I had to stop by the hangar one afternoon to do something I don’t particularly relish—catch up on some paperwork. Instead of spending my time at the airport pushing papers, an inherently boring task no matter where it’s done, I’d much prefer to be pushing the airplane out of the hangar to take it flying. But those papers had to be pushed sooner or later, so let’s just get it over with.
After about an hour, I’d finished the drudgery. I reached to punch the red “Close” button for the electric bi-fold door, and as is my habit, turned to give the airplane a last appreciative look before the door closed and I left. It had been a clear, warm, and beautiful late-fall day, and the yellow light from the lowering sun tinted the tan-painted airframe in a golden hue. It looked gorgeous.
“Gorgeous” is not an adjective typically used in the same sentence with the words “Piper Aztec,” especially a pre-pointed-nose model. “Functional” is a more appropriate euphemism to describe the appearance of an airplane that sports a Jimmy Durante-size nose; a short and fat wing with old-style rounded wingtips; and a geeky split-screen windshield. At that moment, however, functional looked mighty appealing to me.
I was transfixed. The hangar door was still up; the sun still glowed; and the airplane looked ready, willing, and able to do whatever it was asked. I decided on the spot to take the Aztec, and myself, flying.
For the last few years almost all of my flying has been highly programmed. It’s been for-hire, two-pilot, all-IFR passenger transport in other people’s airplanes. The little I’ve flown the Aztec has been on personal cross-country trips, plus an occasional weekend morning flight in search of a $200 (a hundred bucks per engine) omelet. This afternoon, however, I had no plan, no destination, and no objective other than to enjoy the moment, and the Aztec, by myself and for myself.
A 5,200-pound piston twin would not be my first choice for a serendipitous flight undertaken for no purpose other than as an antidote to paperwork. The low wing and big engine cowls block most of the view downward, so it’s far from the ideal sightseeing platform. With just me aboard I’m hauling five empty seats around, and then there’s the issue of pumping fuel through two 540-cubic-inch engines. The combined 500 horsepower is at least 400 more than I need for some local sightseeing.
A much better bet would have been a pokey, tandem two-seater with a stick, a side-throttle, and a high wing. Maximum air-to-ground viz, and fun flying at minimal direct operating cost. In fact, I own the iconic answer to those specifications—a Piper J–3 Cub. Well, to be more exact, I own one-third of a Cub. My two younger brothers, Gerry and Steven, own the other two-thirds.
Gerry has owned it for nearly three decades, and a few years ago he floated the news that he was considering putting it up for sale. Steve and I objected vehemently. No way could a genuine Cub that he had owned for so long leave the family. Gerry insightfully observed that if we felt so strongly about keeping the Cub around, perhaps we should put some cash behind our conviction. And so we did.
This brotherly Cub partnership is a beautiful thing, save for some inconvenient logistics—Gerry lives in Memphis; Steven is in Lawrenceville, Georgia, north of Atlanta; and I’m in southwest Florida. I have a history with such geographically challenged airplane partnerships. Soon after moving from Kansas City to southwest Florida I bought half of a Twin Comanche owned by my buddy Doug, who still lives in Kansas City. We managed to enjoy relatively equal access to the airplane, thanks to the Twinco’s good cross-country performance.
Not so with a Cub. At about 80 mph it takes a very long time to get anywhere, and whatever sort of cross-country navigational assistance is desired, other than a chart, must be battery powered. Then there’s the issue of where to store the Cub when I am in possession of it. It needs to be hangared, but it won’t fit in with the Aztec, and during the season all other hangars are spoken for. Pretty much the same is true for Steven. Thus, our Cub partnership has worked 100 percent in brother Gerry’s favor, as the airplane has never left Memphis.
So, much as I’d like to be flying the Cub on this golden afternoon, I’m happy to take my impromptu flying pleasure in the Aztec. I cruised the islands, did steep turns over boaters in the Gulf of Mexico, and shot an autopilot-coupled GPS approach using the WAAS electronic glide path. Just for grins I declared a missed approach and let the autopilot and GPS take me to the holding fix, fly a parallel entry, and then the holding procedure. Amazing, those electronics. I was in awe.
The flight reinforced my admiration for the Aztec and all of its capabilities. It was also the let’s-go-flying-for-the-heck-of-it elixir I needed, although perhaps not up to Cub standards. But, like Stephen Stills said, if you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with.
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Mark R. Twombly is a Cessna Citation charter pilot who lives and writes from southwestern Florida.