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Ladies Love Taildraggers
By John W. Carlson
April 27, 2016 - In discussing her personal airplane, her beloved little RANS S7, Judy Birchler employs an adjective that somehow, inadvertently, emphasizes her gender.
“It’s yellow, white, and periwinkle,” the sweet, smiling Indianapolis woman explained, using a word almost guaranteed to send most men scurrying for the dictionary where, with a little page flipping, they will discover that periwinkle, alas, means blue. Sort of.
But that’s beside the point. In all other respects, Birchler’s airplane proclivities are perfectly obvious, though none more so than this one: She loves taildraggers. She is crazy about taildraggers. She is passionate about taildraggers.
What’s more, as a female flier, she is not alone in this passion, as evidenced by the growing popularity of the group Ladies Love Taildraggers. Birchler started the organization with a blog back in 2009, posting her picture and writing about flights she was making in an Aeronca Champ she owned at the time. Her hunch was this would bring together like-minded female pilots, fliers whose airplane preference, like hers, was having the third wheel attached to the tail, instead of stuck to the nose.
The effort worked. Why? That’s no mystery.
“My heart is with the vintage airplanes,” said Birchler, who works as a purchasing agent for a design/architectural firm in Indianapolis and, at age 62, could pass for 20 years younger. “The airplanes back then, they had character and charisma and they were just gorgeous. At the heart of it, that’s what LLT is all about.”
Its membership – which is, obviously, limited to females – is about 600 strong and growing, with 90 percent of them in the United States. In Ladies Love Taildraggers, they find a common love, a common bond. And as you might suspect, members generally aren’t the type of pilots who took up flying because it could transport them from point A to point B faster than driving.
Instead, they are flat-out flying fans, aviators, just like her.
“I always was one of those in awe when an airplane flew over,” Birchler recalled of her youth.
Still, as a girl she hadn’t gotten off the ground until, at age 15, her local YMCA offered a three-week trip to Europe. Not being a member of an affluent family, but well aware that visiting Europe would require a nice, long airplane ride across the ocean, she soon landed a job in a nearby snack shop and saved every penny the trip would cost. When the day of departure finally arrived, her immediate goal was to visit the cockpit. Asking a flight attendant, or rather, a stewardess in the parlance of the day, she was told she could possibly get a quick visit once the pilots weren’t busy, and anxiously awaited her summons. When it came, however, her good-natured inquisitiveness so captivated the crew, she ended up flying most of the way across the Atlantic in the jump seat.
With Birchler’s appetite for flight whetted, by age 19 she took up skydiving, just to experience the freedom of falling through air. Enrolled in a jump school where students packed their own parachutes from the start, she was making her fifth required static-line jump when things went awry. The standard static-line exit from the Cessna 175 jump plane was in a belly-down position, but with a little too much push off she was upside down when the chute deployed. The parachute shroud lines wrapped around her neck, choking her, and the chute didn’t fully inflate. Struggling with the lines and gasping for air, she freed herself before narrowly missing electrical lines, touching down in a ditch and breaking her leg. It was while recovering from her injury that she met her future husband, Boyd, at the airport, at the same time making a commitment to henceforth return to Earth with the airplane.
Beginning to fly herself once her leg healed, she had her private pilot’s certificate by age 21 and soon paid $1,000 for a one-third interest in a 1940 Porterfield.
“I was all over that thing,” said Birchler, a member of EAA Chapter 226 in Anderson/Muncie, Indiana, and Chapter 1121 in Greenfield, Indiana. As it turned out, though, her enthusiasm was a problem. She was flying it too much for her two partners’ liking, and under pressure from them agreed to sell her share of the Porterfield to someone who wouldn’t have the audacity to actually use it.
What followed was ownership of a Cessna 140 (she and Boyd, who has numerous flight ratings and is also an A&P, have since owned 20 airplanes together) and even a brief flirtation with a tricycle-gear Grumman. In the midst of such flying, unfortunately, trouble struck her in the form of Type 1 diabetes.
“Back then, it meant you were never going to fly again,” Birchler said, recalling the growing tedium of having to fly with another pilot, usually Boyd. That lasted for years, her flying enthusiasm waning, until more enlightened medical regulations and a device the size of a garage-door activator – an insulin pump – which clips to her waistband, eventually put her back into the air in earnest. It was in the joy of that reunion with the sky that the course of her future flying was set.
The result was Ladies Love Taildraggers.
“I was thrilled to be back in the front seat again,” Birchler said, warmly, of her motivation. “But I wanted to fly with women…and I didn’t want to fly with a bunch of Cherokees and 150s.”
As with any organization, a shared experience is vital to the bonding of its members. Ladies Love Taildraggers members try to gather once a year for a three-day reunion.
They begin arriving early on a Thursday, with plenty of time for hangar flying, whether it’s in an actual hangar or sprawled on a patch of fragrant grass, stretched out under the wing of some member’s pride-and-joy. There is always an airborne poker run to neighboring airports, too, as well as the announcements about the lucky Ladies Love Taildraggers scholarship winners. Ladies Love Taildraggers provides Tailwheel Endorsement Scholarships to female “nose wheel” pilots, since the organization’s only membership requirement is a single hour in a conventional-gear airplane, plus Master Class Scholarships to female taildragger pilots.
Another worthwhile activity came to pass during an all-day rainout at one reunion. Members began walking from aircraft to aircraft, with each owner having five minutes to talk about themselves and their airplane-of-choice.
“By the time you finished the walk, you felt like you knew the pilots,” Birchler said, of what is now a popular annual activity.
The first such event was held at Moraine Air Park near Dayton, with subsequent gatherings in Savannah, Tennessee, and Gaston’s White River Resort in Arkansas. This year’s reunion is at Sulphur Springs, Texas, and was a rain check event, literally. Last year’s planned reunion there was wiped out by torrential rains, plus a pesky tornado that picked up a fuel truck and, just to add insult to injury, dumped it on top of two Air Tractor ag planes.
It takes a lot more than rain and a twister to get Ladies Love Taildraggers members down, however. To get some idea of the spirited, fun-loving women who belong, you can peruse its website. It’s an attractive website, one characterized by images of smiling, effervescent women and the airplanes they love. Visiting it can inspire envy in anyone who’s air-minded, pilots of the male persuasion included.
“A lot of men say they like our website,” Birchler said.
But, hey, what’s not to like? You’ll find pictures of cool, happy women in the air and on the ground, pictured in or around everything from a powder blue Bucker Jungman to a pink Aeronca Champ, with a snazzy Jodel, beautiful Wacos, a gorgeous P-51 and much more in between. Then there’s the youngish blonde looking very at home in the cockpit of a World War II-vintage Avenger torpedo bomber. The multiple photos are paired with assorted female-power musical hits, hinting at the organization’s true spirit.
These women of Ladies Love Taildraggers are fascinating and unique, but none more so than one member who sent Birchler a picture of herself posing with her beloved Piper Pacer. It was a nice picture, sure, the group’s founder recalled, but there was nothing to mark that member as more extraordinary than any other. The next time the woman wrote, however, it was to say that she had just soloed a U2.
“Which is a taildragger!” Birchler pointed out with a hearty laugh, noting the woman had specified there was, indeed, a small wheel mounted at the aft of the legendary spy plane’s fuselage.
Whereas the U2 is known for flying at altitude, the upgraded 1947 Piper PA 12 Super Cruiser owned and flown by Ladies Love Taildraggers member Wendy Lessig generally operates much closer to the ground.
“Usually I fly as low as possible without hitting anything,” she said, adding that includes any headwinds blowing across the area surrounding Salt Lake City, near which she lives. White with red striping, her Super Cruiser is equipped with big tires, the better to pursue the type of flying that is her passion. “I like to fly into the back country. Mostly I fly for fun. I log about 300 hours a year. There are a lot of stops on my list of places I want to fly to.”
With a background in engineering and now retired from work in which she helped the Army destroy stockpiles of chemical weapons, Lessig learned to fly more than 30 years ago. Early on, she was happy to putz around the sky in a Cessna 172. It wasn’t until she moved to Utah, a state with a real dearth of paved airports, that she made the move to a taildragger. For her, Ladies Love Taildraggers was a match made in, well, the heavens.
“From what I’ve noticed the people who fly taildraggers seem to be more adventurous and outgoing,” Lessig said. “I’ve met a lot of really nice women pilots in the group. Judy’s done an excellent job of rallying the women pilots.”
It was at Oshkosh that Sarah Ellerman Dickerson met Birchler. From the start, she felt that sense of sisterhood she now shares with all the members of Ladies Love Taildraggers. A flight instructor, as well as a professional photographer, Dickerson fulfilled a family tradition when she started flying back in 2002 and is now drawing a bead on a job in an airliner’s cockpit. Still, while she closes in on reaching her ultimate career goal, she admits that sort of by-the-numbers flying is not her aviation passion.
“I get true joy out of the low-and-slow, stick-and-rudder type flying,” Dickerson said.
In this, she employs her beautiful Cessna 120, one of those aluminum-covered beauties polished to a mirror-like finish, the sort of airplane that sends you running for your shades on a sunny day. Her dream airplane, meanwhile, is a Super Cub, something with which to pursue some back-country flying herself. Meanwhile, she also enjoys flying with her husband, who is also a pilot, though sometimes she has to bite her proverbial tongue in the interest of matrimonial harmony.
“I have to try to revert from instructor mode,” she admitted, laughing.
That seems like the funny sort of thing liable to come up when she and her fellow female taildragger fans are together and sharing their lives and their tales.
“We trade a lot of flying stories,” Dickerson said.
Of course, to trade flying stories, these women have to make flying stories, and that is exactly what Birchler has been and is promoting through Ladies Love Taildraggers. It involves a love of classic airplanes. It involves a love of adventure. It involves, most of all, a love of flight, and flight’s ability to lift people – regardless of gender – from life’s more prosaic strictures to something infinitely more fun, challenging and rewarding.
Take member Lorraine Morris. A 26-year veteran of United Airlines, she is captain-rated, though now flying as a first officer by choice to secure her assignment preference. She is also rated to fly as pilot-in-command of the EAA’s legendary B-17 Flying Fortress, Aluminum Overcast. Early on in the steep learning process, her thoughts centered solely on flying the legendary warbird.
“It quickly becomes all about the veterans that you meet,” Morris said, describing those poignant encounters she has with them while flying the B-17.
Having learned to fly as a high school senior, she went to college to study accounting, realized she didn’t want to be an accountant, then did computer work testing avionics systems for jet fighters. Eventually she was reintroduced to flying, and introduced to taildragger flying, by a guy who is now her husband.
She’s been in Ladies Love Taildraggers from the start.
“It’s a real good way for women to get together and talk about flying,” said Morris, who, with her husband, owns a Cessna 140A, a Curtiss-Wright Junior and two Beechcrafts – one a V-tailed Bonanza and the other a classic Beech 18. “Judy is so positive and so outgoing.”
Indeed, Birchler is that and more. Blessed with an ability to put anyone immediately at ease, even sitting at her kitchen table, the founder of Ladies Love Taildraggers radiates joy and excitement for her group’s members and the airplanes they fly. For her, personally, it doesn’t get any better than heading to the Mt. Comfort airport, strapping herself into her yellow, white, and periwinkle airplane with that little wheel in the back, and heading for the sky to commune with the birds, or maybe even chase a river. Navigating the Ohio, and especially the majestic Mississippi, are favorite flights of hers.
“You know, when you’re flying down a river, you’re on your own,” Birchler said, beaming with satisfaction at the very notion. “Beautiful day. Those big white puff clouds. They draw me out there.”
Ladies Love Taildraggers Texas Fly-in is June 3-5. They encourage all women pilots and their guests to attend! Visit their website for more information.