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Was I dreaming....or did I fly a Curtis P-40 to Oshkosh? PART iI

The P-40 Experience, by Bob Simon, San Diego, CA

Read Part I »

Fond du Lac is at the South end of Lake Winnebago and is the arrival check point for the Warbird arrivals. Enroute, I had to fly around a storm cell and I approached Fond du Lac from the East where I turned North to Warbird Island and then to the Oshkosh airport for landing to the North. I heard only one other aircraft on the arrival frequency and it is about 5 miles ahead of me and I could tell by his call sign that he is a P-51 Mustang. The landing is uneventful - the best kind! - and I was directed to the Warbird parking area by the numerous ground crew. Parking is on the grass near the Warbird pavilion. 

Parking on the grass with other warbirds is an experience not to be missed. As soon as I shut down, a crowd gathered to see this exotic bird. I answered questions and then wondered, out loud, about the transportation. One of the admirers overheard me and immediately offered the loan of his truck. It turned out that he knew John and the airplane and was glad to help out. This new found friend was camped out in the motorhome area with his son and had little use for his truck during his stay. His generosity helped tremendously since John and his crew were not due in until later that evening. I could now meet him where we were staying and save him a trip to the field to pick me up.

The owner, John Fallis and his crew at Oshkosh in the Warbird area (left)
and lhe lucky pilot (right).

The airplane was tied down and I wandered off to find the keys and the truck I was to use. It is hard to imagine the vastness of the area that the Air Show occupies. Fortunately, the location of the keys was near the Warbird area and after going to the wrong area, I finally discovered the correct location. The keys were retrieved and after exchanging pleasantries, I was given directions through the maze of roads and fields to the parking lot. Once again, with directions like; "You can't miss it!" , I located the truck which towered over the mostly, small rental cars in the acre-sized lot. The GPS was programmed and I started off for the house of a retired couple ten miles South of Oshkosh on the highway to Fond du Lac. They are a lovely, accommodating couple in a comfortable house backed up to a corn field and adjacent to the Highway with an easy on-off. They made me welcome and we got to know each other as we waited for John and his crew to show up.

I finally gave up waiting and, after a hard day of flying (I say that facetiously), it was time for me to turn in. My bedroom was comfortable and after reading for a while, I drifted off to sleep. The guys turned up later and I got up long enough to greet them before returning to sleep.

The days were pretty much the same after that: a leisurely get up and a scrumptious breakfast supplied by our hosts in the garage. Garage, you say! Here in the Mid-West, the garage is neat and tidy with serving cabinets along one side and a coffee pot near the door. The open garage door is covered with a screen affair to keep the bugs out and yet, to allow the fresh air and morning sun in. Coffee was had while we waited for everyone to gather and then breakfast was put on a common table for everyone. I finished early this first day, for I had a borrowed truck to return. The rest of the time, I rode with John and crew in his rental car.

A camp was set up under the wing of the P-40 with lawn chairs, coolers and soft drinks and water. The "camp" was directly next to the Warbird Pavilion, so we got treated to various venues during the week. We took turns visiting the grounds by either, walking or taking the shuttle. The grounds were so large with a great many displays, workshops, exhibits and venders that it would take the rest of the week to see it all. Fortunately, if something was missed, it could be seen the following day. And,...while trying to see everything, the airshow is going on overhead!

How do you manage to lose your sun glasses? Well, I did! With all the comings and goings, stowing of gear and moving about, I managed to misplace not one but, two pair of sun glasses; one pair of Maui Jim's. You know the kind. They curve to the side of your head and are light enough to fit comfortably under your headphones. My favorites! And one snap-on pair for my vari-lenses. I checked all week at the lost and found to no avail. They are gone forever. Replacement? No problem! I'll try the swap meet. Believe it or not, among all the airplanes, an area is set aside for a swap meet. Everything that you could imagine could be found there,.....including snap-on sunglasses!. The lenses are blue and they make me look like a rock star but, they fit my glasses and do the job!

There is so much to do and see that choices must be carefully made. A map is necessary. Getting off the tram in the wrong location will get you side-tracked into something interesting but not on your original agenda. If time is not a factor, no problem, but, if you have only a few days, you'll regret your error. Fortunately, we have the entire week. I made a few forays into the maze of things to see and do and even managed to get to the antique airplane area near the Red Barn where I parked my Stearman in 2005. That year I brought home an Antique Bronze Lindy but, that's another story.

The P-51 guys are a great bunch. They show up every morning at the crack of dawn for a "dawn patrol". I was invited to participate by the pilot of the "Lady Alice" and can just imagine the sound of four or five P-51's with their Allison and Merlin engines, starting in unison at the break of day. The temptation is great and John's P-40 with its Allison would be a great addition but, our routine is set and we usually arrive on the field as the "dawn patrol" is returning from their routine of waking up the countryside. We still get the thrill of hearing their engines as they taxi back to their parking spots near the P-40 and shut down.

The days are getting longer and our fun will end soon. Time to think about planning the return flight to Lafayette, Louisiana. I check the weather, get out the trusty charts, put them all away and open up foreflight on the ipad. I usually don't take the same route going back to where I came from for a variety of reasons. Most of the time, it's to see new places and meet new people. Sometimes, the weather drives me off course to a new location. Other times it's to see people I haven't seen for awhile. This time, its just to be different. A shorter flight to the middle of Illinois seems to be in order. Let's have a look: fuel prices are good....courtesy car is is nearby. So I planned for Taylorville, Illinois. The time enroute was just over one hour and 40 minutes.

Now, I studied the departure plate for Oshkosh. The procedure is laid out for the pilots on one sheet of paper, provided that you downloaded and printed it prior to coming to AirVenture. Fortunately, I did! When you are prepared to leave, you give a call on the Ground Control Frequency who then coordinates your start time with all the other departing traffic. It can be messy but, the controllers are good and have done this before.

This year I started the engine and was directed across the grass to the hard-surface taxiway. I was on my way! Or, so I thought! l was almost to the runway when told to divert down a side taxiway behind some other aircraft. A quick check of the engine temperatures told me to speak up to get some priority before the engine overheated on the ground. Fortunately, the controllers were accommodating and I was given a clearance to depart after the aircraft in position made his takeoff roll. Takeoff was to the west and I was directed to continue west until told to turn south. I'm sure that this was to clear the area and avoid other traffic in the vicinity of the field. By the time I was given a clearance to turn south, it was too late to make a pass over our hosts house which was ten miles directly south of the field. Oh, well! It was time to think about climbing to altitude, fuel flow and navigation!

As I climbed to the south, I recognized a fellow traveler heading in the same direction. He was climbing also so, I'll sneak up on his left side and maybe, join up. The overtake is about 50 knots and I could see that aircraft was an AT-6. My speed was too great as I continued past him and on my way as I thought; "I didn't think a T-6 was that slow!". It's all relative. But, it feels great!

The flight to Taylorville was uneventful and as I passed Decatur, a descent was started for landing to the north on their 4001 foot long, 75 feet wide runway. I feel that I was getting better at this because only two thirds of the runway is used before I'm slow enough to turn off. I took 80.4 gallons of fuel onboard and after a restroom break, I was ready to go again. Next stop was Covington, Tennessee just northeast of Memphis. It's a piece of cake! Keep St Louis on the right and follow the Mississippi River.

It was another uneventful flight to an airport with a north-south runway, this time, it was 5004 feet long and 100 feet wide. The fuel island is at the north end and the usual number of airport folks came over to see the aircraft and ask questions. That time, I took on 62.3 gallons of fuel and I don't recall the price on August 2 of last year but, it was $3.83 a gallon that morning!!

It was a long taxi for a takeoff to the north and once airborne, I turned to the south for Lafayette. I must clear the airspace around Memphis and, once again, the controllers were accommodating and cleared me through the Class B and on my way.

The weather looked fine at my destination but, as it got later in the day, the humidity started to build and the associated clouds formed along my route of flight. That's okay! I can descend and stay beneath them. But, when I got to 500 feet agl, I thought it was time to set down and let the weather pass. Off on my left, across the river was Natchez with 6500 feet of runway. No time for formalities! I set up for landing on their longest runway and hope to set down before the rain gets to the field. The airport is already wet from a previous storm and I managed to find a parking spot near the terminal and out of the way of the occasional commuter plane. The airplane was chocked, the canopy was closed and I walked across the steaming ramp to a pleasantly cool terminal building where I meet Clinton B. Pomeroy, the Director of Aviation. The director is very friendly and shows me the crew lounge where I can relax until the weather passed.

The hours passed and the weather slowly improved enough for me to fly the final leg to Lafayette. In keeping with the flight manual, I'll make a quick taxi and run-up before taking off. Oops, a 300rpm drop on the left magneto was cause for alarm! I thought that it has to be the humidity! After doing all the tricks I know for clearing a magneto, I tried the mag check again with the same results! It was time to call John, the owner, and plan a course of action. John said that this has happened before and he would round-up some mechanics and fly them up to Natchez. Since it is too late in the day, they would come up the next day and I would spend the night.

Natchez is an historic town which dates back to before the civil war. Its antebellum buildings and tree lined streets represent a trip into the old South. I managed to walk around its river bank later but first, I arranged transportation to town and overnight lodging. It seemed that I've worn out my use of the airport "courtesy car". The trip to town was a short drive and my driver is a displaced person from the NorthEast running a company called Downtown Karla Brown. She has started her own version of "Uber" and uses her van to support herself in the economy. She knowns the way even though I offered the use of my i-pad for navigation. The conversation was very interesting and ended all too soon. I arranged to have her pick me up in the morning for the short drive back to the airport. I booked a room earlier in the day after realizing the inevitability of my spending the night along the Mississippi.

After researching numerous hotels and motels and visiting the Grand Hotel, I decided on the Glenfield Plantation B&B. Good thing the reservation was made early because by late afternoon, most rooms were taken by folks, mostly tourists, traveling through. The "Plantation" appeared just as I could imagine. The graveled driveway was lined with Spanish moss covered Oak trees. The front entry door had a hole in the middle about the size of a musket ball. I was later informed that it was caused by an errant ball fired in a skirmish between North and South troops between the Plantation house and the river. The house was full of history as I was informed by the Granddaughter of the original owner. The room was comfortable and complete with a four-poster bed. The air conditioning worked well and the only thing missing was my lovely wife, D'Marie! In keeping with my Gone with the Wind accommodations, I thought: "I will talk to her tomorrah, for another day!"

The evening passed quickly and in the morning, I showered and shaved and put on my flight gear in anticipation of a morning departure. The European travelers at the breakfast table got eyes as big as saucers when I walked in! I'm sure they thought the troops had landed and an invasion was about to begin! I put their minds at ease as we enjoyed a lovely Southern-style breakfast and coffee. I explained my mission and that I was flying a WWII airplane back to its home base in Lafayette, Louisiana. The conversation ended, we said our goodbyes, and Downtown Karla Brown whisked me back to the airport.

Shortly after arriving back at the airport, the mechanics showed up having been flown up from Lafayette with their tools by my friend and former cadet roommate, Dick. What I thought to be a quick fix turned into an all morning event! First, some shade had to be found and some cover from the impending rain showers. Fortunately, one of the large community hangars was available and we rigged a tow bar and put the plane under cover. Next, the cowls were removed from the upper part of the engine compartment to gain access to the magnetos. The magnetos for the Allison engine are contained in one large unit at the back of the engine block. This is where the mechs perform their magic by resetting the timing using techniques developed in the 40's! My job was to stay out of the way and run up the engine when they were done. After the third try, the mag drop was within limits and the plane needed its panels reinstalled and I was cleared to go.

By late morning, the heat and humidity was high enough to be conservative in my runup and departure. A quick runup and straight out departure for Lafayette was in order. No low passes, just a flyover of downtown Natchez by the Mississippi River. I was taking no chances on this last leg for home base. It was a quick 35 minute flight and as I shut down the engine, Dick's light twin-engine aircraft with the mechanics taxied up, shut down and helped to put the P-40 back in its hangar.

The thrill of a lifetime was over and all I could think of was; "Was I dreaming, or did I fly a P-40 to Oshkosh?"

By Bob Simon, San Diego, CA

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