I have long grappled with the philosophical question: are my aviation pursuits truly my own, or is there an imbalanced devotion to the legacy of my grandfather? I will never know if or how I would have attracted to aviation had my first flight not been at age two in the back of his Piper Cub. I further will not have the ability to rewrite history and wonder if I would have attracted to the Cub to Super Cub taildragger line, or if that is a monument to subconscious programming, having taken more rides than I can count in them? I defer to my own reasoning, at roughly age 10, when I stood in the middle of the runway until my grandfather noticed my presence, forcing him to abort the takeoff run so I could hop in. He was not happy. “You have an airplane,” I thought, “I am not concerned if you’re unhappy. I want to go flying.”
Is it as simple as taking a ride in the plane that is available, or does it go deeper than that?
The subject got stirred up recently by two things. I saw a magazine article that had Cessna 120s in it. The 120 has tailfeathers and wingtips with a similar shape to the Cub, and I always liked them as a kid. So maybe it is the airplane model and not just the memory.
About a month ago, I was at an airport when a Bell 47 helicopter landed. It left me with warm fuzzy feelings, like all is right in the world. My grandfather bought one when he turned 76. I took one ride in it, itself of which was mildly disconcerting owing the circumstances around the flight (and a pernicious inadequacy of rotor RPM in flight), and that was it. Yet, here I am, looking “nostalgically” on it. Perhaps another vote for legacy worship?
My grandfather said frequently about the PA-11: “it flies the best out of all of them.” I assume he meant the Cub to Super Cub line, though he might have meant out of every airplane model on earth. It is hard to tell as he often spoke in reduction and by reference, interspersed with fusillades of inarguable condescension. Anyhow, he is correct, that the experience in flight in the PA-11 is literally superior to any other taildragger I have flown, as long as we’re not concerned with speed or cabin comfort.
The thing about all this mountain and glacier flying, along with the photography process, is that it just happened after the airplanes did. The aircraft of my youthful rides gave way to teenage training in the PA-11, which resulted in eventually owning it. A few months into owning the PA-11, I pointed a camera out the window and it was an instant knack for it. One should be honest: it is pure luck that the aircraft is a good platform for photography. If the wing, strut, gear, or anything else is in the way, one can’t use nostalgia or willpower to fix it; it just doesn’t work in that case. It is further luck that these airplanes are nearly perfect for high mountain flying: high lift, high drag, and slow. If I had a Stromberg carburetor with a C-90 engine instead of a Marvel-Schebler with mixture control and an O-200 engine, the PA-11 probably would have never gotten above 12,000 feet, which means I would not have taken it to Colorado, which means none of this would have happened.
Maybe it boils down to the carburetor that happened to be sitting in my grandfather’s hangar.
At the same time, I am if anything persistent. Carburetors can be changed. As John Muir is quoted as saying: “The mountains are calling, and I must go.” I am quite sure after a bunch of spitting and sputtering at high altitude, I would have found some “airport geezers” (quote from “Flight of Passage” by Rinker Buck) and asked them how to supercharge the damn thing. After telling me that I am an idiot (that has already happened), somebody would have figured it out, and there I would be, wandering around in the flight levels in a Cub.
There is the nagging question of childhood. Sometimes it leaves its mark and that is that. Over 35 years ago, my grandfather had a yellow Piper Cub and a blue and white Super Cub. He would ask me which one I wanted to take a ride in. Recently, it occurred to me that I have a yellow Cub…and a blue and white Super Cub…and ask myself which one to fly. One must confess that glaciers weren’t part of the picture; in fact, my grandfather thought mountain flying was stupid and told me over and over again I would die if I went near them.
After all the introspection and musing, I think two things are true: my grandfather probably figured out the most enjoyable planes and helicopters available to fly. He lived as these machines came to market, whereas I see them only as novel antiques. I also think that I unquestionably would have always attracted to a Cub and a Super Cub, and I probably would have in every version of alternate history taken them into the mountains and to the glaciers.
I thought it would be fitting after this missive to pictorially demonstrate what I consider to be a pleasant evening flight, which stands in stark contrast of my grandfather’s version of the same. His ideal evening flight is over farm fields, 700 feet above the ground, barely going fast enough for the airplane to stay flying, with the door open. Were I actually to spend any time with warm summer evenings over farm fields, then I would agree!
Kanderfirn and Petersgrat, with the Doldenhorn ridge in the foreground.
Summit of Altels, with Balmhorngletscher in the shadow.
Tungelgletscher, entirely under the snow.