As boys growing up in the rural Midwest, my brother and I were very fortunate to have been fetched up across the road from a small sod landing strip. As a result we were both bitten by the aviation bug at a young age. I have many fond memories of lying in the tall grass at the foot of a walnut tree on the edge of the field watching the Sunday flyers carve circles around our little sod strip in the hollow in the hills. Champs and Cubs and T-Crafts plied the skies in seemingly endless circuits culminating in feather soft landings on the sandy, short cropped, grass runway. On the odd day we would sneak into one of the old corrugated metal hangars and sit in the cockpit of one of the now ground bound taildraggers to smell that never to be forgotten aroma of leather and sweat, 80 octane and straight weight motor oil; and to hold the “stick” in our hands and make motor noises. Aviation romance digs into your soul when you start out this way, and it never lets go.
My brother is old now. I can get away with saying that because I am old, and he is older than I by five years, sometimes six; it depends on what month of the year it is. Leading a hectic and stress filled life for much of the last decade or two, the old boy has at last begun to mellow. Time has begun to slow a bit and now that some mellowing has taken place, he has discovered how much he misses “slipping the surly bonds of earth” and “dancing the skies on laughter silvered wings” in his life. Oh, to once again smell that avgas exhaust on the morning air, to feel the dew leaking into the toes of your shoes on the walk around, or to see the evening mist gather at the edge of the field as the last rays of today’s sun begin to fade from the sky.
And so a mission was born. Somewhere, out there in Kansas, which has forever been a hot bed of aviation, sits what he is sure is the perfect “old man’s” airplane. How he found it I don’t recall. But just a few days prior to going to see the old bird I got a message asking if I would like to be involved in picking up his new airplane. “Of course,” I reply, “any mission is a good one.” So with little planning and a great weather window we left West Michigan for South Eastern Kansas.
Augusta Kansas is a little bit east of Wichita. It’s a great airport with a well-equipped full service FBO and cheap gas, which offers the services of a resident wrench named Lee who knows a thing or two about airplanes. Lee spent thirty years working for Beech Aircraft; also of Wichita fame. Lee was charged with looking over the new “old man” airplane prior to the final handshake and the exchange of “other valuable consideration.” (Remember those days?)” Lee paid particular attention to the engine room, compression, valves and cylinders during his assessment and pronounced them “Okey-Dokey.”
My old Mooney (it’s my “old man’s” airplane) made the trip to Kansas in good time and the weather was Midwest blue with light winds all the way. We had plenty of time to savor the amount of sheer nothing there is to see in a lot of this part of the country.
As we taxied down the ramp to parking in Augusta, we spied it. Tucked away in the main maintenance hangar next to another Mooney under inspection, and a Beech Sundowner, and a yards-tall Twin Bonanza; sat a lonely looking 1957 Tri-Pacer. We parked the Mooney and strolled to the open door of the hangar. I began making mental notes. There was a trail of oil from the nose bowl south covering the nose gear strut and culminating in a small pool on the concrete. The right main gear fabric bore damage where someone had mis-stepped and put their foot through the Ceconite, The spinner was dented and cracked and had been stop-drilled. Over-sized sheet metal screws adorned most fairings. Rivets replaced screws in places where only screws should be installed. The latch on the only front door was broken. Fabric patches were noted in multiple locations; indeed the entire left elevator had been recovered. And, the largest tail mounted beacon I have ever seen set atop the vertical stab like the Angel on the top of a Piper Christmas tree. Probably pick up 5-6 knots of cruise speed if that beacon gets removed! “Low time,” Jimmy beamed, “just what I am looking for.” It was what I would call a “homely” kind of airplane.
Still, the old Tri-pacer has its own following and as the saying goes, “They are so ugly, they’re kinda cute.” The other saying that comes to mind is that from my car sales days: “There’s an ass for every seat.” I have had two true Pacers (with the tail wheel where it should be!) and have to admit that old man Piper really did build a wonderful airplane there. But somewhere along the line that Cessna guy put the tail wheel on the front of the airplane and the pressure from the flying public who wanted to “drive an airplane” was so great that Piper just had to “ugly up” what really is a classic airframe in order to compete. By ’57 most of the Tri-Pacers were fitted with a “humpy” instrument panel and an 0-320/160. Not so this beauty, 03C comes with a 0-290-D/135 of questionable heritage. I noted in my scrutiny that the push rod tubes had been sealed with silicone to slow the oozing on one or more cylinders. Still, Jimmy was seeing some hidden inner beauty that I was not.
I have always thought that buying an aircraft is something like buying a pair of shoes. It has to be just the right fit. Jimmy was obviously looking at a pair of comfy old Sebago’s when he found this airplane. I can see his point. Welded frame, tough gear, sizeable tires, great ground clearance, ample and bullet proof power source, fixed pitch, fixed gear, and nimble; what’s not to like? It’s sorta like driving a tractor. Push the throttle to go, and stand on a pedal to turn. Basic is good.
In the end the deal was made, “valuable consideration” changed hands and after topping off the oil, I gave brother Jim a 20 minute head start, then passed him about half way to Carrollton MO. One more leg to Peoria, IL also proved uneventful, (well, there was that minor event where he ran a fuel tank dry on his downwind) and then downhill all the way to home. At one point during the flight, he reported gleefully to me that the oil spray on the windscreen appeared to be abating. Pure optimism.
The old girl sits in her own corrugated metal hangar now, somewhat forlorn looking, but on the very same field where he and I use to watch the weekend flyers carve lazy circuits from the shelter of the tall grass. The prop is off, the nose bowl is off, the cowling is off; her soul is showing. In the end, I am sure the pedigree is still intact. When the damaged parts are replaced and the engine room dries up she will surely “slip the surly bonds of earth” and “chase the shouting winds aloft;” and one more old man will be content to taxi past the tall grass at the edge of the field where decades ago this romance began.
Author: Tom Speerstra
Tom Speerstra has had an enduring love affair with aviation for over 40 years. Countless adventures have been enjoyed flying students, people, paper, and parcels in everything from Champs to Citations. He has held positions as both Chief Pilot and Director of Operations for Part 135 carriers and holds an ATP, MEII, SES ratings and a Citation type rating. Tom makes his home in Michigan with his wife Elizabeth and the two dogs Hess and Pappy.