By William D. Balgord
A few days ago, my chance finally came to fly in a vintage, single-engine airplane, now long out of production. It’s called a Taylorcraft, a contemporary with and sometime commercial competitor of the Piper Cub. About 5,200 of these popular airplanes were built during the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s.
With a modest cruising speed of about 85 mph, it was never likely to win a cross-country race. But its inherently low stall speed of about 40 mph still makes it a very good craft to happen to be in if ever confronted with an emergency and forced to make a dead-stick landing. A straight stretch of unpaved road or an empty pasture may be all that’s needed to put it down safely — and walk away afterward. Its safety record is unparalleled in its class.
Hundreds of these versatile airplanes once served in various branches of the U.S. and foreign military for training purposes, forward spotting in combat, and low-level reconnaissance.
What makes the Taylorcraft very special, in my eyes at least, is that my (late) uncle, Roy Balgord, had been learning to fly while seated behind the controls of a Taylorcraft based in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, just as World War II broke out. My dad and other uncles heard about his flying exploits before he went into the service, and later passed them along to us.
Immediately following that fateful December Sunday in 1941, Roy, then living in Eau Claire, along with thousands of other American men across the country, went down to enlist at the recruitment offices of their choice: the Army, Navy, or Marine Corps.
Roy, having nearly completed his flight training for a civilian license in the Taylorcraft had ideas of becoming a fighter pilot. A group of volunteer American pilots, known as the Flying Tigers, performed daring acts in Curtiss P-40 Warhawks under command of Col. Claire Chennault in support of the Nationalist Chinese in their long-running war against Imperial Japan. The Flying Tigers became a national role model in the eyes of those who were to become a new generation of American pilots that fought in WWII.
Such was not to be for my uncle. The Army Air Corps put its enlistees through a battery of tests to determine their fitness for various assignments. Unfortunately, Roy flunked his eye exam. It was not that he couldn’t see clearly. But he could not distinguish the red from the green dots on the eye chart, and that was a disqualifying condition at the time.
Roy spent his time in the war with ground support operations first in Hawaii and later on at several forward bases across the Pacific. Ground support played an essential part in keeping the airplanes flying to deal with our nation’s enemies of the time.
Just a year before Pearl Harbor, an American aviator, Grace Huntington, set the altitude record for a light airplane in her production Taylorcraft. That record, achieving a then unheard-of altitude of more than 24,000 feet for a small single-engine airplane, has stood the time for its class since before WWII. She secured the record near Burbank, California, on September 12, 1940.
Shortly before EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, the Viroqua Municipal Airport in southwest Wisconsin celebrated the 20thanniversary of its fly-in breakfast. Dozens of airplanes of various makes and descriptions descended on Viroqua airport, including a trim, red and gray Taylorcraft owned and flown by Matt VonRuden, EAA 517767, of Cashton, Wisconsin. He keeps his Taylorcraft, N44384, in a hangar at La Crosse Regional Airport. Matt offered to take me up for a spin while he was waiting for a group of young flight enthusiasts due for rides later that afternoon.
Nothing extraordinary happened during the 12-15 minutes we were aloft. No close calls with birds or other airplanes. We topped out at a modest 1,200 feet above the surrounding terrain that I viewed from the passenger seat of his two-place aircraft. The airport elevation is 1,292 feet above sea level. That meant our maximum altitude was nearly 22,000 feet below the maximum Ms. Huntington attained back in 1940. Yet as all light-plane aficionados know well, low-level flight affords an advantageous birds-eye view of landmarks and scenery that is most often missed on a jetliner.
I am satisfied with what we did during the brief stint into the wild, blue yonder. As a habitual land-lubber I subscribe to the idea that any time you leave the ground and return safely, you are ahead of the game. Matt and I took off from and landed on the same grassy strip that could have doubled for a hayfield. A Taylorcraft pilot’s common preference, as I am told is to put down on the sod. The only bumpy part was taxiing over clover turf while getting into position for takeoff.
But safe takeoffs and landings were just what the little Taylorcraft was built for in 1941. I’m sure my late uncle would fully agree. After all, he could have, but probably did not fly that very same airplane back in the day.