desperately trying to get out of the city, and the madness didn’t stop there. For as we passed the southern end of Lake Simcoe (Toronto’s nearest cottage-country playground), the boats pouring out of every Marina mirrored the beyond-congestion-insanity on the roads below.
I don’t know why the little boats’ props weren’t chewing off the pointy bits (bows???) of the cruiser behind, because every wet, square foot/metre of Lake appeared to be covered in boats of every imaginable size (not to mention those verdammt Jet-Skis).
Widge and I shook our heads in amazement … then looked out at the sky.
And both of us seemed to “get it” at the same moment.
We were the only plane in sight—the only plane in the whole sky—and the radio was silent.
The whole sky was ours … and yet any of those people crawling along on the ground below could have been up there too.
“Why don’t more people know about this?” I wondered. (A friend later said, “Don’t tell them.”)
What was/is it that keeps people out of the sky?
I suppose there are a bunch of reasons…
Human Flight has only been around for a bit more than a century, and I guess most people still see air as an alien environment.
If you’re driving a car and it dies, you can get out and walk.
If you’re in a boat and it sinks, you can jump overboard and swim (for a while).
But if an airplane stops flying—what then? Are you supposed to get out and flap?
Most members of the General Public are appalled to discover we don’t wear parachutes when we fly. And they shake their heads in disbelief when we explain, “The airplane turns into a glider if the engine quits.”
One of the reasons I fly the type of planes I do is that I know: give me 500 feet of flat land, and I can get the plane down. Give me two hundred feet of flat anything and I may bend the bird, but my passengers and me will walk away unscathed.
And now ballistic parachutes are becoming more and more ubiquitous, flying truly is one heck of a lot safer than blasting around in ground vehicles that consistently miss each other—with closing speeds well in excess of 120 mph—by nothing more than a few feet (less if the idiot-driver is on his/her cell phone.)
We landed at Belleville a comfortable 90-minutes after we took off, and as we tied down the Tripe, I realized I’d been too narrow-minded in my past selection of Flying Machines.
Each and every airplane has the ability to let us travel through the air, and marvel at the Earth, in a completely different way.
Every one of them has a different gift to offer.
Though I hate—HATE—to admit it, that old Tri-Pacer of ours was one of the most enjoyable, useful airplanes either one of us has ever flown.
And when the time came to sell it, we decided to simply add up every cent we’d spent—gas, oil, inspections, insurance, hangarage, the lot—and sell the airplane for that.
Without a word of a lie, within two days we had a list of 49 people who wanted to buy it.
The first person with a cashier’s cheque got it … and the last I heard, our old Tripe still hadn’t been recovered.
What a GREAT airplane … but keep that to yourself, okay?
You see I don’t want to drive the price up, because we’d really like another one someday.
About the Author
Glenn Norman is a Co-Founder and the Editor of Why Fly. Learn more.