A Busmans Holiday

By: Mike Dennis (Jun 9, 2018, 4:45 pm)

“Holy opportunity, Batman, look at that!” In April 2017, my Alon Aircoupe from thirty years before was listed for sale at a price that guaranteed it wasn't gonna be on the market long.

My assistant, Gayle, attended Sun ‘n Fun in my place when I got trapped by a project in Philadelphia where I sat killing time in a hotel, prowling airplane ads. Gayle, a true airplane nut, had soloed an Aeronca Champ and built a HiMax airplane just to understand how planes are constructed. The HiMax project was her idea of how to educate herself, but she had no interest in flying it and gave it to a friend when she left North Carolina to come work for Oregon Aero. She told me of how the Champ had provided a moment or two of tailwheel excitement and cooled her enthusiasm for solo flight. I suggested she find an Aircoupe, friendly, straightforward, easy, and fun to fly. “Learn how to fly in that, then you can advance to more challenging airplanes.”

The first Alon Aircoupe in my life, owned by someone who had neglected to make his payments, was in need of repossession and located on the airport in Chelan, Washington, a state away from where I worked. The boss came to me and said, “Hitch a ride with the charter flight going to Seattle, drop off the passengers, fly to Chelan, take a bolt cutter for the canopy lock, this set of passkeys for the ignition, and, well, steal the plane, then fly it home.”

“Cool, sounds like fun,” I said, and conveniently forgot to mention I had fewer than 25 hours on a student ticket, hadn’t flown a solo cross country (actually, hadn't been on a dual cross country, either) and had no idea what an Alon was. My mindless enthusiasm was rooted in two things. I was nineteen and had been in love with airplanes since my mother made and flew a paper plane for me.

The caper went like clockwork, and I fell in love with the little Coupe. Later, for a promotional stunt, we took a secretary with no flight experience and soloed her in the plane after only one long day of instruction. It made a splash in the local paper, and we picked up a couple of students from it.

*****

1966 Alon Aircoupe for sale, Winter Haven, Florida.

Winter Haven? This is too weird; Gayle is staying in a rental house in Winter Haven. I’ll forward the ad, suggest she call the seller, think about buying it, and I’ll offer to be a partner if she needs it.

Minutes later the phone rang. It was Gayle; breathless, she gushed, “I called him, the house I’m renting for the week is just a mile or so from the plane, I’m going there Saturday to fly it and I recognize the paint scheme. It’s your old Coupe, isn't it? Someone called from Alabama and is waving a check at him, but he said he’d wait until I could look at it. I have half the money. I called my husband, Chris; he’s fine with it if you buy the other half. We can be partners.”

There’s something magical about her Virginia accent and personality. Everyone loves Gayle, and Jim and Donna, the sellers, were not immune. After the flight, they took her home to discuss the possible purchase. “Your boss sent an email, told us he courted his wife in 5684F thirty years ago, used it as the test bed for the products that became Oregon Aero, and suggested you should complete your flight training in an Aircoupe. Now here’s the same airplane, living down the street from the home you’re renting. Wow, it feels like this is supposed to be your plane. It's yours if you want it.”

On Monday, I flew home to Portland, Oregon from Philadelphia, Gayle from Orlando. Tuesday, we attended to business needs, Wednesday we wired the money, and on Thursday Jim called to let us know 5684F’s hangar would turn into a pumpkin at the end of the month. “Is it possible to come get it before?”

I'd been monitoring the weather. A string of tornadoes had just marched up the center of the country leaving an unsettled but mostly clear forecast for the next few days, so I asked Gayle to see if we could get tickets to Orlando for the next day. A half hour later she called. “Yup, got us the last two seats on a non-stop from Portland to Orlando.”

Thursday evening, my friend Tom stopped by my hangar (we live across the runway from each other), and I described the plan to fly to Orlando and pick up the airplane Gayle had already named, “Little Red.”

“You’re going to cross the country, VFR in an Aircoupe? Wow, see you in a week or two.”

“No, the flight plan has us back here by noon on Monday, and we need to be, it's supposed to start raining by 1 pm and not stop for the rest of the week.”

“Yeah, good luck with that,” he said over his shoulder.

*****

Jim and Donna picked us up at KORL, Orlando, Friday evening and gave us their new pickup to go grocery shopping. Peanut butter sandwiches and a few bottles of water work well on cross-country flights and don’t take up much space.

Out of respect for her two tiny nine-gallon wing tanks and unwilling to use any of the six gallons in the header tank, I planned frequent fuel stops. We were wheels up from KGIF, Winter Haven, at seven a.m. with fuel stops at KGBE Decatur, GA, M95 Fayetteville, AL, KVBX Batesville, AR, KFSK Fort Scott, KS, and planned to tie up for the night at KRSL Russell, KS if the weather allowed. It did, but we watched with trepidation as towering thunderstorms grew in all quadrants while the nice man from the motel loaded our stuff in his van.

As we drove away, Little Red looked small and lonesome against the backdrop of mean weather. It didn't help that I'd forgotten to bring tie downs, and there were none on the ramp. Later, the thunderstorm bore down on Russell, put on a spectacular lightning show, blasted the power substation, and turned out all the lights in town for two hours.

Concerned, we were back at the airport before sunup where Little Red sat right where we’d left her. I swear she was smiling, happy to see us before the heat of the day arrived and spoiled our good luck. We took off in the dark and half an hour later, we watched the weather turn red and green on an iPad as the sky fell on Russell. We sailed blissfully on, pushed by the miraculous westbound tailwind we’d enjoyed since Florida.

Day two, we fueled at 82V Pine Bluffs, WY, KRKS Rock Springs, WY, U10 American Falls, ID, and ended the day at KMAN Nampa, ID where we spent the night at my brother Jim’s place. Off nice and early on Monday with a stop for fuel at 9S9 Lexington, OR, it would be a race to get home before the forecast rain arrived.

We flirted with a shower in the mouth of the Columbia Gorge, flew over my home from where we could see our destination, Little Red’s new home, KSPB Scappoose, OR across the Columbia River.

Two and a half days of flying, we landed at 12:50 p.m. and were a little disappointed to have the adventure end. The rain arrived ten minutes after Little Red had been tucked away in her hangar and, as forecast, continued for the rest of the week.

My wife Jude and I hadn't seen Little Red in twenty-eight years. We celebrated our thirtieth anniversary in June, and the Aircoupe of our youth and romance returned packed with unexpected and highly emotional energy. Another of life's big loops closed when, together, we sat once again in 5684F, wept surprising tears of joy, and relived the pleasant memories of a long-ago time that suddenly felt as close as yesterday.

Four airplanes in the hangar beside the house, Little Red at Scappoose, a glider in Hawaii, fifty-five years, and eight thousand hours logged after my first lesson, and people ask me the same question, “Are you still ‘into’ aviation?” Silly question, I never was, it’s in me. Aviation, for some of us, is more than a hobby or interest, it's an inexplicable addiction. I’m not alone. My friend Bill owns an Ercoupe fleet and, when asked why he has eight, answers, “Because I can't afford nine.”

1A “busman’s holiday” is a vacation or form of recreation that involves doing the same thing that one does at work.

Lopez Island, San Juan  Islands, WA.
Lopez Island, San Juan Islands, WA.
Can you believe all this came out of that?
Can you believe all this came out of that?
Over Bear Lake, ID.
Over Bear Lake, ID.
Lotsa good memories.
Lotsa good memories.
A visit to the house.
A visit to the house.
All three girls together.
All three girls together.
Breakfast on the road.
Breakfast on the road.
Still look'n good.
Still look'n good.

2 Comments


  • Submitted by: Jill Helmer (Jun 14, 2018, 9:56 am)
  • What an incredible story Mike! I love the pictures of you and Jude! So happy to see you all are well and still prospering! Can't wait to read your new book. I ordered it yesterday as soon as I received the email from the Poulsbo Historical Museum. Love to you all. Your Texas cousin, Jill
  • Submitted by: Mike (Jun 14, 2018, 5:13 pm)
  • Jill, It’s really nice to hear from you, it’s fun to share stories. I think you’ll like the book, and hope it enlarges your understanding of where we all came from. We’re very fortunate to share wonderful grandparents, and family history. Your beloved mom was also my favorite aunt, and I still miss her. Read my story, then share yours. Love ya’ll, Mike

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