A Cessna 140’s story, from Wichita to Panama

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I was born in a workshop in Wichita, Kansas, in 1951 and registered with serial number 15695. Right after my test flight, my new owners, who had ordered me a few months before, took me on my first cross-country flight over the states of Oklahoma and Texas and across the Río Grande into Mexico. I spent three days flying over the eastern coast of Mexico, struggled over the lowest part of the Sierra Madre mountain range at 10,000 ft. MSL in south-central Mexico, and flew onward to the western coast, to the border town of Tapachula.

Volcanoes are a common sight in Central and South America.

The next day we took off for Guatemala along the Pacific Coast, where I saw the first of many sights of Central American volcanoes, the Volcan de Agua. What a sight.

Three hours after takeoff, we landed in Ilopango International Airport, El Salvador, my new home, and my registration changed to YS 85P.

My new masters were members of the Salvadorian Air Force Flying Club that operated adjacent to the international airport in Ilopango, at an elevation of 2,000 ft. MSL. The instructors were pilot instructors from the air base, and the students were their dependents.

I had only been there a few months when a student wiped out my right gear leg, scraped my wing tip and bent my prop. I was ground looped, but it wasn’t my fault at all. Had the student just added more power to regain rudder control, we would have kept on flying for another try at approaching. That ground loop kept me out of commission for over six months. I really hated that… especially when my much bigger brothers, the Douglas C-47s, were flying day-in and day-out carrying supplies and troops. The country was involved in a war against insurgents I was told, but there was nothing I could do except sit on the ground and watch.

When the parts for my repairs arrived, they put me back together and I joined the flight line again, but by now a cousin of mine had joined the roster, a Cessna 150. That little guy was very popular with the students. Only the regular C-47 pilots would take me out to fly. I think it had something to do with that weird wheel under the nose 150’s nose.

I heard a couple of students comment that it wouldn’t “bite” them like I could. Hey, don’t blame me; it’s all in the footwork. Either you got it, or you don’t.

In 1962, I only flew 16 hours, so I believe that was the reason I was put up for sale. That same year, Bill came to the club, kicked my tires, flew me around the pattern, and the next day we left Ilopango for good, to my new home: Gamboa, in the Canal Zone in Panama.

On that flight we hugged the Pacific coast of Central America nearly the whole way, past Nicaragua and Costa Rica, where we fueled up and continued to Gamboa. What a great trip. Headwinds slowed us down, but it allowed us to enjoy the scenery: white sand beaches and turquoise waters, rain forests, and more volcanoes, San Vicente in El Salvador, Concepción in Nicaragua, Irazú in Costa Rica, and Barú in Panama, to name a few.

My new home was a 1500 ft. grass strip, Bohio International Airport in Gamboa, which was also home to dozens of other airplanes, and it sat right on the banks of the Panama Canal. My registration changed again; now I became N9716F. When I wasn’t flying, I would just sit and stare at ships from all parts of the world carrying passengers, grain, fuel, automobiles, and anything imaginable. I loved it! Weekends were my favorite, because most of my new buddy planes were taken out to fly and when we’d land, everybody—pilots and planes—gathered for a big social encounter.

I flew several cross-country trips to strips in Panama’s interior or over to the Atlantic end of the Canal, to France Field, where there was another flying club. France Field had been an Army Air Corps base during WWII and had nice, long concrete runways. But in all honesty, I preferred—and still do at my mature age of 69—the grass and dirt strips any day.

The scenery over Central America is extraordinary.

I see in my logbook that I also flew to the San Blas islands in the Caribbean, probably to go diving for lobsters, and to the Perlas Islands in the Pacific, probably to go snorkeling around the countless reefs. I even flew to the Darien, on the Colombian border, to an outlying Indian village, Sambú, on an orchid hunting expedition I was told.

I changed owners a couple of times and eventually was based in France Field, where I served as a trainer. Not much fun in that except when they took me on the required cross-country flights, which was not often enough for me. In 1977 Ed bought me and took me back to Gamboa. I was ecstatic, but that was before I realized I was to be a hangar queen (or king), for I spent more time tied down under a hot tin roofed hangar than in the air.

On one of those rare flights, we were flying over Gatun Lake, which is part of the Panama Canal. Suddenly I started to cough… I couldn’t help it, I wasn’t getting enough fuel in my carburetor. All of a sudden, silence. My motor, vital to flying as you well know, had stopped running. Now what?!

Luckily, Ed knew his way around and found me a treeless clearance on an island, where we managed to put down without any damage to me, or him.

That same afternoon, Ed came back with a mechanic friend, a guy named Paul, and he found the problem. The carburetor fuel filter was full of sludge. I heard them say it was from a batch of bad gas. If you ask me, it was more like a lack of good 25-hour inspections and preflight checks. Again, not my fault…

They got me running and everything checked out okay, but the problem was how to get me off this small island in the middle of the lake. On Saturday, they came back with a couple of men with long machetes who proceeded to whack the tall grass in front and behind me. I assumed correctly that they wanted to make a strip long enough for me to roll on and take off. The island was about 300-350 feet long and had a drop of about 30 feet. They took off my wheel pants, the co-pilot’s seat, and anything not necessary for the flight, including a couple of 5-gallon containers of fuel.

The plan was to taxi to one end of the cleared path, add full power and literally just continue right off the island and descend until I could fly by ground effect over the water. I did not like the idea. Why not take my wings off and trailer me back to Gamboa? Oh right, I forgot, I was on an island about 30 feet above the lake and there was no ramp to roll me onto a barge, and no crane to hoist me down on it. That’s why we were attempting this dare-devil stunt.

Mercifully, Ed only weighed about 150 lbs., but the blades of cut grass scattered on the path would prove a hindrance—these guys were oblivious to that fact. And, it was HOT!

Paul advised Ed to make a trial high-speed taxi to test the ground roll. Good call Paul. Ed took me to the end of the island and added full power with the brakes on, then he let them go. I sluggishly began to move, but the grass was like glue. We made it about halfway down when Ed shut me down and conferred with Paul.

Happy with its new owner.

They had FINALLY noticed the grass all over the ground path, and they decided to clear it, but then it was about 95 degrees F, so it was decided to wait till the next day, when it would be cooler and I could breathe easier. Early the next morning, we flew out just as planned, on ground effect over the water for about 200 ft. until I could pick up some speed to climb, then we headed for home. Not your typical island vacation!

In 1981, Uliss, an elderly gentleman who decided he wanted to learn how to fly, bought me. He tore me apart to redo me.

Good intentions, but really… Anyway, I stayed like that for years until Ron bought me in 1989 and hauled me to Paitilla Airport in Panama City.

He started to put me together, then that December US troops invaded Panama and I got my wings and flaps shot up that first night and then I was vandalized during the weeks of chaos that followed. I thought I was a goner, and then Ibu came along and saved me. His Cessna 180 had been shot up a lot worse and he was looking for a replacement. For the next two years he re-skinned me, overhauled my engine, bought me new radios, gave me a paint job and some new upholstery. And my biggest thrill was that I got a Panamanian registry, HP-875, and a nickname: El Charlie.

Since then, I’ve taken Ibu and his wife Pat all over Panama, but my favorite flights are our Sunday trips to the beach and the two-hour flights to the mountains. I’ve also been used to give tailwheel endorsements. I keep hearing Ibu say that we’re going all the way to Alaska, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen. Anyway, I’m content: good lodgings, good maintenance and good flights. So I’m good for another twenty years.

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