The long Northwest winter was nearing an end and we were gearing up for the flying season. Out of the Blue had a handsome new reception desk, a new wall rack for our large selection of charts, a few students, and in the hangar, two C-172s - one leased, one owned.
We were beginning to get a lot of interest in the new light sport category. People were calling – “Do you have any light sport planes?” “Do you do light sport training?” We knew we needed to be a part of this new license that was supposed to reinvigorate aviation and make it affordable to more people. We decided an Aeronca Champ was an affordable way to get into light sport training.
I optimistically approached every Champ owner at the airport, “Would you be interested in a leaseback?” I would then watch as they would pull back a bit, and their faces would wince slightly, as images of rough landings and ham-handed students and ground loops flashed before their eyes. With an unpromising shake of their heads, they'd agree to “think about it.”
The venerable Aeronca Champ has inspired much devotion, and trained many great pilots over the years. Captain “Sully” Sullenberger of the Hudson Bay Miracle learned to fly in a Champ, as did Neil Armstrong and also my chief pilot John. I met John the previous October when I was looking for aviation guides for my new flight school. John is retired from a distinguished academic and business career in the US and abroad and has quite a few more degrees than it takes to be a flight instructor. But he loves to fly and loves to share the joy of flying with others.
In our search for just the right Champ, we found one in Arkansas that looked good – until I saw pictures of the engine covered with dead leaves and dirt. Then one in New Hampshire (why are they always on the other side of the country?) but its increased gross weight meant it no longer fit into the light sport category. Finally, I found an obscure ad online for a guy who had a friend in California “maybe” selling a 1946 Champ. He didn’t return phone calls, and was reluctant to send pictures or logbook pages. I tried to schedule a time to come see it, but he was busy, didn’t have time, would have to think about it. Finally, he admitted that he might be around "tomorrow" (probably thinking I couldn’t drop everything to be there on such short notice). But he had underestimated my capacity for spontaneity.
I caught John on his way in, “Wanna fly to California today?”
Matching me in impetuosity, he answered “Sure! Why?”
“Remember that Champ I’ve been looking at?”
“Yeah . . . .”
“Well the guy said he might be available tomorrow”
“I have a good feeling about this plane, let’s go check it out.”
“Ok, let’s take the 210”
“I’m gonna call Terry to see if he’ll come with us to do a pre-buy inspection.”
Terry is an A & P and a good friend of John’s. They fly competition aerobatics together in their Zlin 50s. Always game for an adventure, he agreed to join us. We would fly down today and meet for the inspection tomorrow. If we liked it (if the seller even showed up), Terry would fly the 210 home and John and I would fly the Champ back. None of us had a change of clothes, but we assumed we could buy toothbrushes in California. Terry gathered his tools; I waited for the bank to open so I could get a lump of cash to wave in front of my reluctant seller; John pre-flighted the P210. A quick call to our tolerant spouses, who fortunately understand the futility of getting between their loved ones and aviation, and we were off.
Weather was fine, and our uneventful flight was followed by finding a dive hotel and sharing a gourmet dinner at Wal-Mart, where I boought shoes that would handle heel brakes better than my sandals (positive thinking.) Both Terry and John are big guys, well over six feet, and I was happy to have them on either side of me as the wad of cash I had stuffed in my purse seemed to be calling out to the hoodlum groups looking sideways at us from the street corners. John assured me I needn’t worry as he was Special Forces and could quell an aggressor with a single thumb and Terry claimed to know where to kick anyone who tried anything. I was almost disappointed not to require a display of their fearsome powers. We retired safely for the night and the next morning were at the airport with the dawn to see our Champ.
After 20 minutes of waiting, I was relieved to see a car pull up to the designated hangar. An older gentleman and his wife approached and soon the little bird was out of her hangar in the California sun. She was dressed in Navy colors (the first entry in the original logbook says she was “decommissioned to civil” in 1946) and the fabric was in excellent shape. The interior had been redone, and the engine looked clean and well cared for. Terry did a thorough inspection, finding only slight issues, none of them airworthiness concerns. We asked to fly it and of course the owner refused. Somehow I was not surprised. I wondered if it was wise to buy an airplane you couldn’t pre-fly? The owner was adamant – he wasn’t going to have some "young pup" (John is in his 60s and has been flying tailwheel since he was 16) take his plane out and groundloop it. We consulted and decided that it was the best we’d seen. I offered the owner just under his asking price and he said no. I offered him full price and he looked like he was going to say no, but finally, grudgingly, nodded his head. His wife told me later, while he was rustling up the paperwork, that he’d already refused three offers, two of which were over his asking price. Perhaps he was bowled over by my charm, or maybe he just recognized in me an obstinacy to match his own. In any case, with the paperwork completed and the cash counted, we prop-started her and headed toward home.
This champ has no electrical system and the handheld radio/intercom setup was not working. We passed the Garmin 296 back and forth and used hand signals to indicate turns, descents, and “look at that” moments. At Redding, it was wing wags and light guns to communicate with tower. We landed every couple hours to stretch, switch places, and refuel the 13 gallon tank. The low-tech cork fuel bobber provides a very visual and reliable indicator of just how little gas is left.
In the California heat wave, our little plane had to circle and circle to get enough altitude to cross the Siskiyous and I could almost hear her chugging “I think I can, I think I can.” As we cleared the peaks, I was constantly aware that we were flying an unfamiliar engine, one that had run, but not flown, for five years. Her old Continental A-65 just kept firing, and her 1946 frame seemed glad to be airborne again. We were racing, in the end, against the night. As the sun set, John did a perfect wheel landing at Arlington, and we took our little Navy Bird to her new home.
Gossip has wings at an airport, and soon everyone knew we had a new/old bird. Paul, one of Arlington’s A & P fixtures, with his gray hair in braids and his Native American flute in the corner of his cluttered office, told me great stories of his champ adventures. I saw new respect in his eyes as he said, “You know, Cathy, you have really gone up in my esteem by buying a champ. I’m just so impressed.” I had definitely scored points with the older generation of pilots.