Airplane smell

My logbook starts early on a Saturday morning on the last day of July 1971, the year I graduated from high school.  I had been driving around out in the country looking for an old man named Charlie and he lived and worked at his private airport.  The guys in the airplane propeller overhaul shop where I worked talked of Charlie with both respect and disdain.  Those who liked him respected him; those who did not know him or disliked him, well, as always, you get the picture.  Charlie is, in many ways, responsible for me sitting here and writing these pages today.  He was the one person who virtually launched me into my flying career.

Charlie’s concept of teaching student pilots how to fly was strong and solid.  I remember him talking about teaching the rudiments of flying first, not dealing with radios, control towers, and Air Traffic Control (ATC).  After the student pilot knew how to fly, then he would introduce all that other “stuff.”  To Charlie, the idea of the student learning how to fly was the most important.  Of course, Charlie believed there was only one way to teach pilots how to fly: that was with airplanes with tailwheels.  And the finest airplane for this job, according to him, was the J-3 Cub.  All these years later, I have to agree.

That first morning I met Charlie, I was 18 and he was 71.  It was a few minutes before eight in the morning when I drove up to his house.  It seemed remotely abandoned.  It was very quiet.  The air was still and cool from the night before and it was easy to hear birds across the fields as well as the cattle farther away in the pastures.  I felt intrusive on this scene as I got out of my mom’s car and started looking around the hangars.

In the hangars, I found one of the J-3?s I would later spend considerable time flying.  I walked around the Cub looking her over from spinner to rudder.  She seemed dainty and frail.  This was the first time I had actually seen a Piper Cub up close.  I could not believe this aerial contraption actually flew, much less carried two people aloft.  After inspecting the airplane, I started to realize why many called them called “kites” in the First World War.  It seemed to me the fabric was ready to come off the frame at the mere suggestion.

Placing my hand on the craft and feeling the fuselage while moving forward, I looked inside marveling at the simplicity of the Cub’s cockpit.  When I stuck my head inside, I smelled for the first time in my life, a smell I would come to cherish forever: it was the smell of an airplane!

Now airplane smell, mind you, is something totally different from say, new car smell.  New car smell disappears after a short while, but airplane smell becomes more pronounced with age.  The scent of which I speak is a special odor, a smell of which all older airplane pilots are familiar.  It is the scent of leather and aviation gas mixed with the smell of the aircraft “dope” used in building the old airplanes of steel tube, wood, and fabric.  it is a wonderful smell and there is no other smell like it in the world.

In the years since first meeting the old Cub, I have flown a lot of airplanes.  Some of the airplanes, like the Cub, were made of wood and fabric and smelled similar.  I also learned these “kites” were stronger than most modern aircraft of today.  New airplanes have little character compared to the old airplanes.

And they don’t have “real airplane” smell of those old taildraggers.


© 2010 J. Clark

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