Sunday, January 27, 2013

Escape to Lock Haven

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
27 Jan 2013 N21481 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - LHV (Lock Haven, PA) - 5G0 2.5 1115.5

As an Upstate New York pilot in winter, I often feel trapped in Rochester.  I love to go places, particularly new places, but rarely do so in the winter months out of caution that unpredictable weather will prevent me from returning home.  However, with a consistent forecast for good weather on Sunday, I took to the sky and visited one of my favorite airports: Lock Haven, Pennsylvania.

A disintegrating ceiling hovered over Le Roy.  I flirted with its edge before climbing on top.

Below, the town of Le Roy lay in black and white winter doldrums.  Above, blue sky -- the kind that every Rochesterian hungers for in the winter -- reigned over a fluffy white undercast.  With good data showing Pennsylvanian skies to be clear, I turned south without hesitation.

Flying along in the smooth air above the clouds, I watched the specs of other airplanes, obviously (hopefully?) on IFR flight plans, skimming through the top of the stratus deck.  As I reached the state line, the ceiling crumbled, leaving the rough terrain below visible beneath a pronounced haze layer.

High, icy clouds above and, below, a blanket of earth tossed casually across the landscape.

North central Pennsylvania features some remarkable terrain. It is amazingly, verdantly, lush in the summer and beautiful in its austerity during the winter.

Eventually, the terrain gave way to a narrow, habitable plain bounded by the Susquehanna River to the north and a ridgeline to the south.  And in that narrow, flat valley, is the city of Lock Haven and the former home of Piper Aircraft.

I managed a lucky blind camera shot after establishing a stable final approach for runway 27R.  I have not landed my airplane often in the last several weeks, but the landing was an absolute greaser.

All was quiet on Unicom and there was no activity on the ramp.  As I walked toward the FBO, I wondered if anyone was there at all.  I opened the tinted glass door into the lobby and was startled to find several people inside.  Doug was ready and willing to give me a ride into town for lunch at Fox's Market House.  At the restaurant, I was seated at the counter which gave me a perfect view of the chaos that is restaurant work on a Sunday morning.

With the sun shining brightly and temperatures in the mid 30s, I was inspired to give my Vitamin D levels a boost by walking the mile or so back to the airport.  Instead of returning to my airplane, I visited the Piper Aviation Museum in the old Piper engineering building.  It was my first visit to the museum since June 2007, exactly five days before The Bear was born.

Except for the two women carrying out office duties, I had the entire facility to myself.  That suited me fine.  I took the time to read more of the displays than on my previous visit and I learned a lot about the company that conceived and built Warrior 481.

At the entrance of the hangar, I came nose to nose with a 1937 J-2 Cub, the airplane that really marked the beginning of William T Piper's influence on early aviation.  The story, like this blog post, began in Rochester, NY when Gordon and Clarence Taylor formed the Taylor Brothers Aircraft Corporation ("Buy your airplane Taylor made!").

Their offering was a two seat, side-by-side high wing monoplane called the Chummy.  The only example of a Chummy that I have ever seen hangs in the terminal of the Greater Rochester International Airport.  Perhaps these aircraft are scarce because they were not particularly popular.  Some time after Gordon was in a fatal crash of one of their designs, Clarence relocated the company to Bradford, PA.  The town offered him a factory at the airport and some $50,000 of investment funding.

One of those original investors was William Piper, who knew nothing about airplanes, but was a savvy businessman.  He and Clarence Taylor did not get along.  Piper argued that the Chummy was overpriced and underwhelming.  When Taylor designed the inexpensive E-2 Cub to be more competitive, Piper continually pressed him to make improvements.  While Taylor was home ill, Piper convinced Taylor's designer Walter Jamouneau to make improvements to the E-2 that resulted in the J-2 Cub.  Taylor left the company shortly thereafter and Piper eventually bought him out.  When the Bradford factory was destroyed in a 1937 fire, one of Piper's employees pitched his home town of Lock Haven where there was an abandoned silk mill that could house the aircraft company.

Piper moved operations to Lock Haven, renamed the company after himself, and in 1938, Jamouneau's next iteration of the Cub, the J-3, made its first flight.  It was the birth of an American aviation icon.

The Cub's famous yellow paint scheme traces its roots directly to William Piper's desire to promote safety by making the airplane highly visible.

Other aircraft on display in the Piper Museum represented some of Piper's successes, failures, and even some ideas that were ahead of their time.

This Aztec was built as a pressurized prototype.  Piper decided that the airframe was unsuitable for pressurization and donated the aircraft to the Flight Research Center at Mississippi State University where it was used for many years to conduct NASA flight research.  It was donated to the museum in 2000 by MSU with the agreement that it would not be flown again.

The PA-24 Comanche may be thought of as the forerunner to all Cherokees, which were built as simpler, less costly alternatives.

I always thought that the lines of the Comanche were quite elegant.  It's a shame that the Susquehanna River overrunning its banks in 1972 brought the Comanche era to a close.  Much of the tooling was destroyed in the flood and Piper chose not to recreate it.

In the early 1950's, Piper introduced its first tricycle gear airplane, the PA-22 Tri-Pacer.  By all accounts, these were good airplanes, though they sometimes go by unglamorous names like "the flying milkstool".  When I was just starting to consider buying an airplane, another South Haven pilot encouraged me to look closely at a Tri-Pacer for sale at a nearby airport.  Though I obviously passed on that deal, the Tri-Pacer was the first aircraft that I seriously investigated.

Yes, this photo is recycled from my 2007 blog post.  And...?

A gem of the collection is this 1947 PA-12 Super Cruiser, "The City of the Angels".  Together with sister ship "City of Washington", this simple tube and rag aircraft flew around the world from August 1947 to December 1947, covering 25,162 miles.  Because she was the first to land at the conclusion of the journey, "The City of the Angels" is credited as the first light aircraft to circumnavigate the globe.

"The City of the Angels" was purchased by Harry Mutter in 1997 and restored to its current, immaculate, state by Dave Liebegott.

Flags hand-painted along the side of the fuselage indicate the places visited by "The City of the Angels" during her 1947 worldwide odyssey.

One aspect of the museum that I found to be particularly interesting was learning about the aircraft that failed.  Many only exist as photographs: the Duck Amphibian, the twin-boomed Skycoupe, the single seat Skycycle, and the steerable gliding bomb or "glomb".  I viewed the failures as a sign of a healthy company; without failures, breakthroughs rarely occur.

Tangible, one of a kind artifacts include this 1942 Piper PT-1, intended as a military trainer.  It was Piper's first foray into building low wing aircraft.  This example, the only one ever built, was still undergoing restoration during my previous visit to the museum.

The tube and rag aircraft featured wooden wings and retractable gear.  The aircraft cruised at over 135 miles per hour on a 130 horsepower Franklin engine.

A birdcage canopy and dual instrument panels certainly gave the PT-1 a military trainer feel.  Though it looked the part, it was evidently not of interest to the military.

The wooden wings were remarkable - absolutely seamless.  I was reminded of the resin-impregnated plywood design of the Timm Tutor and wondered if Piper used a similar process for the PT-1.

I liked this elegant, if dated, logo on the PT-1 tail.

The final aircraft I examined was the one-of-a-kind Piper Papoose prototype.  Designed in the early 1960s as a two place trainer, the wings and fuselage were fiberglass.  Much like today's composites, the objective was to make an inexpensive, lightweight, and strong airframe.  

The airplane featured a sliding canopy and a flying tail like the one later implemented for Cherokees.

The wings, in a foreshadowing of modern composite designs, were constructed from 1/2 inch thick Kraft honeycomb paper impregnated with resin and sandwiched between layers of fiberglass cloth.  The museum cleverly lit the interior of the wing, revealing the honeycomb structure through the aircraft's plastic skin.

I have come face to face with the Link Trainer many times, starting with my days as a docent at the Air Zoo.  This was the first time I contemplated one since becoming an instrument student.  Given the amount of avgas I've burned droning around in holding patterns, I have finally come to appreciate the allure of simulators.

In 1984, Piper withdrew from the Lock Haven facility and consolidated operations in Vero Beach, FL.  Located in rural Pennsylvania, the company struggled to hire engineers willing to relocate there, town amenities were few for visiting customers seeking training, and, of course, winter really interferes with aeronautical endeavors (a state of affairs with which I am only too familiar).

After an hour in the museum, I strolled back to the FBO, walking atop the two-story high dike along the Susquehanna until I reached the William T Piper Memorial Airport (which is a mouthfull on Unicom, incidentally).

Though Piper may no longer operate in Lock Haven, there is no question that the oil man who bought his way into an aircraft company has made an indelible mark on the region.

Doug was surprised when I reappeared in the lobby.  "Did you walk back?"

"Sure," I responded.  "It's warm out, why not?"  At my use of the word "warm", Doug looked very dubious.

On departure, I flew parallel to the ridgeline south of the airport and out over town.  I followed the Susquehanna northwest back toward the terrain for an hour's cruise home.

The best emergency landing site in the region is the Palomino Airport, a private use airfield perched atop a hill 1260 feet above Lock Haven.  With that safety net bypassed within the first ten miles of the return flight, I trimmed the airplane for level cruise, programmed the GPS for Le Roy, and simply enjoyed looking out the window on the ride home.

As a post script: since I started IFR training, I have noticed that my VFR flying is considerably more precise than it used to be.  Not that I was ever particularly sloppy, but just look at those straight lines! 


  1. As usual, a very nice piece which is helping me free myself of the work-week blue devils. But, man I sure could call it a day and do some pattern work!!

    1. Good to hear from you, Ed, and thank you. It was certainly nice to scratch the itch. I'm sure that the craving will be back this coming weekend, though!

  2. Great set of photos. As you may imagine, Lock Haven is on my aviation bucket list. Looks like a cool little museum. Some day I'll land a Cub there. Someday.

    Sidenote - you're supposed to land on the grass... ;-)

    1. Ha! It's funny you mention that. I thought very seriously about landing on the grass, but with all the snowmelt, I worried that the ground might be soft. LHV is a great airport - you should absolutely visit sometime.

    2. Yeah, nothing like having to [i]really[/i] put those soft field skills to use! I took a 150 up from Stewart in March a few years ago when it was total mush. Definitely an interesting experience.

    3. Exactly. And the last thing that I want to do is tear up someone's nice grass runway. I visited Skaneateles last year and found a taildragger (a Husky if I recall correctly) buried up to its axles in the north-south(ish) turf runway. Huge mess.

  3. I really wish I could have made this flight. 08Romeo was a bad girl, as you know, and left me stranded. Hope to catch up soon now that I think I have the battery tender issue resolved. Thanks for posting the pic's, this one is also on my list to visit.

    1. I wish you could have made it, too. I thought about going someplace different, but had not flight planned for anywhere else! Next time, Gary!

  4. Lock Haven in the prettiest small town in America. (Maybe I'm biased because my nana lives there. :-) This is a great post. Thanks for taking the time to do it.

    1. Thanks! I always enjoy visiting to Lock Haven.

  5. Hi Chris,

    you have some really nice photos! The reason that I am writing is because I am working on a book about the history of Piper and the airplanes. I have seen your photos of the PT-1 Trainer and the Papoose. Maybe I can use them in my book ?
    It would be nice to hear from you. My mail is:

    Thank you !

  6. A very interesting insite into the Piper Museum.I have an afinity with Cubs having completed many hours glider towing in PA-18/150s and I owned a 1938 J-2 (basket case) a few years back which regrettably I never got to rebuild.