Giving Thanks: Bach in Nothing By Chance

By Scott Spangler on December 2nd, 2019

Bach BooksSeeking refuge from the gloomy, overcast skies that are growing darker as a winter storm crawls across Wisconsin, I turned to my bookshelves in the hope that the title of a tome once read would catch my eye and lift my spirits. As my eyes slid across the books written by Richard Bach, they came to a full stop on Nothing By Chance, A Gypsy Pilot’s Adventures in Modern America.

Reading those words instantly recalled his word pictures of barnstorming through the Midwest in his 1929 Detroit-Parks P-2 biplane, powered by a Wright Whirlwind engine. A then 19-year-old Stu MacPhearson, the Great American Flying Circus’s parachute jumper rode in the biplane’s front cockpit and a photographer-pilot flew his Luscombe. Their goal was to see if they could survive as barnstormers, selling rides over small-towns for $3 a head.

What I did not remember is when they had their adventure. It was the summer of 1966. “Incredibly, these sky-gypsies found small-town Midwest America largely unchanged since the original barnstormers had passed through,” read the back flap of the dust jacket. William Morrow & Company published its 223 pages in 1969. Doing the match, I received it a half-century ago. Most likely, it was a gift from my parents on my 16th birthday, which that year was the Monday before Thanksgiving.

After making a mug of Earl Grey, I snuggled in my rocker and turned my back on the weather. The story begins over Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, where three of the Great American Flying Circus returned to the modern world and their pilots’ commitments to it. That left Bach, MacPhearson, and photographer Paul E. Hanson in his Luscombe

parksp2“We had thrown away our aeronautical charts, along with the time they came from, and now we were lost,” Bach wrote. “I thought we might be somewhere over Wisconsin or northern Illinois.” Running low on fuel, they circled a grass strip at the edge of some small town and then landed. The black block letters on the silver water tower read RIO.

“Rio was a hill of trees rising out of the low hills of earth, with rooftops down beneath the green and church spires like holy missiles poised pure white in the sun,” Bach wrote. “Main Street stretched two blocks long, then fell back into trees and houses and farmland. A baseball game raged at the school field.”

Curiosity dragged me willingly to Google. What state were they over? There is a Rio, Illinois, but it is way south, between Davenport, Iowa, and Peoria. And it does not have an airport. Huh! Rio, Wisconsin, is roughly 65 miles southwest of my front door. Pronounced rye-oh, the village was home to 1,059 people in 2010. The Census counted 792 in 1970 and 788 in 1960.

nbcWith an airport on the west side of town–Gilbert FieldRio Aero Club (94C)—this had to be the Rio Bach wrote about more than a half-century ago. Owned and operated by the Rio Aero Club, which flies a Citabria, the public-use field is still grass, with Runway 9/27 measuring 1092 feet by 66 feet. The 94C airport information says the airport is unattended and without fuel, but the aero club’s website has cameras.

And the club does a big fly-in/drive-in pancake breakfast in June. Something to look forward to is always welcomed over the winter. I wonder what other surprises await me on the following pages. So if you will excuse me… –Scott Spangler, Editor


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3 Responses to “Giving Thanks: Bach in Nothing By Chance”

  1. Joe Sesto Says:

    I vaguely recall Bach’s article(s) in Plane & Pilot around the late ’60s or early’70s recounting his cross country flight in a Piper Cub equipped only with a compass and a calendar…(at least that’s my recollection). He just hopped from grass strip to grass strip taking in the simplicity of that world and relaying it to his readers. He was an accomplished wordsmith and always a good read. I lent my “Seagull” to someone along the way and never got it back. “Those were the days, my friend!”

  2. Brad Donner Says:

    You’ve inspired me to visit Rio! It will be the airplane’s second visit that I know of because I am now the owner of NC499H, the 1929 Detroit Parks P-2A featured in “Nothing By Chance” and “Biplane”.

    Thank you for the lovely story.

  3. Scott Spangler Says:

    Wow! Thanks for your kind words, Brad. Please let me know when you plan your visit to Rio, and I’ll meet you there. You can always reach me at Happy New Year!

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