Bits and Pieces
An Interview With the Man With the Big Red Bus!
By Ian Brown, Editor - Bits and Pieces, EAA #657159
One very visible regular feature at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh every year is a big red bus in Camp Scholler plastered with Canadian flags and a sign indicating that the group is from Brussels, Ontario. This is a little town about 50 miles due north of London, home to Jim and Leona Armstrong and family. They have been attending the annual fly-in since Rockford, Illinois. The Armstrong's are a great example of how the Oshkosh spirit has the ability to self-propagate—not through any commercial idea but through a shared love of flying and of treating your fellow man decently.
How long have you been coming to the EAA fly-in?
I learned to fly in '51 at Goderich airport. My instructor was Bill Peppler. In '66 we flew into Rockford in an Ercoupe which a friend and I rented from Goderich. I remember sleeping on a picnic table. Boy, was it hard. We didn't have enough camping gear with us.
Then there was George Morley. Another friend and I flew with him in his Cessna Airmaster, and then I guess we've been coming here to Oshkosh ever since it moved here .
You have a nice big red bus to drive here. When did you pick that up and start coming with it?
Well, that was in 1986. Once the family started coming to Oshkosh that was pretty much the finish of flying in. The oldest boy, Robert, and I flew our original Pietenpol down in 1975. But then after that the family wanted to come down, and you can only carry two in the plane.
Now it's got so big that, well, I guess if you landed in the Ultralight area with a Pietenpol you could use their runway. They're the guys that are having fun flying here anyway with their own runway and circuit.
With the red bus and all the Canadian flags, you must get a lot of Canadian visitors stopping by?
Yes, and this is the first year we've had this tent. Before that, it was nearer to the road, so it's been quite a landmark. People will arrange to meet at the red bus, and that's not just Canadians. It's quite the old bus. Fifty miles an hour is what we do when we travel. It takes us 18 hours from Brussels to get here. We go the north route. It's cooler going that way. It's 75 miles further. But we couldn't drive this thing through Chicago, and you never know what the traffic is going to be like with all the construction and the tolls.
The history of the bus is that it was used as a working school bus in Alberta in the Rocky Mountains, so it has a slow geared rear end. (At 3,000 rpm, it's doing 50 mph.) The International Harvester dealer said, "That's the best engine International ever made. You can put hundreds of thousands of miles on one, but don't try to run it over 3,000 rpm. Be easy on it."
We found out what it was like the first year; everybody passed us - everybody! It's not so bad on the interstate because they can get past us, but across the top of Lake Michigan it's two-way. But it's a good road, and you don't hold too many people up. Anyway, I saw what happened the first year, so I found an old camera and got a new film for it. I set it on the table in the bus. I told Leona, "If we pass anyone, take a picture." Well, that camera's still on the table. We saw some people from Minnesota that we met about seven years ago. They said they've told that story to a lot of people since then, but it is just a story, really.
I found something out this year when we brought the van as well. We all set out for Oshkosh, but then about five miles from home my daughter called my cell phone and said, "I don't think I turned the coffee maker off. You'd better go back and check." So I turned around the van at Walton, which is five miles, got back home, and took a few minutes to check, and then we set off again." So now the bus is going ahead of us, doing 50 mph. Do you know how long it took us to catch them? When we were going across the bridge at Sarnia they were in the lineup just ahead of us. It took 80 miles to catch up to them. It just shows that slow and steady gets you there. One night coming up through Michigan in the evening, there were a group of people sitting around together. When they saw us passing, they all stood up and gave us a wave. I don't know if they recognized it, but it just looks so neat, eh? It's a very antique-looking machine.
What's the story behind how you acquired the bus?
Well, a young lad from Brussels was working out in Alberta. And then he got a job in Ontario, so he bought it to get himself home. He took all the seats out, left a couple for him and his wife, and then he put all his furniture in and drove home. He used it as a moving van and then left it on his mother's property in Brussels. Evidently she wanted to get rid of it, and my son Bruce was working in a garage next to where it was parked. He just happened to get talking to the guy that owned the bus. We were taking kids skiing in the March break from the school where I taught, up to Quebec, and Bruce thought it might be neat to take them on the bus. We actually took them on the train, which was much better, but anyway, the young lad that owned it came around the next Sunday morning and asked if I wanted to buy the school bus. I asked how much he wanted for it, and he said, "How about a thousand dollars?" Well, as I was thinking about whether to buy it, he said, "Okay, how about 500?" So that's what I paid for it! He was just really keen to sell it.
We safetied it ourselves. Bruce is a mechanic. You could buy a new brake cylinder cheaper than you could buy a kit to repair the old brake cylinder. The parts really weren't that expensive. We had it painted and on the road for $1,250! We ground the valves because we could tell that one of them was sticking, but that's been it since '86. I think we did the front brakes maybe three or four years ago. We replaced the hanger bearings and all the universal joints another time, but it's been really reliable.
Is Oshkosh the only time you use it?
Yes. We don't take it to campgrounds that often. We always think we should take the grandchildren, but we're all so busy I guess we never get around to it.
How many people travel down in the bus?
Well, last year there were seven of us. This year there is eight of us, but then we brought the van as well. It was a little crowded with seven last year. On the way you know you want to sleep a little bit. If you sleep on the couch at the back, some of those roads are a little bumpy! You bounce about a foot high. School buses are notorious for being a bit of a rough ride. They weren't really built for long distance travel. They have the same springs as the gravel truck. Two old guys were passing one day, and one of them said to the other, "Oh, look, there's an old corn binder." The other old guy said, "Yup, ya couldn't kill 'em." It's International Harvester that makes them, so the nickname of the gravel truck was the corn binder.
I hear you were known as the flying teacher. How did that come about?
Well, I was building the Pietenpol a little bit before I got the notion to teach high school. My first job was at Chesley, about 50 miles north of where I lived, and I taught there for two years. I thought that if I stayed teaching there, maybe I could fly back and forth a bit and maybe land on a field beside the school. It turned out that the Pietenpol needed a bit more room, so that didn't work out. Then I got a job teaching in Mitchell, Ontario, which was about 28 miles by road and about 19 by air. I got the Pietenpol flying in June of '68 and started teaching that fall. There was a nice farm field just north of the school, and we had a sports day one day at the school. So I flew it down and landed in that field and took the principal up for a ride. Then I decided to rent a strip of land from the farmer and started flying back and forth to school. I made about 350 flights, maybe, in 24 years. You can only fly that kind of aircraft in the good weather and just in the spring and the fall because the school was out in the summer. The first 12 years, I landed in that field just north of the school.
Back in those days, before they plowed their roads, farmers would build a garage by the roadside and keep a car in it. My dad had built one, and we weren't using it anymore. So I picked it up and moved it to the strip where I was landing in Mitchell. I spread the sides out, added an A-frame to it, and made a little T-hangar out of it. It kept the sun off it while I was in school teaching. When the farmer's son took over the farm, the strip was right in the middle of the farm. It might have been better if it had been over to one side, but the son didn't want to have to work around it with the big machinery. So that was the end of that. I was going to quit flying to school, but the school custodian found out. He had a farm just out on the first road, so I rented a strip from him. I rode in on a bicycle after that, with my books in a shopping bag on the handlebars. I remember one day getting that bag caught in the front spokes, and I went right over. I flew safely to school every day but just about got killed flying over the handlebars on the bicycle!
There was another teacher down near London somewhere who flew to school, too, about the time I was doing it or maybe a little before.
Who were some of the other early homebuilders you can recall?
I knew Keith "Hoppy" Hopkinson, who built the first homebuilt in Canada. It was a Stits Playboy, and he flew it out of Goderich. Hoppy was quite a guy. That was a low wing. I also know Gus Chisholm who built the high-wing Baby Ace that he called Bits and Pieces.
Yes, that's how we arrived at the name for our newsletter. It probably made more sense to call it Bits and Pieces than Lil' Hoagy! How much have you done yourself in terms of aircraft building and restoration?
Well, I built my first Pietenpol. It took seven-and-a-half years. I was farming full time. Then when I got it flying I took each of my three boys up. My son Robert liked it so much he wanted to build one of his own. He started when he was maybe in grade eight or nine. He got all of the frame done. And then he got married and moved away, and he never got it finished. So I ended up buying it from him eventually. I thought it would be a good retirement project. Well, I did a little bit of work on it over the years, but about four years ago my son Bruce and I decided to finish it. So we finally did get it done. I can tell you it's a good example of why not to change the plans. At the Pietenpol forums, they said you can raise the wing as much as four inches to make it a little easier to get in and out. Well, I raised mine by three-and-a-half inches because that's all the tubing I had. But it doesn't look as nice, for one thing, and it flies quite a bit differently. The ailerons are so slow with the extra gap between the wing and the fuselage. Also, the plans call for a piece of aluminum between the cockpit and the longerons. That piece of aluminum was continually getting bent, so I just didn't put it on. You wouldn't believe how windy it made the cockpit without it.
Can you tell me a bit about your most recent aircraft acquisition?
Oh, you mean the Luscombe? A couple retired to Brussels from Kitchener. A guy they knew wanted to come and visit them. And a friend of his happened to be a Luscombe pilot, and they flew up to Brussels to visit them. My oldest boy, Robert, had bought a Luscombe years ago, and I flew it quite a bit and really liked it. So I told this guy about it, and he took me up for a ride. He came up another time, and he happened to land in Stratford where he saw a Luscombe that had been parked out by the airport for 10 years. Well, it was for sale, finally. It had been owned by a doctor who lost his medical but was only put up for sale when he passed away last year. I guess he just loved his Luscombe. The airport manager was put in charge of selling it. He knew from previous flights that I loved Luscombes and wouldn't mind having one. It will be a while before Robert gets his back together, if ever. He's so meticulous in everything he does. He lives down east of Toronto, past Cobourg along the lake shore in Colborne right on Lake Ontario, but he doesn't really have anywhere he can fly from.
Anyway, this fellow happened to be talking to the manager and discovered that the doctor's Luscombe was for sale, and he told me about it. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, and after he left I walked over to my van. And my wife said, "Where are you going?" I told her I was going to look at a plane down in Stratford, so she said, "I'm coming!" Luckily for me, as soon as my wife saw it, she just thought it was a beautiful airplane. It has a nice red paint job on it. We checked it all over for corrosion and everything, and you wouldn't believe what great shape it's in. It's been out in all kinds of weather for 10 years, and I think it sat for a few years at another airport over by Exeter before that. The doctor got the mechanic to take it out once a year, sometimes twice to taxi it around, you know, but that's sometimes harder on an engine than flying. You don't get it up to operating temperature, and maybe there's a bit of moisture in the oil and it just distributes it through the engine. Anyway, this engine seems to be in really good shape. It's a Continental 65, and there's only 850 hours on it. It seems to be running really nice.
The manager talked with the widow, and she decided that she'd ask $10,000 for it, and another fellow had come up and offered nine. So we didn't what to mess it up, and we just went ahead and offered ten and bought it. Then we had the problem of getting it home. We spoke to a police officer. And he told us that if we were towing it behind a tractor, then if we got stopped we'd maybe be okay because it was a farm machine. We sort of enquired about getting a licence to move it, and we spoke to someone in the MOT, but it was going to be a couple of weeks minimum. So we picked out our best tractor and put it on the trailer behind Bruce's truck and drove off to Stratford one Friday afternoon.
When we got there we took the tractor off, hitched the trailer to it, and put the Luscombe on the trailer, wings front to back. We put a couple of big long tent poles out sideways to form a V to support the tail wheel out over the ditch. We tied them to the trailer on one side, then brought them together on the other side. We rolled it up on the trailer, then turned it sideways. Saturday morning, early, we went back and started off and only had to go about a mile before we could take the concessions and side roads. We had a vehicle in front with four-way flashers and one behind. We had two "slow moving" signs on the front and on the back. So we towed it all the way home with the 8N Ford tractor, and we were there by 10:15 a.m. It was 40 miles and there was very little traffic, a 62-year-old tractor bringing home a 40-year-old aircraft. The worst moment was just when we got to the farm next door, and the local traffic got a little hectic. But it was a very straightforward trip. If we were coming to a hill, the lead vehicle would just move forward to give approaching traffic a bit of warning.
I have had experience with three Pietenpols, and the most responsive is the one that uses a push-pull tube to the ailerons with a chain and sprocket mechanism. A gentleman had passed away before he finished it, and I bought it as a school project for Bruce.
Leona just loves volunteering here. She works the window where the pilots come up and register at showplane camping, and my daughter loves volunteering, too.
It sounds as though you started something when you first went to Rockford.
Yeah, I came over early with a friend in a Fleet Canuck, with the idea of volunteering. We spoke to the chairman, Sue Tupper, and asked where we could volunteer. Well, she looked at me and said, "You can stay here," and she sent my friend Ross out to put up chairs. He was disgusted! He said, "You got the best job," and he never did stay with the volunteering.
I love to go over to charge up my electric cart and meet visitors at the picnic table over there. I met a guy who was presenting on the Cold War, and he said, "What do you think of when you hear of the word guillotine?" He'd shared a jail cell with someone who was executed by guillotine in East Germany in the late '60s. It's amazing the people you meet here.
What would you like to tell other Canadians about coming to AirVenture?
Well, I have to say that I've seen people come back and just show pictures of the air show. It seems that they miss so much more that is happening. It's a great family event, and the forums are amazing. They put on over 500 talks during the week of the convention. Kids can ride around on their bikes without fear, and the whole thing is amazingly clean. A great example of how great this place is: One year when we'd got all set up with the bus, and about 15 or so youngsters came and set up tents. They were maybe in their late 20s. We thought that we might be in for a noisy night, but it turns out they were all kids who had met each other when they were here in previous years with their parents. They'd all grown up with Oshkosh, and they decided to have themselves a reunion. They were just super kids!
So what do you do yourself when you are volunteering here?
Well, I worked selling flightline tickets and camping credentials for many years. I haven't done so much recently. My wife, Leona, and my daughter both love it, and to watch the pilots arrive, tired and having been asked to walk over to [the] register and pay, is amazing. As soon as they see a good-looking woman behind the counter, they break into big smiles.
We got a nice letter from Paul Poberezny this time, thanking us for our volunteering. That was very nice and really appreciated.
Well, I'm sure it's very well earned, Jim. Have a safe ride home. Keep that camera ready. You never know when you might pass someone on a donkey!