A journey back in time!
by Jim Hanson
Published in Midwest Flyer – February/March 2020 issue
I’ve been flying for 58 years. You might well imagine that I’ve seen a lot of airplanes and met a lot of people. (This writing gig may not PAY much, but it certainly gets me into a lot of airplanes and lets me meet a lot of interesting people!) I’ve been fortunate to meet some of the “Titans of the Aviation Industry” – aircraft and avionics manufacturers, military heroes, inventors, hard-working homebuilders, writers, publishers, astronauts… It’s been a great ride!
It’s also taken me to a lot of places in 30,000 hours – 83 countries around the world, every state in the U.S., six continents and ocean crossings — in 346 unique types of aircraft. Here’s a story about an aircraft… a journey back in time, and the pilot who made an impression on me.
In January 1970, I was doing corporate flying from my home base in Albert Lea, Minnesota, for a company that owned a Beech Travel Air. The owner also owned an award-winning Piper Cub. Though he flew and enjoyed the Cub, he was one of those people who enjoyed the challenge of doing a restoration even more than flying the airplane. He wanted a Stearman, and negotiated a trade with Mid-Continent Aircraft, located in the town of Hayti, in the “boot heel” of Missouri. The problem was, there was no pilot that was going to fly a Cub (let alone an open-cockpit biplane) on a long cross-country from and back to Minnesota in January! He asked if I would do it, and when the boss “asks,” the answer is almost always “Yes, Sir. When do I leave?” (Besides, what 23-year-old kid wouldn’t want adventure? Nobody ever said I was “smart!”)
It would be a LONG day just getting the Cub down there – 9 hours – and the days were short. I took off at “civil twilight,” well before sunrise, “climbing to meet the dawn.” There was a promise of a tailwind at altitude, but nearly an hour after takeoff, I looked back from 7500 feet. I could still see Albert Lea Lake behind me! I went low and made better speed. Eight and one-half hours and two fuel stops later, I landed on a crop-duster airstrip in Hayti, using the “IFR Method” (in this case, it was “I follow RIVERS”—the Shell Rock and the Mississippi).
The people from Mid-Continent came out and looked at the Cub, and I inspected the Stearman. The Stearman was no prize, but I was told they had known the airplane for a long time, and it was dependable. The deal was confirmed, and I needed a checkout in the Stearman. I had learned to fly in my Cessna 120, and my flight instructor always said, “If you can fly this airplane, you’ll never have a problem with another tailwheel airplane,” and that’s been true. Though I have flown Fairchild PT-series World War II trainers, I didn’t have much “round engine” (radial) time, with the exception of some BT-13 and 15 time.
The owner of Mid-Continent, Dick Reade, gave me the checkout. He showed me how to start it, crawled into the front cockpit instructor’s seat, and we made the first takeoff and landing.
“If I want to fly the airplane, I’ll pat myself on top of my helmet,” he explained. “And you wiggle the stick to acknowledge.”
I made the first takeoff and on downwind, we exchanged controls and Dick rolled the airplane, then gave it back to me for the landing! I was taken by surprise, but made the landing anyway, and it was a good one. “Great!” he said. “Let’s do it again!” Same scenario. He took it on the downwind, and pulled up into a loop. I made the second landing. Third takeoff, on the downwind, the roll was much faster. “What was THAT?” I asked after landing. He replied, “Snap Roll. You were BORN with the airplane!” (Actually, the airplane was five years older than I was!) “Takeoff and have some fun!” he said.
I wanted to make Clarksville, Tennessee (where I had managed the military flying club at Ft. Campbell only a few years prior) before dark. The problem was, my checkpoints weren’t coming up. Twenty minutes into the flight, I was lost! It was hard to check the other side of the chart. I was still fighting to keep my chart from blowing away. I thought, “If I just take up a heading of East, I’ll eventually hit 60-mile-long Kentucky Lake, and I’ll recognize where I am.”
I turned about 20 degrees left, and realized that the compass never moved… it was frozen! I wondered if there was another compass in the front pit, so I carefully stowed the chart, held onto the cockpit tubing, unfastened my belts, and stood up. Nope! No compass in the front pit! In the waning light below the overcast, I put the sun behind me, and eventually did hit Kentucky Lake. I now had a choice. From my newly found position, it was about the same distance to the nearest airport as it was to my destination at Clarksville. I reasoned that rather than land at an unfamiliar airport for my fourth landing in the airplane, with fading light, I would continue to the known airport at Clarksville.
I avoided Ft. Campbell’s restricted airspace by keeping away from the area where there were no ground lights – a Restricted Area. I kept the airplane high on the downwind, and pulled the power. I was shocked to see the shower of sparks come out of the exhaust. I had never seen the carbon come off a radial engine at night before, and thought I had lost the engine. I immediately turned toward the runway, only to discover what old-time aviators already knew… biplanes have restricted forward visibility during the DAYTIME, but they are virtually blind at NIGHT! I side-slipped to a landing and it was a good one. I was met by my friend, the airport manager. “Oh, it’s YOU!” he said. Take my pickup and get out of here. One of the guys on the field is going to call the cops for landing without lights!”
After three days with old friends, I started northbound. The temperature was 60 degrees, so I didn’t even wear my snowmobile suit. I stopped for fuel at Perryville, Missouri, and was surprised to see rows of Sabreliners on the airfield. It’s where they built them. (In later years, I bought and sold nine of them). Changing to my snowmobile suit, I headed northbound.
I again followed the Mississippi, and as I passed St. Louis, I saw the then-almost-new Arch. I took out my Kodak, and snapped a photo of it. (There was no “Alphabet Airspace” in those days.) I thought about taking a photo on top of a roll, but didn’t want to chance negative Gs, so I settled on a positive G loop instead. (A careful examination of the photo shows the upper camber of the airfoils inverted while at the top of the loop.)
I proceeded northbound. It was notably colder, and I ducked as deeply into the cockpit as I could to keep out of the wind. Looking at those cylinders exposed to the wind, I KNEW that there had to be SOME HEAT coming off from them, but couldn’t feel any. Worse than that, the ceilings and visibilities were getting lower.
I stopped for fuel at Independence, Iowa and called Flight Service. They read the forecasts – deteriorating ceilings and visibilities in snow for the rest of my trip to Albert Lea. It didn’t look good, but then I remembered that our company used to do powerline patrol from near Austin, Minnesota (only 22 miles east of Albert Lea) to Independence, flying 20 feet above the line and 20 feet to the side. I was very familiar with the line, AND the towers along the route! There were several airports enroute, so I jumped on the line to go as far as I could. The weather deteriorated, but I did make it into Austin with “one mile and clear of clouds.” The ceilings were so low, however, that I couldn’t make the 22 miles home. It was time to call it quits. That was January 24, 1970 – 50 years ago!
The Return Flight
I’d often thought about the owner of Mid-Continent. In 1976, famed FLYING magazine columnist, Gordon Baxter, did an article on him. Before then, I hadn’t known what a personality Reade was! I had a three-day trip scheduled to St. Louis recently, and rather than stay in the city, I thought about going back to Hayti. I called Mid-Continent and asked about Reade, and was told, “He still comes to the office every day!” I HAD to go!
Reade was an Iowan, and received a degree in Agriculture from Iowa State. He enlisted in the Air Corps. His first flight was in 1943, and he flew stripped-down and unarmed P-38s in the Pacific doing photo-recon work. The airplanes flew at their max altitude – about 35,000 feet – and at long-range cruise, barely above a stall. Missions could be 10 hours long.
After the war, Reade took up cropdusting in Iowa, later moving south to Missouri. An inventive mind, he looked for ways to improve the airplanes and the industry. New designs for pumps, hoppers, booms, nozzles, and loading trucks came from his experience. He was a leader in this specialized field. In 1967, Reade was a cofounder and President of the National Association of Aerial Applicators (now a worldwide organization that advocates for safety and best practices in Ag Aviation).
Reade had “optimized” the Stearman, but to make ag aviation profitable, the industry needed purpose-built aircraft, designed for the rigorous job. The airplanes needed good short-field capability – fast loading, easy maintenance, good flying characteristics – and most of all, they needed to be SAFE. Reade had input in that as well, helping to design the Grumman Ag-Cat, and taking delivery of serial #1. He held the Ag-Cat dealership for most of the U.S. and all of Canada, and picked up a Piper Pawnee dealership as well. Mid-Continent has always been about service to the air ag industry. They haven’t limited themselves to only selling airplanes… they sell modifications, hardware, loading equipment, and everything an ag operator needs.
Mid-Continent eventually went on to acquire the manufacturing rights to the Grumman Ag-Cat, so the aircraft is well-supported. They even do turbine conversions on the strong airframe.
About Those Stearmans
With the advent of safer, more capable purpose-built ag planes, the Stearman ag era was coming to an end. Most operators would have simply scrapped them, but Reade recognized an opportunity. In the early 1960s, he placed small ads in aviation publications for the MCMD (Mid-Continent Maintenance Division) Custom Special Stearmans. They took clapped-out old Stearmans totally apart – all metal work checked, corrosion-proofed, and re-worked. All wood (including the wings) was built new. The aircraft fabric was new. The new owner could have his choice of engines on the new airplane, all done by first-class shops. The airplanes were things of beauty – hand-crafted by people who knew the airplane better than anyone else in the world. They were eagerly sought after by those who wanted the very best in an affordable antique sport aircraft. Once again, Reade had read the market, turning unwanted aircraft into great sport airplanes.
Visting A Legend
After calling to make sure Reade would be in his office, I pulled into the grass strip at Hayti, Missouri. The place was busy, with ag planes in the shop, on the ramp, or tied down. In the office, a number of people were working… on the phone on an aircraft sale, people involved in various maintenance projects, and a number of people involved in the ag insurance business. I asked if I might see Mr. Reade – told them that I’d like to pay my respects after 50 years – and was ushered into his office. The office was decorated with 3/4 of a century of photos and artifacts, befitting a man of his experience. Paintings and photos of his beloved P-38, Stearmans, Ag-Cats, ag planes of every make, certificates, recognition letters, congratulatory letters, and various memorabilia. I had been cautioned that the 97-year-old was hard of hearing – 14,000 hours behind powerful engines and in open cockpits had taken its toll. He stood up from behind his desk to shake my hand.
I told him about buying an airplane from him long ago, and his “unusual” checkout, and that we had really enjoyed the Stearman. He asked if we still had it. I told him that since we bought that aircraft, I have been in the FBO business, and had owned over 400 airplanes over the years, and brokered about twice that many more.
“Sounds like you and I have the same experience!” he commented. We talked for a few minutes more about his P-38 experience, the ag business, the MCMD Custom Special airplanes, and selling and servicing airplanes – over 135 years in the business between the two of us.
I noticed several copies of Midwest Flyer Magazine in the office – (Hayti, on the Arkansas border, is getting to the far south edge of its distribution range) – and explained that I sometimes write for the magazine, and wanted a photo of the two of us with the magazine. He obliged, but was in no rush, and with a trait shared by every good businessman, he made me feel that I was important to him.
I took my leave, and as I was driving away, I had to marvel at this aviation innovator – someone who ran an aviation empire, someone who was known throughout the world – an ag aviation industry leader – from a little grass airport in the middle of cotton fields in the Boot Heel of Missouri.
As Sherm Booen used to say on his long-running aviation television show in Minneapolis, “This Wonderful World of Aviation!”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim Hanson is the long-running fixed base operator at Albert Lea, Minnesota. Though he hasn’t matched Dick Reade’s record for FBO longevity, he hasn’t given up! Jim has flown 346 unique airplane types. If you have an unusual type of aircraft that he may not have flown, contact him at 507-373- 0608 or firstname.lastname@example.org.