As a CFI, DPE and tailwheel guy, I sometimes get to fly interesting airplanes. I get calls for instructional situations that other people can’t or won’t get involved in. Such was the case when my phone rang about 10 days before I wrote this. The guy wanted instruction in a 1946 Luscombe 8A. OK, I have a little time in Luscombes; I could do that. But what’s going on here? Why me? After two preliminary phone calls and then actually doing the instruction, here’s the story. Spoiler alert: this episode of “There I was” is no harrowing cliff hanger, just a fun story about a pleasant experience in a great airplane..
This older guy (turns out Joe is 77, so I can still say “older”) bought the 8A about two years ago; but had never flown it. He rode in it when he bought it; that was it. He had the airplane delivered to the grass strip at Owen Air Park (0KY0), about 25 nm south of Cincinnati where he had just built a house. He had so much finishing work to do on it that he had no time for the plane. And he had a friend’s Cessna 170 to fly; until it got wrecked in a storm.
So, with the house is about done, he wanted to fly the Luscombe. He had about 500 hours of tailwheel time over the years, but zero Luscombe time. His flight review was current, and the insurance company required only that he get at least one hour of dual in the plane before they would cover him. One hour. Even that inadequate amount of dual was a problem: because no conveniently located instructor had any Luscombe 8A time. The few experienced Luscombe instructors he contacted wanted a small fortune to come to his strip, which was within easy Champ range for me..
Some were afraid of the runway. It’s grass, 2,300 feet long, narrow, and is a “one-way runway” – steeply uphill. You land uphill and take off downhill, regardless of the wind. If it’s too windy, you just don’t fly. There are power lines on the uphill end, so a go-around is an issue if you wait too long. Oh, I forgot to mention that the Luscombe has no electrical system so you have to hand-prop it. Hand-propping is rapidly becoming a lost art these days; even most instructors have never done it.
Back in the 1980s I used to fly my Skyhawk, and later a Skylane, into a 1,600-foot one-way strip on the coast of Maine near my mother’s summer cottage, so I figured I could handle the runway at Owen with my Champ. Joe assured me the 8A was in annual and in excellent shape. I (almost) always appreciate the opportunity for an adventure, so I quoted Joe a reasonable travel fee plus an hourly rate for instruction. We were on!
I flew over there on a beautiful day in mid-September. His airplane really is in nice shape. It had been painted metallic silver with a yellow/black checkerboard empennage and yellow “invasion stripes” on the wings. That’s sort of an odd paint job for a non-aerobatic Luscombe, but it matched a previous owner’s P-51, which he flew on the air show circuit. The interior had also been redone with light gray cushy seats.
After a quick check of the logbooks and paperwork to ensure legal airworthiness, it was time to go flying. A thorough preflight inspection didn’t turn up anything bad. The 65-hp Continental started on the second blade, a good sign. The downhill takeoff, even with a slight tailwind, was uneventful. The airplane will never be accused of being overpowered, and the climb was anemic. We did some airwork and then took the airplane to a nearby paved airport to get fuel. Joe was surprised at how easy the Luscombe was to land on pavement. After getting fuel, we made one more landing on the pavement to make sure the first one wasn’t just good luck, and then headed back to the grass strip. Joe made three more landings there just to raise his comfort level. He had some trouble with the heel brakes, which weas no trouble for me — because the plane doesn’t have brakes on the right side. Other than a bit of over-control with the rudders, Joe flew the airplane just fine. Now he just needs some practice to gain full proficiency.
You often hear about the terrible plight of the flight instructor; underpaid, long hours, students who try to kill them, etc, etc, and so forth. But just once in a while a flight instructor has a really good experience. I view my day with Joe and his 8A as an all-expense-paid fun aviation adventure, with a little money left over for my next annual. It doesn’t get much better than that. Just be sure that when you go out shopping for adventure, you don’t get in over your head.
One final note: This happens to be the third Luscombe 8A I have flown, and I find the airplanes easy to fly. They have a bad reputation for groundlooping, but I don’t think they are as bad as folklore makes them out to be. What Luscombes need is a new press agent. And this isn’t because I don’t know about groundloops. Over the years I have gotten the “quick scenic view” twice; once in a Cub, and later in a Champ (not mine). All taildraggers must be handled with care, and I’ve found Luscombes to be no worse than any other – just different, like any airplane.
Larry Bothe is an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner, FAASTeam Representative and Gold Seal Instructor in the Indianapolis, IN FSDO area. He is also a Master Certified Flight Instructor and has over 7000 hours in more than 80 types of aircraft. Larry is part-owner of a 1961 7EC Champ and may be contacted at LBothe@comcast.net