Grasshopper

Prose: Ryan Tykosh
Photography: Ryan Tykosh & Nicholas Pascarella

The seasons always tend to creep up on us, ushering in gradual to drastic changes for the weeks ahead. For some, it's a welcome change, a chance to reflect on the past and grow. Despite the good, these sudden changes can also be a way to forget the days gone by in the process of looking forward and progressing.  As the warmth of summer fades away and the cool crisp air of autumn begins to filter in, I find it a good time to reflect on the experiences of this past year. This season was filled with so many firsts and unique experiences, it's hard to pinpoint just one that stands high above the rest. As I stand in the gusty breeze and gaze upwards at the gray clouds racing overhead, it conjures up one particular memory from this past June. I remember it clearly, as the cool air rushed over me, gripping my camera, and struggling to focus on two dark green sometimes forgotten aircraft that served a great role in World War II.

That morning, Nick Pascarella and I arrived at the Sentimental Journey to Cub Haven fly-in at William T. Piper Memorial Airport in Lock Haven on a mission. For those who haven’t been, think a small scale EAA Airventure Oshkosh dominated by Piper and Taylorcraft built aircraft of all eras. It was my first experience at this event, and I was blown away by the beauty of the airport and towering mountains that surrounded it. We had been informed by Full Disc colleague Richard Souza that there were several pilots representing the Golden Age Air Museum in attendance we should link up with for some photo ops. At the time I wasn't yet aware of the type of aircraft we’d be shooting that day, but I kind of had an idea based on the theme of the event. We were told to meet by the runway marker light named “Bohica”.

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As we found the marker, we met Neil Baughman, Brian Bell and Eric Ridilla, all pilots with the Golden Age Air Museum. After our introductions, we finally laid eyes on our subjects for the day: a pair of beautifully restored Taylorcraft L-2M Grasshoppers. There they sat nestled amongst the trees at the edge of the airfield, blending in with their surroundings, as was the intention of their dark green/brown paint scheme. The L-2 was one of several aircraft of the time period that carried the name of “Grasshopper”, others being the Aeronca L-3 and Piper L-4, which itself is directly based on the iconic Cub. While all had a similar high wing design, the L-2 had some unique features that helped it stand out from its brethren. One of these features, which I was actually unaware of until Neil pointed it out, was the addition of retractable spoilers on the upper surface of each wing to aid with short field landings. Another unique L-2 feature is that the cockpit sits higher above the fuselage and included a rear facing window, offering a much better all around view, as opposed to the L-3 and L-4 which both blended the rear of the cockpit into the fuselage.

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The main role these small wood and fabric aircraft had in the war torn skies over Europe was to seek out axis infantry forces and supply concentrations and relay their positions to allied artillery so an attack could be mounted. This role made the little Grasshoppers infamous among the Nazi forces, who feared the aircraft just as much as bombers. In fact, they offered the same reward to anyone who managed to shoot one down as anyone who downed a four engine bomber such as the B-17 Flying Fortress.  In addition to the liaison role, the short field landing ability meant the L-2 could also deliver smaller supply loads and mail to troops in the field, making it ideal for front line operations.

As I acquainted myself with some of the features and history of these L-birds, some unsettling weather was beginning to creep in from the southwest, meaning the window of opportunity was about to close. So, without any more hesitation, we hopped into our rides for the day with hope the weather would hold. While the gray skies and winds were nowhere near the ideal conditions for this type of photography, we were still more than eager to make the most of it and squeeze out some good shots that would do these warbirds justice.

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I rode in a Taylorcraft BC-12 as the photo ship while Nick would ride with Neil in the lead L-2. We fast taxied from the parking area near the trees to the runway. I watched as the two L-2s launched first, and I could feel it taking over…that grin slowly creeping over my face and an overwhelming feeling of excitement for what was to come. In this moment, I felt the engine throttle up and watched out the door as the grass strip fell below us, and the cool breeze blew in through the open door. Looking ahead, I got a visual on the L-2s as we accelerated to catch up.

As we joined the formation, I observed the surroundings and was blown away by the beauty of the landscape. The mountains stood majestically in the distance, towering over the valley below which was adorned with vast farmlands, a river, and the historic town of Lock Haven. I’ll admit, there were several moments during the flight where I would just gaze out at the beauty of this historic area, the home of the legendary Piper Cub. You could feel the history, looking over the rolling landscape. It’s at this moment, a tear welled up in my eye. I was flying over one of the most important towns related to aviation in the world, in aircraft that were equally as important to the history of general and military aviation alike. I snapped back to reality as I looked to the right and saw the L-2 formation closing in. It was game time. I raised my camera and found the lead L-2 in the viewfinder, and fired away. Oh, did I mention this was my very first air to air photoshoot? Well, it was, and it was a dream come true.

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We soared for about 35-40 minutes over the area with the L-2s each alternating positions and elevation, displaying their agility and versatility in the low level flight environment. The lower light and green landscapes made it apparent how well the dark green paint scheme of the L-2 worked against such landscapes. There were a few instances where I completely lost visual until the planes rose above the dark green landscape to meet the gray clouds. The wind didn’t help either, as you can imagine with such lightweight aircraft. The fun thing about the Lock Haven area is that the farmlands and architecture give the feeling of traveling back in time to the late 1930s and 40s. Very little seems to have changed over time, which makes it the ideal backdrop for some aerial photos of equally historic aircraft.

As we entered the downwind leg and touched down at William T. Piper Memorial Airport, I was still trembling with excitement. I had completed my first air to air session, over Lock Haven, with aircraft that owed their history to that very region. It's hard to describe how many emotions were running through me at this moment, but rest assured, it’s a flight I will never forget. As I walked around the L-2s one last time and gave a good look to the interior, I can’t help but think of those brave pilots who undertook those liaison missions. Flying low over the battlefield, scouting out enemy positions while being shot at by those forces…all while in a small wood and fabric unarmed plane. It's hard to imagine the will and resolve needed to complete these dangerous missions, but that was just another day at the office to these pilots and navigators. While not as glamorous as the bomber and fighters of the day, the Grasshopper deserve every bit of respect as their more well-known warbird brethren.

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Several months later, I still stand here watching the clouds race by, reminiscing on that amazing experience.  Just as I will never forget that day, the members of the Golden Age Air Museum and Sentimental Journey Fly-in work hard year round to put on great events and preserve history, so that visitors to both organizations will be able to enjoy these pieces of history and share in their own personal experiences for years to come, so that the hard work and sacrifices of previous generations will never be forgotten.