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Early Flying Days
"Every child has dreams. They catch them like balloons,
as they float past, and let them go just as easily."
-- Marie Johnson, August 1985, paraphrased
Below, our parents about 1965, all 11 children born by that time.
In 1985, our mother, Marie Johnson, wrote an article about our father's early flying days. This article was published in the McLean County Journal, which was the local weekly newspaper published in our home town of Turtle Lake North Dakota. This year, 2012, I asked my mother's permission to publish a copy of this article in this fashion. The article has been reproduced, to the best of my ability as it was first written on typewriter and published via a printing press of that era. This was and is an article about our father's dreams, but in fact, this article was created as a result of our mother's dreams.
Our mother grew up on a farm in eastern North Dakota and graduated as Valedictorian from High School in the town of Hope. It was her dream to go to college and to get a degree in Journalism. It didn't happen as she dreamt. Marriage intervened, and then in 14 years, she bore 11 children. The youngest child was born in 1963 and by that time she and my father were farming 960 acres and had a cow herd of 150. It was a busy time, yet our mother made the time to begin taking journalism classes by correspondence. She went on to write first as a contributing columnist to the Bismarck Tribune, one of the largest daily newspapers in the state, and then wrote a weekly column in the McLean County Journal for decades.
Dreams don't always come true in the manner at which they are conceived.
This article was originally written for a local audience, of course many of the names are of no interest to those from another area, yet they may generate great interest from local people.
Local Flyer Helps Rebuild, Restore His First Airplane
When Leonard Johnson answered the telephone one evening in December of 1982, he surprised the young man on the other end.
He didn't know either, that evening, that he was going to renew an association with an airplane he worked with for seven years, over fifty years ago. An association that would take hime twice across the western part of the United States to California and Oregon.
Tom Murphy, the young aircraft mechanic on the other end of the phone call didn't expect to have Leonard Johnson, last registered owner of the newly purchased remains of a Curtiss Wright Junior, to be around to answer the phone. The last registration was dated in 1936.
Tom was heard to mutter that it just couldn't be this easy, but his first words to Leonard were, "Do the numbers 670V mean anything to you?" When Leonard admitted they meant a great deal to him, and were the registration numbers for his first airplane, Tom explained he had purchased a wrecked Curtis Wright Junion at an antique airplane auction in New Mexico.
Leonard was the last registered owner and Tom's first duty was to get a release (bill of sale). He had expected that to be difficult after such a long time and was quite prepared to find that 1936 owner dead.
Tom explained that he was the aircraft mechanic for Brandt Orchard Machinery Co., Yubba City, Calif., and they planned to rebuild and restore the airplane. As they discussed the airplane and the difficulty of finding original parts to restore it, Tom invited Leonard out to help him work on it.
Leonard, and the few extra parts he could find, went out to California and almost two years later to Oregon where it had been moved and where the work was finished. Before he left Oregon he had been able to fly the Curtis Wright briefly.
With mechanics :
The Curtis Wright Junior is unique in that it is a "pusher" which means that the propellor and engine are mounted back of the wings on top of the fuselage instead of in front of the plane as is common. The propellor on the Junior is vertical and not horizontal as on a helicopter. It is a two place open cockpit monoplane, a single wing. The Junior was originally licensed with a three cylinder SZkeley air cooled 45 horse power engine. Both the airplane and engine are rare. The Junior is expecially rare with the SZkeley engine.
This is the story of Leonard's involvement with the Curtiss Wright Junior and his later plane, the PA11 Piper Cub which he still flies.
Every little boy has dreams. They catch them like balloons, as they float past, and let them go just as easily.
Leonard Johnson began to dream about airplanes when he was a little boy and he held onto that dream. "I would see them fly over, just two or three a year", he said, "and try to imagine what it was like."
It was quite a while before he had the chance to see one on the ground, but then he didn't have the money for the fare. he said the airplane looked pretty much what he imagined. He hadn't had much opportunity to even read about airplanes, "except what you read in the Popular Mechanics."
It wasn't as good as an airplane, but when he was a teenager someone gave him a Sears motorcycle. It was his first experience with a motor he could fix. Of course it didn't run when he got it, but he eventually got it running and then had to scrounge a couple of tires for it. The old Sears was extremely rare, Leonard said.
Later, Leonard got interested in Harleys, he owned three in all, even a single cylinder, which was also rare, it was made for only two years during the depression.
He rather scrounged for his motorcyles and the parts, picking up a frame, a chassis, parts here and there. Once he found a chassis without an engine and bought it for $7. The man who owned the single cylinder wanted $30 for it, but when Leonard left with the motorcycle, he had parted with an accordion and a couple of dollars. He traded that Harley off for a Model T for Coupe, but "I couldn't afford the gas," he said, "so I sold it."
Leonard was nineteen when he got his first ride in an airplane. "It was about how I figured it would be," he said. A neighbor, John Springmeyer, received a ticket in a local promotion and he didn't want a ride. He gave the ticket to Leonard.
That airplane ride intensified his ambition to fly his own airplane and it wasn't long before he had found out about the Curtiss Wright Junior from Fred Roberts. "I knew he was a flyer and I visited him. He was giving flying instructions and flew with him from Bismarck to the new airport in Mandan."
Fred Roberts was a flying instructor and an aircraft mechanic. He also had a shop, FMR Electric on Main Street in Bismarck. "While we were talking he told me he had the fuselage and wings for a Curtiss Wright Junior. It had been damaged in a wind storm." This was in the fall of 1933, not very long after his first ride.
Leonard didn't get to Bismarck again for a couple of months and he again visited Fred. Leonard was then thinking of building an airplane with a Model T engine, and during their discussion Roberts again mentioned the Curtiss Wright Junior. "I didn't have any money, so I waited until I did some trapping and sold some furs," said Leonard. "The wrecked fuselage was at Glasgow, Montana. The engine, the wheels and the instrument panel had been shipped to Roberts by the owners after they had wrecked it."
Roberts had purchased the airplane because he needed the engine and Leonard paid him $5 down on January 10, 1934 and got the wings, fuselage, wheels and axle for $30. "Then I tried to figure out how to get it home because it was still in Montana."
Leonard found a neighbor who needed some work done on his Model T and he agreed to do the work if the neighbor, Herman Sabe, would take him to Montana.
"I got another old Model T and dismantled it to make a trailer, and we went to Montana," said Leonard.
They camped outside, slept on the ground. For food, they took along slab bacon, potatos, and coffee, and with a homemade campstove, they considered themselves "pretty well off." They camped near trees and in Montana their campsite was on an Indian Reservation where they forgot their hatchet.
When they got to Glasgow, they found the fuselage had been carried away by a spring flood, ahd been lodged in a tree, and was laying beside the tree where it had fallen, broken in two.
The wing spars were pretty good, said Leonard, but the ribs had to be replaced because kids had walked across the wings and broken every one. On the metal fuselage some parts were missing and some were bent. They loaded it on the trailer and started home.
On their way back through Montana they stopped at the campsite and questioned those around about the hatchet. Everyone denied seeing it although Sabe was quite insistent and as they turned back to the car the "hatchet passed me in mid air," said Leonard, "and lit right at our feet."
They had planned to go right to Bismarck with the pieces but they ran into ran at Williston. They had to stop at a schoolhouse, but the next day it was still raining. They walked to a farmhouse to wait out the rain. "People were pretty poor then," said Leonard, "and this farmer and his family were no better off. All they had to eat was a bit of bread and potatos and a little biscuit or cake, but they shared what they had." This was in June and the crop was in the ground and "already shot" said Leonard.
When the rain stopped, the roads were bad and in some cases impassible. Sabe and Leonard had to detour near Keene and came through Sanish. "That was also just a trail," Leonard said.
At Roseglen they stopped with friends and got something to eat, about the first thing they had eaten in two and a half days.
"It cost $13 for the trip to Montana, gas, groceries and all," said Leonard. They finally got the fuselage to Bismarck and left it with Roberts as some welding had to be done and it had to be done by an experienced aircraft mechanic.
"We took the wings home, what there was!" said Leonard. They stowed them away in the granary at home until the spring of 1937. The fuselage was done and home the fall of '36.
"It took all the money I'd made in two years for the $65 to have that fuselage fixed. When I brought it home I stored it in a barn on the John Springmeyer farm," he said.
John was the man who gave Leonard the ticket for that first ride.
Leonard worked and covered the fuselage with unbleached muslin sewn on his mother's sewing machine. First, though, he had to fix the sewing machine and he sent for instructions on sewing machine repair from Iowa State University. Mrs. Springmeyer also did a lot of the sewing on her machine.
"I used to walk across the fields to the Springmeyer farm, about a mile and a half," said Leonard, "in the winter, I would ski over there."
After he had the fuselage covered, he began replacing and building a set of wooden ribs.
Leonard needed plywood and he found an ad in an aviation magazine for surplus of plywood that would supply all the thicknesses he needed at half price. He got boards for the cap strips instead of a presawed string and he got a table saw with a 3" blade from Sears. He ran it with a Maytag washing machine engine he got from another neighbor, Walter Renfrow. He cut the cap strips and all the plywood pieces he needed, such as wood braces, compression ribs and aileron ribs by using a jib borrowed from Fred Roberts. A jig is a metal or wooden pattern.
"Still I didn't get much done in '37. Three years earlier I had sold the Harley Davidson single cycle for money to go to Montana and pay for the fuselage and I save my trapping money for three years. I also raised Turkeys and went out threshing to rise money for those supplies."
But Leonard says he made most of the money for the airplane by grinding feed. He bought an old Buick, about a 1925 model, and cut the rear half of the body off and mounted the feed grinder. Since most of the farmers had to haul grain with a team and wagon to town to grind feed, they were quite willing to hire Leonard to come to the farm for the grinding.
"It was an advantage," said Leonard. "I could grind about forty bushels of grain in an hour, which would finish maybe two farmers in a day at 4 cents a bushel. That way I managed to get enough supplies to begin work on a the wings."
By this time Leonard was twenty-three, four years after his first ride.
He got the wings assembled in the fall of 1937. Not covered, but the wooden parts made and in place. They were inspected and approved for license. To get them approved he had to haul them to Bismarck and put them in the hangar of a flying acquaintance. He had to make drawings of all repairs, fortunately Roberts had the necessary forms and the work was approved.
He brought the wings into the Springmeyer barn and couldn't do anything more until the summer of '38.
That summer he covered the wings and in the fall he attached them to the fuselage. All the sewing for the wings he did himself. He covered one wing in unbleached muslin as he had done the fuselage, but then he heard they didn't want that used. "According to one inspector who said he didn't want to have bed sheets flying around," said Leonard.
"The airplane fabric cost twice as much, so I ran out of money." He also needed money for the tapes to cover seams and edges and the aircraft dope to paint and seal the fabric. They had to use four coats of clear dope and two coats of dope mixed with silver powder. It cost $1.50 a gallon for dope, and that was the cheap grade, he said. He used seven gallons on each wing. When he got done the airplane was silver and black.
He bought a used airplane motor from Fred Roberts. He paid for it with money he made trapping. He put the motor in towards the end of '38. he ordered the instrument panel, got the propellor and wing struts from guys in Michigan, and the gas tank from a guy in Pennsylvania. The nose piece came from Ohio, complete with the picture of a woman on it. He completed the nose by painting on a skull and cross bones. This must have really reassured his mother! However Leonard said his family never expected him to finish the airplane, much less to fly it.
He taxied the airplane home. He still hadn't had a lesson, but when he wasn't working on the airplane or working for money for repairs and supplies he was reading every repair manual, flying manual and aeuronautical manual on the theory of lying that he could get.
"I kept the airplane near home and every once in a while I would taxi it around, opening and closing the throttle, taking off and practicing landings, only once getting more than ten feet off of the ground," Leonard said.
One one practice run the take off was delayed because of snow and he ran out of room. "I had to go over a straw stack or into the stack," he said. "I went up and over the straw stack and then the snow was so deep I couldn't land so I had to turn it around."
That was the beginning of his flying, because the only thing that bothered him was banking and making the turns and he found out he could do that.
It bothered him because "you can't practice banking and turning on the ground," he said.
This was in January of '39 and "making turns was about what I had expected," he said. "I didn't get much chance to fly it the rest of the winter, but I flew it in the fall and winter of '40 and '41.
In the meantime he had to build a hangar because the turkeys kept roosting on it and they weighed twelve to fifteen pounds. That slowed him down because he had to put money in the hangar and didn't have enough for gas. Then he had to buy another crankcase but that didn't work either. "I found the problem which was with the airscoop next to the carburetor. I made a gasket from heavy cardboard that corrected the problem," he said.
In the spring of '41 he traded the Junior off to Martin Schow, Stanton on a Case V tractor, the first tractor on the farm. By that time the fuselage was four years old, and the wing fabric two years old. It would have needed recovering in a year or two as the plane had spent most of the time outside. War was imminent and the future uncertain, said Leonard.
Ray Wicklander, Washburn, came to get the Junior and flew it west of Washburn for Schow. Before it was flow to Stanton, with Schow's permission, Wicklander and Cliff Beeks flew the airplane. This was probably the first airplane Cliff Beeks ever flew, said Leonard.
Also, he said, the small Piper Cubs and Taylorcraft looked more appealing. The pushers could be purchased for anywhere for $400 and up, newly recovered, and altogether he had put nearly that much into fixing the Junior.
In 1945 Leonard began taking flying lessons from Cliff Beeks when he began a flying school and in 1949 he bought the PA11 which was a late 47 model from Beeks.
The following winters were hard and the roads were blocked for months at a time. Leonard landed near farmsteads, as close as he could, and picked up cream cans, egg cases and grocery lists. He landed near town and delivered the cream and eggs and, picked up the neighbors mail and groceries and landed again at the farm. Each time he landed he took the chance of misjudging the snow and injuring the propellor, skis, etc. Usually the little pay he took barely paid for the gas.
There were no school buses and high school students boarded in town. Many a student, and a few teachers in the rural schools got to go home during the winter because Leonard picked them up and delivered them, getting them again after the weekend or vacation was over.
There were emergency flights, once he flew a young boy and his mother to Bismarck where they were met by ambulance.
Up until now Leonard had spent money on the airplane so he began hunting fox and coyotes and sold the fur. At times he had a gunner, but the weight of the gunner meant there was less room for the furs or the animal. At times they skinned the fox or coyote there on the ground, but usually it was too cold and it was better to fly home and dump them off.
He was fortunate, he says, to have experienced dependable gunners, Gordon Zingg, Ivon Boe and sometimes his brother, Arvid. Everyone had chores to do and no one had a telephone so it was difficult to get together.
Leonard found out he could hunt and fly at the same time and he didn't need a gunner. There were a couple of advantages to that, he could go out whenever he had a couple of hours to spare without wasting time looking for a gunner, and he had the extra room for skins or animals. It would not have been much fun to take just anyone as a gunner, he said. "It was not reassuring to have an inexperienced gunner in the back seat of the airplane behind you waving his gun around," he said.
When he hunted alone he would sight the fox, come in as low as possible, about twenty feet off the ground, let go of the controls, grab the gun and shoot, then let go of the gun, grab the controls and go around for another shot, if necessary. "Needless to say the fox didn't stand still," he said, and some skill was needed, both the gun and with the airplane.
Prices for the furs were sometimes good, and sometimes worthless, except for the bounty of $2.50 to $3.00.
In later years a law was passed prohibiting flyers who acted as their own gunners, but Leonard was one of the three flyers in the state who were allowed to continue under a "grandfather" clause.
There have been no serious accidents in his years of flying even though there have been emergencies due to engine failure, other aircraft problems or weather. The airplane and hangar were damaged once in a tornado but other mishaps were minor with no injuries to pilot or passenger.
When Leonard went out to California the first time to assist in the restoration of the Curtiss Wright the mechanic had a well equipped shop with table saws, hand saws and a complete set of metal working equipment for his use.
It was a long way from the 3-inch Sears table saw with the washing machine engine.
Restoration of the Junior meant the airplane was remade exactly as the original even to the cables which were handbraided, and the original colors. The aircraft mechanic, Tom Murphy was an execellent and careful mechanic.
Last fall Leonard returned to the Curtiss Wright Junior which was now in Oregon with Murphy. He spent two weeks with Tom working to get the plane ready for an antique airplane show. They didn't finish in time for the show because of some difficulties with an oil pump in the old engine, but they finished before he came home.
The Junior is now fully restored and in the original colors of silver and blue. It had to have a different registration as the old 670V had been given by the FFA to another plane. It is now 671V.
Before Leonard left, one beautiful fall morning, he flew the Curtiss Junior and relived those days of the 30's when he began flying.
The Curtiss Wright can be seen at the Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum near Hood River, Oregon. Please visit their web site at http://www.waaamuseum.org/ or even stop in and visit with Tom Murphy.