“Yellow and blue on blue and green. Two hundred and twenty horsepower from the Continental radial contentedy dragged the Waco’s wire, wood, steel and cloth 1500 feet above the carpet of evergreen laid out below. It’s not so much the noise as the wind. Even in the cavernous rear cockpit of the trainer, I hunch a little lower — eyes on the letters “USN” embossed on the leather helmet of my instructor, three feet ahead, and an infinity away.”I was told it would be like this. His hand goes up, palm down, fingers raised. The index finger then crooks left and down, and, after a pause, his thumb jerks back toward me to indicate that I should attempt the maneuver described. I rack my brain: what maneuver is it that I’m supposed to be doing? The best in 1937 communications technology, and I can’t do a thing with it. The preflight briefing is now a blank. Perhaps an accelerated stall to the left? I bank hard left and come back on the stick, watching for a sign from ahead. The stick practically jumps out of my hand as my instructor’s signal that that was *not* what he had wanted. I recall hearing of cadets being washed out of flight training for not being up to snuff on a bad day with an instructor. But today is a good day for Wally Olson. With Wally, all days are good. His hand goes up again, finger pointing at himself. He’ll demonstrate. Ah, lazy eights, high and steep. I don’t remember *that* from the briefing, but hey, they look easy enough. The stick shakes to get my attention, and Wally’s thumb is pointing back at me again. My turn. The big radial drags us up and into the bank almost effortlessly, and a light touch of aileron brings the nose around. The Waco practically completes the maneuver itself, like a horse trotting itself home at the end of a long day’s ride. Two, three more, and I get the “straight and level” signal from Wally. A pause. Left hand up this time, thumb and forefinger touching. A-Okay. I’m not washed out yet. It is a good day.”
A navy cadet’s journal from 1937? The first chapter of a (badly-written) WW-II pilot’s novel? No, just me, two days ago at Evergreen Field, in Vancouver, Washington. Wally Olson, living legend and all-around nice guy, still gives dual in his ex-Navy Waco UPF-7. His cabin-class Waco UIC and Curtiss Jenny don’t fly much anymore, but the half-dozen Champs and Taylorcrafts keep Evergreen’s turf and paved runways warm.
After two years of “good intent,” I finally signed up for an hour of dual during my pilgrimmage to the annual NW Antique Aircraft Fly-In. “Sure, just give us a call a few days in advance, and we’ll see if we can go flying,” Wally told me. As simple as that. Five days later, there I was, living out a fantasy I’ve had since I was a kid. As I’d been warned, the leather helmet was a necessity: it keeps you from being beaten to death by your own hair. Big radial engine, open cockpit, in a genuine antique Navy trainer, with a genuine antique Navy instructor. Sheer heaven. I’m going back next week.
Now, here’s the good part: As the late-night TV commercials would say, “How much would you be willing to pay for this adventure?” Wally gives dual in the Waco for less than what it must cost him to maintain that beautiful old bird. Certainly less than what it would cost you to get dual in a 172 spamcan in most places. And once you’ve managed to convince Wally that you really can land big bird, he’ll let you go solo for the same rate. Lazy eights over the Columbia river — with absolutely nothing over your head.
If you want to learn taildraggers in slightly, um, quieter atmosphere, you can get dual in the Champs and Taylorcrafts for what you’d pay to park your car in some places of this country. As you may gather, Evergreen is not an ordinary FBO. It’s Wally Olson’s FBO, and has been for the last 45 years. This man is, at 83 or so years old, a living legend who has committed his life to teaching people how to fly. He’s not about money, and not about business; he’s about flying. A special kind of flying.
Some folks nowadays get their flying kicks by playing “Top Gun” in high-tech toy fighters. Others just want to be going 300 knots, thataway-fast. That’s fine. But if your dream of flying is made of wood and cloth and the sound of wind in the wires, stop by Evergreen on some warm autumn day. You’ll thank yourself.
[Note: I have no connection with Evergreen Flying Service other than being a customer who has decided that his flight with them was something as close to a religious experience as he’s had since his Bar Mitzvah.]
(copyright 1993, David Cohn)
approx. 1000 words