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Ochs' ranch fly-ins launched air show

Photo Credit: OCHS FAMILY PHOTO - Young Ron Ochs with the Air Force F-86F jet he flew during the Korean War.With an interest in antique planes, Willowdale rancher and pilot Ron Ochs and his wife Laurice began hosting popular fly-ins for their vintage plane pilot friends in the 1970s, which became the precursor of the Airshow of the Cascades.

Ochs learned to fly right out of college. After graduating from Oregon State University in 1952 with a degree in agriculture, he said, “I was drafted three months out of school and went into the Air Force because it sounded like more fun than the Army.”

In 1953, he started pilot’s training in a Piper Cub, then moved to a T-6 “trainer” plane, where he flew with an instructor to learn acrobatic maneuvers and day and night navigation. The T-28 trainer was next, where pilots learned to fly in formation and practiced forced landings.

Next, in the T-33, America’s first jet fighter, he said, “It was a big deal, because not many were flying them.” Pilots learned to fly at high altitudes with oxygen, and learned about the sound barrier. “The speed of sound is 720 mph,” he noted.

“When we were done with training, we were commissioned as second lieutenants and got our pilot’s wings – which is akin to getting your driver’s license – you’re legal, but you don’t know much,” Ochs joked.

He practiced dive bombing, and strafing with machine guns in an F-84G, then at Luke Air Force Base got a crack at breaking the sound barrier in an F-84F fighter.

“There were nine of us flying them and we were excited about breaking the sound barrier. The F-84F could break the sound barrier by going straight down and wide open, then pulling out 15-20 seconds before impact,” Ochs said, noting a “chase pilot” followed them to give tips if there were problems.

“At Mock 1, which is the speed of sound, you would hear rattling, but after you popped through the sound barrier it would be smooth again,” he said of the experience. If a plane rattled too much, it could break apart and crash.

Photo Credit: SUBMITTED PHOTO - One year, 93 sports cars arrived during the fly-in at the ranch and lined up next to them.At the time, the U.S. was trying to catch up with the Russian’s powerful MiG-15 jets. “Our planes were put into production before they were all “bugged out” to catch up with Russia, and we felt like guinea pigs,” he confessed.

Finally, the U.S. came out with the F-86H, which was more powerful than a MiG. Ochs had to memorize all the gauges and do a blindfold cockpit test before he could fly one. “In ground school, they said to go 510 knots before climbing, and that’s 600 mph flying over the tree tops,” he said.

“My first flight, I let it go one-third of the way down the runway, then it felt like a bus ran into it,” he said of the powerful thrust that shot his jet into the sky at a 45-degree angle. “I was at 20,000 feet after the first turn, and I was just hanging on. I was impressed!” Ochs said.

To withstand the gravitational pull of supersonic flight, the pilots wore “G suits” to prevent blood from draining from their head and other areas. The suits were fitted with rubber bladders that inflated and tightened when pilots were “pulling Gs” and relaxed when they weren’t.

“The G-suit tightened on the stomach, thighs and calves, like a girdle, so you could stand more Gs before you blacked or grayed out,” he explained. Without one, he said, “First your vision gets gray, they you get tunnel vision, then you lose consciousness.”

The F-86Hs were brand new, right out of the factory, and did have some bugs to work out. “In flight, some of the canopies blew off, and the brakes were so highly boosted that if pilots applied them too aggressively, it would blow the tires out,” he said.

In one embarrassing incident, there was a malfunction as the base commander was flying one. “The canopy blew off and his seat blew out. He was separated from the seat and his parachute deployed. Meanwhile, the plane continued flying toward Amarillo, Texas, so we had to send another plane to shoot it down, but it crashed first,” he related.

After that training, the pilots split up and Ochs was sent to fly an F-86F in Korea with the Blue Tailed Squadron, nicknamed the “Blue Tailed Flies.” Truce talks were going on, so the squadron was on “strip alert,” meaning they had planes on the runway that could be scrambled and off the ground in three minutes, in case any MiGs broke the truce and crossed into their territory.

Intermittently, Ochs was sent to Formosa (Taiwan) to defend Chiang Kai-Shek’s Chinese Nationalists against the mainland Communist Chinese.

In November 1956, his Air Force service was up, and Ochs didn’t fly much for 15 years, only enough to keep his license. Moving from Portland to Madras in 1957, he managed the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service office, until he and Laurice bought the ranch in Willowdale.

Then in 1970, he bought a Cessna 180 and had an airstrip built at the ranch. Wanting to restore an antique plane, Ochs bought an N3N crop duster in Thermopolis, Wyo., for $7,000, which originally had been a 1940 Navy trainer biplane, and then started collecting parts.

Photo Credit: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Ochs climbs into his restored N3N biplane.“It was hard to find parts, so I had to buy entire junk piles for parts. I sold that plane (for twice the purchase price), and built another N3N out of the junk pile,” he laughed, adding it took seven years to restore it to military configuration.

When it came time to do the wings, their daughter Barbara helped out by sewing together four-foot-wide pieces of cloth to make 35-foot-long “socks” to slip over each wing frame. Coatings were then applied to the socks to form a hard surface.

“I used parts from three engines, some new and some war surplus. The engine was like a Swiss watch on steroids – it was so beautifully designed,” he recalled. He had spent $24,000 on the restoration, but the finished N3N was worth three times that much.

When it was completed in 1985, they decided to hold a “Roll-Out Party". “We thought if Boeing can do it, so can we,” he said.

Culver World War II flying ace Rex Barber agreed to christen the N3N with a bottle of champagne, Monsignor Crotty blessed it, and they invited local pilots including P38 pilot Oscar Lang, Navy pilot Willis Freeman, bomber pilot instructor Warren Priday, military pilot Rudy Younger, and combat bomber crewman Bob Lundy. All the neighbors, and friends from Portland and Madras were also invited.

Ochs had met a man at an air show in California with an identical plane, and painted his N3N to match the California plane. “He flew his plane up here and hid it in the field. After the roll out, we took off and flew them both in formation around the field,” he said, to the amazement of the guests.

Before that, they had started doing fly-ins at the ranch in the mid-1970s which continued through the ‘90s. “We thought it would be fun to have a bunch of antique planes come and land in front of the house, so we contacted a guy in Vancouver, Wash., who belonged to the Northwest Antique Airplane Club and invited the whole club to come, and it grew from there,” Ochs said.

“Laurice cooked and fed them all weekend, we had a pool near the house, and we had our own crew to help us, he said, mentioning Larry Larson was the bartender, their five kids Ben, Marie, Barbara, Ed, Nels and Charlie helped, along with friends from Portland.

“They all had jobs and did them well. We’d meet in the winter to make plans – like the air show does now. They have a tremendous group up there going a great job,” he said.

To feed such a large group, Laurice Ochs said they used a pit barbecue. “I could put in several roasts and take them out as needed, and we had salads and desserts. It was easy,” she said.

Local horseman George Dimick pitched in, bringing a wagon and team of horses out to give wagon rides, and Don Mobley and his band played music on the Ochs’ front porch. “The community band even came out and rode in the wagon and played music,” Ochs recalled.

Photo Credit: SUBMITTED PHOTO - A roll-out party was held for the N3N in a hangar at the Ochs' ranch.The most memorable time was when Ochs got a call from a Portland friend who was organizing an antique car rally that would be passing through the area. “He asked if they could stop at our place for a rest stop. It was the same weekend as the fly-in, but I said yes,” Ochs said.

To their surprise, he said, “Ninety-three exotic antique sports cars arrived, and the drivers included Portland car dealers Ron Tonkin and Monty Shelton, with Oregonian columnist Johnathan Nicholas as a passenger. Ochs gave Nicholas a thrilling biplane ride, which he wrote about in his column.

His next project was restoring a Nieuport 24 – a World War I French fighter plane with a rare rotary engine. Instead of the propeller spinning, Ochs said the plane’s entire engine spun around.

A friend of his was building a Nieuport replica, but passed away when it was only half done. Ochs really wanted to buy and complete it, but it wasn’t cheap.

“I married the right woman, because when I told Laurice I wanted to buy it she said, ‘If you don’t, you’re going to be sorry,’” he laughed.

It took three years to finish the Nieuport 24, and when it was done they held an “Engine Start Party” with pilots arriving from Seattle, Vancouver and the Willamette Valley to see it.

“Most pilots have heard of a rotary engine, but have never seen one run. An appraiser told us it was the only airworthy, rotary-powered Nieuport in the country,” he said. The Ochs eventually donated the Nieuport 24 to the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field in Seattle.

Laurice has soloed in a plane, but usually sits in the back doing crossword puzzles when they fly. “Once we were in the biplane going over the Grand Canyon and I said, `Laurice, we’re over the Grand Canyon,’” Ochs said, noting his wife glanced briefly left and right, then went back to doing her crossword.

The fly-ins kept growing, but ended around 1996 when they sold most of the ranch, including the air strip. “It had gotten too big for our place,” Laurice Ochs said.

“Don and Linda Mobley were managing the Madras Airport at the time, and Don had always said Madras would be a great place for an air show,” Ochs said, noting the airport has cross runways, so if there is a crosswind, pilots can still land into the wind with the nose up.

Photo Credit: SUSAN MATHENY/MADRAS PIONEER - Laurice and Ron Ochs in front of their ranch house in Willowdale.In 2000, a committee formed to organize the first air show at the Madras Airport. Linda Mobley was the chairman, Don Mobley handled the Federal Aviation Administration requirements, and Laurice Ochs had the names of their fly-in pilots on her computer and sent out the invitations.

Since then, the Airshow of the Cascades has grown to a two-day event with an attendance of 12,000, featuring aerobatic performers, a huge ground display of planes from every era, and a classic car show.

The Ochses are still involved with sending out invitations, and still host pilots at their five-bedroom cabin on the part of the ranch they still own. “We fly to the air show in our N3N, which is our only plane now,” Ochs said.

“I’ve been to a lot of air shows and always thought Madras was a tremendous venue,” Ochs said, listing the good weather, backdrop of the Cascades, cross runways, and fact there are not a lot of buildings around.

“It’s a wonderful place for a fly-in. People like to come here, plus they say the people are friendly,” he said.



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