Ernest Hemingway once wrote that there is nothing, not even a woman, horse or dog that is as lovely as a good airplane. I think he overstated his thinking a little bit, but not by much. I have had a love affair with one woman and two airplanes in my life. This piece is about one of the airplanes, a Mooney Mite, and how I learned to fly it.
When my dad was flying in the Navy on weekends, he owned a Mooney Mite. Sometimes when he needed to be in Chicago for his weekend training, he would fly the Mite up to the Navy base, fly his fighter, and fly back in the Mite. I did not know much about airplanes then, as I was only about 8 years old, but I remember that airplane.
One weekend, Dad flew the Mite back to Indiana and landed it in the farmer's field next to Grandpa's house. When it was time to leave, Dad paced off the length of the field to make sure he had enough impromptu runway to get airborne. This was especially critical, because there was a fence and a stream at the far end of the field. No one is certain what went wrong, but Dad got the Mite airborne, but just barely. Before he could retract the landing gear, it caught in the fence. The Mite flipped upside down and cart wheeled into the creek. The wing separated from the fuselage and there was Dad hanging upside down in the cockpit, getting an unplanned bath in the water. It was a wonder he wasn't hurt seriously or killed. As I have said before, Lady Luck made an unexpected and unwarranted appearance on Dad's behalf.
The airplane was hauled out of the creek and taken to our home in Greentown, where the fuselage was tied to a tree limp to support it. There it remained until it was eventually sold to a man who restored it. However, I got to play pilot in it until a truck hauled it away. I think that was when I fell in love with the Mite. I vowed I would get one someday.
And I did. Thirty-five years later.
I found one in Texas for sale. Dad and I bought it, sight unseen, on the condition that the seller would deliver it to Kokomo. I remember when I first saw it. The delivery pilot made a low pass the length of the runway, pulled up in a steep climbing turn to downwind and greased it unto the runway. I was hopelessly hooked. Just looking at it made my heart hammer. At last, I had my very own personal fighter. I could go anywhere I wanted. Any time I wanted. As high as I wanted. As fast as I wanted. And I didn't have to take anybody with me. What could be better?
Except for one problem. I had to learn to fly it. It had only one seat. There wasn't going to be an instructor sitting next to me, keeping a wary eye on what I was doing, trying to keep me from killing us both. I hadn't thought of that.
The Mooney Mite, as you can see, it is a single-place aircraft. In fact it is the only single-seat civilian aircraft ever built. It had a retractable landing gear and a sliding canopy, just like a WW2 fighter. It had flaps to control the airspeed upon landing, and best of all, it had a stick instead of a control wheel. As all real aviators know, fighters only have sticks. The bomber and transport pukes got control wheels. Fighter boys got sticks.
I remember that the Mite arrived on a Thursday evening. As I drove the delivery pilot back to Indianapolis to catch his commercial flight to Dallas, I pumped him for tips on the flying characteristics of the airplane. He was very short on specifics. Basically, he said it was just like any other airplane. "Just get in and fly it," he said. Easy for him to say. He was a retired Air Farce pilot who had a couple of thousand hours in the air. I had about 100 hours, total. I was a rank beginner, compared to him and to my dad. I seriously wondered whether I had the right stuff to fly this airplane.
Friday evening after work it was raining, so I could not fly the Mite. Instead I sat in it for about an hour trying to memorize where all the controls were. Since the airplane had very few instruments and no electrical system, there wasn't much to learn. It is about as basic as you can get.
The weather cleared up on Saturday morning and Dad and I went to the airport to check out in the Mite. Because Dad had flown one before and had much more flying experience than I had, he volunteered to fly first. Maybe he could give me some practical tips on flying this thing, if he got back from the test flight.
We got the engine started with little difficulty and checked all the engine gauges. Dad taxied out, lined up on the runway, and let it go. I heard the engine roar (it had a muffler, but not much of one) and it lifted off into the air like a thoroughbred. It showed it had an outstanding rate of climb as it pitched its nose up like the proverbial home-sick angel. And then it porpoised up and down, then rolled right, then left, then porpoised again. I thought it had a control system failure. It was all over the sky. I noticed that the landing gear was halfway up. Then the gear disappeared into the gear wells in the bottom of the wings and the airplane seemed to straighten out fly smoothly as it disappeared into the sun.
I was on almost frantic for the next 20 minutes while Dad was gone. I was worried that something bad had happened to both of them. I just stood there on the side of the runway listening for the sound of that Lycoming motor. And then I heard it. Down came the Mite lined up with the runway, motor singing as Dad flew it the length of the runway about 50 feet off the deck. At the end of the runway, he sharply pulled up into a climbing left turn and made a 180 degree turn to downwind. I heard him throttle back the engine at mid-field and watched him drop the gear and flaps. He then rolled it into another 180 degree turn to line up with the runway and greased it on. He taxied to where I was standing and told me to stand in front of the wing to keep the airplane from running away. He yelled to me that the brakes were worthless. He unfastened the shoulder harness, climbed out, and told me to strap in. We traded places in front of the wing to hold the airplane in place.
With the engine still running, I climbed up on the wing and shoe-horned myself into the Mite. If I kept my arms at my side sitting in the seat, I had about one inch of room. It was really tight. I liked it. I liked it a lot. You were not sitting in the plane, you were wearing it.
I tried to be cool, but I wasn't. I started to shake uncontrollably. My right hand was on the stick and my left hand had a death grip on the throttle. My right hand was shaking so hard I thought Dad would see the ailerons wiggling. If he saw it, he did not say anything.
I would not say that I was terrified, but I was definitely scared. At this point in my flying experiences, I could usually land safely, but it was always challenging, instead of being automatic, like Dad. Often I found the airplane flying me, instead of me flying it. If the airplane is in charge, instead of the pilot, both are going to end up hurt or dead. Apparently, I sat there longer than Dad expected, because he walked around the wing so he was standing just behind the spinning propeller and leaned in the cockpit, so he could shout at me.
"It's just an airplane, son. They are all alike. Just fly it. You'll be all right. Get it off the ground, fly around the field a couple of times, do not retract the gear and land it. Piece of cake." So said Dad. I wasn't nearly so confident as he seemed to be for me. So I sat there. Doing nothing but shaking.
"Aren't you going to give me any tips on flying this thing?" I pleaded.
"Alright. When you go downwind, slow down to 70 knots at midfield and hold it until you are over the runway. It will set down at about 60 knots. Have fun." He stepped away from the wing, freeing me to taxi.
And I just sat there. Still shaking.
After about 30 seconds, Dad came back to the Mite and shouted in the cockpit words that I have never forgotten. "Son, there's them that talk and them that do. Which are you?' That is all it took. I taxied out onto the runway and throttled it up, checking the gauges. I checked the controls and the trim. And I let it go.
At first it did not seem like it was rolling very fast, but it quickly picked up speed. My feet were dancing on the rudder pedals to keep the Mite tracking straight down the runway. I stole a glance at the airspeed indicator and saw the needle kissing 60 knots. The nose gear lifted off, quickly followed by the main gear and I was flying!
Before I go further, I should tell you about the landing gear mechanism. Located underneath the instrument panel, cleverly out of sight was a lever about the size of a bicycle tire pump. This round lever was locked into a hole that prevented the landing gear from collapsing when the airplane was landing and on the ground. To retract the gear, you pushed down on the lever, which freed it up to rotate 180 degrees back toward you to lock in a small hole just to the right of your backside. It was spring loaded, so releasing the lever would almost retract the gear by itself. Almost. But not quite.
You will recall that Dad told me not to retract the gear and to fly two circuits around the field, and land. Well, this flight was going pretty good, I thought. The Mite was acting like a proper airplane and even with my limited experience as a test pilot, it did not seem to have any bad habits. So I decided to retract the gear. However to do so, you need your right hand to grab the lever. Your right hand is normally on the stick, so you took your left hand off the throttle, put it on the stick and took the lever in your right hand and released it. Sounds simple, doesn't it. It is. But not the first time. As soon as I switched hands, the airplane started porpoising and rolling as I tried to rotate the lever back and into the retraction hole. Much to my surprise, the lever went into place and the airplane picked up 20 knots with the reduced drag. So I found myself alone in my fighter, gear safely retracted, my engine singing, and the Mite climbing to beat the band. I rolled it left, I rolled it right, I pitched the nose up as far as I dared, I pitched it down and I marveled at how sensitive and quick it was. I had the tiger by the tail.
The orders -- to fly around the patch twice, leave the gear down, and land -- went out the cockpit. I was having the time of my life and I wasn't about to land. So I went flying for an hour while my Dad waited at the airport inside the terminal probably praying I hadn't killed myself.
After an hour or so, I flew back to the airport, throttled it back to 80 knots at midfield and dropped the gear. I fumbled around getting it locked into place a little, but it locked down. I put the flaps down and the airspeed dropped to 70 knots, just like Dad said. I brought it around on final approach and held the 70 knots until it flared to land.
The gear kissed the runway gently and I thought to myself that landing this thing was easy. I relaxed. And the Mite hopped up into the air again. This had never happened before, so I pulled back on the stick and it settled onto the runway again. Again I relaxed. It went flying again. Once again, I set it down and this time it stuck. Elated, I taxied to the hanger, killed the engine and hopped out.
Dad walked up to me and said sternly, "Where have you been? It's been an hour."
"I've been flying, Dad. I love this airplane. I just got carried away, I guess."
"I understand, son. She is a great ship. Welcome to the single engine, single seat club! I'll help you put it in the hangar."
I do not recall ever being prouder than that brief moment. I had done something that some people would not do. I had been a test pilot in a sense. I had to use what little flying knowledge I had to learn on the job to fly another airplane. My confidence in the air soared.
But more than that, and better than that, was the fact that my Dad was proud of me. For a brief moment, I had the right stuff that made aviators-- from Wilbur and Orville to Lucky Lindy, to me and my Dad.
Money can't buy a memory like this one.