Whenever I had a jingle in my pocket, I’d ride my bike to the corner five-and-dime and look at the pictures on the boxes. Perhaps I’d choose the fighter like John Wayne flew in a war movie I saw the previous Saturday. Or maybe a B-24 Liberator like Jimmy Stewart flew in one of his twenty real combat missions over Europe.  Regardless of which one I chose, when I’d opened the box I would be sadly disappointed when what fell out looked nothing like the picture.

The structural components that would form the backbone of the airplane came printed on a sheet of balsa wood. Each piece had to be carefully cut out with a razor blade and then sanded to the exact shape of the printed outline. Cutting out all the parts took a lot of time and a lot of razor blades.

To give shape to the exterior, strips of balsa wood called stringers were glued to the structural elements. Then the ribbed skeleton was covered with tissue paper and painted. It took a lot of patience and a lot more skill than I possessed. Perhaps for that reason, while I bought a lot of models–I never finished even one. As soon as it became clear that my ham-fisted finished product would bear little resemblance to the picture on the box, I gave up.

But I still loved airplanes.

If I begged long and hard enough, my dad would occasionally take me down to Candler Field – the old Atlanta Airport near Hapeville – and let me watch all the big silver birds take off and land. If I’d been especially good, he might drop a dime in the pole mounted telescope so I could get a closer look. Heck, as much as I missed him when he was away, getting to go to the airport to see him off almost made it worth it.

As a teenager, I spent a lot of time in front of my shortwave radio hoping to hear a voice from a control tower or a cockpit–any control tower or any cockpit. However, since the frequencies used in aviation communications are limited to line-of-sight, hearing anything but static required me to take my radio to a spot near an airport. So, once I began driving, I spent many a Sunday afternoon at one of a half dozen general aviation airports in the area.

A summer job while I was in college got me even closer to the action. A co-worker I’ll call Chuck was a private pilot. Every weekend when the weather permitted, he went flying. Every Monday morning he told us about it. I was entranced by his experiences and marveled at his flippant use of aviation lingo. I was eager for him to ask me if sometime I wanted to go along.

Finally, the invitation came.

On a brisk November morning in 1967, Chuck and I met up on the tarmac at the DeKalb-Peachtree airport where dozens of brightly painted airplanes sat parked, secured to mother earth with pieces of heavy rope attached to long runs of cable fastened to the concrete. When I arrived, Chuck had already opened the doors and untied the ropes holding our airplane.

I had to pinch myself…I was about to go flying! I watched intently as he performed what he called a “pre flight inspection.”

“Brrr, it’s cold,” said Chuck. He shivered as he wiped the oil dipstick on a paper towel, placed it back in the filler tube and drew it out again. Satisfied that the engine had plenty of oil, he pushed it back in.

Chuck nodded in my direction, winked and put his gloves back on. He motioned for me to hop in. “Ron, throw your jacket in the back–this thing will warm up pretty fast.” He was right. By the time we’d taxied to the end of the runway, the little four banger under the cowling was pumping out plenty of heat. In fact, when we reached an altitude of about 1,500' it was almost too much. It wasn’t long before Chuck reached down and pushed a knob labeled “cabin heat” back to “off” position.

He looked at me through his Ray-Bans and shouted over the roar of the engine, “What a beautiful morning.” And it was! A severe clear and beautiful November morning. Even though it was a little chilly, thanks to a light wind, there was no lift-robbing frost anywhere on the wings of the tiny bird.

Chuck was a member of a flying club. Its members shared the expense of flying and maintaining the club planes with their monthly dues and rental fees. My buddy was treating me to my first ride in a small airplane–one of two tiny Cessna trainers owned by the club.

We took off to the northeast out of DeKalb-Peachtree Airport in the North Atlanta suburbs. We climbed and then made a turn toward the south. We flew over the city and then turned westbound toward Birmingham.

I was all eyes. The view from our altitude was fantastic. I was a little surprised at how noisy it was and how quickly I became disoriented. Nothing looked the same from the air as it did on the ground. Soon the concrete and steel of the city was behind us; in front of us, lay the rolling hills and forests of West Georgia.

After a few minutes of trundling along enjoying the sights, Chuck pointed toward a clearing a few miles ahead and motioned “down there.” He pulled on the throttle and reduced the power to idle. The little bird coughed and shuttered as if to say, “I’m not through flying” but soon we began a rapid descent toward the trees beneath us and the clearing beyond.

He turned the airplane 90-degrees to the left and to my surprise, we were lined up with a grass strip three or four hundred feet below. A couple of minutes later, we softly touched down in grass that was almost as tall as the wheels. Chuck applied power and we taxied the length of the runway toward a rustic farmhouse where smoke trailed from the chimney. The smell of coffee filled the air.

“Ron, meet Dodgie.”

“Dodgie, meet Ron”

We exchanged pleasantries and then Dodgie introduced us to several other guys sitting around the pot-bellied stove.

“How ’bout some coffee?” said Dodgie.

“Absolutely!” Chuck replied. He got a cup of the thick, black liquid and poured one for me. Then we took a seat by the crackling fire and joined in the conversation.

William “Champ” Champion and Dodgie Stockmar, the owner of the Flying S Ranch, were engaged in a heated exchange. The town of Villa Rica was growing. If not now, sometime soon a developer would want to buy the land where the farm house now sat adjacent to the 4300' grass runway lined with tall pines.

Rumor had it that if the offer was good enough, Dodgie was going to sell both the ranch and Stockmar Field. No one – especially Champ – wanted that to happen. Why? Stockmar Field was a trip back in time. Back to when nearly all general aviation airports were grass strips. Back to when they were no control towers, no air traffic controllers and no restrictions on airspace. Back to when if you owned or had access to an airplane, you were free as a bird to fly when and where you pleased. Back to when the only regulations for operating an aircraft were common sense. Matter of fact, commencing in the 1920s, the Regulations for Operating an Aircraft were simple.

1. Don’t take the machine into the air unless you are satisfied it will fly.
2. Never leave the ground with the motor leaking.
3. Never take a machine into the air until you are familiar with its controls and instruments.
4. No machine should taxi faster than a man can walk.
5. If the engine fails on take-off, land straight ahead regardless of obstacles.
6. Do not trust altitude instruments.
7. Before you begin a landing glide, see that no machines are beneath you.
8. If flying against the wind, and you wish to fly with the wind, don’t make a sharp turn near the ground. You may crash.
9. Learn to gauge altitude, especially on landing.
10. Don’t attempt to force a machine onto the ground with more than flying speed. The result is bouncing and ricocheting.
11. If an emergency occurs while flying, land as soon as possible.
12. Never get out of a machine with the motor running.

My pilot-friend should have set those 1920 regulations to memory. For when we tried to depart Stockmar Field, he flunked #1 big time. He did, however, pass #5.

Slowed by the tall grass, Chuck pulled back on the stick a little too soon. The nose wheel lifted up, but instead of quickly establishing a positive rate of climb, the airplane wallowed. At about hangar height, the stall horn blew and the little bird came crashing down hard on the nose wheel. Still traveling at 40 to 50 mph, the airplane went off the end of the runway, tumbled end-over-end down a sharp incline and ended-up on its back with the fuselage practically broken in half. Miraculously, neither of us sustained injuries. Matter of fact, Chuck’s Ray-Bans didn’t even come off!

As we hung upside side suspended in mid-air by our seatbelts, a red faced Chuck leaned over and said, “Well, Ron, you can now say you’ve been in an airplane crash.” Always the clown, Chuck unbuckled his seat belt, opened the door, grabbed onto the strut and pulled himself out. He stood-up on the underneath side of the crumpled wing and looked skyward. He waved his fist and shouted, “Curse you Red Baron.”

I didn’t laugh. But as ridiculous as it sounds, I was hooked. Hooked on flying.

Three years later and after ten months of training, I received my private pilot’s license. Later I added an instrument rating. Over the next twenty-five years, I owned three airplanes and accumulated over 2500 accident-free hours.

To the best of my knowledge, Chuck, my co worker and friend, never flew again. And Dodgie? He kept the Flying S Ranch. He also kept the coffee hot for Champ and all his buddies that gathered every Saturday morning ’round the pot-bellied stove.

But unfortunately that’s not the end of the story.

In May 1999, Dodgie and Champ were both killed in a freak aircraft accident. An experienced Airline Transport Pilot and Instrument Flight Instructor, Dodgie was administering the FAA-required biennial check ride to his best friend Champ. They were flying Champ’s newly built kit plane, tail number N75419. Two witnesses observed the airplane in the vicinity of Charlie Brown Airport west of Atlanta. Both stated that the airplane was in straight and level flight a few hundred feet above the trees. One witness said he saw the nose of the airplane pitch up about ten degrees, before it pitched straight down and disappeared from view. The other witness said he observed the nose of the airplane pitch straight down. He said the engine was running and the airplane remained in the nose down attitude until it collided with the terrain. 

The National Transportation Safety Board found as follows: “After take off the airplane was observed by the tower controller to enter the downwind leg of the landing pattern. The controller attended to other traffic and when he looked back for the airplane, it had disappeared. Examination of airframe, flight control assembly, engine assembly and accessories revealed no evidence of a pre-crash mechanical failure or malfunction.”

In their final report, the NTSB determined that the probable cause of the accident was “an in-flight loss of control for undetermined reasons, resulting in an in-flight collision with trees and the ground” – fancy government lingo for an airplane crash. The crew that gathers ’round the old pot-bellied stove at the Flying S believes there’s more to the story.

At the crash site, the elevator trim was found in the full down position. The manufacturer of the aircraft kit knew that the elevator trim was capable of three times the necessary amount of downward trim for normal flight. The factory claimed it had sent all registered kit owners a service bulletin stating that they should return the entire control yoke unit to the factory for modification. However, some kit owners weren’t notified of the defect. Somehow their serial numbers were not included in their database – including Champ’s plane, serial number 5043. The mandatory modification was never made and it cost the lives of two great guys.

The loss of a father, a grandfather and a dear friend was difficult for the Champion and Stockmar families to deal with. Not to mention the impact it had on the hundreds of friends who knew and loved them.

Just like the models I built as a kid, kit planes are an affordable way to get a new airplane. They’re a great project for family and friends and provide two or three years of supper table discussions. In 1998, Champ’s kit-built airplane had won an award for Outstanding Workmanship. He had gone to every extreme to have a new, safe and reliable aircraft to last a lifetime. Unfortunately, for Champ and Dodgie, that lifetime lasted only 70 flying hours.

Stockmar Field has changed a lot since that day. However, a memorial to Dodgie and Champ still marks where the old grass runway used to be.

Many would argue that there is inherent danger in flying small airplanes with a single engine. So why do we do it? Why do folks like Champ and Dodgie and me take such a risk? A little poem called "Men Who Fly" hangs on a plaque in my office. Perhaps it explains it best:

“The little boy on a grassy hill
Who sees the hawk and knows the thrill
Of the summer wind on an upturned wing,
And the joy a graceful flight can bring.
There was a dream in this boy’s eyes
That reflected the challenge of distant skies.
The passing of time and the graying of hair –
But the eye is still sharp, and the light is still there.
And he sees, as he scans, the far blue sky,
A dream that is missed by the passerby.
Where, as far as his eager eyes could see,
The air was clean and the sky was free;
Where the hawk soared high on the summer sky,
And the boy imagined he was there.”
—Author unknown

I’m sure if Dodgie and Champ had been as fortunate as Chuck and me, they too would have climbed out of the wreckage, looked skyward, shook their fist and exclaimed, “Curse you Red Baron.” They would have then walked away, and like the little boy standing on the grassy knoll, dreamed to fly another day.

After retirement from a career in advertising and marketing, Burch has authored a number of published essays and magazine articles, in addition to a full-length novel. He uses his Blog site--http://southernauthor.blog-city.com/index.cfm--to make his popular "Op Eds" available to a growing list of visitors and subscribers.


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