Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear (Episode 16) “The Winter Wonderland Flying Circus”

In the spring of 1969, I was offered a Film Editing job with Toronto’s CFTO TV. I was delighted until I discovered my “editing” job was splicing commercials into the station’s TV shows. It was dull, tedious work but the job paid more than I’d earned before, there was a chance for promotion to real Film Editing in the station’s News Room, and I met Jerry Cascone, a man with a delightfully warped sense of humour, who’s been my friend ever since.

In early 1970, Michelle and I managed to scrape up enough money to move in together and began working towards the dream of owning our very own airplane. We began researching what it would take to achieve this goal and devoured every book we could find on the subject. We got a lot of information, and inspiration, from Frank Kingston Smith’s books, “Weekend Pilot,” and “Flights of Fancy,” but as we searched for similar tomes, I stumbled onto a book written by an author with a very familiar name … Richard Bach.

On that fateful New Year’s Day when I’d picked up a copy of “Flying” magazine, a Richard Bach article titled, “Aviation or Flying – Take Your Pick”, had completely captured my imagination. (Reprinted in Why Fly – with sincere thanks to Richard –  here). It turned out Bach also wrote books, and one of them, “Nothing By Chance,” spoke to me like nothing I’d ever read before.

In 1966, Bach had purchased an old, 1929 Detroit Parks PT-A, open-cockpit biplane, and flown off into the American mid-west to see if it was still possible to make a living as a Barnstormer; landing in fields, taking people for rides, sleeping under the wing … living with your airplane in a lifestyle so free, I could barely believe it was possible…

Which is pretty much what I said in the letter I wrote to the author as soon as I’d finished his book.

I’d never written “a fan letter” before and really didn’t expect an answer. But to my shock, on November 11th, 1970, we not only received a response from Bach, we were also invited to experience the lifestyle for ourselves by taking part in Bach’s latest adventure – “The Winter Wonderland Flying Circus” – a Barnstorming tour of Canada in the winter!

The opportunity to go Barnstorming with Bach wasn’t something we could ignore … but, Sheesh – in the winter? I mean, did this guy have the slightest idea of how COLD it gets up here? Winter is bad enough when you’re snuggled up beside a blazing fire inside your warm little house. But Bach was suggesting we land our ski-equipped airplanes on frozen lakes, and sleep outside!

The memory of that un-heated Apache flight still haunted me, so the idea of flying an even smaller plane – with no heat at all – already had me shivering. And yet, here was an extraordinary opportunity to go flying with the very man who had re-discovered Barnstorming and got me started as a Pilot.

We decided the best plan was to accept Bach’s offer, then try to talk him out of it.

One possible solution was Bach’s request for any weather info we might be able to get on winter conditions in Canada. We figured he’d change his mind once he learned how severe our winters could be, so we drove down to the Department of Transport and asked if they might have any weather information for a group of pilots who were planning to Barnstorm winter Canada.

We expected to be laughed out of the office (or arrested), but much to our surprise, the idea fascinated the bureaucrat we spoke with and he returned with several large boxes filled with volumes of weather stats and information.

Bach was just as shocked when he received the package and wrote back begging us to send no more. “No Barnstormer ever had so much information in advance,” he wrote.

We thought the avalanche of paper would change his mind.

We were wrong.

Bach wrote back that he was painting his 1939 Reid J-3 Clip Cub to look like a candy cane, mounting it on skis, and would be arriving in late January – along with Russ Munson, a photographer-friend who flew a Super Cub. A third pilot, teenager Ken Smith, would also be flying in from Iowa. And from there, our four-plane “Winter Wonderland Flying Circus” would make its way into the North Country to partake of this grand experiment.

In closing, Bach asked if we had picked up our new airplane yet.

We had not.

We were trying to buy our first plane, but the purchase was dependent upon a retroactive pay deal our T.V. union was negotiating. We thought a settlement would be reached in time, but as the Winter Barnstorming start date approached, we had to face the fact that it would not.

We tried approaching our bank for a loan, but as soon as the manager discovered Michelle was 18, I was 21, and we wanted to buy an antique airplane … he used our appointment time to lecture us on the need for purchasing a home and raising a family before nurturing any thoughts as insane as owning our own aircraft.

We left the bank humiliated, infuriated, and more determined than ever to buy our own flying machine. But we had to face the reality that we couldn’t get one in time for the Winter Wonderland Flying Circus.

We shouldn’t have worried.

Bach didn’t make it either.

Richard started off all right, but his engine began using far too much oil. When the pressure started dropping, Richard realized something was seriously wrong, so he and Russ were forced to turn back.

When Bach got home, he discovered the little Cub’s power plant needed a complete overhaul, and as Richard was just about penniless at the time, that was the end of The Winter Wonderland Flying Circus.

Or so we thought…

We were saddened we wouldn’t be meeting Bach, but not terribly disappointed at missing out on “the thrill” of a winter Barnstorming tour. So it was somewhat of a surprise when our phone rang and a strange voice said, “Hey. It’s Ken Smith. I just landed at Maple Airport … Is Richard here yet?”

We had forgotten about the young Iowa pilot.

Smith was terribly disappointed Bach wasn’t coming. He’d flown long and hard to get here in his tiny, ski-equipped Cub, and was loathe to go back without giving the Winter Wonderland Flying Circus a chance. Robin Lawless, a friend of ours from CFTO, offered to go with Smith, and as we were planeless, Michelle and I agreed to handle the “Barker” duties on the ground – or more accurately – frozen lake.

The next day, we took Smith back out to the Cub and helped him check over his plane before heading north. Although he was still in his teens, Ken was already a licensed aviation mechanic and had actually bought his Cub when he was fifteen! Smith had learned to fly before he got a driver’s license and had paid for everything with a part time weekend job … while he was still in high school!

After changing the oil, cleaning the spark plugs, and giving the plane a good going over, Smith offered to give Lawless, Michelle and I a quick flight before calling it a day.

This was my first flight in the legendary Piper Cub and several things immediately shocked me:

a)  In order to get into the plane, one opened a strange clamshell door arrangement on the right side of the airplane. The upper half of the door folded up under the wing and was held in place with something that looked like an oversized paper clip. The lower half of the door fell down and banged against the side of the fuselage.

b)  The pilot flew the plane from the rear seat! The passenger had to worm his/her way into a tiny front seat which required folding your knees almost under your chin. (When I asked Smith how he could see ahead, he answered, “You can’t,” in a manner which was supposed to explain everything.)

c) In order to start the Cub, Smith had to flip a switch, which made the magnetos “live,” then grab hold of the propeller and crank the engine by hand!

d) Ski planes freeze to the ground if they sit too long. If this happens, you have to grab hold of the struts and rock the wings violently to break the skis free.

e) Cubs take off in an incredibly short distance. As Maple Airport’s runways had been ploughed, Smith had to take off on adjacent snow-covered fields. When he put the power in, the tail came up immediately, and within three seconds, the little Cub was off the ground and climbing … though, not at any great rate.

f) The noise level in a Cub is appalling. The engine rattles. The gear rattles. The windows rattle. Hell, everything rattles. As for the door, it not only rattles, but also has the bad habit of popping open without warning, which definitely rattles the occupants of the tiny aircraft.

g) The Cub flies slow (about 73 mph,) and lands slow (around 38,) which means the landing run only takes a few hundred feet.

This first flight in a Cub was a real eye opener for me, and while any sort of heater would have been such a wonderful addition, by the time we landed I could see why many thought this little airplane was the greatest flying machine ever built.

After forty three years of flying, in more than 140 different aircraft, I still feel the same.

The next morning Robin drove Smith out to Maple while Michelle and I drove north as The Winter Wonderland Flying Circus’ “Ground Support” team. We’d agreed to make the town of Fenelon Falls our first destination, as there was a Winter Carnival scheduled for that weekend and we could be assured of lots of potential passengers.

Because we weren’t sure how solid the ice would be, Michelle and I planned to arrive well in advance, pick out a good landing zone, then signal Smith & Lawless as they flew overhead. But as we arrived at Fenlon Falls, so did the Cub! While the little plane’s cruise speed was nothing to brag about, the Cub had the advantage of flying in a straight line, which explained our simultaneous arrival.

With the Cub already circling, I jumped out of the car, ran down to the frozen lake, and promptly discovered it wasn’t as frozen as it looked. The ice had turned to slush near the shoreline, and every third footfall punched through into the frigid waters underneath.

As I suffered through one “soaker” after another, I was about to wave the Cub away … but from his aerial point of view, Smith could see where the ice was thickest and brought the Cub down to an easy, short landing.

People began arriving immediately! We’d barely got Robin out of the front seat before people began asking if we were giving rides.

We flew non-stop from there on and quickly got into the routine of unloading one passenger and loading the next in a matter of minutes.

And the thing that amazed me (and, in retrospect, hooked me for life) was that every single passenger – no matter how scared they looked before the flight – returned to the frozen surface of the lake with a look best described as beatific!

Their lives had been changed. You could see it in their eyes. And all from one 15 minute flight.

Wow! If I ever had any doubts, they’d just evaporated.

I must become a Barnstormer. Which means we must have an airplane.

But how???

One week later, CFTO settled with its Editors and I soon had a retroactive cheque in my hand that was sufficient for a good down payment on a flying machine.

The only question now was … which one?


(Addendum: You can read Richard Bach’s full story on his attempt to fly to Canada in his article, “South to Toronto.” It’s re-printed in the book containing the best of his Aviation articles, “A Gift of Wings.”)

Watch for Episode 17 of Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear,
“Sexy Silvaire,” on Sunday, July 18th, 2010.

Abridged excerpt from Glenn Norman’s book, “Living On Stolen Time”.
Due for release in the fall of 2010.

One Comment

  1. Guest Subscriber

    Great Stuff!!! … Come on “Episode 17”!!!!!! (This is Restlessole BTW writing under my “nom de plume” 🙂

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