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THE SAD AND UNTIMELY DEMISE OF OSCAR FOX

February 11th is not a happy day for me. First, a bit of arcane history. I have always been told (and the Encyclopedia Britannica confirms) that George Washington celebrated his birthday on February 11th although the adoption of the Gregorian calendar indicated that the actual date of his birth was on a date which should have been called February 22, 1732. This error was caused by a computational error which indicated that a year was 365.25 days. Actually, this over estimated the length of a year by approximately eleven minutes and fifteen seconds. This variance produces an error of a day in 128 years but over the centuries, the error grew larger. Pope Gregory XIII promulgated a correction in March of 1582. However, it was not until Christopher Clavius, a Jesuit mathematician, verified and published in 1603 the rules to apply the new calendar that the rules began generally to be adopted. George Washington was born over one and a quarter centuries later so it is puzzling why he chose to celebrate his birthday on a date based on the "old" calendar.

On February 11, 1994, we had an ice storm in Memphis. In the wee hours of the morning, we heard a boom and felt enough of a thump that we wondered if we were having an earthquake. The New Madrid fault is not very far away. When we went out at daylight, we found that a huge tree from our neighbor's yard had fallen over and crushed my wife's Buick Station wagon. It also did some damage to the house.

On February 11, 1998, at seven in the morning, we heard something which sounded like a clap of thunder. When I went out to get the newspapers and looked back down the driveway, I discovered that another huge tree from the same neighboring yard had blown down on top of my glider trailer with the glider in it. My glider is (I guess I should say "was") a Grob 102 Standard Astir III, a sailplane made in Germany. It is one of the few with a cockpit big enough for me. It has the competition letters "OF" on the tail and on the wings. The aviation phonetics for those letters is Oscar Foxtrot which most people abbreviate to "Oscar Fox". Oscar Fox's real name (N-number) was 90BG. Those competition letters "OF" now belong to someone else but I never took them off of the ship.

I fly for the pure joy of flying. It is one of the greatest pleasures of my life. I don't fly for badges. I don't fly for records. And I have no interest in contests. I fly for fun.

I bought Oscar Fox from Bill Dehon, a Florida dentist in September of 1984. Bill had been primarily interested in sailing but had been developing some pre-cancerous indications from the exposure to the sun and so had decided to take up soaring. He decided to sell Oscar Fox and get an ASW 20 which is a little higher performance ship. He advertised the Grob in Soaring. I had heard that the Grob was one of the few ships with a big enough cockpit to hold me. Something was wrong with the telephone number listed in the ad but the ad mentioned that the ship had been pictured on the cover of Soaring magazine and with that information, I managed to find Dehon and call him. Because of the erroneous phone number, no one else had called. I flew down to Florida to look at the ship. Dehon let me fly it. This was the first time I had ever flown a glass ship. It was wonderful. However, I had a hard time making up my mind because I was seriously thinking about leaving the law firm where I had practiced for many years and starting a new firm. Nevertheless, on the flight back home, I decided that I would buy the ship and when I got home, I called Dehon and negotiated the sale. I bought Oscar Fox and the trailer and Dehon agreed to have it delivered to me. Dehon kept the turn and bank indicator he had installed in the ship. Incidentally, Oscar Fox was also featured in one of the calendars published by the Soaring Society of America. Oscar Fox had a blue canopy which certainly gave it a very distinctive appearance.

Bill Dehon had rigged Oscar Fox with an interesting gear warning device. There was a small tape recorder hooked up to micro switches on the gear handle and the spoiler handle. If you opened the spoilers with the gear still retracted, a female voice said, "Sweetheart, have you forgotten to put your gear down. I wouldn't want you to scratch your pretty little Ass-tir." Such a warning was certainly more likely to get your attention than a mere buzzer.

I did a number of things to try to improve Oscar Fox. There is a removable seat back. When you take it out, there is a space where your parachute is supposed to fit. My parachute is too large to fit in the space anyway and I had read about some materials you mix and in a short time they form a solid foam. You mix the chemicals, pour the chemicals in a plastic bag, put the bag in the glider and sit in the glider with the bag behind you until the foam solidifies. The first mix I tried took twelve hours to set up and I couldn't sit in the glider that long. The second bunch I tried set up in about thirty seconds and I couldn't get in the glider fast enough. Visualizing me trying to get in the glider fast enough really put Tom Knauff in stitches. I didn't think it was that funny. I finally found a foam mixture that set up in about ten minutes and made myself a foam support that really fit my back.

In other improvements, I took out the radio that came with Oscar Fox and installed a Terra 720 channel radio. I also added a RICO variometer and a good stopwatch. A Dick Johnson report on the Grob indicated that sealing the place where the control rods pass through the wing roots and adding turbulator tape to the underside of the wings each improved the L/D by five percent (5%). I did both. I moved the battery from under my left leg to the package shelf.

When I bought Oscar Fox, the soaring club to which I belonged, the Memphis Soaring Society was flying out of a field called Colonial Gliderport. It was on the state line about thirteen miles east of Memphis International Airport. The north end of the runway was in Tennessee and the South end was in Mississippi. That's where I kept Oscar Fox. Dehon had tried to maintain Oscar Fox in pristine condition and I tried to do the same.

Grob has a standard kind of paint job on its ships but to me it always looked like a copy of the Howard Johnson restaurants' paint with the orange and white stripes. Dehon had had Oscar Fox painted with a very distinctive paint job with maroon and black on the tail and wing tips. The letters "OF" were on both the tail and the wings. One day, I found a tag someone had stuck in the cockpit. The tag read "Old Fart on board". I never did find out who put the tag there. I became so accustomed to Oscar Fox that flying it became almost second nature and all I had to do was think what I wanted to do and Oscar Fox would do it. The controls were light and Oscar Fox was extremely responsive. This was "fingertip" flying.

Oscar Fox was a most forgiving ship. The stalls were docile and you really had to do something deliberate to make OF do anything bad. I have always thought that Oscar Fox was easier to fly than a 1-26, a ship used to let students build time.

I only landed out a few times with Oscar Fox. The most common direction of the prevailing wind in this area is from the west but when we flew out of Colonial we had to go east to get away from the Memphis Traffic Control Area. That meant that much of the time, the return flight to the field was upwind. On one occasion, OF and I went approximately seventy miles east of the field (Colonial glider park) to an airport just east of the town of Selmer, Tennessee. The sky turned blue back to the west and I had to call for the tow plane to come get me back to the field.

Another time, I got off tow too soon and had to land on a very narrow strip just a short distance east of the field. The strip was used by a high-wing power plane and with Oscar Fox's low, long wings, the right wing brushed the grass on the side of the strip and we ended up going out into the grass with no harm done. I got the owner of the strip to help me pull OF to the end of the field. We pulled the ship back into the woods as far as we could. The tow plane came and we hooked up. The tow plane ran the engine up to full power and then released the brakes. I managed to get Oscar Fox into the air before we got to the narrow part of the strip and the tow plane then got off.

The third landing out was really interesting. It happened at Sequatchie. The Sequatchie valley is just north of Chattanooga. The field there is called Sequatchie Soaring. It is owned and run by a former Eastern Airlines pilot named Art Matthews. The area has wonderful thermals, marvelous ridge soaring and sometimes wave. On one occasion, Art was towing me up and at 1,900 feet called me on the radio and asked me to do him a favor and get off there. I did. I was in a terrific thermal. My varios pegged and in two and one half minutes, I was at 6.200 feet.The Sequatchie valley is the second longest rift in the world. (The longest is in Africa). The Sequatchie valley is seventy miles long, six miles wide and almost two thousand feet deep. On each side, the top is flat. The drop to the valley floor is almost vertical at the top and then rounds out to the floor of the valley. In the valley, as might be expected, the terrain is irregular. On the occasion of that third out landing, I had been listening on the radio to all the other ships calling in that they had lost their lift and were heading home. Some even had landed out. I was full of pride because I was still doing well. (Pride goeth before a fall.) Suddenly, I couldn't find any lift at all. An out landing became the only alternative. There is a highway down the middle of the Sequatchie valley. I saw what looked like a good field in front of a house and next to the highway. I carefully set up for the landing. On the last part of my final approach, I discovered that the field I had chosen had a deep depression leading up to the driveway to the house. Oscar Fox and I dove into that depression and touched down on the uphill slope. We stopped on the driveway. An itinerant preacher was the first car to pass on the highway. He picked me up and took me back to the field. Two other pilots went back with me to get OF.

On other occasions at Sequatchie when the ridge was working, I would fly along level with the top (locals call it the "age", i.e."edge") only about two hundred feet out. I would be flying at 110 knots. If I slowed down, I would go up. I would wave at the people on the edge as I whizzed by. It is an experience not to be forgotten. When the ridge is working at Sequatchie, it is easy to go up and down the full length of the valley two and even three times in an afternoon. Many of the distance records set in sailplanes have been set in a course which includes the Sequatchie valley.

Oscar Fox was stressed for aerobatics. I had never done any real aerobatics in the club ships unless you count wingovers as aerobatics and I guess that they really are. I had never had any training in aerobatics. I bought a parachute but I am so big that when I wore it, I could hardly fit in the cockpit of Oscar Fox. The first time I ever did a loop was in OF. We were up at Art Matthews place in the Sequatchie valley. I knew what the entry speed was supposed to be and I had been told how to do the maneuver. I was scared to death. I commended my soul to God then I put the nose down, accelerated to the entry speed and pulled the nose up. It was wonderful. I did two more loops and three wing-overs I was so exhilarated, I could hardly bear to land.

It is much easier to fly cross-country in the company of another glider. Each can look for thermals and call the other. However, on many occasions, I couldn't find anyone who would go with me and Oscar Fox and I would take off by ourselves. One fun and long flight was not really intended to be a cross country flight at all. We were flying out of Colonial. It was a really good day. OF and I towed off and headed down to the southeast. At Holly Springs Mississippi, we turned northeast. We went past Bolivar, Tennessee and on up to Jackson, Tennessee. Then we followed I-40 west to Brownsville, Tennessee. Then we turned South and went on back to Colonial. The flight took over four hours and was a total distance of approximately 165 miles. That was a real blast.

Both of my boys learned to fly gliders and both flew OF. Oscar Fox and I managed many times to get the highest of anyone in the club on a given day and to stay up the longest. In fact, frequently. there would be a threat to leave me with no one to help me take Oscar Fox apart and put it back in the trailer unless I came down. I finally got to feeling that if I didn't keep OF up at least three hours each time I flew, I would be an embarrassment to Oscar Fox.

At Colonial Glider Park, we kept the gliders in a kind of T-hangar with fall-down doors. Gosh those doors were heavy and hard to close. Finally, we were having so much trouble with the Memphis TCA that the club decided to move its operations to Forrest City, Arkansas. The club built a large hangar to hold the ships. I didn't want Oscar Fox to get hangar rash so I decided to keep Oscar Fox in the trailer instead of the hangar. I kept the trailer at the end of my driveway in Memphis. Hangar rash would have been much better than what happened. The tree was a very large Sycamore. It stood over 80 feet away from where the trailer was parked. The tree's roots had apparently rotted. The wind was blowing fairly hard and that tree just went over. Five degrees one way or the other and it would not have hit Oscar Fox.

I carried liability insurance on OF but I never carried hull insurance. I'm not even sure that hull insurance would apply to damage caused by a tree being blown over in a windstorm. Incidentally, under Tennessee law and the law of most states, the neighbor is not liable unless the neighbor had done something to cause the tree to fall or had been aware of a circumstance which made it likely that the tree would fall. My homeowner’s insurance won't cover the damage to Oscar Fox either but oddly enough,the policy has a provision which covers trailers (other than boat trailers) up to a cap of $3,000. OF's trailer was an interesting one. It had a steel frame with a three quarter inch plywood floor. The skeleton of the top was heli-arc welded, square aluminum tubing. The skin was a heavy grade of aluminum sheet. The wings fit on each side with the roots toward the front of the trailer and the trailing edges of the wings up. The horizontal stabilizer was held in brackets on the ceiling of the trailer. The fuselage rode on a trolley and was in the middle. There was an area in the front of the trailer where you could sleep in a sleeping bag. There was a window in the side and a light in the interior. There was a carpet on the floor. Much of the plywood in the trailer was marine mahogany. The trailer was thirty-five feet long from the hitch in front to the rear. With the glider in the trailer, the whole thing weighed just under two thousand pounds.

I called Mike Shade who runs the Grob operation is Bluffton, Ohio and sent him pictures of Oscar Fox to see if it had any chance of being repaired, I would certainly have had it repaired if it could be done. However, after he looked at the pictures Mike told me that the cost of repairing Oscar Fox would be more than the cost of a new ship.

I don't know what am going to do. Oscar Fox was really an important part of my life. I hope that anyone who reads this will have the opportunity to have an OF in their lives. I have had Oscar Fox for thirteen and one half years and they have been wonderful years. I might get another sailplane, but there is no way any other ship will ever replace Oscar Fox. Good-bye old friend. I will miss you.

Posted: 1/4/1999 By: Ernest Williams


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