Blister Flight – Six Pilots and an Angel
Air Facts Journal

Editor’s note: We’re pleased to present the winning entry in the sixth annual Richard Collins Writing Prize for Young Pilots. After reading nearly 100 entries, our distinguished panel of judges selected Clay Simmons, a 22-year old pilot and aircraft builder based in Knoxville, TN, as the winner of the $5,000 first place award. We hope you’ll agree that Clay’s emotional journey to his most memorable flight is a fine tribute to Richard Collins, a great writer and pilot.

Blister Flight: Six Pilots and an Angel

By: Clay Simmons

Johnson Creek Traffic, Carbon Cub Six-Charlie-Charlie, Short Final”. At first glance, this may seem like a mundane radio call. In fact, it wasn’t even a complete radio call. What you don’t hear is that a decade-long promise was being completed, a moment being shared with an angel amongst loved ones, and a triumph over one of the greatest hardships I’ve ever endured was being finalized. This is the story of my most memorable flight.

The irony of my most memorable flight is it was a decade in the making, and was undoubtedly one of my most normal flights. Thus, I’d like to explain why such an uneventful flight could be so significant. A large amount of my childhood was spent in the back seat of a PA-18, bumping around the skies with my dad. More often than not, these adventures would end in the Idaho backcountry. It took me until I was about 12 years old to recognize how incredible the experiences were, and even longer than that to gain a true appreciation for what aviation is.

child in airplane

A large amount of my childhood was spent in the back seat of a PA-18, bumping around the skies with my dad.

For nearly a decade, I would spend Father’s Day at The Johnson Creek Airstrip (3U2) with my dad. It is a 3,500 foot grass strip nestled in the Frank Church—River of No Return Wilderness Area of Idaho. I had the pleasure of being the unofficial ATC for the field, as well as a self-proclaimed mayor, having my handheld radio in my right hand, a lemonade in my left, while sitting on the wooden bench at midfield. Because of my age, and a general displeasure towards being banged around in the afternoon bumps and brutal heat, I would stay at the field and offer whatever services I could provide. This included, but was not limited to, consuming others’ food, sitting in others’ airplanes, and even dog sitting.

super cub

For nearly a decade, I would spend Father’s Day at The Johnson Creek Airstrip (3U2) with my dad. That’s me on the left with my dad (center) and his brother, Andrew.

There was a gentleman named Jim Richmond who would bring his dog along to the fly-ins. I would gladly play fetch with the dog for the day while my dad and Jim, and a few others, went flying. In exchange for watching Tilly the Aussie, Jim would allow me to pepper him with questions about airplanes and life. Jim founded a company called CubCrafters, and they build high performance taildraggers for backcountry use. To say he was a wealth of knowledge would be selling him short.

Maybe I was too curious, or too ambitious, but I eventually asked Jim an important question. It is nearly ritual at Johnson Creek to build a fire in the evening to hash out the day, tell the same stories, and share the centuries of combined knowledge. I waited for my turn to strike, and I finally cornered Jim while he was making his mountain home camping meal. I proposed a question that will provide inspiration for the rest of my life: “What is the youngest someone has built an airplane?” He pondered for a moment, thinking of every builder he had ever met, and rebutted, “I don’t know exactly, thirty-something”. My ambitiousness came back to bite me and I spouted, “Well I’m going to be the youngest to do it”. Unfortunately Jim is no longer with us, as he passed away in 2021, but the promise remained true.

The backcountry has not always been filled with joy for me. In 2018, my dad was in a crash that nearly took his life at Dewey Moore, a small grass strip not too far from Johnson Creek. He was in the Super Cub that I grew up in, but I was on the other side of the country. I was supposed to be in the airplane that day, but call it divine intervention, I was not. It was a tremendous story about the realities of backcountry flying, one that no one wants to experience. When my dad crashed, three men saved his life—his younger brother, Jim Richmond, and a new friend, Jeff Smith. They allowed me to see my dad again, and protected me from hating aviation for taking something from me. Luckily, after years of surgeries, rehab and training, my dad is flying again. That experience has defined who I am as an aviator.

When someone asks you if you want to build an airplane, you immediately respond yes, as the rest can be figured out later. This simple question, posed by an unlikely friend, was the spark that ignited two years of working towards the goal of a flying airplane. Jeff Smith, the same gentleman who saved my dad’s life not three years before, was now asking me to help build the same kind of airplane that my dad was flying when he crashed. Remind me the definition of insanity again?

airplane in hangar

Jeff Smith and I spent hours on the build filled with laughter, blood, sweat, and even a tear or two of joy, will never be forgotten.

We spent many hours in his workshop just down the road from my house. These hours filled with laughter, blood, sweat, and even a tear or two of joy, will never be forgotten. We enjoyed the highs of seeing things take shape, but maybe the highs were just the chemicals we were breathing. In just over two years, our new Carbon Cub took flight. This moment of being such a young builder, now tasked with so much responsibility in getting the airplane up and back down, was thrilling and daunting all in one go. The flight went off without a hitch.

I had checked the box of being a builder (with a LOT of help from Jeff), and was now flying my very own Cub. However, this first flight in the Cub, albeit a close second, was not my most memorable flight. It will be hard to ever fully express my gratitude, but I’d like to think Jeff knows how grateful I am for the entire experience. I certainly didn’t think I could learn so much from one person, but I do think I was able to teach him a thing or two as well.

Blister Flight was formed in September 2023. This flight included five airplanes, six pilots, and the adventure of a lifetime. Blister, the call sign given to my uncle, because he notoriously shows up after the work is done, was dubbed the name of the group. We trekked from around the country to gather for a week of flying in the backcountry. At a beautiful ranch nestled in the wilderness, we shared laughs and learning, and had a fantastic week. I got to spend time learning about my airplane in a much more intimate manner. I learned what she could give me in hostile environments, and how incredible the experience of flying in the backcountry truly is.

airplanes in formation

Blister flight included five airplanes, six pilots, and the adventure of a lifetime.

On the third day, an opportunity arose. After a fuel stop in McCall, we agreed to head towards 3U2, the airstrip better known as Johnson Creek. The exact same Johnson Creek where I had promised Jim I would be the youngest builder. The exact same Johnson Creek where I realized I loved aviation. The exact same Johnson Creek that made me and my dad fall in love with the backcountry. This was the flight that connected every dot. I took off from McCall alongside my dad, me in my airplane, him in his, in a tight formation. My uncle and a friend in their Carbon Cubs preceded us, and a fifth cub in trail.

We linked up in our chain, pointing out scenery on the radio, getting a few licks in at each other, and enjoying the ride. About halfway through the flight, what I was about to do dawned on me. This was the flight where so many seemingly disconnected events in my life would all come together. A decade of experiences and situations that, at the time, I couldn’t comprehend, were pulling invisible strings to draw me to this moment. The lifetime of hearing avgas firing through cylinders, seeing the world fall away as you climb, and feeling the visceral emotions of being in the sky, had all happened to pull me to this moment.

I entered the basin from the north to fly a standard pattern. I heard the thre airplanes in front of me land, and I, being the fourth, took my turn. I ripped over the trees as you have to do, and pushed the nose forwards to drop over the edge of the canyon to get down to final.

Johnson Creek Traffic, Carbon Cub Six-Charlie-Charlie, Short Final”.

I touched the wheels down in the soft green grass, and all I could think about was Jim Richmond looking down on me. Smiling with his soft grin, as I, the youngest Carbon Cub builder, had just landed back at the same airstrip where I developed my love for aviation. And the same place my promise was made. I had fulfilled a decade-long promise, found resilience from one of the most taxing experiences of my life, and completed something so surreal with loved ones around me, sharing that moment in their own way. On that day in Idaho, there was a flight of five airplanes, six pilots, and one angel.

pilots outside of airplanes

The crew of Blister Flight at Johnson Creek.

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