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It was 1975 and my year of living dangerously. Without any prior motorcycle experience, I had acquired a nasty, 750cc Kawasaki H2, two-stroke street bike from a dealer who would have sold nuclear waste to a school lunch program. Then I snatched one of the most beautiful woman on a liberal arts college campus from the arms of an Adonis (a man who combined the rugged good looks of a professional condom model with the personality of a toilet seat). It appeared that I was on a roll.
What was left?
The answer to that question was flying lessons.
Rocketing around on a primitive motorcycle gave me a feeling of invincibility that fed other hungers. I was intrigued by the sensation of weightlessness that came from cresting hills under maniacal power and the miniscule “G” forces that I imagined I felt when leveling out at the bottom. The Kawasaki’s two-stroke engine had a guttural stutter that came from three cylinders that apparently hated each other. Missing was the traditional scream of anguished metal when loading the clutch and downshifting to achieve that “time warp” effect. It occurred to me that the only way I could experience the sound of an engine in a power dive and the feeling of being jammed into a seat as I yanked the stick into a blood-draining climb was to assume the controls of an aircraft.
“Who would be stupid enough to let you at the controls of an airplane?” asked the brunette beauty I had stolen from the arms of the campus matinee idol. (She was gorgeous, soft-spoken, incredibly sweet, and painfully honest at times.)
It became apparent that I would have to enroll at a legitimate flying school, and persuade the adult in charge that I would be both attentive and relatively responsible. There were two flying schools relatively close by. The first was at Teterboro Airport, which was a sleepy suburban aviation crossroads at that time. (Today, Teterboro Airport is under the jurisdiction of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and is one of the busiest hubs for corporate aircraft in the world. CEOs traipse in and out of this place with their feet barely touching the ground from limousine to corporate jet.) The flying school there had a selection of familiar Cessnas and an atmosphere that was a cross between a driving school and a remedial math class. The thought of hours of classroom work, coupled with chatting on a radio while sitting on the flight line, wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.
But the second flying school was right up my alley. Not five minutes east of Teterboro lies the town of Little Ferry, New Jersey, on the banks on the bucolic Hackensack River. Here, behind a bar that had huge illuminated sign that read “Tracey’s,” was an honest-to-God seaplane base. The base consisted of a shed, a mechanic’s shop, a dock, and a gas pump. Tied to the dock were three or four standard-looking high-wing aircraft on pontoons.
This was more like it. Flying lessons from an airport which was nothing more than a straight stretch in the river, with the final approach coming in over the US-46 overpass. And there was even a bar to enjoy a few post flight snorts when the class was over. I was 19-years-old. I had cash in my pocket, a new motorcycle, a hot brunette for a girlfriend, and an apartment in one of the swankiest neighbors in the Garden State. And now, I was about to master the skies as well.
The gentle Twisted Roads reader cannot imagine the swagger factor as I arrived for my lessons on the back of a street demon, only to exchange my riding goggles for a pair of aviator sunglasses. But the best is yet to come. The aircraft used to train dilettantes such as myself was one of the most forgiving airplanes ever built. It was a 1946 Aeronca Champ. While the airframe was tubular steel, the cabin and flying surfaces were doped canvas. This airplane was older than me by ten years.
Above: An Aeronca Champion on floats. Picture from the internet... Not the plane I flew.
My first lesson was little more than an hour-long get acquainted ride, in which the pilot, who was 23, ran me through the particulars of the aircraft. The preflight check started at the front, by sticking the oil in the engine. (The stick was withdrawn, but not pulled out, so as not to drip oil on the inside of the cowling.) Then a little valve was turned to release an ounce or so of fuel into the river. (This was to make sure there was no water in the gas, an issue with aircraft engines around rivers.) The gas cap was removed, and I was instructed to insert my finger. The tank was full if my finger came out wet.
Then we examined the propeller, which was metal, not wood. The pilot/instructor explained to me that spray from the floats could occasionally get into the prop, where it had the consistency of gravel, and could easily chip the knife-like edges on the blades. When this happened, the prop was removed and the chipped edges filed. There was evidence that this had happen at least once with this prop. Then he pulled an inspection cover off each of the pontoons and used a hand pump to remove excess water from each float.
I got inside, sitting in the front seat. The “Champ” had a narrow cabin, and the student sat in front, with the instructor pilot sitting directly behind. The pilot watched me “belt” in with a seatbelt that was barely more than a webbed strap. He then explained the starting procedure by pointing to a switch and a throttle.
“When I yell ‘Off and closed,’ he explained, you will confirm the switch is ‘off’ and the ‘throttle’ is closed by yelling the same thing out the open cockpit door. When I yell ‘Contact,’ and only when I yell ‘Contact,’ will you flip that switch and yell that you’ve done so.” He then untied the floats and — balancing on the right one — yelled, “Off and closed.”
I repeated the litany, and he hand-turned the prop two full turns.
“Contact,” he yelled.
I hit the switch and repeated the same.
He yanked down on the prop and jumped back as the engine roared like an Amish firing squad. The rotating prop produced an instant draft, even at idle, and the untied plane began moving at an accelerate drift. The pilot scampered back to the right elevator, and grabbed it, causing the plane to swing out from the dock. With a practiced movement, he stepped onto the float and squeezed into the seat behind me.
He roughly pointed out the seven instruments, noting that two of them didn’t work. The important ones were the altimeter, air speed indicator, the turn and bank indicator, the tach, and the compass. The gas gauge was one of the non-functioning ones. The other was the clock. The run-up procedure consisted of switching both magnetos on and off, which caused a ripple in the RPM. (This was to determine they were working.) Then I was instructed to switch on the “carburetor heat,” which would noticeably slow the engine down, and then to switch it off again.
There was no radio.
All of these activities were included on an abbreviated check-list, which I might add was shorter than the recommended lists for pre-flighting a modern motorcycle. The last item was for resetting the elevator trim to “zero” and for retracting the water rudders at the back of each pontoon.
“Ready?” yelled the pilot.
I nodded, and he reached to my left, opening the throttle to the “full” position. The unmuffled engine noise became really impressive. This box kite of a flying relic instantly became a huge hornet with one purpose. The nose came up and the instructor put the aircraft “on the step,” which is a planing attitude that keeps the spray out of the prop. The key to propellor preservation was either a fast taxi or a really slow one.
The plane’s gentle heaving gave way to a purposeful surge and the vibration was incredible for a second. There was a brief sense of power-boating and a slight slamming as the chop on the river smashed into the floats. And then there was nothing but the fierce growl of an engine that had once again broken the suction of the Hachensack River — as it had down thousands of times before.
We were climbing at the same speed I had ridden to the flying school on my bike: 75 miles per hour. The rate of climb was gentle, but insistent. The engine in this aircraft had scant more horsepower than my Kawasaki, yet seemed to be accomplishing a lot more. The pilot told me to switch on the carb heat at 6,000 feet over the George Washington Bridge, before throttling back on the engine speed. Even in the full heat of summer, the carburetors could frost over at altitude with the engine cut back, providing a bit of unnecessary drama. He put the plane through a number of gentle maneuvers, designed to gauge my ability to look straight down at 6,000 feet, protected only by canvas and a plexiglas windscreen.
I was thrilled.
The landing was cool too. Unlike land-based aircraft, which essentially stall over the runway, floatplanes hit the surface of the water under full power. Any technical difficulties can be resolved by going right back up again. And it assumed that on rivers like the Mississippi or the Nile, you have plenty of room to get up and down. There were procedures for restarting the engine in a stall, like recovering in a shallow dive to get the prop turning, and some things to remember about the wind when taxiing. A really good crosswind could dip the opposing wing if you weren’t careful.
I had twelve lessons like this and was doing well on take-offs (with more practice required on landings) when the God of motorcycles and aging aircraft decided to yank my leash. It was one of those great summer days when you just knew you’d have a terrific flight, a fast bike ride down the shore, and two days of languishing in the arms of pure naked sensuality. The deal was to head down the shore right after the flying lesson, and my brunette girlfriend was packed and on the back as I roared into Little Ferry. The flight would be a full hour and the plan was to drop her off at the adjoining bar, Tracey’s, where she’d dawdle over coffee and a cigarette, before meeting me on the dock.
There was a bit of a crosswind and rumor of a passing thunderstorm north of us. The plane seemed a trifle cranky but the instructor wasn’t concerned. He confirmed our last maneuvers in my log book and let me preflight the aircraft. We roared off for 40 minutes of stalls and and tight turns before a sprinkling of rain on the windscreen suggested heading back. I flew the pattern to check for other aircraft on the river, or boats from one of the marinas in the area, and saw a familiar figure waiting on the dock. She looked firecracker hot as I passed at 500 feet and 75 miles per hour.
I lined the “Champ up with the US-46 overpass and ran through the landing checklist... And it got real quiet. This was because the engine was no longer running.
There are times in man’s life when he wishes he could say “Fuck” in 40 languages. This was one of those occasions.
“Restart procedure?” I yelled back to the instructor.
“You haven’t the option,” said the instructor. “You’re clear. Just fly it down to the water. Your first shot has to be your best. And you don’t have to yell. The noise stopped.”
And then I made one of the best decisions of my life.
“You do it,” I said.
“Sure thing,” he replied, looking over my shoulder. He handled the controls with quiet confidence and we fluttered down to the water with nary a ripple. Then he restarted the engine while standing on the float and taxied to the dock.
“Wow,” he said, looking out the open cabin door at my girlfriend. “I sincerely hope this is my next lesson.”
I said nothing, but delighted in the wild kiss I got (and the pinch on the ass I gave) upon disembarking.
“Did you make that landing?” she asked, breathlessly.
“I called the shot that got us down in one piece,” I replied.
The pilot/instructor looked at me and laughed.
“Ever fly a seaplane?” he asked my brunette lover. Knowing the answer, he invited her to sit inside. He propped the engine, started it, and ran back to grab the elevator.
“Do I have to fly it myself?” asked the brunette, laughing from inside the cockpit?
He jumped in and the two of them roared off for twenty minutes of sightseeing.
She was all smiles when the “Champ” landed without incident.
“Did you like it?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “And he told me to come back when I got sick of motorcycles.”
Two hours later, the Kawasaki blew a back tire. I was on a secondary highway doing about 55, when I heard the pop and got the rear-end wobble. Chopping the power, we rolled to a stop on the shoulder. My girlfriend helped me push the bike 300 feet to an independent custom Harley shop, where the owner laughed, offered us a couple of cold ones, and changed the tire and tube — in exchange for a good chunk of my weekend spending money.
It was dark when we got to the shore — Seaside Heights — grabbed dinner in a bayside seafood shack, and found the house. We were about to shower, when she said, “I just got my period.”
Some weekends look so good at 700 feet and 75 miles per hour.
Author's Note — The brunette in this story was the elusive "SnowQueen," who has decided to stop posting in the comments section of Twisted Roads. I can only assume she has stopped reading as well. Someone annoyed the hell out of her. Wanna bet it was me?
I am not an easy person to photograph. But my former paramour managed to take one of the best shots of me ever captured. I like it a lot and use it as my official photograph. (See picture below.)
Photo by Leslie Marsh Photography
But my kid, who is one of the most amazing daughters anyone could ask for, felt compelled to take an official photograph of her own, one-upping poor old dad. There is a reason why some species devour their own young.
Photo by Katherine's boyfriend Tom... Picture cleaned up by Roy Groething of Jersey Pictures.
©Copyright Jack Riepe 2012