Fly In honors local legend

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By John Barnhart

The New London Airport will have its 41st annual Down-Home Fly In this Sunday.

    It’s a special day because it falls on the birthday of the airport’s founder. Rucker Tibbs turns 87 that day — at least, Tibbs says he will turn 87 that day if his wife doesn’t kill him first.
    Tibbs is a World War II veteran. He was originally a mechanic in the 3rd Armored Division. Before the division deployed to Europe, however, Tibbs was transferred to Ft. Ord, Calif. The Army had gotten 120 new amphibious tractors, which had the same engine and transmission as the tanks that Tibbs was already trained to work on. Tibbs was sent there as cadre, which consisted of trained men around whom a unit could be built.
    The New London Airport originally started as the New London Drag Strip, and still serves that purpose. Tibbs got it started. It  took  three  years to build and held its first race in 1959.
    It officially became an airport in 1961, although aircraft landed and took off there prior to that. What makes for a good drag strip, makes for a good runway.
    Tibbs is a pilot and a licensed instructor who has taught a number of local people to fly, including Cheryl Miller, whose husband, David, is currently the airport manager. Tibbs sold the airport several years ago and now runs the repair shop. Tibbs is an experienced aircraft mechanic.
    He’s also a local aviation legend. Back in 1992, at the age of 67, he flew the entire perimeter of the United States in a J-4 Cub. This is an old airplane, more than 50 years old when Tibbs took his long flight. It’s pretty rudimentary. It had no radio and no navigation instruments other than a magnetic compass. Tibbs noted that the plane doesn’t have the electric power to run a gyrocompass. In fact, it doesn’t have electric power at all. It just has a magneto to generate power for the engine’s spark plugs. In order to start it, somebody has to twirl the propeller for you.
    The fuel gauge is a float unit. This consists of a metal rod that floats on a cork. The gas tank sits in front of the pilot and this metal rod is visible through the windshield. Tibbs didn’t rely on it. He figured out how much the plane burned an hour. This allowed him to calculate his flying time with a half hour of reserve.
    It was a long trip. The plane’s top speed is 75 mph, but that depends on the wind. He averaged 51 mph on his trip. Sometimes he was slower than that. Tibbs recalls flying over an interstate highway at one point and noticed that cars were stopped. At first he thought there was an accident, but soon realized that they were watching him. He was flying into a head wind and he was going really slow.
    “I got scared twice, I got lost twice,” he said.
    In one scare, he ran into turbulence that was bad enough that his door flew open and his tool box went out the door.
    “I was chewing tobacco and my mouth dried and I couldn’t spit,” he commented.
    Another scare came when he flew out of Rhode Island with a 1,000 foot ceiling. He was flying at 800 feet.
    “A twin-engine went under me,” he said.
    The larger, faster aircraft approached from behind, flying just 200 feet below him. He didn’t see it coming.
    Tibbs encountered some F-15s at low altitude over Texas, but this wasn’t a scare. Both jets were flying at only 700 feet off the ground. When Tibbs saw the first one, he waggled his plane’s wings. The second one circled him and he could see the pilot, grinning and giving him a thumbs-up sign.
    Tibbs prefers to fly high. If you have an engine failure, every 1,000 feet of altitude gives you two minutes of glide time. This means more opportunity to find a good spot to land. However, he had to fly low on most of his epic flight.
    Over the years, Tibbs has had some honors. In 1975 he received the Governor’s Flight Instructor Award. This was because he had more students earn their license on their first try than any other instructor in the state. In 1981 the Federal Aeronautics Administration honored him because no pilot he had trained ever had an accident. In 1988, he was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame in Richmond for his contribution to aviation over the years.
    One of those contributions was teaching youth to fly — for free if they couldn’t afford to pay. Tibbs did this until he lost his right arm in 1998.
    It was Jan. 26, 1998. Tibbs was working on an aircraft when he tripped on an air hose.
    “I went into the back of a propeller going 900 revolutions a minute,” he said.
    He came back to work after the accident and he’s still working, although primarily in a supervisory role.
    Along with starting the airport, Tibbs held the airport’s first fly-in in 1969. One of the activities they did were “bomb” drops, where people try to hit a target, on the ground, with a bag of flour that they toss out of an airplane as it flies low over the target. Then, they started letting children do it.
    “The kids started coming to drop a bomb,” he said.
    The bomb drop is limited to children, and young teens, from 4 up to 15-years-old.
    The fly in starts at 8 a.m. and runs until 4:30 p.m.. The day includes breakfast, from 8 until 10 a.m. and lunch at noon. Aerial exhibits include sky diver jumps. Ground exhibits will include classic cars and antique engines. They also will offer a chance to ride in a sailplane and hot air balloon rides.
    Visitors will also have the opportunity to meet Tibbs, who plans to be there, assuming his wife doesn’t kill him. Tibbs never did say what he does to induce homicidal impulses in the lady who has tolerated him for 65 years of marriage.
    For more information about the fly in, call David Miller, the airport manager at (540) 874-7776.