Coincidences ...

Or acts of the aviation gods?

March 1, 2003

It's my ambition that after I die, I'll come back as a guardian angel for student pilots. Rather than sitting on a cloud playing a harp (which I don't think I could do very well anyway), I'll be hanging around a small airport (invisible, of course) waiting for a ride with a student pilot who isn't sure about his or her landings but has been assigned a local solo flight. After 50-plus years as a flight instructor, this would be infinitely superior to the aforementioned cloud-sitting and musical program. I can hear the neophyte pilot later saying, "I felt the control wheel move and the airplane touched down OK in that crosswind that had me shaking."

I am not any kind of a mystic, since I write technical how-to-fly manuals, but there have been a few "otherworldly coincidences" in my aviation life of 57 years, so here's my story.

Christmas miracle ... sort of

One of the pilots here at our little airport got a new tricycle-gear Maule and I was taken aback to see the N number: 1012H, a number that had been on an Aeronca Sedan more than 50 years earlier.

The Aeronca Sedan was a four-place, easy-to-fly airplane, and I flew it in and out of Outlaw Field at Clarksville, Tennessee. The particular day I remember best was a trip to Nashville to take a girl I was trying to impress on a Christmas shopping trip in the big city. There was a strong crosswind on the runway at the big Nashville airport and this was just the beginning. After a lucky landing (it was pretty good, considering) we went to the airport restaurant for lunch where hamburgers were 60 cents, compared to 5 or 10 cents (the deluxe) I had been paying back home! My money was going faster than I anticipated.

A cab into town to the big department store and a cab back plus renting the airplane would indeed mean many extra hours of washing airplanes. She bought a scarf for a Christmas present for her mother.

Every time I see that Maule in our hangar the N number brings back memories of that flight (I confirmed the number by logbook entry) and how I nearly went broke. (Sixty cents each for hamburgers? Outrageous! They had some kind of foreign mustard on them as well!)

Aviation museums

Later, my wife (a different girl) was with me when we visited the Naval Aviation Museum at Pensacola, Florida, for the first time since I had gotten out of the Navy some years before. There was an "4U-5N Corsair on display and I requested that she take my photo by it "since it was like an airplane that I used to fly." After the photo session I found that it was indeed like the airplanes I used to fly; in fact, after looking at the bureau (serial) number under the horizontal stabilizer I saw that I had flown that particular airplane.

Even later, that same museum had built within it a portion of the flight deck of the USS Cabot — the first carrier that I had landed on.

Visiting the Kalamazoo Air Museum a few years ago I saw an F6F-5 Hellcat and again wanted my wife (same wife) to take a photo of me beside it "since it was like an airplane that I used to fly." It definitely was — I had flown that particular airplane when I was in the training command at NAAS Kingsville, Texas, in l952 and courting the same wife.

I've had some strange looks from young folks when, in a museum, I indicate that I flew "that airplane, over there." It recently took two guys to help me get into a fighter that I used to bound up into 50 years ago.

More mysteries

I called an airport in Montana after seeing the picture of F4U-5NL (the winter-version Corsair, with deicer boots and other additions that weren't much use in the warm water of the Pacific). I got the bureau number (124560) from the photograph on the front of Trade-A-Plane. I had five landings, four deck runs, and a catapult shot from the USS Boxer in that airplane during carrier qualifications when I was getting ready to deploy as a night fighter pilot for eight months on the USS Philippine Sea. That Corsair is still flying in Montana.

My article on wake turbulence in AOPA Pilot (see " An Awakening," March 2002) got a response from a reader who was flying a C-46 at Memphis in June 1950. (My "wake-turbulence encounter" in the Stinson was on June 27, 1950.) The 375th Troop Carrier Wing from Pittsburgh was on two weeks' active duty and learned after their return that the outfit had been recalled to active duty for the Korean "police action." His letter indicated that he might have been flying the C-46 that caused my problem. I indicated that I might put a contract out on him. (Just joking.)

The C-46 (Curtiss Commando) was a fat twin-engine transport used in World War II, particularly for flying supplies over the "Hump" (Himalayas) between India and China. It had two Pratt & Whitney R2800 2,000-horsepower engines and electrically controlled full-feathering propellers. It looked somewhat like a fat double-decker DC-3. The military expression for it during aircraft recognition sessions was "the flying whale with the upturned tail." There may be a few still flying around the world and producing noticeable wake turbulence.

A small world

The strangest coincidence came fairly recently when I had a trainee from Texas who came to my home in Sewanee, Tennessee, to learn aerobatics and spins. While we were standing on the ramp waiting for the Cessna Aerobat to be fueled, a white Super Cub landed.

"That's my Super Cub I sold to a guy in Colorado!" my excited trainee said. When the Cub had shut down and the pilot got out I was sure I knew him from somewhere.

"Do you remember when you soloed me in Ames, Iowa, in 1959 and then our trip to Kansas City?" he asked.

I did indeed. Now there was a three-way (or six-way) coincidence between the three of us. The man from Texas and I had a tie because I was his aerobatic instructor. The man from Colorado had a tie with the Texas pilot because he had bought the airplane from him. The Colorado man and I had a tie because I had been his flight instructor in Ames, Iowa, more than 40 years earlier.

The pilot from Colorado had ridden with me in Bonanza N1830D from Ames to Kansas City, Missouri, where I interviewed with the FAA for a job as an inspector. I was accepted and when we were sitting at the warm-up spot at Kansas City Downtown Airport ready to fly back to Ames, a Cessna 170 with a family on board was, I felt, "pushed" to take off too close behind a Constellation. I still remember the gyrations of the 170 as it encountered what we called prop wash. I thought that was the end of the little family, but the pilot got it under control and climbed out.

I blew my stack when identifying my airplane. "Kansas City Tower, that was one of the most stupid moves I've ever seen, pushing that pilot to take off into that prop wash!" Getting warmed up, I tore into the poor guys at length. After a while I was told that I was cleared for takeoff. I indicated that I would tell them when I was ready to go.

It was a childish act on my part, and as I climbed out for the trip back to Ames I figured I didn't need to go to work with the FAA since if the word got back about my outburst I was shot down anyway. Two years later I was working as a demonstration and test pilot at Piper and got a letter from the FAA to come to work. I was settled at my job and wrote that it was no deal, but thanks.

The man from Colorado left Sewanee after he fueled up. The man from Texas completed his training and departed the next day. I was left wondering if this was more than a coincidence for a little airport (well off the beaten path in the Tennessee mountains) where 10 takeoffs or landings are considered a pretty active day.

In 57 years there have been other, not easily explained, coincidences, but they are for other articles or are not to be discussed. The world of aviation is small indeed. Or is it?

Does anybody know where Bonanza N1830D is today? Is there nothing that happens "by chance," to quote the title of the fine book by Richard Bach?

Bill Kershner, AOPA 84904, of Sewanee, Tennessee, has been flying and instructing for more than 50 years. Visit the author's Web site (

Topics Pilots