Back in the early 1980s, I had the privilege of military service at Fort Bragg with the 82nd Airborne’s 2nd/505th Combat Support Company. I served under both the Carter and Reagan administrations. In the Army, barring things like guard duty or a stand-down, life in the DRF (division ready force) was either invigorating, like the morning PT and 3-mile run, interesting, like when the driver for the commanding officer drove his jeep into the only tree in an otherwise barren 100-acre field, or at least always pretty exciting.
We were often in the field, often by jumping from Hueys, C-130s or C-141s—by the way, there’s nothing like a tailgate jump out of a massive C-141’s rear door. Once safely on terra firma, we might be rounding up equipment from a low-altitude parachute extraction system (LAPES) drop to spending many days out in the field.
For some soldiers, like me, there was never enough military or, really, perhaps quasi-related-military. Some spent weekends driving off-terrain in personal jeeps, doing high-altitude jumps or something aircraft-related. I guess I fell into the latter when somewhere around July of 1982, I heard of a military sport flying club at Simmons Army Airfield (KFBG) in what appeared a natural extension and fun way to spend my off-duty time. The Fort Bragg Flying Club at Simmons had new or nearly brand-new Cessna 152s. N65589, N6294M, N757FR, N67869 and N67860 were the ones I remembered…well, at least they’re the ones in my logbook.
But of these planes, one was really special—an A-152, N761FG that somehow seemed prettier and stouter than the others. The “A,” of course, stood for Aerobat. It was Cessna’s surprisingly popular light-acro version of its 150/152. I began flying this particular A-152 on Sept. 25, 1982, back when she had only 400 hours on her finely painted airframe.
Simmons had a lot of 152s to fly, but I would always be a little disappointed when the Aerobat wasn’t available. Even when I already knew the answer, I’d ask, “Is the Aerobat available?”
When it was, it was special. When an instructor would ask if I would like to see something special (of course I would), before I could even envision what he was going to do, we were suddenly doing something called a “snap roll.” From there, we were doing other maneuvers like rolls, loops and spins. I would later try these alone when I could, admittedly without any great degree of skill at it.
I remember one snap graduating into a spin. But spin recovery was becoming second nature. I was 21, and so I feared nothing. N761FG and I would harness additional memory when I did my first solo in her, my first cross-country in her and eventually took my Army roommate Dewey Deal flying with me in it. In 1983, when I reached the end of my commitment, I decided to leave the military for better pay and more opportunities. I landed a career in IT/cybersecurity.
For a long time, I had moved away from aviation. A wife, a home and dedication to work were paramount at the time. Thoughts of aviation would cross my mind from time to time, but the costs seemed out of reach. One day, my wife and I were walking and talking, and for some reason, I started speaking of flying. I’m sure I bored her with all the engineering aspects of flying that I could remember.
With flying, there seems to be a technical challenge, an egg, if you will, that some nerds just have to crack. I suspect many other non-full-time pilots also have technical careers. Over time for me, talk would start to turn into action, and it seemed I had finally reached a point where I was enjoying the fruits this great country can offer, and once again, I turned to the lofty pursuit of flying.
I eventually bought a Piper and began once again sharing the air with those folks who are also so privileged.
But there was a problem. All those years later, there was still something simmering in my blood, and it finally came to me. I found flying straight and level mundane. That is not to say bouncing around in the clouds or encountering wind shear is somehow boring. But a nice day always seems to be missing something, so my thoughts turned to the excitement I had in that Aerobat.
I wanted that back, so I found myself on a mission: I needed an Aerobat. Without success, I scanned the airplane for sales ads looking for the rare A152 or even a 150 Aerobat. Nothing really turned up, at least nothing reasonably within my budget, and the rare times I found such a plane, it seemed to be sold to some other pilot the very next day.
But then I thought, what the heck, why not go for the gold. I still had that special Aerobat’s tail number in my logbook, and it would be easy to find out who owned it now.
So, in 2019 I targeted, located and reached out to see if N761FG was even still alive and, if so, if the owner would even consider selling.
I would learn that the Aerobat had been sold in 1986 from Simmons’ flight school to a “little old lady” who was of no little accomplishment. Ethel Bailey had owned that A152 for 33 years. Ethel was a CFII, experienced in acrobatics, participated in air races and enjoyed no small degree of at least local fame.
So, I wrote her, admittedly with little hope of getting the aircraft. After all, as I mentioned, it’s literally a rare bird; only 52 152 Aerobats even exist in the USA. I wrote and barely gave her the time to respond when I decided to call the airfield where I learned she was tied down and told them I was trying to reach Ethel to inquire about her aircraft. To my amazement, they matter-of-factly said that she had just decided to sell the plane. My jaw dropped. It seemed I would not have to coax. I later learned that she needed to sell because her eyesight was worsening. I felt bad for her but excited at the possibility.
As you can imagine, though, there were many questions, such as was the aircraft still in good condition, and would I be able to afford it? When I arrived to see N761FG at N71, I learned the formerly pretty plane had been sitting in a mud field and was beginning to show signs of neglect. Still, I believed it had potential. The airframe appeared to be in good shape, and all the logs were there. So, Ethel and I reached an agreement, and I purchased that special plane on Sept. 25, 2019. That’s right, the 37th anniversary of the day I first flew it 37 years ago.
Buying a plane is only the beginning of the story. So, after the purchase, I was off to the local A&P, where I had her inspected. After all, she is an Aerobat, and something would be lost if I could no longer perform a loop, so I needed to make sure the wing spar was able to handle snap rolls, spins and aileron rolls so many years hence. The mechanic gave it all an A+ rating. Underneath all that mud was an airframe that was nearly good as new.
I think I’m no longer the fearless pilot I once was, so I’ve been slowly getting back into aerobatics; I’ve done a little and plan to build, as you can imagine that with too many Gs, I might pass out at my age.
I’m glad I got this opportunity and guess Barney (Andy Griffith) was right. We need to trust little old ladies. It had been a long time since that Aerobat and I had been together, and we were both beginning to show our years. Like my plane, my paint is not as good as it used to be, and we’re both showing a few wrinkles. Nonetheless, to my wildest dreams, that very special Aerobat and I are once again reunited, from first solo to first cross-country and now into my sunset years. Some good things do last a lifetime.