My First Airplane:
What Mike Taught Me About Flying
by Steve Ells
I had been bitten by the aviation bug as soon as I joined the U.S. Navy and started sending away to the EAA for booklets on homebuilt airplanes in the mid-1960s. I still have titles such as, “Amateur Aircraft Builder’s Manual, First Volume 1959,” and “Wood, File Number 1.”
After three Vietnam cruises during the three years, 10 months and 21 days I spent in the Navy, I worked my way through the 13-month airframe and powerplant curriculum at Northrop Institute of Technology in Inglewood, Calif.
Then I headed back to Seattle and landed a part-time job at a flying club and a full-time job with Robertson Aircraft (now Sierra Industries) on the Renton, Wash. Airport (KRNT).
The Big Leagues
Before long I landed my dream job at Aero Dyne. Aero Dyne owned and operated eight Douglas DC-3s that it had purchased from West Coast Airlines. The fleet included two airplanes with full passenger interiors (we called them the “head haulers”); two equipped with gear to defog Seattle-Tacoma International (Sea-Tac) Airport (KSEA) during winter months; and two that were leased during the summers to the Forest Service in Redmond, Ore. for smoke jumper service.
I was ecstatic. I was working on what I considered “real” airplanes—old Douglas Racers. They weren’t very fast, but they were tough and very historical. I liked the idea of servicing working antique airplanes. At that time I was also young enough (and strong enough) to enjoy servicing Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp radial engines and lugging 70-pound batteries up and down ladders.
The West Coast DC-3s were equipped with dual ADF receivers. Each drove a single needle (one red, one green) on a five-inch rotatable card that was attached to the throttle quadrant. Each receiver-tuner box weighed 40 pounds.
That RCA tube-type remote-mount technology still worked in the 1970s, but only because Jack Vockel and Russ Sorkness—the two retired Northwest Orient pilots that ran Aero Dyne—had also hired the West Coast Airlines radio technician who knew how to keep this equipment alive. I can remember watching this technician tune up an ADF receiver using some spray cleaner and a quick burnish with a pencil eraser.
Russ Sorkness, a very high time captain, would glare at any passenger who dared show up for a ride in one of his DC-3s with alcohol on his or her breath. In Russ’s eyes, it wasn’t done.
Jack Vockel—we called him “Big Jack” behind his back—was equally skilled as a pilot but took things a little easier. Big Jack often flew his personal Bonanza to to his cabin in Powell River, B.C.. He smoked a pipe.
The Super Cruiser
Russ logged a lot of hours flying around Alaska. One day I was hustling across the ramp when I saw him rubbing on the cowling of a Piper taildragger. I stopped for a good look. The airplane looked brand-new, was painted a tan color and had small N-numbers. The only other decoration was a patch of semigloss black paint on the cowling in front of the windshield.
I asked Russ if it was his. He told me that he had restored it and was readying it for pickup by an Alaskan resident who had bought it. I asked why he hadn’t put more color into the paint job. He told me that would just add weight.
When I remarked that the paint layer on the fabric covering of the fuselage looked a little thin, he told me that he built his airplanes to be light and extra paint not only added weight, it made fabric repairs harder and more time consuming.
Russ told me that it was a Piper PA-12; Piper called it a Super Cruiser. I liked the look of it and figured if Russ owned one, it must be a good airplane. After all, it had a stick and a tailwheel, so it fit right into my “real” airplane ideal.
During the next few years I got my pilot ratings, attended avionics school and was hired as Director of Maintenance for a two-airplane DC-3 freight outfit that operated out of Laredo on the Texas-Mexico border. The freight business was good and I soon realized I had enough cash to think about buying my own airplane.
I combed Trade-A-Plane looking for PA-12s in South Texas. There was one for sale down the border a ways, and it was in my price range, so I drove down to the McAllen, Tex. area and took a look.
Looking back, it’s fair to say that my excitement at the thought of buying my own airplane rode roughshod over the quality of my pre-purchase inspection and the next thing I knew I owned N3155M, a 1947 PA-12. It was white with an orange trim stripe.
The PA-12 is a good example of postwar light airplane construction techniques. It has a welded steel tubing fuselage. The landing gear shock absorbers are shock rings—also called bungees. The wings have aluminum spars and ribs and both the fuselage and wings are covered in fabric. The avionics suite in my first airplane consisted of one very marginal Narco Super Homer Mark IV navcom. On Dec. 10, 1981, I handed the owner $8,500 and flew it off that farmer’s ranch strip for the last time. I owned an airplane.
Just the Beginning
With my first flights in Mike came the realization that I didn’t know as much about flying as I presumed. I had logged 260 hours and could exercise the privileges of a commercial pilot by then, but almost all of my stick time had been in airplanes that had flaps (!), dual radios with working VORs (!) and control wheels.
I’d never had to control the throttle with my left hand, or controlled an airplane with a stick in my right. I’d never flown an airplane with a stick or a tailwheel. I’d also read enough to have gotten the idea that conventional gear airplanes were devilishly hard to land well.
These tales, plus the fact that in those days I thought and acted like I had just missed an important bus that was steadily accelerating away from me, caused me to fret about ground-looping and damaging Mike during a landing.
Along with this worry came another realization: Mike’s brakes were marginal. Not only that, they weren’t the toe brakes I was used to in the Beechcraft and Cessna aircraft I had been flying. No, these were heel-activated brakes.
After many unsuccessful attempts to twist my ankles and stretch my toes as required to keep my heels on the brake pedals and manipulate the rudders, I finally determined that it was physically difficult—if not near impossible—for me to do both during the landing phase of flight. I learned that Mike had enough rudder and aileron power for me to maintain control during landing. I ignored the brakes during landing until I was in the rollout then did the foot dance required to apply the anemic brakes.
I, along with my pilot friend Pat Connors, immediately jumped in Mike and headed for a remote paved strip. I don’t know how Connors felt, but I quickly realized that I didn’t know how to land a light airplane—the maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) of an unmodified PA-12 is 1,750 pounds with no flaps and wing loading of 9.8 pounds/square foot. During my training I’d always counted on those big Cessna and Beechcraft flaps to make spot landing. The more I flew Mike, the better I got at slips and nailing my over-the-fence speeds.
I gained a better feel for flying Mike by taking baby steps in handling new challenges like crosswind landings and takeoffs. I was fortunate to be able to practice on the wide open spaces of the Laredo airport (KLRD). This uncontrolled ex-military field with two long parallel runways and an additional (long) intersecting runway was the perfect place to learn more about flying Mike, and I began to gain some confidence in my abilities and to appreciate the good manners and flying qualities bred into Mike.
Did I ground loop Mike? Sure I did. But it never hurt the airplane. I never dragged a wing or tucked a landing gear leg. I was lucky.
For the first few months I flew around locally and up to San Antonio on parts runs. Then in March of 1982 I decided to visit a friend in Tulsa, Okla. I filled the tanks with 36 gallons of 80 octane and took off early in the morning. Soon I encountered low ceilings but flew on for 4.5 hours until I landed just short of the Texas-Oklahoma border at the North Texas Regional Airport (KGYI) between Sherman and Denison. I’d averaged 98 mph as near as I can figure. My main navaid was Highway 35. I tied Mike down and called it a day.
On March 5, I flew the 150 miles to Tulsa. The return took 7.1 hours; I had a headwind.
I had installed a four-cylinder exhaust gas temperature (EGT) gauge and probe system. This was to help me lean the engine effectively and to keep an eye on the engine health.
When I leaned in accordance with Lycoming’s recommendations, I determined that the cruise fuel consumption for my middle-aged Lycoming four-cylinder 108 hp O-235-C1 engine was 5.9 gph. Cruise speeds averaged just over 100 miles per hour.
Mike was a patient teacher, and my piloting skills and confidence increased as we flew together. I flew a lot of short one- to two-hour flights around South Texas as spring gave way to summer.
One of the pilots in the freight company liked to skydive so we pulled off the door—there’s only one, and it in typical Piper fashion it’s on the right side of the fuselage—and slowly climbed up until there was enough altitude for a safe jump and out he went. My logbook shows that Mike performed jump duties four times during the summer of 1982.
There were also a couple of trips up to San Antonio to pick up parts needed to keep the Douglas Racers going. That 130-mile trip always seemed to take 1.6 going up and 1.4 coming back, or vice versa.
Challenges and Changes
Due to fluctuations in world oil markets, a presidential election in Mexico, and an overvalued peso, the border freight business began to dry up in early 1982. Almost overnight the peso was devalued from approximately 26 pesos to the dollar to approximately 150 pesos to the dollar. I found another job in at a Cessna Service Center in Rockport, Tex. but it wasn’t as much fun as working on DC-3s.
Mike and I flew another 25 hours in Texas around the Rockport, Corpus Christi and San Antonio areas during the winter and early spring of 1982 and 1983 before I got a call from an operator I knew in Soldotna, Alaska offering me a summer job maintaining his DC-3.
On April 30 I loaded Mike with a toolbox, a couple of soft bags, a sleeping bag and tent and some survival gear and started west. Mike and I were headed to Alaska for a “road trip” adventure.
I’ll continue with more of the “Mike and Steve” adventures—including that long cross-country—next month. I can tell you this: that little Piper never let me down.
Steve Ells has been an A&P/IA for 38 years and is a commercial pilot with Instrument and Multi-Engine ratings. Ells also loves utility and bush-style airplanes and operations. He’s a former tech rep and editor for Cessna Pilots Association and served as Associate Editor for AOPA Pilot until 2008. Ells is the owner of Ells Aviation (www.EllsAviation.com) and the proud owner of a 1960 Piper Comanche. He lives in Paso Robles, Calif. with his wife Audrey. Send questions and comments to .