Soul Sisters — Jill Manka and her Champ called Lucy

This story first ran in the September/October 2019 version of Vintage Airplane.

Trikes to Taildraggers

Jill Manka, EAA 1179193, of Lakeland, Florida, is no stranger to taking in orphaned waifs. Her adopted dog Vega is a prime example of the inner beauty Jill sees in strays. Short and squat, with mainly snow-white fur and brown specks, she resembles the Winnie Mae, the around-the-world, globe-trotting Lockheed Vega made famous by Wiley Post. So, it was no surprise when Jill spotted a derelict frame of an Aeronca Champ, lying forlorn among the rafters of a hangar in Michigan, that she knew she had to rescue the plane. But that’s getting way ahead of the story. You see, Jill herself did not pursue aviation until a wayward barnstormer named Rob “Waldo” Lock pursued her. Smitten with the lanky flyer, Jill packed her bags and moved to Florida from her home state of Illinois and joined Waldo Wright’s Flying Service at Gilbert Field (KGIF) in Winter Haven, Florida. Jill quickly realized the joys that flying brings out in people from all walks of life and wanted to be a bigger part of aviation. But in order to step into the cockpits of Stearmans, New Standards, or Travel Airs, Jill knew she had to earn her wings.

“I started out in a Cessna 172,” Jill said. “And a light bulb went
off, and I’m like, the tailwheel aircraft I’m going
to be flying are going to be much lighter than a 172. So, I stepped down to a
Cessna 152 because I wanted to feel everything, like how the wind pushes and
pulls you in different directions as I developed my flying skills. But I also
realized that in order to be a stick and rudder pilot, what I really needed to
do was fly tailwheel airplanes to develop so many more senses like hand-eye
coordination, proper rudder control, and a more seat-of-the-pants type flying.
That was the big draw for me in tailwheel flying. I wanted to feel everything.
I wanted to be a participant in the flight experience.”

Jill had been flying with Rob in his Stearman before she
ever flew the 172, so her heart naturally was always in tailwheel flying. Jill
recognized that both the 172 and 152 helped her with the initial comfortability
of flying, but she admits that even in the 172 and 152, she hated the feeling
of a nosewheel airplane at touchdown.

“I was always concerned about a prop strike,” said Jill.
“To me, the tailwheel attitude when you come in and flare felt more natural in
both a wheel landing and a three-point. It felt more appropriate to me. That
little nosewheel versus tailwheel feeling of angle when you land, for me, was a
big connection point. I think when it comes to lighter horsepower aircraft, you
need to do what’s fun and do what’s best for you.”

Another challenge Jill encountered as a student pilot after she had soloed the 172 was her realization that, “I don’t have anything to fly once I finish this process. And I have no idea what one I want to fly.” So, she put her flight instruction on hold and went searching for a tailwheel airplane with its own personality. Jill admits it’s unclear who found whom, and in reality, it doesn’t matter all that much. What mattered was that the two became soul sisters and experienced a journey of a lifetime.


In 2009 Jill came in contact with a 1946 Aeronca Champ, serial No.
1888, that was hanging in some rafters at a friend’s hangar in Mason, Michigan.
The Champ was far from a flyer, and even though the skeletal remains were
covered in a fine coating of dust, Jill saw the potential beauty of what could

“With the Champ, I knew I wanted a tailwheel aircraft,” Jill said.
“But I didn’t know what type, so I went a nontraditional route. I started
asking a lot of the people I’d considered senior in tailwheel flying or
professionals in tailwheel flying or mentors in tailwheel flying, and 95
percent of them learned in Champs. To me, that was quite an endorsement. If I
would’ve had a lot of mixed recommendations, I would’ve definitely had a
tougher time picking the airplane, but to have these recommendations from these
people that I considered to be very well-respected air show pilots and
professionals in the aviation field, that was kind of my nod. Then to see this
thing staring at me from the rafters, it’s, like, hello! And it just connected.

“The frame was up there, and it didn’t have any wings on it. And it
just looked so lonely up there. I made him an offer for the project and pulled
it out of its resting place.”

Jill always refers to herself as a kind of a woodshop girl and enjoys
working with her hands. Although she had never restored an airplane before, she
wasn’t intimidated with the process. She also knew she could lean on her
aviation friends to help guide her forward. In addition, she liked the instant
gratification of a project where she would work a little on it and slowly see
the results develop in front of her. One of the Champ’s wings was original, but
the other one had to be rebuilt due to a previous ground loop. According to
Jill, the woodwork that was done on the original spars was flawless.

“You could see the splicing, and it was impeccable,” Jill said. “Those
folks are truly craftsmen. Their artistry was magnanimous, but I will say we
worked with Rainbow Flying Service of Moses Lake, Washington, on rebuilding the
right wing. Their work was equally as beautiful. Rainbow had some beautiful
spars that they sent us, so we were honored to have the Rainbow spars on the
wing, as well. I also had a wonderful chance to read Jon Goldenbaum’s —
president of Poly-Fiber Aircraft Coatings — book, How to Cover an Aircraft. It helped me as I was going through my
fabrication of the Champ.”

As a brand-new pilot in training, restoring the Champ also gave Jill
additional confidence for the plane in which she would eventually earn her
private pilot certificate. From the restoration side of it, Jill knew she
wasn’t flying someone else’s problem along with knowing she wasn’t flying
something for which she had a lack of knowledge about the systems, because she
was the one who built all of the systems.

“I knew exactly how the controls were put together, how the rudder
pedal cables were assembled, and how the engine worked,” Jill said. “I put the
accessory case, crankshaft, camshaft all back together under the watchful eye
of an A&P so I knew how it worked. I saw the push valve housings and the
pistons, and I learned very intimately not only what was in my airplane but
more importantly what made it tick.”

On May 3, 2015, after countless hours of sanding, turning wrenches,
painting, and more sanding, Jill was finished with the restoration of her
Champ. Sitting on the ramp, with its fresh coat of forest green and Diana cream
colors, Jill knew she had to call the airplane something other than Champ.

“Her name’s Lucy,” Jill
said. “When I looked at it, that’s what she looked like. Also, it was just kind
of a nod to the era of the aircraft — 1940s, ’50s, and a little Lucille Ball
nod, a kind of comical genius. I was hoping that I would have an aeronautical
genius that could help me along with getting familiar with tailwheel aircraft
and making sure we had fun, as well.”

Jill eventually earned her private pilot certificate in Lucy. As a trainer, the Champ was a
perfect airplane for Jill. With the aircraft weighing only 800 pounds, Jill
said she can maneuver it on her own. “I can just push it out of the hangar,
fire it up, and go have some fun and tuck her back in the hangar when we are
all done.”

For power, Jill chose a Continental C85-8 engine for the Champ instead
of the standard A65. Jill worried about the density altitude in Florida. And as
a taller pilot, she also wanted to make sure that she had a little extra
giddy-up, especially if she had another guest on board. Swinging a wood
Sensenich propeller, Jill has to hand-prop Lucy;
she finds it will start on the first blade or two every time.

“The Champ is bare-bones basics, but she’s a lovely piece of equipment,”
Jill said. “And with the lighter horsepower, it’s more affordable. It’s a whole
lot of fun, especially when you’re practicing landings, and you might be doing
a wheel landing. And you maybe think, ‘Okay, I’m doing really good at these
wheel landings. Maybe I’ll try, like, one wheel. I’ll do it on the left side.
Then I’ll do it the right side, just to play.’”


Jill confessed that her favorite time with Lucy is on long cross-countries. She has taken Lucy from Florida to Michigan three times now. Like a migratory
bird, Jill will fly up to Michigan every May, and every October, Jill will
bring her back to Florida.

“When I’m in Michigan, I’ve flown her into Oshkosh twice,” Jill said.
“I’ve also had a chance to take her to Blakesburg, Iowa, once. I’ve taken her
to the Champ fly-in in Middletown [Ohio] once and to Poplar Grove, Illinois,
for the Ladies Love Taildraggers Fly-In. I love taking the Champ places.”

Even in her adopted home state of Florida, Jill can get in Lucy and fly 45 minutes down the road to

“It’s an airport on the beach,” Jill said. “I can go down there, have
lunch, hang out at the beach for a little bit, come back home. Nice little day
trips. I have a 13-gallon main tank and one 5-1/2-gallon wing tank. When I restored
the other wing, I left a space for another 5-1/2-gallon tank. So far, I don’t
think I need it, because my range is three and a half hours. I usually stop
after two and a half hours just because your heinie starts to hurt. But it’s
been a wonderful cross-country airplane.”

When Jill and Lucy fly
north, she will fly over the Smokies, over the southern route, south of
Chattanooga, with its rolling hills and valleys. Jill likes to flight-plan
typically between 800 feet AGL and 1,200 feet AGL.

“I don’t like to go much higher than that,” Jill said. “I like to see
things when I fly, and for me, that’s part of the reason why I like
cross-countries. You can peek in people’s backyards or see the world from a
different perspective and take in the topography of nature. When you’re coming
up on the Smokies and you go over the first ridge, you’re at maybe 2,100 feet
AGL, and you’re still maybe 500 or 600 feet above the treetops. And then that
first ridge hits the valley, and suddenly below you, the ground drops 1,200
feet. So now you’re 1,600 feet above the treetops. That, to me, is such a
magical experience, and it feels so incredible.”

But one of Jill’s most memorable and fun experiences was when she was
back home in Illinois. Jill always flies in and keeps Lucy at Frasca Field, near where she grew up.

“My mother, Barb Manka, had never flown with me before,” Jill said.
“She had never flown over her family farm before. So, to be able to have my
mother along with me in Lucy and to
fly over the church where she got married, the farmland that her family had
nurtured for so many years, I will never forget her saying, ‘I remember growing
up and everything seemed so far away, and if I would’ve seen it from this
perspective, it’s so close together. We’re not that far apart from each

Jill also enjoys sharing the experience of Lucy with other young women and other people. Jill assures any
first-time flyer that they will not be breaking any speed records with Lucy.

“It’s an introductory flight for people who’ve never flown before or
have had a curiosity about aviation,” Jill said. “The Champ is a very simple
airplane with basic instrumentation. And people can understand that the stick’s
a big pointer, and wherever you point the stick, that’s where the airplane’s going
to go. It helps them kind of feel comfortable, as well.”

Friendly Advice

I asked Jill what advice she would give somebody sitting on a fence who doesn’t know what route to take but wants to get into flying for the same reasons she had: mainly to have fun.

“Low and slow’s the way to go,” Jill said.
“That’s why I got into flying. I wanted to be an active participant as a pilot.
I don’t want to sit somewhere passively and have a computer tell me what’s
going on. I have no interest in an instrument rating. I have no interest in a
multiengine rating or going somewhere fast. I still scratch the high-power itch
because I will be flying Stearmans and Travel Airs. But those are still pretty
low and slow aircraft that have a rumble feeling, and they’re fun. I would also add that part of aviation is being able to constantly
challenge yourself. That’s why the tailwheel experience, I believe, is, for me,
a true experience with flight. Not to say that nosewheel is not true, but I
think if you’re on the fence, you should really try both. Don’t let a tailwheel
intimidate you, because at the end of the day, it’s all technique. And just
like you learned your nosewheel technique, you have to learn your tailwheel
technique, and you learn about your airplane and its limitations. The approach
is exactly the same as nosewheel, in my opinion. So just try both and see if you’re
comfortable with one over the other.

“There’s no right answer. That’s the beauty
of aviation — it’s whatever you feel is your journey and your passion. So I
think as long as you get in an airplane and you’re flying, that’s the whole
point, but for me personally, the tailwheel is just a more honest approach to
it. It’s the type of flying that touches your soul and always creates a big
smile across my face.”

Post Comments