Not Doing The Lindy Hop
The fly (Musca domestica) appeared inside the Citabria’s cockpit ten minutes into what would be a 25-hour round-trip from Iowa to New York. I greeted the visitor the way Jimmy Stewart, as Charles Lindbergh, did in the 1953 film Spirit of St. Louis. And there the analogy to Lindy flying 3000 miles non-stop from a future shopping mall site on Long Island to Paris where he’d become the last person to make the trip without sitting between two 300-pounders who hog the arm rests, ended. Still I was flying a taildragger, solo, across … well, some of the safest terrain on earth.
I had Aera GPS, Foreflight, a radio and paper charts. Lindbergh navigated with little more than compass, stars and a cheese sandwich. He found Paris after crossing the North Atlantic at night. I got lost over the Finger Lakes by day. I stopped every 200 miles to pee and ask directions, details not included in Stewart’s film. Lindbergh stayed awake—mostly—for 33+ hours. I overnighted in a Youngstown, Ohio, motel, so I guess I had one on him when it comes to gutting it out.
The mission was to attend my daughter’s wedding in upstate New York. My wife drove her hybrid. I flew my 7ECA 115-HP Citabria. You know who arrived first … and spent way less on fuel. But we don’t fly old VFR taildraggers merely to get somewhere. In fact, too often we don’t get there, and it’s that almost making it that keeps us returning in hopes of better results. There is nothing worth seeing along the soul-sucking interstate highways, whereas following Eisenhower’s ribbons from a thousand feet up and offset as whimsy demands, unleashes the inner whatever that makes pilots such lousy wedding guests. We always want to talk about the flight, but in a banquet hall filled with groundlings, I’m worse than the guy who insists on showing pictures of his kid’s stinkin’ dance recital. No one cares.
This wasn’t my first aerial trip from America’s corndog-on-a-stick heartland to its Shecky Greene belt in the Catskills. Before my daughter was born I’d made a similar trip in my 1946 Aeronca Champ. Resembling its Champ progenitor, the Citabria sits with her tail on the ground, nose pointed skyward and offers room for tandem two and a few bags. I still own the 65-HP Champ but forsook her for the younger sister, because I actually wanted to get there in time for the ceremony. The Citabria isn’t much faster than the Champ, but it did have modern upgrades, including a starter, eliminating the need to hand-prop the engine, alone, as I had on the previous trip. GPS and a radio added to that high-tech thrill, but flying tailwheel into unfamiliar airports enhanced the arrival factor and elicited pilot lounge commentary:
“Nice airplane. Always wanted to fly a Decathlon.”
“Me, too. This is a Citabria.”
“You should get a Decathlon.”
It’s nearly impossible to fly a taildragger in a straight line, especially the Citabria, which has less interest in seeing what’s over the horizon than what that line between earth and heaven looks like on its side. We could not fly a straight line or hold an altitude on any leg, because over such expanses of the American Midwest and Eastern hills there’s just so much to see that anyone confined to pavement never experiences. But I already knew that before liftoff. Plus, there’s always weather to skirt and never climb above.
Tropical storm Alberto had played out its entrance across the Gulf Coast the week before I’d departed Iowa, and like an actor who can’t hear the audience sighing, “Enough,” he pushed north, reaching for the Great Lakes. No hurricane winds but enough moisture to set pieces on the Midwest chessboard. First, the cumulus pawns appeared, so adorable you just want to snuggle a wingtip into them, and, then, as afternoon stretched to sunset, towering rooks lunged above all in impenetrable lines, their castellated tops sweeping airliners from the sky while shooting Zeus bolts and thunder just because they could … and should, lest they disappoint their merciless embedded King and Queen who only wanted to kill little flies like me. So, a night in Youngstown, famous for something, but hell if I know what, certainly not the Perkins where I had breakfast the next day.
Dawn, and the chessboard was behind. We crawled over the rumpled mountains of western Pennsylvania and inched north toward Lake Erie to avoid low clouds and the fact that I couldn’t see a respectable place to land anywhere in the vast expanse of tree-coated hills if the engine failed. My destination was Cooperstown, New York, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame and an inviting grass strip (K23). Uninviting clouds, though, pointed us to Sidney, New York (N23), 30 miles short but as often happens when flying old airplanes, a great alternate.
“What’s Sidney known for?” I asked airport manager, Klindt, Jr.
“Look at your mags."
I did and saw nothing unusual beyond the oil drips, until he pointed to the data plate, which included: “Made in Sidney, NY.” I’d landed at the motherland of Bendix Scintilla magnetos. The plant, closed since the 1980s in a slick business move that threw many Sidney residents out of work, still stood along the Susquehanna River … the one that flooded a few times, making it difficult to keep all those points and condensers dry. Forget the Baseball Hall of Fame, Sidney housed the Magneto Hall of, I don’t know … impulse couplers.
Sidney, New York, has one of those little airports that exceeds all expectations, especially since my hopes are simple—avgas, rest room, friendly locals willing to give me a lift into town. Gary was better than Uber and drove me the 30 miles to the wedding venue, which happened to be on his way home and included a side trip to the Klindt Family Airport in Downsville, New York. Gary’s grandfather opened the field in 1947 and until it closed in 2016, three generations of Klindts learned to fly there, Gary being the last.
America is dotted with the unmarked graves of dead air fields. Many, like Roosevelt Field on Long Island, where Lindbergh blew the world’s mind in 1927, are long dead, perhaps a plaque in a parking lot to note the murder. Klindt Field was dead but as yet unburied. Its grass runway was overgrown and staked with survey flags where solar panels would soon be installed in an effort to harvest the sun and tax credits.
We stepped from Gary’s pickup truck and walked through the tall grass, in the company of summer wind and red-wing black birds (Agelaius phoeniceus). A good mower could easily bring back the runway, and a can of LPS-3 on the hangar door hinges would have this old air field back on the sectional, where it would ... Would what? Yeah, grass runways are the backyard of my soul, but in the National Airspace scheme, it’s tough to sell romance to customers breathing kerosene and Wi-Fi. I want neither.
This dead airport was little different from hundreds of other memories I’ve explored. A few empty hangars and a lone administration building little bigger than an outhouse were the only clues that for 70 years this had been a place where humans left the planet with arrogant impunity. How I hate to see that arrogance die. Sure, there are thousands of airports with miles of paved runways, launching ambitions to heights above the tallest clouds. But, these vanishing air fields with their weathered shacks and grass-stained lore draw me like that house fly to my Citabria. Pointless but irresistible.
And about that fly? When I’d arrived at Sidney, shut down the engine and popped the door, my passenger seemed to know this was the destination in his hero’s journey. He lit through the opening with 900 miles of aviation adventure inside his flyspeck brain … and flew directly into the open beak of a passing red-winged blackbird. I only hope the irony wasn’t lost on him. Face it, had it not been for our brief ride together, I’d have been scrubbing him off my windshield.