Sunday, May 3, 2009
photo: courtesy of Rob Bach © 2009
This Boeing 40 story is called "5339" and was written by Rob Bach to recognize the first flight since 1928 of Addison Pemberton's 40.
There was a scar on the back of his hand.
The thin white ridge of tissue stood in relief against the mass of wrinkles wrapped around his knuckles like a parchment map of the Old World. Grant sat quietly in the wicker rocker on his porch and stared at it.
“Now HOW did I get that?” he whispered to himself.
Raising his eyes to look out over the Willamette Valley, he tried to remember the life of that scar. Despite the crystal clear of this unusually warm October morning, he could only see about halfway across the sod farms to the green mountains at the other side.
“Eyes aren’t what they used to be, eh Grant?”
The speaker, a youngish man in a leather jacket, leaned against the rail of the porch oblivious to damage his boots were doing to the small Rhodies planted there. He, too, looked across the perfect flat of the sod fields to the mountains beyond.
“Make a nice runway, wouldn’t they?” he said.
“Hmm? Oh, the sods…yes, I suppose they would. You a flyer?” Grant asked.
The pilot laughed, “Only when they need me, friend…and I guess they need me, so yeah, guess I am.”
When he spoke his eyes twinkled a pure blue and he smiled an easy smile, comfortable on his face. Grant thought that perhaps the term “perfect stranger” had been coined in this man’s presence.
The quiet between them was not uncomfortable. This perfect pause in the conversation seemed to feel just about right and his eyes once again fell on the scar and his mind once again fell to wondering.
“You a flyer, too, aren’t you?” the pilot said.
“Me? Oh no….used to be. Long time ago though. Long, long time ago.”
“Miss it?” he asked.
“Haven’t really thought about it much. Day like today though, good visibility, wind right down the valley, be a nice day to fly.” Grant replied.
“Huh. Well, I best get going. You think they’d mind if I hopped the fence there, out to the sods?”
Grant looked over the fence to the slate-flat grass and figured if the pilot didn’t tromp too hard on his Rhodies, the sod wouldn’t mind.
“S’pose not. Where you off to anyway?” Grant asked
He laughed. “Oh, wild blue yonder and all that.”
And with a little bow he walked toward the fence, one-handed the post and jumped on over smooth as a silk scarf around your neck. Grants old eyes followed after the man best he could. With each step, he got a little blurrier until he was just a man-shaped fog drifting out over the grass.
Around about the middle of the field, he turned and waved.
Grant raised his scarred hand to wave and noticed…just then…that an old biplane sat out there on the close cropped grass and he could see, despite the distance, that the pilot was grinning.
“Well, I’ll be…never heard it land.”
Grant half raised out of his chair, got a dizzy spell and eased back down. Closing his eyes, he realized he knew what that old airplane was.
Good sized, long wings, pilot out in the open, passengers in cabins inside. Big round engine, BIG prop, BIG wheels. Square tail and more struts than an airplane really ought to have.
Behind closed eyes a memory stirred. Once a frozen moment of time stored carefully in comfortable folds of his brain, this particular memory thawed and was once again a fluid thing, alive and bright like a mercury-silver fish swimming up to the surface from the dark ocean deep.
The scar. Left there by a shard of white hot metal many years before, Grant began to remember.
It was another October morning, much colder than it was today. The sky was the same dull grey as the wings of his 1928 Boeing 40C Mailplane. But not here, he thought, farther south…Medford maybe?
His mission that day was what the pilots flying the US Airmail route CAM 8 called the Half-n-Half Run: Half mountains, half flats, 200 or so miles up-valley to Portland.
Head northwest out of the Medford bowl up the Rogue River about 15 minutes to Grants Pass, Josephine, up Wolf Creek, train tracks to Salt Creek and Lookingglass Hill. Wind through some low hills to Roseburg and Cottage Grove then a straight shot due north to Portland.
Stop for a coffee, a little gas, get the weather from Ryan (sharp young man) at the station there. Fly north, pick up the Williamette River, sight Mount Hood (keep it at about one o’clock until you can see St. Helens), bear left to the Confluence, and roll onto final at Swan Island. If Swan weather was low, land on the south shore of the Columbia River and the people at Pickwick bring the bus down to carry off your load or scoot up to Pearson Field and let the Army boys in the barracks lend a hand.
Plenty of options.
Piece of cake.
He walked into the shack on the south side of the hangars the dispatcher there referred to as the Pilot Pit to check on the weather.
“Hullo, Donaldson…you look like Heck.” JC replied from the rim of his cocoa mug.
“Out with the boys last night?”
“Now, JC you know I never touch the stuff. Just like to keep an eye on the boys, you know? Keep ‘em out of trouble”. Grant replied in defense of his red-rimmed eyes.
“Donaldson, there are two things that will never stop a pilot from completing his mission: Prohibition and a farmer with a shotgun. I’ve been around pilots long enough to know your, ah, ‘itineraries’. Just because I fly for fun and not for hire doesn’t mean I don’t know the rules and how hard you guys bend ‘em.”
JC, despite his youth had been working the lineshacks from Texas to Tulsa and Cheyenne to San Diego since he was a boy. Someday he’d be a line pilot like his charges, but today he was boss of the mail on this piece of the route all the way to Seattle.
Grant laughed, “I liked you better when you still thought of us mail jockeys as Knights of the Air or something.”
“Ha! You just wait…I’ll fly you all into the ground someday” JC rose in defense.
“Flying into the ground is the LAST thing we all want to do, son. Now what’s the weather up north?” Grant stepped around the Franklin stove to bend over the boy’s chart table.
All business now, JC pulled the latest report off his pad next to the telegraph set.
“Here’s the 0700, I’ll get a new one for you from Rye at Roseburg before you launch.”
At that, the sound of hangar doors rolling open vibrated through the thin walls of the shack letting them both know that the mechanics were ready to get their long night over with.
Grant zipped his leathers up to his chin and pushed through the blanket hung between the dispatch office and the hangar.
“Whadda you say Speed? She gonna be good to me today?”
“Better than you deserve, Grant.” Replied Speed.
Old Speed Miller had been around so long nobody knew his real name and he was not the type inclined to let out any information that was not absolutely essential to the task at hand. But he was a fine mechanic, sheet metal magician, and completely devoted to his aircraft. Pilots he could give or take. Treat one of his planes rough and you might find yourself with a plugged relief tube.
Treat her good and he might say something nice about you like, “Donaldson? Fair pilot most times.”
“What’s with ‘Boy’ today? He’s got a mood on him like a beaver with a bad tooth.” Grant asked.
“That ‘Boy’ has got your paycheck by the balls, Donaldson. If he don’t like the weather…well, you might as well start learning up another job on the side for your downtime.”
“It doesn’t read that bad to me,” said Grant looking over the weather for Roseburg.
“Kid’s got a good head on his shoulders…you listen to him real good and don’t give him no guff…or you’ll be answering to me.” Speed wiped a nonexistent drop of oil off the cowling, trying not to smile so Grant would see.
“All right, all right, fair enough. He does his job, I do mine, and you do yours. Speaking of which…”
Speed pulled a clipboard from inside the cockpit and handed it to Grant. By signing off Speed’s work, Grant was accepting responsibility for the airplane for the rest of the day.
The sheet was clean: meaning all gripes, squawks, and glitches had been repaired from the last flight. Not that there was much to do on this one: #5339 of the Boeing Line was practically brand new…still had nubbies on the tires from the Goodyear molds and the leather seat still smelled like leather and not like an old horse had died on it sometime during the summer of 1919.
In that newness was beauty: three tons of steel tube and fresh wood, hard rubber and soft leather, a steel propeller that could slice through a cedar just as easy as the morning air, and acres and acres of wing.
All this crafted by a team of men and women schooled in the arcane arts of welding and fabrication, varnishing and rib-stitching, and rib-stitching and rib-stitching.
And despite the Boeing logo on the side, he thought of it as his very own angel of freedom. Light this pretty new girl off and I’m out of the bread line, away from war and worries most folks had to deal with every day.
“It’s you and me, girl, might as well go to the dance” Grant whispered aloud to the silver plane.
“Here’s the latest, Donaldson.” JC skipped through the hangar with a sheet of yellow paper in one hand and a dispatch envelope in the other.
“Rye says Roseburg looks good, but it’s scuddy to the south. Figures you got smooth sailing after you pass him by, but there’s no word of weather between the Pass and him. Lines might be down. I’d hold you here but you got a passenger that’s pressing me hard to get goin’”
“Passenger?” Grant asked, “this was s’posed to be a straight mail run.”
“Well, we gotta take a buck when it shows up, right?’ JC replied “Besides, he’s not the kind of fella I want hanging around here all day. Business man, paid cash, but real serious like.”
“Well, “ Grant sighed, “he’s just walkin’ freight to me…load him up and we’ll go see how the weather is first hand.”
The passenger, a Mr. Donovan, walked briskly and stiffly out to the plane while Grant was running his pre-flight scan from the high cockpit.
JC helped him board into the front compartment while Speed loaded a little mail into the rear bin.
“And keep your feet off the seats!” Speed called to Donovan before heading to the front of the ship.
“You ready yet?” he yelled to Grant.
“Hold your water, Speed, gimme a sec.”
There were enough knobs, levers, dials, switches and other hoohahs in this cockpit to keep a former Speedmail pilot busy. The 40C was equipped with all the latest toys Boeing could squeeze onto the instrument panel. The nice thing about his old Speedmail was there was hardly any instrumentation to fail in the first place so he rarely missed a day of flying due to mechanical problems…there simply wasn’t that much there to break.
While Grant sorted himself out (or ‘built his nest’ as Speed liked to say), Speed opened the compartment just behind the big 400 horsepower engine to unclip the starter handle from its holster. With this crank, he would spin a heavy flywheel that Grant would then couple to the crankshaft to spin the prop and bring ‘#39’ to life.
“Well, Sir, whenever you’re ready” Grant shouted.
“ ‘Sir’ would be Mr. William Boeing. You call me that again and I’ll clonk you with this crank” Speed shouted back.
“Right”, Grant laughed, “Fuel is up, brakes set, you may crank when ready, Gridley.”
Speed put all his weight on the crank handle until the flywheel eased out of its resting state. Swearing at Newton all the while, he slowly gained inertia over the flywheel and when it was making a fairly deafening whine, pulled the crank out sharply, took three steps back and gave Grant the thumbs up.
“Clear!” he shouted
Nodding, Grant pulled the start lever a full four inches aft with his right hand. His left rested on the throttle poised to reach forward to engage the magnetos after a few turns of the huge propeller proved to him it would spin freely after sitting all night in the cold.
Mags hot, wait for the first puff of smoke, the first cough of life, mixture rich, throttle back, cross your fingers ‘cause Jeez does Speed get torqued if I don’t catch it the first try and one puff followed by another, a cough and another, a pop and a roar and boy that sounds sweet and oh that smell God I just love this job.
Do you feel that, Donovan? Is that somethin’? Or are you like most…just freight that’s gotta pee when you’re the farthest from any airfield? Jesus, give me 800 pounds of paper in a sack any day of the week over people who think this flying thing is just like riding a trolley car.
The engine slowly settled into a rhythmic lope and Grant settled himself into his seat. With a sign of his hands ‘chocks away’, Speed pulled the rope holding the blocks in front of the wheels and they were free to roll on the dewy grass of a former Medford meadow.
Easing the throttle forward, three tons of steel and wood and paint inched ahead toward the end of the simple runway.
With a few minutes left to warm up the oil, Grant picked up his intercom microphone and hoped Mr. Donovan had read the passenger briefing card JC had given him.
Sighing, Grant keyed the mic:
“Ahem, Mr. Donovan, can you hear me?”
A surprisingly crisp response came back to him clearly over the head set:
“Of course I can here you, I’m not deaf just yet” Donovan replied.
“Very well.” Grant spoke as evenly as he could “We’ll be taking the runway for departure in just a minute. Are you strapped in?”
“I have managed to decipher the intricacies of this remarkably designed body arresting device your man called a ‘lap belt’ and feel quite certain that in the event of the sudden stoppage of our journey, caused by, say, a mountain, I will flit lightly away without a care in the world and dance the Charleston all due to the fact that this seemingly magical strip of cloth has defied all laws of physics as we know them. Yes, Mr. Donaldson, I am quite ready for flight” came the dry reply.
“Old boy might have a sense of humor after all.” Grant smiled to himself.
A last look at the windsock (dancing a little now) and a glance at the sky (not so grey as before) and he was ready for the preflight litany he learned from his teacher years before: Can I Go Fly Today Peter Rabbit?
Seemed silly when he first heard his full-of-all-kinds-of-serious a flight instructor first say it, but when “Tex” Marshall spoke, you listened.
“Son, this simple little ditty has saved my sovereign butt so many times I’m in deep debt to the Muse Poetic.” he said.
If it weren’t for the fact that Tex had spent most of his flying hours less than 200 feet above the good green earth of the Midwest without a mishap and was a former test pilot for the Thomas-Morse company, Grant might have sloughed it off as some kind of crazy.
The ‘C’ stood for Controls: free and clear. He moved the control stick (which looked like a carved down baseball bat to him) in a large circle and checked the movement of the ailerons.
‘I’: Instruments: all green or good.
‘G’: Gas. One, Two , Three Four, Five items there to check all as they should be.
‘F’: Feet…awake, alive, and ready to dance counter to what ever the airplane thought was best for IT, not for HIM.
‘T’: Trim. Set for take-off both pitch and yaw.
‘P’: Propeller. Cycled through its full range of blade angles and set full fine.
‘R’: Run-up. Done…mags, carburetor heat, winter shutters, oil shutters, all set.
Nothing to it now but the press the throttle forward to its stop and wait for the flying lumber yard that was his Boeing 40 to gather speed to overcome massive weight.
Even after 3,000 hours and more of flying all sorts of crates, Grant felt the little thrill of anticipation and a touch of Fear’s fingers as he coaxed an airplane from its comfortable seat on the ground to its improbable stance in the air.
And once again he did.
To feel power build in rising fury against inertia from his hand tight clenched on the throttle made him fell a bit like Thor lashing thunderbolts from his fist.
Slow at first the tall wheels of #39 rolled from “dead stop” to “good clip”. Once the throttle was jammed full forward, all Grant could do was keep her more or less straight down the runway.
“You let a crate get sideways”, Tex had warned him, “and best you can do is JOIN UP with it. Don’t ever let that lovely tail swap ends with the spinny thing up front…rein her in quick and sharp to show her who is master and who is mistress.”
At 40mph the airspeed gauge comes alive. Steering is still sluggish and the wings are just now taking some weight off those huge tires.
“This would be easier if I could see something”, Grant thought.
The brilliant designers at Boeing understood that all airplanes are a study in compromise. You want to carry weight? All right…you need a big old round engine and a fat fuselage to match.
Problem was, with the tail down the mass ahead of the pilot took away all of the view straight ahead. Imagine kneeling down in the back of a canoe and trying to paddle downstream with a large woman singing a none too popular opera at the top of her lungs while sitting in your lap.
This noise and blindness, the rising keen of the wind in the wing wires, the reluctance of gravity to release its right on the airplane all added up to a kind of barely controllable, self-inflicted terror-for-pleasure passion play.
And it was a tension he thoroughly enjoyed. To be here is a choreographed chaos. To see it, to know it, to conquer it and coax these unseen but acutely felt elements into war against weight and win! This is flight!
By 60 mph, the top wing is flying and chiding the lower for being slow to catch on.
At 70 the lower agrees that, yes, I see what you’re doing it’s only NOW I feel like working.
As 80 turns to 90 the machine is lifting well and away from the wet green earth trading wheels for wings and climbing hard towards the gray overcast, towards the airfield boundry, towards the pass.
500 feet above the fences, Grant throttled the Wasp back a bit and set the prop for an efficient climb.
“Nose, Power, Trim” Tex would yell in the cadence of a Gregorian Monk. “In that order, on the way up, on the way down!”
With the nose lowered, forward visibility improved somewhat and Grant could see a good 10 miles ahead of him. Weather was worse than he thought. The valley leading to Grants Pass was obscured in a cloak of grey, wet, and (as he now knew first hand) cold clouds.
“Always, Son, ALWAYS have an Out”. Tex’s remonstration was drilled into his head almost literally by a birch switch he used to “make a point” in flight against Grant’s thin leather helmet.
“OK, Tex”, he thought, “our out:
If the Pass is covered, we could head south to the town of Applegate and set down for a while. I know a farming family there by the same name. Nice folks, pilot friendly, good lookin’ daughters.”
Grant pulled the intercom mic from it’s clip and keyed it once. A light flashed in the cabin letting Donovan know to pick up the other end and listen.
“Not as pretty as the picture on your poster, lad” Donovan answered immediately.
“We might want to turn south or circle back to the field…give the clouds a chance to clear the pass” Grant shouted.
“Mr. Donaldson, I’m sure you are a very fine pilot and I feel immensely humbled by your concern for my comfort. Give it no second thought, however: you get us to Portland as scheduled and my forty dollars will arrive in a timely manner to your bank account.” Donavan countered.
“I suppose we could shoot up over Gold Ray Dam to Spring Brook, find Coffin’s Gulch, Grave Creek and fly north-by-northwest until we see Cow Creek through Canyon Creek Pass to Canyonville then hug the river to Roseburg.” and let Ryan deal with Donovan he added to himself.
“I have no doubt that a highly trained professional aviator such as yourself, having memorized the route with such names both ghoulish and ironic, will find a way to complete the task set before you and honor the terms of the contract set forth on the ticket stub I hold so dearly in my hand.
Now, you collect your wits about you and do what you swaggering braggarts are paid to do, namely get one citizen Donovan to his pre-paid destination with alacrity, or you turn tail and prove my theory that the only thing ‘professional’ about pilots is the sad fact that they are paid good currency for little effect…much like lawyers, revenuers, and vice-presidents!”
Donavan: consummate sarcastic or genuine, Grade A pain in the posterior?
Besides, the honorable Mr. Charles Dawes probably earned his pay very well as the perfect pallid VP to the venerable Silent Cal.
“Very well.” And with that, the conversation was over, his course decided.
“We press on.”
The run up to Grants Pass had worsened during their tete-a-tete so his best course now lay directly north: find Gold Ray Dam and fly the Gulch.
A hard right turn. Grant let the slip-skid ball slide to the bottom of its travel by using a little left rudder against the turn. As the ball goes, so goes the butt: he felt more than heard Donovan slam against the cabin wall none too gently.
Pleased with the prank, Grant S-turned a bit to pick up a view of Gold Ray. Clouds didn’t look so bad to the north: maybe the Gulch route wouldn’t be as bad as all that.
Tex had once warned Grant about the folly of following false belief:
“Son, you fly an old bird all alone across the country and you can do a lot of things in that precious privacy. You can sing to yourself, write bad poetry to yourself, but you can never, EVER, lie to yourself.”
“Aw, Heck Tex. We’ve seen a lot worse than this.”
Grant pressed his lips together in a tight grimace, hunched forward against the cold and started his run.
Flashing over the dam at 600 feet and 130 mph, Grant picked up the Gold Ray and headed north past Starvation Heights. The flat of Evans Valley gave him a little maneuvering room under overcast to avoid the thin wisps of virga flowing down like veils from the cloud deck.
Pleasant Creek was easy to spot (and the reassuring name made him feel better anyway).
North on the compass a few more miles and he would turn northwest and enter Coffin Gulch. He knew from experience that the ‘Pleasant’ part of this creek ended abruptly in a box canyon a few miles on, so “Running the Coffin”, despite ominous overtone, was his best choice.
He hugged the treetops through the gap with little room to spare between wheels and woods and went from Coffin to Grave Creek. A few miles over some lower terrain and now the turn north-by-northeast to Waggoner Gap.
This old settler’s trail nearly always offered a way through this part of the Cascades and Grant was relieved to see a little more sky than cloud as he rounded the bend to the right.
He realized he’d been clenching both stick and throttle as fiercely as he’d been clenching his jaw.
“Relax, boy.” He told himself, “only 20 more minutes and we’re home free.”
20 minutes more.
“What’s 20 minutes?” he thought. “Why, I can boil coffee and boil an egg in 20 minutes…and not even use the same pot”
“20 minutes is a walk to town from my bunk at the hangar, I can listen to four Louis Armstrong 12 inch records in 20 minutes, in 20 minutes I can shower, shave, pomade my hair, pick a few flowers for the girls at the VFW and dance a little swing.”
“20 minutes is nothing.”
30 minutes later, Grant was still straining to see where the Gap opened up towards Azalea.
“Nice town, Azalea…nice flat beet fields their. Set her down, sit out the weather, chat about beets.”
To the north, a gap. Grant didn’t think twice, but rolled hard to the left, throttled back a bit and shot into the valley at 50 feet above the treetops.
Grey tendrils of fog sat dense as gravel at the bottom of the valley. It was as if they were rock washed downs from the talc pits and left there for later collection by the Bureau of Mines.
Fingers of cloud reached down from above his top wing to wrap themselves briefly against the sweep of the leading edge.
It was getting a tad tight in here.
“Where is Azalea?” Grant was tightly focused on the terrain to the right and what he saw paled him: Starvout Creek.
He had missed Waggoners Gap and was now flying at over 100 miles per hour up a blind canyon.
“Speed is Life, Son” Tex had told him, “fly fast lest the earth rise up and smite thee.”
But in the tight confines of Starvout Canyon, speed was bringing death closer by the half-mile.
He had only been here once before, much faster, much higher, and knew the Starvout emptied into the Quines and Azalea to the west. Canyonville was his best option now.
A twisty, nasty little creek winding up a narrow vale a good 10 miles long and at it’s northern end lay Canyonville and Bethel Airfield and rest.
“10 miles, let’s see, at 100 mph we’ll be there in 6 minutes. 6 minutes I can do”
The first crack of wood against wing came less than a minute later. So intent on the way ahead and to the left, Grant failed to see a hillock rise on his right.
Tough built as she was, #39’s wings were no match for spruce still growing firm and rooted to deep earth. She fought for a few seconds, wing tip against tree top and Grant laid hard on the throttle knowing already the winner of the contest.
Tree by tree, she was losing ground. He could hear the crack of spar against creak of tree limbs.
It was as if she was his Champion, fighting with steel saber instead of wooden strakes. Each blow given the trees, a heavy trunk would counter, breaking spars, shattering ribs.
The big prop which had been slicing air into docile bits for an hour gave in to the onslaught of Fir and Scotch pine trunks thick as a man’s leg.
He was losing her.
She was drowning in a sea of living wood and he had to cut her life line.
Throttle idle. Mixture, cut-off. Fuel off.
He knew before it hit. “This is gonna hurt”
A huge Spruce 60 feet tall grabbed the grand girl by the wheels and drug her down.
The stop was sudden, the silence painful as it is after any battle is lost.
He was alive enough to smell the first wisps of smoke. Aware enough to know that smoke means fire and fire bad. Fire very bad.
Gas vapor, nitrate dope and seasoned spruce do not play nice together when heated.
Grant raised his head, fumbled with the buckle of his lap belt and figured any minute Mr. Donovan would come dancing round the shattered tree trunks just as pleased as he could be that he had proved himself right: lap belts are magic and pilots are not worth the trouble to train them.
“DONAVAN!” Grant yelled.
Fire was no longer just licking away at the front cowling behind the twisted wreck of motor. It’s jaws were fully opened and was swallowing the remains of 5339 whole from head to tail.
Grant pushed his way out of the cockpit and jumped down to the lower wing.
That the lower wing was now higher than it should have been accounted for his tumble away from the wreck and the flame and the smoke and was probably the old girl’s last attempt to save his sorry soul.
Grant rolled upright and limped back to the front cabin but the intense heat pushed him back, the Beast Fire slapped his face, a firey backhand to his eyes. His goggles spared his vision and he pressed in again.
Heat melted a cabane strut and when Grant approached, 5339 could no longer hold together. The strut broke free and white hot metal struck the back of his hand.
“Heck of a thing, fire”, the pilot said.
Grant opened his eyes to see the young man standing on the tire of a pristine Boeing 40C Mailplane fiddling with the fasteners of the front cowl.
The last 50 years of his life had been spent with the airlines. Not as a pilot but as a dispatcher. He had broken the faith that day long ago. His faith. Killed a man. Destroyed his lovely beast of an airplane.
He saw himself unfit to fly but devoted his life instead to the guardianship of those who followed behind him. For 50 years he watched them move metal. Tracked them around storms, made sure they had the best weather information he could possibly get for them.
50 years, men and women come and go. Some go peacefully, some fight the good fight to the end. He watched from his dispatch office in San Francisco as his wards traveled the ever expanding globe of the airline empires.
In 50 years, pilots had gone from flying the firetraps a few hundred miles a few hundred feet off the ground to flights at speeds past that of sound, at altitudes higher than any weather could reach and in miles that spanned oceans.
Some good men gone: Tex Marshal, Stanhope Boggs, Ham Lee, Rex Levisee, Slim Lewis…even the best of them all, Jack Knight fell to hazard or bravado.
“Hmm? Me what?” smiled the pilot.
“You’re the kid…’Boy’…JC.” Grant whispered. “What has happened here?”
“Oh, a few of us thought it was about time you got your butt back in the big chair…so we got the old girl off the mountain and…spruced her up a bit so to speak” JC grinned.
“I heard you went down with all hands… at sea…back in ’41 flying a …a Hudson wasn’t it?” Grant didn’t know quite how to act.
He was finally going nutty. Here he was standing on perfect sod talking to a kid been dead since WWII. A kid standing on the tire of…#39.
As if she wasn’t there before, he noticed her all of a sudden in one glance, felt her there solid as the day she rolled her wheels across the grass at Medford.
Big and silver and beautiful smelling of fresh dope and new oil and warm stainless steel.
He didn’t question. He accepted this all with new eyes seeing the world for the first time like a child that’s unlearned something wrong and is proud of the accomplishment.
“Gimme a hand with this will you Grant”, JC tossed the starter crank down to Grant and hopped down from the tire.
“Well, climb on up there, Donaldson. They’re waiting for us in Elko…besides, Speed’ll have my hide if I don’t get you back in the big saddle and airborne on time…like a mother hen that man.”
With that, JC took the crank from Grant’s hands and fitted it carefully in the slot.
“We’re losin’ light, Mister…evening glass-off any minute now, smooth as silk and prettier than Rita Hayworth in a two-piece. Now make it hot!” JC laid a hand on the crank and it turned easy as time.
Grant settled in, buckled up, and yelled out “Can I Go Fly Today Peter Rabbit?!”
JC nearly rolled on the grass laughing, “You’re CLEAR!”
Grant pulled the starter lever and 5339 rolled through its cylinders without a cough and spooled to life like a turbine.
JC climbed up on the wing, gave Grant a theatrical kiss on the helmet, and climbed into the front bin.
Hand on the throttle, Grant noticed through crystal clear goggles, his scar was gone. ---
It is an early spring morning. Low clouds and a thin fog unusual for this part of Texas diffuse the dim light of a hidden sun. The heavy dew on the short grass of the Corpus Christi airfield makes for slippery going.
A lineboy is sleepily stumbling through his morning chores. Uncovering the gas pump, he slips and mutters a curse under his breath. A truck pulls up beside him. "U.S. Mail" lettered on the side.
It is 1931. Pangborn and Herndon prepare for their trans Pacific flight while Wiley Post takes on the world. Hoover is in the White House and The Good Earth is Buck's latest book. Pluto is newly discovered and the country is rising out of the Depression as slowly as this Texas sun.
The lineboy takes two sacks of mail from the truck and waves it on, turning towards the sound from the North. Not an OX-5 or a Liberty, this sound is round. He sits down on a damp wooden bench, leaning back against the pumps to wait.
The engine rumbles louder now, circling over the field. He catches a glimpse or two as the new mail plane flashes in and out of the fog. Rolling onto final in a hard slideslip, a huge biplane blue and orange fades into view. The boy stands slowly, slack jawed at the sight of the beast.
With a quiet crash, the plane rolls onto the strip, painting twin strips out of the dew as it goes. Engine quiet now, the prop ticks to a stop and the monster mailplane slides to a halt in front of him. The sound of the wind dying in the wires is music he would never forget.
The pilot flips the latch of the seatbelt and climbs over the side, two steps and a hop to the ground. He, too slips on the dew, grabbing at the high cockpit rim for support.
"Morning"' he says to the boy.
"Nice plane," the boy, now well awake, answers.
"She's a spanker, all right! First day on the run,"
The pilot takes the mail pouches from the bench and enters the line shack. Looking for coffee and finding it old and cold, he sighs and rubs tired ears. Outside he finds the boy still staring at the plane.
"Uh, need a prop?" the boy asks, eyeing the nine foot blade and the wet grass.
"Nope, already got one," the pilot replies, patting the cowl. He keys the padlock and opens the large front bin, pitching the bags in after the morning light.
Bin locked again, the pilot vaults from the front tire to wingwalk and, with an unpracticed step, clambers into his seat.
Master "On"' starter to 'Energize' and the still warm Pratt & Whitney turns the prop with powerful assurance. Magnetos 'Both' and the whuff whuff whuff of the exhaust burst into an easy lop.
As the plane turns away, the lineboy is buffeted by a warm wind. Closing his eyes, he breaths deeply, inhaling the life left behind for him. The smell of clean oil and new gas wash over fresh dope, leaving him alert and alive.
The Speedmail turns onto the runway and the pilot pushes throttle and airplane forward. Tail up and he's away in a steep climb, water trailing from the wings. Turning to the North, he disappears in the fog, the sound lingering on for a minute or two.
Eyes closed again, the lineboy sees himself in the cockpit of the winged beauty passing over western ranchlands and the oil fields at Beaumont. With the breath of the beast still fresh in his hair, he opens his eyes and sees the first crescent of the sun to the East.
Turning again to his tasks of the day ahead, a sudden realization takes hold...she'll be back tomorrow and the next day and the next and the day after that.
He had met his first love, just then, that morning; and her name was Speedmail.
- Rob Bach
(This story was written to honor the first flight of Jim Miller’s TravelAir 4000)
With the flick of a switch and a shout, “CONTACT!”
…she was born.
It was a clear, cool Kansas morning the day she rolled through the factory doors and onto the flightline. Her mags alive, a gloved hand on the throttle, she popped to life like magic in a puff and two and three of smoke.
It was The Boss at the controls, Clarence Clark, test pilot for the Travelair Aircraft Company. He presided over her birth as he had for hundreds of others from 1925 to that day late in 1927.
OX-5 alive, Clark squeezed the throttle and let her breath in the orange morning air, fresh still with the sunrise. With a wave to the ground crew, chocks away, he asked her, please, not to bite him.
Now, Airplanes, like animals, are born with innate instincts and specialized skills ready to be discovered, practiced, and refined. They also wake with a touch of curiosity and a healthy shot of eagerness. One much watch for if this if one expects to outlive one’s bird.
Clark planned on being absolutely rotten with old age someday and took the reins of this new bird firmly in hand. With a waggle of the stick, a look left and right, he watched the oil pressure gauge climb through 40 psi as he opened the throttle wide. Tailskid up, a hop or two on the wire wheels, and she was airborn.
Now, Airplanes have as their hearts, the engine. The OX-5 beat anywhere from 400 on waking to nearly 1800 times a minute when excited with take-off. Oil is her blood, heated through her efforts, cooled with a radiator atop the bridge of her nose. Her soul is in her wings, taut cotton and silvery dope contain her spirit. But it takes a pilot to complete her. The touch of a hand is motivation and guidance. She learns to trust her pilot…or to teach him a lesson or two if need be.
With Clarence Clark at the controls, she knew instinctively, she was getting the lessons today! A slow climb to a low pattern, a gentle series of turns, throttling back into an easy stall and recovering straight ahead like a good girl, she was now fully awake and joyed to be alive.
Left turn to downwind, a slip through base, throttle idled to hear the tune of the wires, a bounce after touchdown…her first flight complete. He taxiied in, shut her down, and coasted to a stop a few feet from where she started. The groundcrew lifted her tail to a dolly and rolled her off to the hangar.
Clark would write in the log an unremarkable flight, to him unremembered within a month…but to her, that first flight filled her with purpose, gave her direction. She could hardly wait to taste the air, crisp and sweet like an apple, another time.
She was sold to a Texas oil man, Harlan Hill, a self-proclaimed aerial adventurer the very next day. Rolled out again into the sun, fresh varnish caught the warmth and smelled of pine and honey.
Her new owner swaggered around her inspecting his charge. He nodded his head, shook hands with the Line Chief, and plopped his impressive girth into the back seat. Goggles down, he yelled, “Contact!” , and she was alive again throttle half open jumping the chocks, straining against his tight grip on the stick, wincing at the force of his rudder jabs…he lifted her into the air with his own muscle, it seemed.
She dipped a wing to look back at the place she was born, grimaced at the inexperienced grip and kick of this man-beast to straighten her out. She knew she hadn’t learned enough from Clark to teach this man anything…but being a good plane knew she had to try something just to show she cared…
…so she shut down a cylinder. Just over tree level the suddenly rough engine squeezed a yelp out of the pilot, and he heeled her over in a turnabout back to the field. She felt his grip on her tighten to a strangle…she shut another cylinder down.
“EEEK!”, the mighty braggart in the cockpit reduced to pale-faced mouse, she laughed and managed to help him trounce down the turf runway digging in her tailskid extra hard now and then to spray up a little more dirt than was ladylike just for fun.
Choking on dust, the man shut off the mags and bellowed for the Line Chief. The Chief, biting his lip against the laughter, dutifully appeared.
Now, Airplanes are not malicious or spiteful. They are keenly interested in our education, however, and have been know to be prone to mischief. If allowed, they will work in concert with other airplanes trading stories and prank ideas with each other. I myself have witnessed a flight of three biplanes in tight formation all cough with carb ice simultaneously. I have never seen three grown men turn so white so fast in my life.
Chief Pilot Clark, supervised the unbuckling of the leather straps around her cowl and ran an experienced hand along the top and bottom of the engine. He found her mischief in four loose sparkplugs.
“Naughty girl ” , he whispered.
After lunch, the Beast reappeared. Clark himself offered a few tips for the smooth handling of silvered wings. The large man smiled and nodded,
“yes, oh, yes I see, I see… I’ll get her this time, you’ll see, Mr Clark.” , and climbed into the cockpit again (this time with the help of a thoughtfully placed stool).
“con-TACT!”, he bellowed, and they were off.
Flying southeast she could see her shadow race along through the wheat fields, watch sparrows harass the crows who in turn harassed the hawks, watch teams of horses haul in bronze stalks of grain. It was here in the world around her she could almost forget the wrestler’s weight in the cockpit.
She would do him good service, though, for more than 10 years, learning as they went, helping the man through crosswinds and cross-countries. She did what she could for a decade, but an airplane needs fuel to fire its heartbeat and one day she drank her tank dry.
Her owner sat bolt upright in the silence, and swore and blustered and looked for a place to put her down. He wracked his brain for all he was taught about emergency landings and remembered only one thing:
“Landin’ a crate in a short field is a might touchy sometimes, Harlan,” , a pilot friend told him, “stick ‘er ‘tween two trees to stop if you have ta.”
And so Harlan, sportsman pilot and oil baron, found a field with two trees in it. The only field with the only trees in that part of Texas and dutifully flew her, inches off the ground, into them.
Now, Airplanes will sacrifice themselves if given no other option. They cannot impose their will on a pilot, they can only cajole, implore, suggest, humor, or flat out beg a pilot to reconsider a poor decision…but in the end, it is up to the pilot to make the choices.
She woke, bruised and beaten, in a barn. The smell of fresh dope wrapped around her in the stale air like a bandage and she winced from the pain in her wing roots. Thankfully, she had slept through the operation and remembered none of it.
She rested there for many days and many nights, healing, thinking, looking for the lessons that come free like a gift with every accident. She was glad for the rest. Harlan had worked her hard and was forgetful when it came to the details of maintenance.
From time-to-time a man would open the door of the barn and sit on a bale of hay, flask in hand and sip and run a worn hand through thinning hair. An occasional furtive glance backward over his shoulder toward the farmhouse told her that this barn was a healing place for Man as well.
Summer passed, gave in to Fall, and by Winter, she knew she would not be seeing Harlan again. The Farmer was the only witness to her recuperation.
Winter came quietly and brought the frost that made her sleep. Once a while, she felt a mouse rustling through her horsehair seats looking for shelter from the cold. She didn’t mind…she liked the company. It was quiet here among the bales of gray hay, snow drifted in through the cracks of barnwood and pillowed lightly around her axles. Sleep came easy.
The Spring thaw brought a new family of mice to the cockpit and she named the litter after the men she had known in her heyday: Clarence, Chief, Eddy the fabric man, Clyde, Walter, Loyd, and Earl…and the plump one Harlan.
The Farmer continued with his evening visits bringing with him his son, not much older than she. The boy would climb on a bale and swing his leg into the cockpit, sitting for hours, mock dogfights with ghost enemies, always the outnumbered, always the victor. Sometimes Father would watch and sip and smile until the dinner bell rang, a call to duty that reached the boy even with his foe in the crosshairs.
That summer was dry, barn boards creaked, her spars felt light. She had lost the air in her tires and her rims sank down into the dust. The boy and the Father would still visit, but not as often as she would have liked. The constant sound of the tractor let her know exactly where they were at all times.
Late in the days, the sun shifted to cast slanted beams through the cracks in the slats of the walls. Dust hung thick in air caught, it seemed, on bars of yellow. The shafts of light kept her fastened to the floor. She, too was caught…and in dreams escaped to clear air and grass fields.
One early morning, after nearly all the summer gone, Father and Son visited her again. Father dressed in his Sunday best, Son dressed in an olive uniform…silver wings proud on his chest. They talked excitedly to each other walked around her frame, now tattered a bit with time. Before they left, father gave Son a hug, quick and light, but sincere and proud and quite probably the first he’d offered up in the boy’s short life. She knew she would not see the boy again for a long long time.
Fall dried her varnished panel, dried the seal at her oil tank and she began to leak a bit, drops of black sucked up by the dusty floor. She slept.
Seasons passed, Father stayed away, mice were born so many generations she had run out of names for them all. Spiders built webs in her wires, but all they caught was dust.
She woke, once, startled to a taste. Through her intake, she caught the flavor of carbide and gunsmoke very faint, from very far away. Even in this place of quiet refuge, the winds of the world brought her the taste of War.
Another year passed and Father returned. In one hand, his flask…in the other a letter. He sat heavy on a hay bale and stared at the floor, and said to her quietly, “We regret to inform you…”. he stayed quiet a long long time, put the letter and the flask inside a spool of baling wire and left. For the first time, she heard the heavy clack of a lock behind him.
Another year passed. A new taste. This one sharp and biting, one impossibly small particle of something impossible hot touched her. Some dust mote that had once burned hot as the sun. After that, she didn’t taste the war any more.
Now, Airplanes are remarkably patient. I have seen some sit at airports for decades and never move from their tie-downs. Wheels flat, cables slack, they accept this apparent indignity with calm…never once losing faith that someday they will be called upon to fulfill their role in Man’s life: Bringer of Joy, Deliverer of Sanctuary, Steed to the Picnic, Stallion to the Pancakes, Teacher of the Young, Rejuvinator of Old…they would sit and they wait until the clocks all stopped if they had to.
She settled in for the long haul, a hibernation, waking once in a great while to taste the air for news. She felt a shimmer of hope in 1948. A child was born a thousand miles away who’s destiny she knew would cross with hers, and knowing that, smiled and told him , “Hurry!” , and slept again.
23 years she was left undisturbed. Her cotton fabric long fallen away, her oil a sludge in her veins.
In 1971 two remarkable things happened. The child she had once whispered to reached out to her in joy…he had learned to fly!
And her barn door swung open wide.
The farmer’s wife, who she knew only by voice, old with time, let in a team of men and tools that took stations around her. She recognized a 9/16th deep socket, a 7/8th open end wrench, a pair of worn side-cutters, and a coil of rope with block and tackle. Quickly, expertly, they removed her flying wires, her tail feathers, her wings, and struts. They joked with each other and griped and strained against a rusty prop nut, jacked her up and pulled her wheels away, hoisted her by the mounts and removed her heart: the old faithful OX-5. In her excitement she missed the fact that with each piece removed, she lost touch with the world around her. Slowly, they were parting out her soul.
She dreamed she felt the sensation of speed and wind and thought she was flying again, but low to the ground and without the weight in her wings. She sensed a shift in her position to a new point on the planet but was too tired, in too many pieces to make sense of it all.
Time passed. By 1995 she was 72 years old and had spent a scant 10 of those years in flight.
She woke to the touch of the child, now a man of 47, knew him by his touch…knew she would do anything he asked of her.
She was moved again, west by her calculation, her compass dry but still swiveling on its gimble gave her hints.
Safe in his shop, her new home, this man Jim with the smile of a child, started the long process of bringing her back to life.
In one corner of the room, a worn workbench, fluorescent light flooding the bones of her tail laying there. Across from her tail, struts neatly stacked, stripped of their old paint and primed in gray. Her spars, well beyond repair could serve only as patterns for the craftsman and he worked late into the nights, shaping and planing and polishing replacements.
Even with her bits and pieces scattered around the shop, she could still get a sense of this man Jim. Careful, methodical, excited and proud, frustrated when he couldn’t figure out a piece of the puzzle she was to him at times, exultant when he could.
For the next seven years, he would tinker over her with loving hands, fussing over the details in her frame, lacing cables by hand, routing copper tubing precisely along her curved fuselage, laying out her spars exactly square to the world and building up her ribs one at a time, better than new.
While he worked, she would watch, coach him when she could, cheer him along when she couldn’t, and slowly she took shape.
Steel tubing primed a glossy black, spruce varnished to shining, white fabric stretched tight over her wings laced with waxed cord and doped pink. New wheels rolled in the door, fresh tires bigger and tougher than the ones she was born with were pumped just short of rock hard. Lowered onto her gear she began to notice improvements in her make-up: a tail wheel replaced the old iron skid, hydraulic brakes (which puzzled her at first, but she cleared that mystery up after a chat with a passing Cub), a radio which would allow her now to talk quite clearly to planes a hundred miles away, and most wonderfully, behind her, a large wooden crate. Inside it, precious and strong, her new heart, air-cooled and powerful enough to turn a nine foot stainless steel propeller.
Pink dope turned to silver and the years passed fast: new flying wires bright and sharp, new seats and instruments, new windscreens for the pilot in back and two passengers up front…each new piece polished old facets of her awareness. Slowly, a year at a time, she was coming alive by the hands of the man who was the child who cried out to her in joy so long before.
He had tasted flight and would not live again so brightly without it in his life.
Now, flying is not so much a sport as it is an addiction. Pilots say they fly to get somewhere. Pilots who fly the old stuff fly to get someWHEN. Everyone who flies holds the tremendous power of perspective over those who do not. From above we can see the Earth’s rhythmic folds, see the valley and feel the glacier’s weight cut great trenches in solid rock, over fly the mountain and feel the push of thousands of years of pressure of plate against plate, buzz down the river and trace in left and right gentle undulation back to the time when there was a great Ocean retreating here instead.
When we fly the old stuff, we push a jeweled machine back through the folds of time and carry it forward around us in a bubble that rewards us with youth. Fly the old stuff an hour, get an hour of life, free.
Seven years of labor and love, he rolled her out into a Pacific Northwest sun and with an easy swing of his leg over the cockpit combing, made himself at home where once mice played.
Bright and shining paint and prop, he sat there and drank her in.
“OK, Little Girl,” he said to her, “ be gentle with me…”
and touched her alive.
She complied and thanked him with a blow of smoke from each cylinder, her new prop a disk of light, trying to look distinguished and nonchalant about it all, hiding her excitement best she could.
Jim, however, could not contain himself with any such grace. He whooped a cheer loud enough to be heard above the rumble and tick of the idling engine, embarrassed a bit for the outburst, but smiling as bright as her prop in the sun.
A gentle squeeze on the throttle and she rolled forward under her own power for the first time in 63 years.
She tracked straight and true for this man, carefully down the taxiways at Felts Field. She could feel the history here in this place and soberly vowed not to let down the heroes of the past who had rolled here before her.
Jim, wrapped in her world, strapped in his time machine, the length of the runway before them, eased off the brakes and let her heart beat run wide.
At precisely 53 mph, she lifted the weight of the world away and they disappeared into the clean blue air of 1927.
Now, we are bound up in the fabric of desire from the first day we take our first breath, people and pilots and airplanes alike. If we listen carefully to the winds of the world around us we will hear our wishes carried away and spun back to us ready to be breathed in again.
With practice, we find each other, those that share the same dreams, our partners whether they be a person or a plane.
Jim, this you have done and in so doing prove that dreams are no more ethereal than the air we breathe. We wish you well…and, by the way, say “Hi” to Harlan for us.