Just for the Fun of It

By Budd Davisson with Jack Haggerty

This piece originally ran in the July/August 2020 issue of Vintage Airplane magazine.

“When I bought the Cruiser in 1987, it was in flyable condition but had been tied up outside for a while, so I thought it prudent to dig a little deeper. My friend and [A&P]/IA, Bud Anthonson, who then owned Anthonson Airport, a 1,250-foot grass strip in our area, signed it off for a ferry permit to his airstrip. His annual inspection did not find any serious issues so he said to just fly it and have fun. As the years went by, we would find things to do with the old girl to keep her safe and looking presentable, but I never had any intentions of making her a showplane. It was the perfect platform for our family of three, soon to become four, to have a good time flying.”

Jack Haggerty, EAA 284080, of Skaneateles, New York, is talking about his 1940 Piper J-5A Cruiser, N33187, which was on the line in the Vintage area at AirVenture 2019. That was its seventh appearance at AirVenture.

“I’m just not a builder type,” he continued. “We all know people who would rather build than fly, but I’m not one of those. After I helped Bud with an engine overhaul in 1989 and the re-covering with Ceconite in ’93, we installed the beefed-up struts, added the skylight, slightly redesigned the cowling for the straight pipes, and I continue to like messing with the original bladder and puck brake system on the 8-by-4 wheels. The 75-hp C-75-12F Continental now has about 1,350 hours on it, and I replaced the jugs a few years back when there were about 3,400 hours on the airframe. There is always something that needs a little tweaking now and then, but keeping her safe and having fun flying is my primary objective.”

About that re-covering job. Jack said the fabric came off a lot easier than it went back on.

“Like I said, I’m a flyer, not a builder,” he said.

To a certain extent Jack breaks the mold from which a lot of sport aviators come. For instance, he didn’t have model airplanes hanging all over his bedroom, and his first word wasn’t “airplane.”

“Yeah, I have to admit that I came into aviation in a slightly different way,” he said. “In my teens, I was somewhat of a problem child. When I was 17, however, my dad found a way to give me direction in life, although I doubt if he could have guessed how well his ploy would work.

“Dad was a plumber, and his friend Tony, a World War II ferry pilot, had a small FBO, among other things,” Jack said. “He owed my dad $900 for some plumbing work, so they worked out a trade. Soon I was taking flying lessons at Hancock Airport in Syracuse to pay off the bill. That absolutely turned my life around, and looking back at it I can’t believe how quickly I fell in love with aviation. Some might call it an obsession! Unfortunately, Tony was killed later that year on a charter in an Aero Commander. The cause was found to be carbon monoxide poisoning. My flying plans were curtailed for a while, but I learned early that these beautiful machines can bite.”

Although his father was no longer flying, he had a long, solid background in aviation.

“Dad was caught up in the Lindbergh era and learned to fly in an OX-5-powered Travel Air out of Roosevelt Field, soloing in 1928. His first flight instructor had a motto: Aviation — Starvation and Death. Dad dusted cotton in Tallulah, Louisiana, for a time in a Waco 9 and owned an OX-5-powered Bird in the early ’30s, barnstorming in the Hudson Valley area of New York state. He had 11 forced landings that he could recall due to engine failure, mostly in the OX-5, and logged over 1,250 hours. His last aviation work was as a mechanic instructor in the CPT program in the early ’40s at Amboy Airport in Syracuse.”

Jack soloed at 17 but didn’t get his private and commercial certificates until he was at Miami-Dade Junior College training at Burnside-Ott in its two-year program. He then transferred to Southeastern State College in Durant, Oklahoma, which had an affiliation with American Flyers. He graduated with a degree in aviation science and got his ratings through CFII.

Photo by Jack Fleetwood.

“Shortly after college I joined the U.S. Air Force, primarily due to the positive influence of two retired Air Force pilots who were on the staff,” he said. “The Air Force basically ‘retrained’ me to fly their way, and it was an exciting year in Arizona flying at Williams AFB in the T-37 and T-38. I wound up flying C-130s based at CCK Air Base in Taiwan, but flying missions primarily in Vietnam and Thailand. Most of my ‘trash hauling,’ as we called it, was routine, but occasionally we would hear and feel things blowing up, and we would realize this war was for real.”

After leaving the Air Force Jack started on a new aviation adventure.

“Since high school I had always wanted to go to Alaska,” he said. “Those stories of the bush pilots, the rugged individualism, and the awesome landscape were tearing at my soul. After separating from the Air Force in 1975, I headed north from Arizona to Alaska with my dog in my truck camper, with a stop in Seattle to get my single- and multiengine float ratings on the GI Bill. I flew floatplanes there for a while but Alaska was calling.

“At the time, the Alaska Air Guard was transitioning from C-123s to C-130s, and they had a pilot slot for me to fit into,” Jack said. “I had a great time flying to all corners of the state and beyond for almost 10 years. This still left time to fly floats for Harbor Air Service in Seward, get time in Twin Otters and the AW-650 Argosy supporting the firefighters, and still fly a summer for Wien Air Alaska.

“In 1978 I was hired by Flying Tigers [cargo airline] as a flight engineer on the DC-8,” he said. “I still remember the first time we had an up-close introduction and how huge that airplane was compared to the C-130. After the merger, I flew as captain on the B-727 at FedEx for 15 years. I could have transitioned to some of the larger long-haul airplanes but liked my schedule and really enjoyed flying the 72. I really like older airplanes, and the 727 was the DC-3 of the jet age. I think there was a little tear in my eye on that last flight.”

Almost from the beginning, Jack knew about EAA and joined the ranks in 1987. It was while instructing in a J-3 owned by his EAA chapter that he discovered how much he enjoyed instructing in vintage aircraft. That year he soloed his first taildragger student. Jack’s first flight into Oshkosh with his J-5 came the following year with that student.

“The J-5 came about when I began thinking that maybe I should find an airplane of my own,” he said. “This was also in 1987, and I saw a J-5A Piper Cruiser listed on the local airport bulletin board and had to have someone explain to me how that differed from the J-3. I liked the fact that it had the wide back seat and room for my wife, Karen, and our 2-year-old son, who was soon to have a sister. After checking it out, I agreed with the owner that $5,500 was a fair price and became the owner of my first airplane.”

Photo by Jack Fleetwood.

When Jack first brought the J-5 home to Anthonson Airport, it ended up being unsheltered outside for a couple of years. However, when Bud, the airport owner who had helped Jack rebuild the airplane, decided he had paid enough taxes in his life and refused to pay any more, something had to give. The local government was about to throw him out on his ear. However, at the last moment, Jack stepped in and they drew up a purchase agreement for the property that allowed Bud and his wife to have lifetime use of the adjoining house and a place to continue his airplane repair business. Jack became an airport owner, which included the benefit of being able to park his J-5 indoors. Buying the airport is an unusual way to get hangar space!

Since retiring as a “freight dog,” Jack has soloed an average of a couple of young pilots each year. He says it’s pretty cool to walk away from the Cruiser and solo them while their parents stand by watching their babies fly off all by themselves.

“I have had more than one parent who did not realize that ‘solo’ means alone,” Jack said. “Many of my fledglings are pursuing flying careers and tell me how their instructors are very impressed that they have the tailwheel endorsement.”

One of the most worthwhile and enjoyable things Jack said he does in the Cruiser is fly Young Eagles.

“To date I have flown over 650 youngsters,” he said. “In 2017 I drove to Oshkosh with my wife. She had agreed to go and camp out but preferred to forgo the flying adventure part. While at the Young Eagles dinner I was surprised to receive an award along with 13 others who were the only pilots to have flown at least one Young Eagle every year since the program began in 1992. I know what a profound effect aviation has had on me, and I want to pass that along to as many young people as I can. As the Young Eagles flight coordinator for our chapter, I am forever grateful to our many volunteers who donate their airplanes and time to this program. But I must admit that, as pilots, we are always looking for any excuse to go flying.

“Not all of those Young Eagles I’ve flown were in the J-5,” he said. “For most of my life I had heard stories from my dad about his adventures in his Bird biplane. Those inspired me to track down a Bird of my own. However, I had heard enough stories about the unreliability of the OX-5 that I wanted nothing to do with one of those. I found a 1929 Bird out near Chicago that was originally an A model with an OX-5 but was converted to a 100-hp Kinner and then a Continental W-670 [220 hp]. With serial No. 1,002, I believe it is the oldest Bird flying. It’s such a kick to strap a kid in the front seat and give them what may very well be not just their first airplane ride but for sure the first one in an open-cockpit biplane. That being said, however, the J-5 is still my favorite.”

Designer Walter C. Jamouneau’s (that’s where the “J” comes from) distinctive signature graces the CAA statement of conformity for Piper J-5A, serial No. 5-462 (registered as NC33187 on November 29, 1940). Jack’s Cruiser flew primarily in Pennsylvania and New York and has had a total of 21 previous owners. It was first sold to a Richard Benson of Kenmore, New York, for $1,798.

“Although I love flying the J-3, the J-5 is so much more comfortable and useful that there is really no comparison,” Jack said. “Flying from the front gives you awesome visibility, and you have a wide back seat that’s very roomy for one but gives you the option of more, depending on size and weight.

“The last of the J-5s, the J-5C went up to 100 hp with the O-235 Lycoming, and that made a big difference,” he said. “The ‘C’ was also converted to an ambulance version with a rear hinged fuselage version during WWII known as the HE-1/AE-1. About 1,400 J-5s were produced, and after the war it was redesigned as the PA-12 (Piper Aircraft) Super Cruiser with more horsepower, an enclosed engine cowling, and different landing gear. The PA-12s are very common in Alaska and most are re-engined with at least 150 hp and tundra tires. The original PA-12s are heavier airplanes, and even though they have more power, they do not perform much different than the J-5, although they are faster. Operating my J-5A out of our 1,250-foot strip with obstacles while carrying 36 gallons of fuel and a passenger requires serious attention to the wind direction and density altitude.”

Photo by Jack Fleetwood.

Jack had a special mission for his most recent trip to Oshkosh.

“Last year, 2019, was one of the better years at AirVenture for me because I took 15-year-old Mark ‘Koos’ Belamy with me in the J-5,” he said. “He’s the son of my IA and corporate pilot friend of the same name — that’s why the nickname — and a very competent pilot. Mark had heart surgery when he was just a few days old, and although his doctor says he’s 100 percent okay, the feds were balking at giving him his medical, which would have prevented his upcoming solo in a couple of weeks. I wanted him to sit face to face with the FAA folks at AirVenture so they would get to know him and perhaps expedite the matter.

“The lady we worked with absolutely could not have been nicer or more supportive,” he said. “She said she would push as hard as she could but could not guarantee that it would go through before his 16th birthday on August 5. She was a woman of her word, and Mark got the required paperwork just a couple days after his birthday and was able to solo a Piper Colt, which was followed in the next few days by my J-5, an Aeronca Champ, C-140, Bonanza, Stearman, C-150, Challenger II, C-170B on floats, Taylorcraft, and a Travel Air B-95 twin. Few things in my life have been as satisfying as helping him achieve his goals.”

Jack has made the trip to Oshkosh more than 20 times, mostly by flying in, and has a lot to say about the event itself.

“First, I should say that although I’m a flyer, not a builder, I really appreciate the work of those who bring old planes back to better than new,” he said. “I am grateful that they bring them out so we can admire them. However, for me the real draw of Oshkosh isn’t the airplanes. It’s the people. I don’t know where else you can go to meet so many really nice folks like you do at Oshkosh. I have made many great friends through the years and look forward each year to renewing friendships and creating new ones. Last year it was especially rewarding for me to listen to the Rutan brothers, astronaut Mike Collins, and Col. Bud Anderson. What history!

“When you fly into Oshkosh you quite literally leave one world behind and enter into another that is populated by an entirely different type of person,” he continued. “It simply blows me away, always renews my faith in humanity, and reassures me that general aviation is alive and well. They are why I love to fly my small plane across middle America and will continue this annual pilgrimage as long as I can still climb into the cockpit.”

What does the future hold for Jack and his airplane?

“I know I am nothing more than a caretaker of the J-5 and in the future will pass her on to our son Seamus [an FO on Embraer 145s],” he said. “He has made the trip with me several times and also has the Oshkosh addiction. I only hope that she brings as many fond memories to generations yet to come as she has for me and my family. She may not be a beautifully restored airplane, but she has a beautiful soul and has opened an equally beautiful world to me.” It would be a sacrilege for us to think we can add any words to that. Amen, brother!

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