I’ll never forget the first time I saw him. It was New Year’s Day 1973. I had gone to a party the night before at Jim’s apartment in Building D. It turned out that I was the only one there who either wasn’t with a date or hooked up with one of the single girls that were there. Sometime after midnight, feeling lonely, I left the party and went back to my apartment and poured myself a glass of Jack Daniels over ice and put some bluegrass on my stereo. I drank and listened for awhile then got out my guitar and played and drank some more. The next morning I slept in. Sometime in the afternoon there was a knock on the door. Some girls from the Up Country who had come down for the party were leaving and wanted to tell me goodbye. As they were leaving, I heard my phone ringing. It was Mary, from the airport at Summerville. “Sam, you’re airplane is here. It’s beautiful. The pilot is ready to take your old one as soon as you can get here with the check and paperwork. I invited my roommate to go along and we jumped in my Cougar and headed for Summerville. Mary was right; the airplane really was beautiful. It was blue with a white underbelly with blue stars on the bottom of the wings and a blue and white sunburst on top. The interior was white naugahyde with wood grain on the panel (it was laminate, not real wood.) It had a “greenhouse” roof, meaning part of the roof was Plexiglas.
The blue Citabria was the third and last airplane I ever owned. My foray into aerobatics started in early 1970 at Clark Field where I had a run-in with a young WAF from Tennessee. I’m not sure who dumped who but when she showed up at a party a few nights later, I ignored her and decided right then I was going to become an aerobatic pilot. I left Clark later that year and went to Charleston where I initially spent a lot of time in the NCO Club drinking with other guys who had just returned from overseas. Most of them were married. I wasn’t. Never had been and had zero prospects that I ever would. After a few months of hard drinking, I awoke one day and realized I was headed down the road toward alcoholism. I decided right then that I should use my GI Bill to obtain my commercial pilot license. I went across the field and talked to the aero club manager. He told me that John Shelton, a retired USAF flight engineer who owned Summerville Aviation, was in the process of getting FAA approval for his commercial pilots course. He also told me John had a Cessna Aerobat.
I went to Summerville and started flying. I was one of the first students for the FAA approved course. I took a couple of aerobatic lessons in the Aerobat but all we did was wingovers and spins. Impatient, I decided to learn them on my own. I read the pilot’s manual and then tried the maneuvers, which most people would not consider to be a good idea. I started thinking about buying an aerobatic airplane of my own. My initial plan was to buy a clipped-wing Cub, but John said that was not a good idea because most Cubs had been used as dusters and their wing spars were shot. John had a Champion 7FC Tri-Champ that his mechanics were just finishing rebuilding. He said it would was licenses for aerobatics. I had some moey in my bank account so I paid him most of the $3,600 and borrowed the rest from the base credit union. Not only did they finance cars, they also financed airplanes.
The little Champ was a good little airplane and I learned aerobatics in it – on my own. At first I had a little trouble with aileron rolls but then one day somebody mentioned that you need to raise the nose well above the horizon. After that, I was off. It wasn’t long before I was looping, rolling and doing Cuban 8s. However, the little Champ was somewhat lacking in performance so I decided to find something with more Oomph. I bought a 150 HP Citabria from Hawthorne Flying Service at the Charleston airport. It had Oomph alright, but it didn’t have an inverted fuel and oil system. After a couple of months, I decided to trade it for an airplane that did. It was back to Trade-A-Plane, this time to look for a 7 KCAB Citabria. Originally developed by Champion before the company was purchased by Bellanca, the 7KCAB was the top of the line of the Citabria family. (Bellanca would develop another airplane based on it but it had a new wing and model number, the 8KCAB.) It featured a 150HP Lycoming fuel-injected engine that had been modified with a flop tube in the oil pan so the engine would get oil when the airplane was inverted. Fuel-injected engines aren’t affected by gravity like carbureted engines. The engine on my first Citabria would quit whenever it was upside down. One afternoon I flew my Citabria to Lake Norman, NC to talk to a Citabria dealer. Although he didn’t have a new 7KCAB in stock, he was part of a dealer network. He had two new 7KCABs on his board, a red one and a blue one. Although I like red, for some reason I decided on the blue. It was at Lake Elmo, Minnesota near the Bellanca factory. I told him how much I had paid for the one I had and he said he would allow the same amount on a trade-in. I got back in my airplane so I could fly back to Summerville before dark since it wasn’t equipped for night flying.
All of this took place just before Christmas. I went to the credit union and applied for another airplane loan. It was approved right after Christmas and the check was ready for me to pick up. Since the new airplane was in Minnesota and the old one was in South Carolina, they had to get together. Looking back, I should have took a couple of days leave and flown to Lake Elmo myself, but the dealer had a son in his early twenties who was building time for an airline job and he said he’d fly the new one down and pick up my trade-in. I wasn’t expecting him on New Years Day. The dealer had said he’d be down a day or two after and he’d call first. It turned out they had friends in Tennessee so he flew down there for a visit, then hopped over the mountains the next day and flew on to Summerville. He was supposed to call and let me know he was coming but, if he did, I must have been out of the apartment. We didn’t chat; he was in a hurry to get back across the mountains to Knoxville before dark. I offered to let him spend the night at the apartment but he declined. I saw my old Citabria again years later. It was parked on the ramp at Nashville.
I’m not sure if I did it that day, but I named my new airplane Jonathon, after Jonathon Livingston Seagull, the character in Richard Bach’s famous book by that name. The chief instructor at Summerville Aviation was Mike Reid, who called himself an “aerobatic fanatic” and was a big Bach fan. I was familiar with Bach myself from his articles in FLYING. The day after the delivery, Tuesday, I was in my office at the base. I made up a label that said “This airplane must be flown upside down every time it leaves the ground” and put it on the inside of the door where anyone who was in the back seat could see it. I had taken a lot of people up for rides in my airplane, most of them female, but few actually enjoyed the aerobatic maneuver I always threw in before going back to the airport. One girl freaked out when I raised the nose and she realized what I was about to do and I had to land and kick her out. That was in the old Citabria. Later on, she did ride through a roll but I don’t think she enjoyed it.
Now that I had an airplane in which I could do the full spectrum of aerobatics without the engine quitting, I became quite good at it, so good that I started doing things that were somewhat dangerous – and illegal. The FAR’s specified a minimum altitude for aerobatic maneuvers but I started doing them right off the ground. Early one morning I was feeling particularly exuberant after a routine of low-altitude aerobatics over the tree farms south of Lake Moultrie and when I got back to the airport, I made a couple of low altitude passes down the runway – upside down. When I landed, I saw John Shelton standing in the door of the office. He was livid. I wasn’t the only one doing aerobatics over the airport and he was afraid the neighbors were going to complain and shut him down. I felt bad because John was a good friend. After that, I never made low-altitude inverted passes over the runway (at least not when John was there.) Earlier, I had started wearing Hush Puppy desert boots because I found out somehow that was what aerobatic pilots wore. The foam rubber soles allowed the wearer to feel the rudder bars. Desert boots also looked good with jeans and shorts.
My new airplane arrived on New Year’s Day. A few weeks later, I went home on leave and flew the airplane. I’d made several flights to West Tennessee by that time and knew the route. The weather was really good going up. I flew low on my final leg after refueling at Jasper, an airport just west of Chattanooga. My return flight followed a winter storm that came through although the weather was beautiful along my route. The winds were strong and I made good time. It was Ground Hog Day and I wanted to be back for a party that night in honor of one of my neighbors. It was her birthday and she’d made me promise to have a party for her. The winds were really strong in Summerville. I landed in a direct crosswind of about 30 knots. Everybody in the FBO came out to watch me land. I guess they thought I was going to wrap my new airplane in a ball. It was a non-event. That night changed my life. There was a girl at the party I had never met, a WAF from the base. We got to talking and I found out that she liked airplanes. It was almost eighteen years before the relationship fell apart. The next day I took her flying and went through a full aerobatic routine. She loved it.
Mike Reid, the chief instructor at Summerville, decided to organize an air show troupe with the aerobatic pilots at the airport. We went to Orangeburg and met an FAA examiner from Columbia, who came down to watch us fly. I went up for a 500-foot waiver. After everyone had flown, he asked for our licenses for the waiver letters. I was about to take my commercial check ride in a few days. Mike told him I was a private pilot but was going to take the commercial ride soon. He asked if he had my folder with my written test. He said if he did, he’d give me the ticket on the basis of my aerobatics. He also said he’d have given me lower if I’d asked for it.
A few weeks later we learned that my squadron was moving to Dover, Delaware in a swap of us and our C-5s for a C-141 squadron. My new girlfriend and I had decided to get married so she could transfer with me. Someone was putting on a party in our honor in her hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia. We were going to fly but Mike wanted to use Jonathon for an airshow at Wings and Wheels. We saw him practicing over the airport when we passed by on I-26 on Friday afternoon. The last time I had flown the airplane was on a trip to my folks in Tennessee. On the way back, I noticed a momentary RPM drop but thought nothing about it. When we got back home from Lynchburg, I drove out to the airport on a whim and Jonathon wasn’t there. The next day I learned that the engine had been making a loud metallic noise when Mike landed at Santee that morning. It turned out that a rod bearing had failed. We made the move to Dover without the airplane. Lycoming was saying it wasn’t there problem and Bellanca was saying, yes it was. Hawthorne Aviation was a Lycoming dealer. They said the best they could do would be to ship the engine to the factory for a teardown. If it turned out to be their problem, they’d fix it. If not, I was going to out $8,000 or so – which I didn’t have – for a rebuild. Lycoming looked at the engine and changed their tune when they found that the bearing was defective. They rebuilt the engine then sent it to Bellanca for the modification to the oil system. Meanwhile, we had been transferred to Dover. I got word from John that the airplane was ready but the all hell broke loose in Israel and I was on alert and flying back and forth hauling ammunition for the next four weeks. Finally, I was able to hop the East Coast shuttle C-141 to Charleston to get the airplane. The next day I flew up the East Coast to Delaware.
Things were not the same in Delaware. I had the airplane at another grass strip but it was private and there wasn’t an airport crowd around as there had been at Summerville. I don’t remember doing a lot of aerobatics. Most of my flying was taking my bride up for rides and trying to teach her how to fly again. She’d taken some lessons from Mike at Summerville but we were in a minor accident in my Tri-Champ and she became ground shy. She never did solo. That Thanksgiving we flew to Tennessee for a visit with my folks. The next summer I was approached about towing banners with my airplane and I decided to do it. So far, the airplane had been costing me money. My wife was pregnant and had been discharged so we lost her paycheck. Banner towing paid $50.00 an hour. I damn near got killed in another Citabria, a story in itself. That winter I decided to put the airplane on a lease with the dealer in North Carolina I had purchased it through. The next summer I got out of the Air Force after 12 years and we moved to Tennessee. Right after I got there, I went to North Carolina and picked up Jonathon. for the next two years I used him commercially, mostly giving people tail-wheel checkouts and giving aerobatic instruction. I installed post lights on the instrument panel and a rotating beacon so I could fly him back and forth to Memphis, where I was taking college courses at night. It was fun to fly along in the dark.
Our daughter was born before we left Dover and was still an infant when we moved back to Tennessee. The following summer we learned that my wife was pregnant again. I had a wife and family to support and was in a dead-end job where I had to ask my “employer” for every check I ever got from him. The money I made with Jonathon allowed us to survive. But things started getting tight. I still owed money to the Charleston AFB Credit Union and I had fallen behind on the payments. I was afraid I might lose the airplane so I, regretfully, decided to sell it. I ended up selling it back to Lake Norman Aviation at what was basically a wholesale price. My little daughter rode to North Carolina with me on our last flight. We flew back to Memphis on American Airlines.