Story and photos by K. Alan Russell
Back in March Malcolm McGregor asked if I would like to join him for a trip to the annual Beech Party to be held at the National Staggerwing Museum in Tullahoma, Tennnesee The Beech Party is a gathering of Beech Staggerwing owners from all over the world. There are probably only 30 or 40 of these 1940 vintage, sexiest-ever kind of planes, still flying in the world. It is interesting to note that the majority of Staggerwing owners have cherished these fast, elegant machines for more than 20 years or so, with some owning them for as many as 55 years. To say these owners are an "eccentric bunch" would be an understatement. Malcolm, The Counselor and Consummate Aviator McGregor, is no exception, as his Staggerwing is one of the finest in the world. It is painted Tennessee red with gold trim and has Tony Lama Boot leather interior.
Flying cross country in a Staggerwing is not pursuing a destination – it is being one with a piece of elegant history. There is nothing like the deep-throated-belching-smoke-sound and smell of a Pratt and Whitney Radial 985 engine in the mornings!
In late September Malcolm inserted the idea of extending the trip to include flying up the East Coast to central Maine, where his sister Jean and brother-in-law Bob summer each year. Bob and Jean own a boat in a small harbor, which their 200-year-old former shipbuilder’s home, overlooks.
The trip was planned for two weeks with stops in Oklahoma, Tennessee, the Washington, D.C., area, up the coast to Central Maine, down to Akron, then back across the country to "The Pass."
The sunrise was just after 6 a.m. on the morning of Oct. 8, 2002. After several weeks of maintenance checks, removing seats and taking the stuffing out, chasing spare parts, insurance, new headsets and, of course, the required wax job, the Staggerwing was full of fuel and ready to go. I pulled the blades through all nine cylinders while The Counselor climbed into the left seat and readied the controls. The big Pratt & Whitney came to life in the cool fall air with the first turn of the inertial starter. It was all there: the belching smoke; the sound; and best of all, the big smile on The Counselor’s face. I climbed into the cockpit, taking the right seat and put on the brand new Bose noise canceling headset where Malcolm’s voice was alive in the intercom telling me: "She's running great and we are good to go." After clearing Anthony Gap and signing off with El Paso departure control, we could see Guadalupe Peak in the new morning sun. With clear skies and the wind at our back, we climbed to 11,500 feet and sailed at over 180 miles per hour toward our first fuel/rest stop in McAlester, Okla.
Arriving ahead of schedule over central Oklahoma, with extra fuel to burn, I asked Malcolm about buzzing my family farm where I grew up. The aviator part of The Counselor, now in full personality, swung the single-yoke cockpit control over to me in the right seat and said, "You have the airplane." I picked up my cell phone and gave a quick call to my mother, an almost impossible task with the noise of wind, flying wires, and the engine, to tell her and Dad that we would pass over the house in less than five minutes. Leveling the Staggerwing at less than 50 feet above the ground with the farmhouse in sight, we could make out Mom waving her white dishtowel from the side porch of the house. We arrived in McAlester 15 minutes later without further event. Well, except for the landing part. It was not one of The Counselor’s finest. It could be classified more as a crosswind arrival rather that a landing. The Staggerwing likes being in the air and has a bad reputation on the ground. With a conventional landing gear, non-steerable tail wheel, and very limited forward visibility, she is a handful on the ground.
After lunch, hosted by my friend Bud Gaberino (AKA, The Italian Stallion), and Joe Powell, we were well fed, full of oil and fuel, and back in the air bound for Tullahoma. The supercharged 450 horsepower round engine held true to its reputation as we leveled at 13,500 feet, with 60-knot winds pushing us past Little Rock, Memphis, and to our descent into southern Tennessee.
It Was Just A Cough
That is always a topic of conversation in a Staggerwing as she has five fuel tanks. Each can feed the engine through a complex system guiding the fuel from upper wings left and right, lower wings left and right, and the fuselage. In our crew structure, the left seat pilot is making the final command decisions on all such matters, but the right-seat pilot is dutied to monitor the tank burn times and recommend fuel-management strategies. It became obvious early on that The Counselor and I had a fundamental difference of style as related to fuel management. Malcolm enjoyed switching to and from the main fuel tank at about 55 feet above the ground (exaggeration) to preserve the most valuable fuel in the main tank. I, however, did not enjoy touching a fuel valve if we were below 5,000 feet above the ground. Well, life in an airplane is like life everywhere else – we compromised and would usually switch at about 2,000 feet.
We were now on descent into Tullahoma and I called for Malcolm to switch to the main/center tank at about 3,000 feet. He was able to switch the small, hard-to-turn, ill-placed, awkward valves, with only one skinned knuckle. Life was good as we made contact with ground operations at the Beech Party. Ground OPS gave us winds with runway advisory and immediately asked if this was the McGregor Staggerwing, as his old friends had been waiting patiently for his arrival. This was the 15th year in a row that Malcolm had made this trek.
Continuing our descent now, just below 2,000 feet, the engine quit! I assumed we had fuel problems, which was The Counselor's job to fix while my attention went outside the cockpit, looking for a field to land in, just in case it turned out to be a bigger knuckle-skinning job than expected. The five seconds of engine silence seemed like five minutes. The big Pratt and Whitney came back to life with a roar and surge. As I turned and looked at Malcolm, it became evident that neither of us knew what had happened. We had done nothing to cause the problem and nothing to correct it. As I explored with The Counselor what may have caused the engine to quit, he said with such confidence and expression, "The engine didn’t quit. That was a cough!"
Without further ado, we made the obligatory high speed, low pass over the Party in Tullahoma, then landed. Some 20 Staggerwings and owners assembled over the next three days. We flew the dawn patrol with as many as 10 airplanes in the air at one time. We ate together, had maintenance seminars, formation flying classes, told flying stories over cocktails in the afternoons. A large time was had by all!
The Wind On Our Back
Our departure on Saturday came way too soon. We had a small window of flying weather to the D.C. area that would not last long. Those who hesitated that morning would spend the next three days grounded in Tullahoma because of rain and fog. Not us. We were in the air and had the wheels up well before the sun peeked over the horizon. With strong tail winds, we raced the approaching cold front along the Smokey Mountains at over 200 miles per hour. This was one of the more memorable legs of our trip. The sheer speed made it interesting, but the cloud formations and scenery over the mountains made it an exceptional flight. A new friend from the Beech Party had invited us to use his hangar space at the Martinsburg, West Virginia airport during his absence. We were greeted with warm smiles as the blades stopped spinning in this beautiful part of the country.
The day before leaving for Owl's Head, a small community on the central coast of Maine, I spoke to The Counselor about us seeking permission to tour the New York-Manhattan area in the Staggerwing, at a low flight level. It would be a first-hand look at Ground Zero (9/11). The Counselor had other ideas of maybe avoiding the New York area altogether by staying low and west of what some call the most congested skies in the world. The aviator part of The Counselor was not interested in drawing a fighter escort for such a tour.
The Counselor did finally agree it would be kind of "zippy" if we could pull it off. However, since 9/11 and such, it was doubtful permission could be obtained. But it didn’t take long, maybe a couple of hours on the phone talking to various FAA offices and radar control facilities. Permission was granted. Being that we were flying the sexiest airplane in the sky had a lot to do with it, I am sure.
Camp David, Miss Liberty and Maine
After only one field repair to the right gear door – a missing bolt – we were off, clearing the traffic area in a sweeping turn toward New York. I reviewed our tour plans with the controller and a stern voice came back to me over the radio, demanding we make an immediate left, 90-degree turn, to avoid a restricted area. Of course, we complied and quickly double checked our position on the map to see what the heck was up. We knew about the restricted airspace and felt that our flight path would take us well west of the area. What we didn’t know was that this little spot on the map was called Camp David! These people had very little personality about them.
The Counselor was beginning to ponder the soundness of our New York tour plans if we couldn't get out of West Virginia. However, the Aviator McGregor can never say no to a flying adventure and I knew this about him, so we pressed for the City. After being passed from one controller to the next, and the next, we descended out of 8,500 feet over New Jersey. Reviewing our plans many times with the various controllers, we were cleared and "good to go." We were now at 3,000 feet east of the Harbor and Manhattan was over the nose at our twelve o'clock. As we entered the Harbor, we were cleared below controlled airspace to 800 feet above the water. The controllers took care of us like you would never believe. They all wanted to know what color or what year the Staggerwing was. Some were even so familiar that they wanted to know which model she was. We felt like celebrities walking on a stage. And a beautiful stage it was. We had not dreamed of such a sight. With Miss Liberty on our left, and a slight turn, we headed straight up the Hudson River. With Newark Airport on our left, Kennedy and La Guardia on our right, we passed directly by Ground Zero, the Empire State Building, and Central Park.
Tail winds and clear skies escorted us up the New England Coast. The change of color in the mountain forest was beyond our expectations. In 25 years of flying, I had never been to Maine. Talk about a different world; a different culture; the coast; the history; the small coastal towns; the hospitality. The beauty was breathtaking. Jean and Bob, The Counselor’s sister and brother-in-law, have an outrageous, four-story, completely restored 100-year-old home, only a short drive from the airport, overlooking their boat, moored in the bay. After four days of being wined, dined, toured, including shopping and, of course, boating, we were back at the airport. We knew that this day would be the start of some great adventure. The weather was marginal with fog, rain, ice and snow forecast for the second half of our route to Akron. Waiting it out would be days and maybe a week. Jean took our picture just as we were about to board. The Counselor and I were standing arm in arm by the door of the plane with big smiles and Malcolm said, "This is just like Amelia Earhart departing and they were never to be heard from again!" We were the only ones that laughed.
West to Akron
On that note, the decision was made to press; get serious; check it out; keep our back door open and go flying. The Counselor didn’t like the idea of flying the Staggerwing in the rain. Hard rain would strip the paint from the leading edge of the fabric-coated wings. Then, of course, there were the potential leaks around the wind screen, which would let water down into the radios and such. Not good! The next 3 1/2 hours were great flying. We kept up with the weather conditions all around us every step of the way. The Counselor flew and I navigated and managed the fuel with only one bloody knuckle. Some would call it “scud running,” but we called it low level navigation and pilotage. Never lost, we were only temporarily disoriented from time to time and we avoided almost all serious rain. We reached the small airport in Akron feeling pretty damn good about the world. The line crew swarmed us with service and hospitality. Then the hangar doors flew open and our graceful bird rested for the night on heated tile floors, compliments of the fixed-base manager.
Our host, Brandon Wehl, dropped us off at the airport at about 1100 hours for our departure to the Southwest. We were not sure where we were going, but we had “get home-itis” and wanted to put at least one big leap behind us before dark, and then press for “The Pass” the following day. It wasn’t in the cards. The field was IFR (instrument flight rules only), and so was the entire route to anywhere we wanted to go. The Counselor watched the ball game as I pondered our destiny. Considering we didn’t have the correct maps for an IFR flight and it was late in the day, I called the shot and we camped another night in Akron. I have to admit that climbing into the clouds for hard IFR flying with the Staggerwing was just a little intimidating. I am still not sure why. The instruments worked great, even though they were, for the most part, original 1940 vintage. Not having an autopilot wasn’t a big problem, as I did have Aviator McGregor to back me up. The Staggerwing by design has very little dihedral in the wings, meaning it took constant vigilance while on the gauges. But hey, I had spent the balance of the day in the Comfort Inn, watching ball games and building confidence. I went back to the airport and purchased every map and approach plate they had covering all points to the Southwest.
Back To "The Pass"
We were at the airport as daylight came on that foggy, misty Sunday morning, "loaded for bear." We had enough paperwork on board to make an Atlantic crossing. Loaded up; line crew at attention; primed; organized; IFR clearance in hand – and she would not start. Malcolm tried everything and nothing worked. We were about to climb out of the pilot seats when I told The Counselor to try one more time with full strokes on the pump and to hold his mouth over to one side, like I was showing him. It worked! She came to life. As we were taxiing for our departure, The Counselor was quiet and I asked him what was up. He looked at me and said, "I am contemplating the fact that I am sitting here with a dammed genius!" Once again, I felt vindicated, after the "Camp David thing," and for letting the upper right wing tank "run dry" while he was flying.
We were off. Hard work; solid IFR; fuel management; navigation; ran a fuel tank dry while in the soup (not good); skinned knuckles; on top; pilot halos; and after 3 1/2 hours, an ILS approach into Branson, Mo. Now, we had our confidence! Had lunch; checked the weather; planned a course to the south to miss most of the rain; and we were out of there. Rain, bumps, head winds, and four hard hours later, we shot our second instrument approach of the day into Midland/Odessa. We were less than two hours from "The Pass." The field at MAF was IFR and the sun was setting. Not to worry. Immortality was setting in. We were feeling good; tired, but good. Let’s go home!
The climb out to on-top conditions was uneventful. The Counselor and I had a long talk about fuel management. By then I felt that there was only one thing worse that letting a fuel tank run dry while in the clouds, and that would be letting it happen in the clouds at night! All senses were on full alert. We had lots of flashlights, extra batteries, a great airplane and fuel to burn. Life was good as we watched a spectacular sunset over the clouds with that very welcome Guadalupe Peak rising above. It was clear in El Paso and we could see the star on the mountain from fifty miles out.
The Counselor and I monitored all systems very closely as we passed through the dark sky, anticipating our low approach over The Pass and a night landing at Cielo Dorado. I finally did ask Malcolm if he had ever flown the Staggerwing at night and he answered with an emphatic "yes." However, he wasn’t sure what year it was when he and his friend, Nolan, coming back form Arizona, had flown in the dark. He continued to explain that everything worked just fine at that time. We talked about the landing lights and the fact that they had to extend on slow electric motors out of the lower wings. One should be set for landing and the other angled for taxi as the tail was lowered after the landing roll. We shined the flashlights on the switches down low on the right side of the instrument panel and reviewed the procedure for extension and illumination. It was all set. I would concentrate on flying the airplane and positioning for the approach and The Counselor would man the lights on command.
Slowing, descending; runway lights on and ready for the gear extension cycle, which was always an "event." Wheels down; mixture rich; flaps; and then I called for landing lights as we turned final. Time passed; nothing happened. No lights. Now what? After a quick review of our situation, we decided we could make the landing in the dark. After all, we had trained for this. We had done it before in other airplanes. Why should the Staggerwing be different? After an uneventful landing and rollout, we were calming our heart rates while groping around trying to find the turnoff to Malcolm’s house in the dark, when all at once everything lit up. The landing and taxi lights all came on at once. I said, "Hey! What the heck was that all about?" The Consummate Aviator McGregor said quietly into the microphone of the Bose noise-canceling headset, "Those switches need to be in the up position." The adventure of flying a vintage Staggerwing from the quiet haven of Malcolm's home in Cielo Dorado to the farthest point in the continental United States marks one of the most memorable milestones of my life. I count myself blessed to have connected with my great friend and to have shared this experience of a lifetime. --K. Alan Russell