Cheaper than Therapy, Safer than Drugs

            I looked down the length of the wing. Instead of stretching straight out and pointing toward the horizon as it had faithfully been for the past several hours, the wing now angled down, beckoning toward a narrow strip of asphalt carved out of the Louisiana terrain as I made my low, circling pass.

            I did not like what I saw.

            Actually, I hadn’t really liked a lot of what I had encountered up to that point. A diabolically persistent headwind had plagued our forward progress all day. My intended fuel and rest stops were completely thrown out of whack, and I was now at a point where I wondered if we would make it to our destination at all.

            We were barely halfway there.

            I weighed my options. Out of the several options at my disposal, I disliked this one the least. I leveled off and queued the mic. At the press of a button, I relayed a simple message to Paul, “All right dude, I’m setting up my approach. This is going to get…” I trailed off for a moment as I searched for the right word, “sporty.”

            I reached for the throttle lever, being careful not to grab the fuel mixture control. I didn’t even have to look. My focus was on the runway threshold. I pulled back on the throttle, bringing the engine from a throaty roar to a low grumble. Nature responded at once, as if anticipating our intrusion while sensing our vulnerability. A particularly violent gust of wind bucked the airplane, causing the wingtip to bob wildly, alternating the view between smeared grey overcast and fuzzy green woodland. Grey and green, grey and green, until the gyrations subsided back to level. It felt as though the airplane was a toy being held aloft by a child, who gripped the tail and whipped our little ship in frenzy.

            “You good back there?” I asked.

            Paul hesitated for a moment but responded in his usual, “Yee-ap”.

            That was, and is, Paul’s go-to response. We could ride in silence for hours and I would ask if he was still alive. “Yee-ap.” He would respond nothing more, nothing less, unless prompted or if he spotted something of unusual interest.

            This time he answered differently. I noticed a slight inflection at the very end.

            Paul didn’t like what he saw, either.

            I slowed the airplane a bit more in preparation for landing, and was delivered several violent spasms from the wind in return. It was like jumping onto the back of an unsuspecting reef shark. My attention divided between the approaching runway and micro inputs of the airplane, I proceeded on course to reach out and touch the earth.

Paul, John Ellis, Dan pose with John’s 1943 Fairchild PT-19

            Paul and I had been airborne and southbound since sunup, but this particular journey had been put into motion more than six years prior. It began in the late summer of 2012, when my life’s path quite violently became intertwined with the life path of a certain gentleman from Cape Girardeau, Missouri. I say violently, because I had been innocently practicing my takeoffs and landings at home in Wisconsin, when the engine of the airplane I was flying suddenly decided to turn one of its pistons loose.

            A loud mechanical bang signaled the beginning of the end, the cabin filled with acrid smoke, but the engine continued to generate enough horsepower for me to circle back and execute one of the most precise landings of my career. I remember feeling a twinge of disappointment that no one had been around to see it.

            I was grounded until I could get the support that I needed to get my particular brand of airplane returned to the air. I needed guidance, and unfortunately would need to seek it outside of my immediate area. At that time, my choices were Southern California, Eastern Pennsylvania, or closest yet – an historic river town in Southeast Missouri.

            And that is how I met Mr. Ellis.

            What should have been a purely transactional exchange developed into a close friendship. Mr. Ellis was retired, but followed aviation as a hobby. He had earned a lifetime’s trove of knowledge and expertise about the Golden Age of aviation, and beyond. He had access to the kinds of airplane parts that I needed, and held a mental Rolodex of experts that could help me out.

            Some of the best people, with the best knowledge and life experiences, do not have boastful websites or much of an online presence, but they can still be found via the most reliable network of all – word of mouth. Mr. Ellis was one such person.

            He, and a network of new friends helped me get my airplane back in the air, and I celebrated by making regular flights to Cape Girardeau to visit Mr. Ellis. Then, in 2013 my dad fell ill, and passed suddenly in 2014. My friendship with Mr. Ellis strengthened, due to our mutual love of aviation and despite the distance in age and miles.

            In fact, it was my very first visit to Cape back in 2012, when I met John for the first time, when he proudly showed me his beautifully restored Fairchild PT-19 and offered to take me up for a ride.

            “I’ve lost track of how damn many rides I’ve given in this thing.” He announced at the time, but every subsequent visit to Cape Girardeau would result in, weather permitting, a flight in his PT-19. Before long, I was given the privilege of taking it out myself.

            Let me tell you something – Going flying is cheaper than therapy and antidepressants, and much safer than doing drugs. The FDA should prescribe flying, particularly something like the PT-19. John’s model was a true barn find; a genuine World War II trainer that had been boxed away after the war for “someday” safekeeping. John and some partners got ahold of the airplane in the 1980s, lovingly restored it back to flyable condition, and it became something of a staple at Cape Girardeau Regional Airport.

John Ellis’s Fairchild PT-19, a staple at Cape Girardeau Regional Airport

            I immediately fell in love with the unhurried but deliberate manner in which the PT-19 flew. It was, and is, a quintessential example of how much fun flying can be. I have never tired of the throaty roar of the Ranger engine; it is a sound from another era, when the concept of flying had become tamed to the point of primitive reliability. Still fresh and exciting, but established. The airplane was designed to pluck teenagers from the farms and factories of the 1940s, and teach them the basics of how to fly. Nearly eight decades later, the PT-19 does its job to perfection.

            Early on, John made a comment about landing the PT-19 that sums up the experience perfectly: “If you can’t make a decent landing in this thing after three or four tries, you shouldn’t be flying.” After some experience, I couldn’t have said it better myself.

            So then, what brings Paul and me to a wind-swept outcrop in west-central Louisiana, a stone’s-throw from the Texas border?

            In late 2018, I received a rather unusual invitation. There was an airshow being held at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas, and the organizer of the event was looking for historic aircraft to put on static display. Since John Ellis’s PT-19 was in fact a veritable World War II veteran, might we be able to fly it down for the airshow in April 2019? Aside from the cross-country adventure itself, I would have the (possibly) once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to land an aircraft on an active military base, as a civilian.

            This was a time in my life that was challenging, to say the least. My dad had passed suddenly in 2014, and then my mom in 2017. The agricultural economy had turned in a direction that was swallowing up heritage, multi-generational farms like mine, and collectivizing them into a “better” corporate model. Depression and suicide was running rampant in my industry, and I wondered if anyone could be immune?

            Do you recall the earlier statement about flying being cheaper than antidepressants and safer than drugs? Of course I jumped at the opportunity to attend the airshow. Flying was my therapy. Only, there was one problem. John’s health had declined to the point that he did not feel as though he could make the 20-hour round-trip flight in his faithful PT-19. Upon discussing the matter in person, John offered an alternative more generous than I could have imagined:

            “Dan, I don’t believe I am able to make that trip anymore. Ten years ago I would have said hell yes. Flying to your brother’s Navy base is the trip of a lifetime.”

            He concluded, “I believe you and Paul should take the PT.”

            To be continued….

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Steve streiff

    What a wonderful piece that you have written.
    I’m not much of a reader but you kept my interest through the whole piece.

    1. Dan Wegmueller

      Thank you! Think of this series as a kind of action movie… Boring character development up front, excitement on its way. 😉

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