There is one aspect of my experience that has been mentioned only in passing that was very important to me, but more importantly, generated some pretty good stories. I am adding a new category called “There I was…” that will be devoted to aviation and flying.
I have been interested in airplanes and flying all of my life—as far back as I can remember. On major gift giving holidays, beginning about age 5, someone in my family would give me a plastic airplane model kit. At first, I was not very adept at putting them together, and I recall spilling the plastics glue on a table top (a good piece of furniture) and being banished from the living room forever with anything even resembling a plastic model.
That was okay because I had my own room and an unfinished (i.e., inexpensive) wooden desk. That, plus a sheet of wax paper, made an excellent work surface and kept the peace in the house.
At age six, my father took me to what is now Richmond International Airport near Sandston, Virginia (and the source of the name for the Airport Drive-in; the subject of an earlier post). There were many more aircraft than I can remember. The one that impressed me the most was a C-124 Globemaster II. It was the biggest airplane I had seen, and even then, was amazed that something that huge (small by today’s standards) could fly.
That same day, my father arranged for me to take a flight around the airport in an Aeronca C3; a single-engine, two-seat, fabric-covered airplane. I confess, I do not recall much about the flight. I do vividly recall the aircraft and looking inside it.
As soon as I was reading real books, well books written for something close to my age group, say nine or ten, I read many aviation books. I liked the picture books, of course, and spent many hours studying the shape and appearance of aircraft, reading their dimensions and performance data, and any information about when and how they had been used. My interest was not restricted to any one type or use of aircraft—I was as interested in Piper Cubs as I was in B-52 Bombers (first flown in 1952). Someone gave me a World War II aircraft spotter’s aircraft identification book, and I studied that so I could identify an aircraft flying overhead.
By my early teens, my room looked more like a museum than a kid’s bedroom. There were models sitting on shelves, hanging from the ceiling, and mounted on the walls. I became adept at painting the models and properly placing the decals to achieve total accuracy of how an aircraft was supposed to look.
As I went through school, my interest in aviation continued to grow. From the third grade on, I read at least one book every two weeks from the school library. Books about World War II like God is my Copilot, Divine Wind, and Wingtip to Wingtip. But I was growing up in the dawn of the jet age, so I read the histories and biographies of Chuck Yeager (first pilot to exceed the speed of sound in the Bell X-1) and Scott Crossfield (first pilot to fly faster than twice the speed of sound in the X-15). If it was in the library and had an aviation theme, I am sure I read it.
In high school, I joined the Civil Air Patrol, and was able to fly in the squadron’s Stinson L-5. It was a surplus single-engine, tandem two-seat, fabric-covered aircraft that had been an observation aircraft in 1943. There was a control stick and rudder pedals for both pilots, so we were able to get a little “stick time.”
And this brings me to my first “There I was…” experience. As I recall, school had just started—it was my junior year, and on at least one weekend a month about five of us from school would go out to Quinton Airport, in eastern Virginia, for our Cadet meeting. Sometimes this was a classroom session about aerodynamics or military life. On nice days, before the class, we often got to fly in the L-5.
One afternoon I was flying with one of our adult pilots—I apologize but I do not remember his name, but he may be happy of that. We took off from the grass strip and climbed to a comfortable altitude of 2000 feet. He gave me some basic instruction on turns, level flight, and climbs and descents. By know I knew, from reading, what all the controls did and what was supposed to happen, and was certain I could do it all perfectly from the beginning. Although I did the right things, the airplane seemed to either not do what I expected, or do too much. I soon learned, through my instructor’s coaching that only small control movements were needed to fly the airplane.
About thirty minutes into our flight, the pilot looked over his shoulder (I was in the back seat) and asked, “Is there anything loose back there.”
Thinking something must be wrong, I scanned all of the control cables that went to the rear control surfaces and they all looked okay to me. “Everything looks fine to me,” I replied, wondering what was wrong.
“No,” he said, “is there anything lying loose in the aircraft like the checklist or any parts?”
I looked around again and saw small box of brake parts on the floor behind my seat, and told him about them. “Okay,” he said, “pick them up and hold onto them.”
I did as instructed. After all, one of our first ground lessons had been that the aircraft commander was in charge, period, and all crew followed his commands.
He made two steep turns, first to the left than back to the right. “These are clearing turns,” he said. I knew that meant he was making sure there were no other aircraft in the area with which we might conflict.
He leveled the wings, moved throttle to full open and lowered the nose—steeply. We were in a pretty steep dive and the airspeed was increasing rapidly. Then he began to ease back on the control stick. The nose of the aircraft began to rise quickly. I was pushed down in my seat by the g-forces. He continued the pull on the stick and I realized we were pointed straight up. He continued until we were upside down at the top of a loop. Then the nosed continued down, passed through the horizon, briefly in a vertical dive. As he pulled back on the stick, more g-forces pushed me down. It was better than any carnival ride I had ever experienced.
He looked back at me. “How was that? You okay?”
The grin on my face must have given me away. “That was great, I replied. Can you show me that again?”
He smiled, turned forward and eased the throttle forward to gain some more altitude. This time, he talked me through the maneuver, what is called a barnstormer’s loop. Since I was prepared, I made a conscious effort to look around throughout the maneuver—see the wingtips pointed straight up as we began to pull inverted, then looking “up” when we were upside down to see the fields below.
Then we started down the back side of the loop. Suddenly, there was a loud “pow,” followed by the rush of high speed air through the aircraft. He immediately pulled the throttle to idle and broke off the maneuver and brought the aircraft back to level flight as smoothly as possible.
The L-5, like many early model automobiles, had a split windshield with a support between the left and right sides. The right side windscreen panel had popped out during the stress of the maneuver, and apparently floated away to some farmer’s field below.
And there I was, sitting in an aircraft with half of the windshield gone. My first in-flight emergency.
“You okay back there.”
“I’m fine. What do we do now?” I shouted over the noise of the wind.
“We go back and land,” he said, as if nothing had happened. He flew the aircraft as slowly as possible to reduce the force of the wind in the cabin, but it was very noisy. It took about ten minutes to get back to the airport and land. It was not a big emergency, but I had my first story to tell.