I woke up late, rushed through a shower and made my usual big breakfast. The sun was struggling as I was, filtering in through low, broken clouds. I gulped down my smoothie and made a premature attempt to eat my eggs; too hot. I made the same mistake with my coffee. As I waited for my food to cool and my tongue to regain feeling, I watched NYC subway trains cruise back and forth out of my kitchen window. The trees, still with their green leaves well into autumn, rustled in the breeze and tiny Sparrows darted in and out of the gaps in the branches. I looked at the sky and thought back on some of my favorite aviation events of the year. One event with the same type of low clouds came quickly to mind: the Cub Fly-In at Sentimental Journey in Lock Haven, PA, beautifully chronicled by our own Ryan Tykosh.
It was at this event that I met Neil Baughman, and then almost immediately folded myself into the backseat of his L-2, and up we went. We bumped around in a flight of three, flying middle position in a loose right echelon formation around the gorgeous countryside in flat lighting and low clouds. RyTy was shooting from the lead aircraft and captured Neil's Grasshopper (and me with my knees up around my ears) and the other Grasshopper behind us in all their glory, the light aircraft all bouncing in the windy conditions and blending into the trees in their olive drab.
As the saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. The solution? Have no plan. Well, at least this time, with zero plans, our Grasshopper photo flight came to fruition as one of the smoother shoots I'd been a part of all year. It probably didn't hurt that Neil and his friends Eric Ridilla and Brian Bell were all gracious hosts and even better pilots, and without communications with us, flew perfect formation for RyTy and his camera. We landed before I realized how easily and quickly, with zero notice, the pilots had orchestrated this photo flight.
Before we parted, Neil suggested I head out to the Golden Age Air Museum in Bethel, PA, where he flies aircraft from their collection. He said there was some "cooler stuff" there to shoot, detailed wonderfully by our own Zulu (Richard Souza) in our first installment of Golden Age adventures. Flash forward: today was the day we had arranged to meet up at Golden Age with the hopes of getting in the air with some of their vintage metal (and wood and muslin…). I took a sip of my coffee; just right. Maybe it was a good omen.
I had another potentially good omen: no set plans. No high expectations. No built up dramatics. Just meeting up with some fellow aviation aficionados to marvel at 100 year old airplanes at a place I'd never been. I figured the winds would be too gusty to fly anyway; a weather front was due to move in during the evening hours, and most of the aircraft that call Golden Age home weigh less than 1000lbs. Not to mention the clouds would likely prevent us from seeing a sunset. Optimistic, right? I finished my coffee, grabbed my bag and faced NYC traffic.
The drive passed tediously. Getting out of NYC is always the worst part of any trip for me, even if my trip ended inside the magma chamber of an active volcano. Once clear of the madness of the NYC metro area, the industrial stench and smog gradually faded and I was rewarded with the rolling fields and small towns dotted along Interstate 78. I put my shades on, rolled down the windows and cranked up the music.
Exit 15, Grimes. Unpaved roads, zero traffic. Perfect. I filled my lungs with fresh air.
I found a white house with a tiny parking lot and a sign: Golden Age Air Museum. Once I parked, I got out and stretched. Leaving the city has always put me more at ease; finding myself on a grass strip surrounded by nature is like winning the lottery. For those of you who know Huxley's novel Brave New World, I would compare it to the fictional feeling of ingesting a cereal bowl full of Soma pills. Simply put, I was happy.
Neil's familiar L-2 was at rest in the grass just beyond a white fence. He called from the nearest hangar and I walked over to greet him; he was busy finding tools to wrench on his Grasshopper. There's something about a vintage aircraft parked on grass that sparks my imagination. RyTy and then James arrived as we were discussing ideas, and the volunteers began pulling aircraft out of the hangars. Most of these aircraft are literally tail-draggers with no tailwheel, so the museum has a bicycle-wheeled dolly that two guys hoist the tail of the aircraft into, and then together they roll the aircraft into the grass.
We nailed down specifics with Paul Dougherty, co-founder and president of Golden Age, and he briefed the lot of us, asking for input as he went. We laid out a sunset flight with the Jenny first, then the WWI birds: the Sopwith Pup, the Rumpler C.V and the Fokker Dr.1. Paul would fly the Jenny, then put it down and hop in the Triplane while Mike Damiani would fly the Pup, and Neil would fly the Rumpler. Our photoship was a 1929 Waco biplane piloted by Gerry Wild.
The pilots changed into period appropriate attire for the flight, donning leather flying helmets and goggles. RyTy and I buckled the only lap belt across both of us in the front seat of the 1929 Waco and tied our hoods around our faces tight. The museum gives rides in this aircraft; a spectacular, affordable, open-cockpit treat for any aviation lover attending one of their events. The sounds and smells and sensations...it's pure flying. As is the standard with these old engines, it took a concerted effort to get it started.
We taxied to the end of the strip and waited for a minute at the end of the runway. RyTy gave me a fist bump. I closed my eyes and was still for a few precious seconds, absorbing my environment. I tried to recognize and appreciate each little sensation. Our church pew-like bench seat vibrated as the engine chugged at idle. Burned and unburned oil and gasoline fumes faintly swirled in the thrust around our windscreen, mixing with the sweet country air. The big vintage radial in front of our faces grumbled with the ambling gait of a big block motor in a tuned up muscle car.
The idle gained momentum and I cracked my eye open, taking in our nose-high attitude and how far the ground seemed from our reclined perch. The grass started moving underneath the wings in front of me. Beyond the struts and wires holding the wings together, I could see the ailerons moving. The radial growled as Gerry gave it a good bump in power. We accelerated and the tail yawed a bit as the rear wheel lifted off the damp grass. Gerry pulled the stick back and we eased off the earth, climbing to 1000 feet over the red rooftops of the museum. The collection strewn out on the grass from above reminded me of my childhood, playing with brightly colored aircraft models in purple, green, orange, red, yellow. The cool air was smooth; Gerry was gentle with stick movements, and the mountain layers stretched out in all directions, colored infinite shades of blues.
Pause here for a minute. The past month and a half I had aviation events planned every weekend. I keep reminding myself that just getting to and from an event safely is a successful venture, but with that said, each event was a letdown relative to expectations. One event was a complete wash and my contact ghosted me. One fell through before I even left the city. One was more expensive than I really had money for. Each of these events had deep hours of planning, forethought, ideas and inspiration I wanted to execute, only to end up face to face with failure each time. What did I say earlier, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry? This was my last event of the year, and the miles and hours piled up over this time span with not much to show for it felt like lead weights on my frame...
Snap back to the moment: RyTy gave me a nudge and a nod, and I cranked around in our shared seat with my camera to look towards our rear quarter and shoot. Paul in the Jenny was sliding up off our starboard wing, and finally...those lead weights of crossed wires and miscommunication, disappointment and stress, lost wages, anxiety, frustration, and hours upon hours of brutal travel...floated lightly off of my shoulders. I felt like crying. This was my reward for perseverance. We started a slow left turn in formation along the mountains.
With my body torqued around backwards and my eye to the viewfinder, I battled the wind and soft bumps to get clean shots at slow shutter speeds of Paul as he maneuvered the Jenny up and down, banking away and then towards us. We were halfway down our mountain racetrack pattern when it hit me like a brick wall: this plane is 100 years old, man. 100! It speaks to the level of care she receives at Golden Age; her melody is still as beautiful as it always was meant to be, yet she sings it as strong as she ever has, even after all these years.
Such slow airspeeds allowed Paul to hold in the Jenny in a myriad of attitudes relative to our position. He sunk below us, the dark green of the mountain filling my frame and seemingly enveloping the bright red airframe. He yawed towards us for head-on shots. He pulled back on the controls and soared high above us, a silhouette of wire bracing and wood struts against the puffy blue clouds of sunset. He made the second slow corner with us and broke for the airfield.
A quick, soft landing, and we were back at our staging area, but not for long. Soon, we were back in the air again, making laps around our racetrack pattern against the mountain, but this time with the Sopwith, the Rumpler and the Triplane. After the Triplane made a lap with us, the century-old, 80hp LeRhone Rotary engine started giving Paul issues and he peeled away for the field, executing a perfect dead-stick landing. Neil linked with Mike and together, they flew the Rumpler and Sopwith in loose formation off our wing for one final lap.
As the formation broke for landing, we were treated to the last rays of sun peeking through the cloud layers, coating the countryside in diffuse lighting with a band of orange along the horizon. Gerry floated us in for our final landing, and as soon as we shut down, I hopped out of the Waco and sped over to James to help him set up lights for our night shoot. With help from Mike and the other volunteers, Neil arranged our first subject, the 1928 Monocoupe 70, in front of the moon and our lights, fired the engine, and we were off. In a similar fashion, we then shot the Sopwith, Christian Eagle, and Eric Lunger's pink, war-veteran Aeronca L16.
As we prepared to shoot the Fokker, Neil mentioned we should leave our staging lights off for the first part of the shoot and we obliged. The reason for this was to reveal a wild phenomenon: the lack of any exhaust tubing on the spinning LeRhone rotary engine meant flames from the cylinder head exhaust ports were visible in low light. As the 80hp rotary spun, the explosions pumped out of each of the open stacks formed a circle of fire under the cowling, spitting sparks that got whisked away in the thrust. The open stacks meant something else as well: for an 80hp engine, this thing was LOUD! We flipped on the lights for the back half of the engine run, but not until after we got long exposure photos of the Fokker's ring of flame.
To use what little light was left in the sky, we worked as quickly as possible, both during each shoot and between subjects. Blue hour never seems to last as long as I want it to. I flitted between positions, turning lights on and off, changing angles and camera settings. When we had finished, the sky was inky black between the cloud layers. The moon had risen higher and danced between openings in the clouds, highlighting the edges like a floodlight behind bedsheets.
As the volunteers carefully maneuvered the aircraft into the hangars for the night, I finally exhaled. I felt like I had been holding my breath the entire night, even though I recall being winded as I ran lights to and from shooting locations during the night shoot. It was a lazy feeling day with a spike of prolonged, hyper-focused action and I needed a moment in the crisp night air to just... breathe... processing what had just happened. My ears were still ringing a little from the Fokker engine run. The moon had risen higher behind thicker layers of clouds, and I drew deep breaths of damp, country air as the filtered moonlight morphed in its luminosity behind each bank of clouds. I felt the wheels in my head slow down; my muscles relaxed a bit, and I went to help the tireless volunteers who were doing all the hard work.
It was so dark on the field that I used my flashlight as a headlight for a number of aircraft as they were taxied or pushed into the hangars and tucked in for the night. Once the buildings were buttoned down, I thanked the volunteers as they settled in for the evening on the airfield, having drinks around a cozy campfire. James, RyTy and I found the nearest gas station with food and reflected on the evening. We parted ways exhausted, I shook the cobwebs loose and gassed up for the 3 hour drive back to the big city.
The first hour of the drive, I didn't listen to any music. The windows were cracked, letting in a swirl of chilly air. A reel of the past 4 hours spun through my head on a loop, bringing intermittent smiles to my drawn, tired face. Pennsylvania, and then New Jersey passed impersonally, signified only by their imposing green exit signs and massive gas stations shining like mirages in the dark, as I followed a river of taillights home. I turned on some classic rock when my mind started wandering and felt the familiar buzz when I finally saw the city spires rise above the horizon, as my GPS started barking out commands in rapid succession. Getting in at such a late hour meant the traffic was minimal and entry into the city was smooth; I even found a parking spot near my apartment. I set my bag down in my room just as I heard the first drops of the forecasted rains patter on my skylight.
I slept well into the next afternoon.
[Full Disc would like to once again thank Paul, Neil, Mike, Gerry, Eric, and all the other tireless volunteers for their hospitality and generosity. Check them out at goldenageair.org and stay tuned to Full Disc Aviation for more content on the Golden Age Air Museum.]