It was one those early winter days, the kind that makes you huddle around a cup of hot chocolate to warm both hands while sipping it to warm your body. There was a high overcast and a 15-knot wind from the north. The visibility was excellent. The high temperature for the day wouldn’t get above 45 degrees, but we had a mission: Deliver some important documents to my grandparents. We could drive, or we could fly.
“It will be rough.”
“It will be cold.”
“You can sit up front.”
“Pretty strong headwind.”
“The flight back will be really fast.”
“Bring some gloves.”
I started getting cold about half way through the preflight. That’s OK, I thought, I’ll warm up once we get in the air. The engine surprised me by starting easily. I scampered into the back seat of the J-3, strapped in, let the engine warm for a few minutes, then started taxiing, being sure to keep the controls in the correct position relative to the wind. With the oil temperature creeping into the green, CIGAR TIP went smoothly. We taxied onto the extreme right side of runway 9 at Baldwin County airport, eased in full power, and used the width of the runway to take away a little of the crosswind. The cool dry air produced good horsepower and lift, and at 400 feet AGL, I turned north, directly into the headwind.
The Cub had a compass, but we really didn’t need it. My father had flown all over central Georgia, and knew all the landmarks. And I knew that if I kept US 441 on my left and the Oconee River on my right, that we had to hit Athens, although I had no idea where the Athens airport was.
The first really rough turbulence hit us just as I was trying to trim for level flight at 1200 feet AGL. No problem. I picked up the wing, checked the heading, and reached again for the trim when the right wing slammed down to nearly a 90-degree bank. I used full rudder and aileron that time. And the next time, and the next time. My father turned in the front seat, and calmly said “Try to keep the wings level.” I started to reply, but realized that he knew that it was taking full control deflections to counteract the extreme turbulence we were in.
It took forever to get to Athens. There is no heat in the back of a J-3, and the split door didn’t really stop much of the cold wind from blowing in on me. If it hadn’t been for the energy I used trying to keep the Cub reasonably level, I would have been miserably cold. Compared to Baldwin County, the Athens airport was big, with two runways to choose from. Runway 2 was better for the north winds so that’s where I landed. It felt really good to get out of the Cub and relax for a minute. My father went into FBO office to telephone his father. I stayed with the Cub until it was topped off with 80 / 87 octane and tied down, then went in for a short visit with the man I’m named for.
It was Thanksgiving, and we didn’t want to be late for turkey, so our visit was short. As we got up to go, I commented to the FBO that no one else seemed to be flying. He grinned, and said “Nope.” “Too cold. Too windy.” I took him up on his offer to give us a prop, and as we started taxiing, I said that I thought I would practice a downwind takeoff, since no one else seemed to be flying and it would have us headed in the right direction. With no objection from the front seat, I proceeded directly to runway 20 and headed for home. The flight home was a little smoother, and a lot faster. The crosswind landing, a source of some apprehension, went well, and soon we were in the warm and familiar surroundings of our home FBO building.
There was nothing really remarkable about that flight, but I remember it for several reasons. It was the first time that I took my father flying, rather than flying with him. It was my first real cross-country, and my first exposure to extended, severely turbulent conditions. It also marked the first time that I was really cold in an airplane, and it left me exhausted.
As we drove home for Thanksgiving dinner, my father said, “You did a good job of flying today.” For a 14 year old obsessed with flying, that made it all worthwhile.
Thanks for the memories Dad!