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Bird Dog - The Iconic L-19
By Mike Davenport, EAA 89102
"Keep your head on a swivel, those buggers in 104s just love diving under us and scaring the hell out of my passengers," Capt. Adams said. Those 'buggers' were West German Luftwaffe pilots flying F-104 Starfighters, and as we were already flying low over the rolling hills of Westphalia, they would have to be even lower — hmm.
Rumour had it that Adams had acquired the nickname "Crash" due to a tendency to break airplanes, and because of this, it was reported that the commanding officer would ground him in the month prior to planned exercises to ensure that three serviceable aircraft would be available. However, I did learn much later that while he had had issues with Sabres, he never put a mark on an L-19.
It was 1964, and I was in the back seat of an L-19 Bird Dog. It was my first time in a small airplane and only the second time in any airplane at all. The first ever was an 11-1/2-hour flight in a Royal Canadian Air Force Yukon that brought me to West Germany in the first place.
The L-19, manufactured by Cessna for a military contract, came to the Canadian Army in 1954. The design, which was based on the Cessna 170, evolved into a valuable asset for a number of military organizations and was used worldwide. It saw combat in Korea in the 1950s and on into the 1960s in Vietnam. The Canadian government retired them after 19 years of service in 1973.
I had seen L-19s before in Wainwright, Alberta, where the 2nd Regiment Royal Canadian Horse Artillery used them for AOP duties flying off dirt strips and roads during exercises, but had never had the opportunity to actually go flying in one. I had been posted to Fort Prince of Wales just outside the village of Deilinghofen in Westphalia where we had three batteries of 105s, one of 155s, and an SSM battery. The L-19s were used for spotters for the guns. At the time I was working as a bar steward in the Sergeants Mess in Fort Prince of Wales. This after I had disgraced myself as a gunner by blowing off a muzzle cover during a live fire shoot (an unforgiveable lack of judgement). One night when the officers joined the senior non-commissioned officers for dinner, I managed to suck up to Adams for a ride the next day. I seem to recall something about pouring doubles when only singles were being paid for.
Even to my uneducated eye, the airplane had almost unlimited visibility out and down with large windows everywhere. Not so much though up as Cessna had put the wing there. (Thoughtless of them! – Ed.) We buckled in and started up taxiing to the nearby grass runway. While Adams completed his checks and runup, the local farmer herded his sheep off the runway so that we were able to depart. Great utilization of assets, farmer gets his sheep fed and the army gets the runway mowed.
It was a rare clear day. It seemed to rain a lot in that part of Germany. We headed out over the rolling hills never getting very high as the captain seemed to delight in low flying, twisting and turning through the valleys. Probably good training for him as that is where he would be working should the worst happen and the Russians show up on our side of the fence. Whatever the reason, I soon became a little nauseated, either from the steep turns or the effects of too much good local beer the night before. Nonetheless, I said nothing as this was the opportunity of a lifetime — to go flying.
The L-19 has long been retired from military duties, but often does yeoman duty as a glider tug and more often can be seen once again completely restored as a valued warbird. A fine example would be the one once owned by John MacGregor who based his L-19 at Langley, British Columbia. No. 713 was restored by Kris Reynolds to represent the Bird Dog as used by the Canadian Armed Forces in the 1950s. A thank-you to John MacGregor and to John Dicker for their knowledge and photos.