(reading time approx. 6 minutes)
Switch off. Switch on. Contact. Clear. Vroom! The little engine roared and the wooden prop spun. The plane was a 1938 Piper J-3 cub, one of 19,888 built by the Piper Company from 1937 to 1947. Light, safe, uncomplicated and easily maneuverable. Almost every pilot, even airline pilots, learned to fly in this type of plane. The later models had larger engines, all the way up to 90 horsepower for the Super Cub. They were even used in WWII by the Army as observation planes in Europe. Jimmy, the airport owner’s son, gave me the prop spin and said that my instructor would be right out. Then Jimmy returned to the flight office to answer a ringing phone.
It was November 1950. I was now going to make my first cross country training flight from West Chester, Pennsylvania, to Salisbury, Maryland, a trip of about 100 air miles. It was a perfect cloudless day for flying. We planned to touch down at the DuPont airport in Wilmington, Delaware to have my flight log signed as required. Then, we would head on south to Salisbury, and have my log signed again by someone at that airport to verify the landing at my destination. After that, it was straight back to West Chester.
The prop was spinning and I was just waiting for the instructor to join me for the flight. I never met this man, but was excited to know him. I’ve read stories about him. He was a Second World War fighter pilot with many kills. I knew I would be in good hands. I must demonstrate my efficiency and hope for his approval and comments when he signed my flight log at the conclusion of the flight. It would be my treasure. I would be able to show off this log to my friends and family, signed by this WWII ace Navy fighter pilot. He was known as “Ace Rankin”, a true hero. He came running out of the office and hopped into the front seat, waving a friendly HI greeting. He closed the cockpit door, pointed a “charge forward” sign and said, “Let’s go.” That was his only comment, so I eased the throttle full forward and up and off we went into the wild blue yonder. A perfect take off. He didn’t say so, but I think he must have been impressed. He just played it cool and looked out the window as we climbed. He even brought his Leica 35 mm camera along, I guessed to take my picture.
We climbed up and out, heading south at an altitude of two thousand feet, towards Wilmington. My instructor was silent and we didn’t talk. Just as well in the noisy little tandem seat cockpit! I guess I was doing OK. As we approached Wilmington there was a large fire engulfing three or four industrial buildings near the airport. He yelled from the front seat to me, to get down as low as I could safely go so he could get pictures of the fire. I descended to 500 feet and did some 360s to the right and also to the left. After he got the shot he wanted, he signaled OK and I went on ahead to land at DuPont airport. He made a signal to go back to West Chester, but I yelled that I had to make a stop to get my log signed. He seemed annoyed and pointed to his watch to suggest that he was on some kind of a time schedule. We landed and I taxied to the flight office. When I stopped, he asked what I was doing and said he had to get his pictures back to the newspaper. I asked, “What newspaper? Aren’t you my flight instructor?’ He said, “Instructor? Hell no! I’m the photographer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Get me out of here!” Now, I was very nervous. I had never even soled yet, and here I am, piloting a passenger who was not a pilot. What to do?
I went into the office, and got my log signed as was required. I knew if anyone realized that I was not licensed to carry passengers, I would be in trouble. My options were, fly back to West Chester or call the office for instructions. I am sure that if I called the airport, I would have been grounded there and that meant staying overnight. What the hell I thought! I got this far, let’s go home. I told the photographer, stay in the plane and we’ll go home. He never knew I had not yet soloed. Off we went, abandoning my flight plan to Salisbury Maryland.
This plane had no radio. I was now on an unskilled, unguided and dangerous adventure. I thought to myself, “Look mom, I’m flying, with a passenger!” We took off like in a textbook. I followed US route 202 to West Chester and breezed in for a three point, greased on landing, safely clearing the wires along the road on the final approach.
There they were, the owner of the airport and his entire crew, including Ace Rankin, the WWII ace instructor. All they said was, “What happened?” “I was just about to ask the same question!” After a brief account of the sequences, the owner said, “We had better schedule you for your solo flight PDQ and let’s not discuss this day OK?” “You betcha by golly”, I said. The veteran Navy pilot, Ace Rankin, shook my hand and autographed the front of my logbook, which I will always treasure…if I can ever find where I put it.