A Lady Named Jenny: a pilot report


"I had to remember that Jenny was far past retirement age."

I had to remember that Jenny was far past retirement age.  At 62 years old, many others would have preferred a somnambulant retirement to an old folks museum somewhere.  As I tried to coax her in given directions, it was easy to see she wasn't going to let me force her into doing something brash on the way out to the runway.  A blast of power would ruffle her feathers, forcing the tail to get just light enough that full rudder would coerce a bend in the straight line we were traveling.  Eventually, we found the field of grass before us, the wind hitting us in the face.  We both stood there, savoring the moment for entirely different reasons.  For me, it would be the first time.  For her, it could be one of her last.  We were both anxious.

Dan, being the gentleman that he is, didn't want Jenny to be crudely touched by a stranger's hands, so he made the aerial introductions for both of us, bringing the power up and floating us into the sky together.  Even as we floated out over the trees, my eyes moved around the machine, my thoughts and feelings reaching out to connect with those of Jenny.  I knew that after a few quick turns, it would be my turn, and I wanted to know as much about her as possible.

Suddenly, we were down and lined up again.  This time, I reached over and took Jenny's throttle in one hand, and gently caressed the stick with my other. I asked her to sing to me.  Even as the OX-5 sang its best song, I moved the stick to lift the tail just a little.  Not much.  Just enough to get a tailskid out of the grass, but not enough to chew the ground with the prop.

It was not so much a matter of rushing forward to gain speed as it was a leisurely walk into the air.  Since Jenny had long since severed relations with her airspeed indicator, it was up to me to keep her nose at an angle which would keep her climbing and still give a good margin over the stall.

My first thought, when I saw how little progress we were making on getting over the trees ahead, was that Jenny had picked this particular time to end it all, with a lover at her side.  I could see the individual leaves on the trees ahead as I moved my hand and asked Jenny to aim herself at the top of the trees, plus ten feet or so.  She obliged, but seemed to do so a little begrudgingly.

Jenny radiator
Another John Dibbs shot he did for Flight Journal. The radiators were brass and a work of art. The Plane Picture Co

The sky that day was full of bumps and jabs, like a bunch of poorly mannered kids making fun of an old lady on the way to the supermarket.  Every gust, every poke, found Jenny asking me to respond with gross movements aimed at canceling out the bullies.  I didn't tell her so, but at the time I felt as if I was attacking a herd of weasels with a soda straw, her controls were so ill-suited to the purpose.  Heavy of aileron, light of elevator and rigid of rudder;  she would have had a difficult time making friends with an FAA certification team.  No matter what charms she may lay claim to, her ability to dance is not one of them. Lovely to look at, but quite something else when in your arms.

As we moved about the place that was her element, it became clear that although Jenny had given birth to generation after generation of airplanes, we have learned a few things since then.  Quite a few things.  She is so encumbered with drag that no amount of power could make her young again, indeed, if she ever was.  Those thousands of feet of movie film which show Jenny involved in all sorts of derring-do are monuments to the pilots of the day, who knew no better.  Jenny may be a lady, but in those days she was the only damsel in town, and she looked terribly attractive to that first generation of airmen. In thinking back on films I had seen of two Jennys doing formation loops, each with two wing-riders on board, I was astounded.  As I looked down at the runway, I was certain that those two Jennys were the first aircraft to break the sound barrier -- in an effort to gain momentum to make it over the top of an egg-shaped loop.  I was, at that point, as enamored with the pilots of those early days, as of this fading lady.

As I turned toward the runway and brought the power back a little, Jenny put her head down at a angle which felt to me as if it would be just fine.  However, Dan's instructive hands came up out of the forward cockpit, motioning down, so I obeyed.  Even with her nose pointed down, it was obvious we weren't moving very fast. And, when we turned into the wind, I found myself reaching for more power to ensure myself and my date that we wouldn't wind up astraddle a fence at the end.

As we fluttered down, I eased the power back and asked Jenny to find the ground for me.  It was a mistake. I'd forgotten how near-sighted she was, and she kissed the grass first with her main gear, leaping back up into the air and shaking her head as if to scold me. With a little blast of power, we settled back down, this time here head held high, satisfied when all three touched at the same time.  Then, as if tired from all the exertion, she slumped down into the grass barely able to move, her momentum and energy spent. She was not as young as she thought.

I guess about all I can say about Jenny is that I've been there. I've been where many of the greats have been, and I must say the effect is not what I had expected.  She may be a lady, but she has a Victorian way about her that is sadly out of place with today.  It took a different type of man to handle her -- one that understood the difference between being coy and cantankerous, precocious and bitchy.  It is just possible that over the years her deeds have made us gloss over her shortcomings, viewing them as important parts of a matriarch character we know we must love.  There's no doubt that Jenny is a character, but I'm not at all certain she's a lady.


For lots more pilot reports like this one go to PILOT REPORTS