On the Lighter Side

AeroFiles' Swedish Connection, historian Lennart Johnsson, had for a half-century amassed data on aviation, principally American. In order to refresh his mind when data became overwhelming, he had also collected an assortment of true tales from and about his fellow aviators, little slices of life in the big blue sky, which we present to those readers who might also appreciate a little break in the dry data. Read and enjoy!

Want more? Check out More Lighter Side and Ol' George...

Kicking the Mule

When Sherman Fairchild began operations with his Fairchild Aerial Camera Corporation, his first camera ship was a Fokker "Express." That was a Fokker D.7 rebuilt as a two-seater, one of the airplanes Anthony Fokker smuggled out of Germany in the famous freight trains.

    The ship was surely built to WW1 standards. One of the pecularities was that there was no firewall between the BMW engine and the pilot, who flew from the front seat. This was quite comfortable on high altitude photo missions, since the engine kept the pilot's feet warm, but there was another evident advantage. It was possible for the pilot to reach the engine with his feet. So, when the asthmatic BMW began to sputter, he had the option to give it a good kick. As pilot Dick Depew said at an interview in his later days, "And don't think that we didn't." (— Paul Matt: Historical Aviation Album Vol XVII)

Burt Rutan B-17

Who Needs Helicopters? (#1)

Some time in the 1930s up in Syracuse, New York, there was a surgeon who learned to fly at the age of well over 60. Eventually he bought himself a gull-wing Stinson Reliant.

    In those days the Stinson company ran ads in which they stated that it was possible to have the airplane "descend like a parachute" with wing flaps fully extended and the nose held high. The doctor was no chicken, so he decided to try it out.

    People at the airport saw him take off and climb to a reasonable altitude. Up there the engine was throttled back, and the airplane began to descend toward the field almost directly beneath, faster and faster, nose high, engine idling. As the Stinson neared the ground, those close enough could see the doctor through the cabin window, yoke full back, staring straight ahead.

    The airplane smashed into the ground with a frightful bang, with the main wheels and the tailwheel impacting simultaneously. The main wheels splayed outwards several feet, and the tires squashed till their rims impacted. The wing tips bowed downwards, and the airplane bounced, but everything held together. The airplane came to a stop within a few feet.

    The doctor gunned the engine and wobbled to the hangar. As he stepped out, he had a satisfied grin on his face. Now he knew. He was able to get down in one piece, whatever happened. (— Holland Redfield: The Airman's Sky Is Not Blue)

Riding the Rails

Back in 1928, when Harold Pitcairn ran CAM 19—the air mail route from Atlanta to New York City—one of his pilots was Johnny Kytle, a skilled pilot, but with some eccentric habits.

    One moonlit night over North Carolina, a little bored by the monotonous flying, he caught sight of a freight train struggling ahead on the flatlands. What he did then wasn't really nice, but memorable.

    Sneaking over to the other horizon, Kytle turned around, lowered his Pitcairn Mailwing to a ten-foot altitude over the straight-as-a-ruler, single-line track. A couple of miles ahead of the oncoming train he switched on one of his million-candlepower landing lights.

    The result was astounding. He told a friend in confidence: "I lit the fuse on the biggest sparkler you ever saw! Within ten seconds, every wheel on every freight car was flat. I'll bet they still haven't found the engine crew. When I went over, they were all jumping and running." Then he added, "Strangely enough, no one ever reported the incident to the Interstate Commerce Commission."

    I don't think it's all that strange. (— Frank Kingston Smith: Legacy of Wings)

Wyoming Windsock

The Woodchoppers Ball

P-47 was a rugged airplane, without a doubt. During the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, German Field Marshal von Rundstedt had hidden a munitions dump in the woods of the Ardennes. P-47s were called upon to destroy it, but they couldn't find it because of the thick trees. What did the frustrated pilots do then? They flew through the tops of the trees!

    Pratt & Whitney's representative in Europe, Martin Graham, was there not long afterwards. "You could see by the shattered trees and the torn branches where the P-47s had gone through. You'd have to see it to believe it. Those crazy kids couldn't see what was hidden from above, so they went right into the forest to find out. They cut a path right through the top of the woods. They said every plane that went in and chewed out the tunnel came out—flying, too." (— The Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Story)

High-Priced Furniture Van

The B-36 was one big airplane. The wings spanned 230 feet, and the interior of the wing was high enough for a man to walk through the root. Then, if he liked, he could crawl through to the outboard engines. This enormous empty space was frequently used to store all the exotic things that the crews brought home with them on long overseas flights.

    The flooring of the interior of the wings was made of a waffled magnesium, bonded to the outer skin of the wing. These waffles were often found to be cracked and the bonds separated, which posed a potentially serious structural problem. This led to an investigation. After one overseas flight an engineer was shocked to see the unloading of cases of booze, motorcycles, and furniture from the aircraft. Further investigation showed that this was more or less common practice. One official report read: "32 cases of Scotch bounced on the flooring for 31 hours, leading to material failure." The nasty habit was stopped immediately.

    My source is Grover Ted Tate, who served on the B-36 for several years. I can't resist citing him directly: "It was a good thing that they didn't see the MG automobile that I unloaded from my particular aircraft or they might have really been upset!" (— Grover Ted Tate: Bombs Awry)

Stand clear of the exhaust!

Fire! (#1)

Gordon Darnell was one of those pilots of the early '30s. He was born in Arkansas at the beginning of the century. From 1931 he was employed by United States Airways to fly Metal Flamingos.

    One day, June 28, 1933, to be exact, he had his moment. He was enroute from Kansas City to Denver with passengers and mail, just passing Goodland, when he suddenly smelled gasoline fumes. Then the left side of the cockpit burst into flames. He did what he had to, closed the throttle, the switch, and the right-hand tank valve. The left-hand tank valve was out of reach because it was on fire. Then he opened the cockpit windows, selected a place to land, and put the Flamingo into a sideslip, which partly cleared the cockpit of flames and fumes. All went "well" until he straightened out for the touchdown, when the flames burst out again.

    There was only one thing to do. Darnell climbed out through the pilot's exit and completed his landing roll hanging on to the wing struts. At the moment the plane stopped, he jumped to the ground, ran back to the passenger door and opened it—from the outside. (— Kenn Rust: AAHS Journal, Fall 1986)

What Goes Up...

Major Reuben Fleet, founder of Consolidated Aircraft Company, was a bold character, and what happened when he had his first ride in a balloon proves it. It was back in 1918, on a fine spring day. The balloon took off from Potomac Park with one instructor and five joy-riding Army officers, among them Fleet. Soon they found themselves floating south over Virginia. At lunchtime they spotted a large estate, and the instructor suggested a landing, calculating on being invited to the dinner table. So, they landed, tied the balloon to a tree, and asked a group of colored kids nearby to climb in so as to hold the basket down.

    After a wonderful dinner, Fleet and two of the officers went outside and started to get into the balloon. The kids, who were packed in like sardines, assumed it was time for them to leave, and jumped out of the basket like popcorn out of a pan. Following the laws of nature, the lightened balloon broke loose and rose rapidly with it's three passengers. And the instructor wasn't one of them.

    Fleet, of course, took charge. He did what he had seen the instructor do and maneuvered the balloon to a current of air more or less going toward Washington. Several hours later they crossed Potomac River and after some hairy moments made a bouncy landing in a small clearing. The day was saved.

    Later, someone found out that Fleet had fulfilled the requirements to become a rated Balloonist, because he had made a free-flight of more than eight hours duration and landed within seven miles of the take-off point. (— William Wagner: Reuben Fleet)

Shortest damn runway I ever saw, but look how wide it is!

If He Had Only Known

Charles Lindbergh was a cautious and methodical person. That's why he lived to become an old man. When the Ryan people built his "Spirit," he supervised the work carefully. There is a story of a mechanic who dropped a wrench on the engine, knocking off a tiny bit of a cooling fin, which led to discussions about changing the whole engine. When they fitted the long engine oil lines, Lindbergh demanded to have them made out of 18-inch lengths, connected at the joints by a hose, so as not to break from vibrations. So, when on his way over the Atlantic, he felt sure that his plane was as safe as man could build it, but he didn't know what had happened a few weeks earlier.

    One late night, a couple of Ryan employees were filling the fuel tanks after a test flight. One of them, fatigued by long hours of work, dropped a short length of rubber hose down the filler neck into the main fuel tank. It was a nightmare! At first, after many vain attempts to reach the hose, they decided to leave it in the tank to disintegrate. But when sheet-metal man Fred Rohr heard about it, he insisted that the hose be removed, as it might eventually clog the gas lines. They drained out the gasoline, then Rohr cut a six-inch hole in the side of the tank, about a foot from the bottom, from which the hose was retrieved. Rohr thought he might weld it up again, but feared an explosion and decided to solder it instead, which he did successfully. There were only three or four people present, so Lindbergh wasn't told about it.

    Many years later, author Cassagneres mentioned the incident to Lindbergh, who "was rather surprised, but chuckled about it after." (— Ev Cassagneres: The Spirit of Ryan)

Who Needs Helicopters? (#2)

Martin Jensen became famous when he flew to second place in the Dole Race in 1927. Two years later, after some barnstorming, he settled down in Lehighton, Pennsylvania, where he designed and built a clever biplane trainer with a 100hp Kinner engine.

    According to Jensen, it was "a dream-boat in the air" and "stunted like mad." With a stalling speed of 30 mph, the slow-flight capabilities must have been remarkable. Jensen took the plane to air shows in Pennsylvania and New York, where he became known as the pilot who could fly backwards and land vertically.

    The trick was performed when there were rather strong winds. Jensen flew against the wind towards the grandstand, throttled back until his flying speed was slightly less than the wind velocity, and drifted backwards across the field. Then he slowly approached the grandstand again, and settled down with a vertical descent in front of an appreciative crowd. (— Sport Aviation, July/August 1977)

Why co-pilots get to do the walk-around pre-flight

Brute Strength

Some stories are preposterous to such a degree that they shouldn't be told, really, like this one about a Northrop Alpha. The only reason for me to contaminate this section with it is that it was told by Mr John K Northrop, himself. He did it in front of a big audience, and the event was recorded. I have seen the film.

    The Alpha monoplane was the first in a long row of strong and lightweight Northrop airplanes with monocoque fuselage and multi-cellular wing. Several of them were used by TWA to haul airmail between Kansas City and Los Angeles in all kinds of weather, and they could, as the saying goes, take a lot of punishment.

    This is Jack Northrop, straight from the sound track:

    "We had a story, and I think it's true, about one of the early airmail pilots who was forced into a restricted field and had to ground the airplane very violently in order to keep from going into a barrier of trees or something, and he bent the wing up to at about 45 degrees. They sent a crew out from Kansas City where the plane was based, bent the wing down with the block and tackle and flew it back in for a more permanent..." (The last word is drowned by laughter from the audience.) (— The story is also told in Ted Coleman's Jack Northrop and the Flying Wing)

Low and slow

I guess one could say that flying is safer now than in the old days. But there was one good thing with the old stick-and-wire airplanes, they were light and slow. If anything happened, there wasn't too much inertia to get rid of. This is what happened on a sunny day back in the 1920s at Glendale airport.

    The Kinner flying school had two Airster trainers in the air. Instructor Doug Shilling and a student were taking off just as Walt Hengst and another student came in for a simulated forced landing downwind. Neither saw the other approaching. Shilling had unstuck and was about eight or ten feet in the air when the two Airsters collided head-on with a terrible crunch. The nose sections telescoped, and for an instant they remained motionless in the air. Then they collapsed on the runway in a sagging heap.

    Incredibly, the most serious injury was a split lip. Shilling and the two students joined the salvage crew and the Airsters, still interlocked, were trundled off to the repair hangar. Both planes were back in the air a few weeks later. (— John Underwood: Sport Aviation, Feb 1972)

Doesn't fly too well, but it's fun to watch going down stairs

Not Your Everyday Accident (#1)

This happened in England in 1938. The nation had awakened and was preparing itself for war. Anti-aircraft gunners were trained, especially for night action. Private pilots were engaged to serve as aiming targets with their flying-club planes.

    One of those brave and probably inexperienced pilots was flying around over Portsmouth in his Puss Moth on a dark autumn night. When he returned to land, he found that the airfield was covered with ground fog. Kerosene lamps that had been placed along the runway were nowhere to be seen; however, he could see the big electric sign, "AIRSPEED," on a roof at the edge the airfield, so he aimed at the sign and made a cautious descent through the thin fog. Still he undershot and thumped down with a loud crunch on a soccer ground adjacent to his airfield, clattered onto the landing field with the goal and its net in tow, and stepped out of the battered Moth unharmed.

    A pedestrian, who happened by, stopped when he heard all the racket from inside the fog. Greatly puzzled, he gripped the steel wire on top of the airfield fence and listened intently.

    At the same time, airfield emergency people, who had also heard the noise, maneuvered their ambulance through the fog trying to locate the wreck. In so doing, they hit the foundation of the soccer goal and caromed into the fence just a few yards from where the pedestrian was hanging on. That innocent bystander was then catapulted by the recoil of the fence "out against Langstone Harbour," breaking his arm on landing. When the ambulance crew got out of their vehicle and heard groaning and curses, they scrambled over the fence to the source, thinking they had found an injured pilot. Despite his protests, they at least had a victim to take to the hospital. (— Aeroplane Monthly)

Superstall Superstar

The Airspeed Queen Wasp was a beautiful British cabin biplane, much too beautiful to be deliberately shot down. That was, however, the purpose for which it was designed — a radio-controlled target airplane. Two prototypes were built in 1937, and the first of them, K8887, had a singularly remarkable quality. Airspeed's test pilot, George Errington, took its designer, Hessell Tiltman, on a flight one day to show him.

    "I would like you to look over the side," he said. "We are at 2,000 feet, heading into the wind over the leeward side of the field. I shall now close the throttle and pull the stick back until the angle of incidence is on the other side of the stall."

    Tiltman watched the airspeed indicator drop to 45 mph, then gradually to zero. The attitude of the airplane was normal, but they were losing height rapidly. Errington had full control all the time—he could even rock the wings with the ailerons. At the end of the near-vertical descent, he had to apply full throttle to reach the field, just skimming a hedge.

    Errington was probably the first test pilot to encounter a stabilized superstall. The angle of attack must have been close to 80 degrees. The funny thing is that none of the other Queen Wasps built could do this trick, and nobody knows why. (— Don Middleton: Test Pilots)

Bombs awaaay! Driver awaaay!

Fire! (#2)

Igor Sikorsky designed, built, and flew the world's first four-engined airplane, The Grand,as it was called in the West. He did so in 1913(!), while still living in his native Russia.

    The Grand was a biplane with wings spanning 90 feet. It also had a roomy passenger cabin with a table and four wicker chairs, an outlook balcony at the very front, and a lavatory in the rear. Later in 1913, Sikorsky built the even bigger and even more luxurious four-engine Ilia Mourometz.Like its forerunner, it was a "one-speed" airplane. Maximum was 50 mph and landing speed 40 mph. Instead of The Grand'sbalcony up front, there was an external observation platform on top of the rear fuselage. Where do we see such extravagances on today's airplanes?

    The incident here happened during an epic flight with Ilia Mourometzfrom St Petersburg to Kiev in June 1914:

    Sikorsky was at the controls when Panasiuk, the mechanic, pointed to one of the 100-hp Argus engines. The fuel pipe between the wing tank and the engine was broken, and fuel was streaming out. Seconds later, the engine stopped from fuel starvation, and in a final backfire the fuel ignited. A huge flame about 12 feet long sprang out, touching the surface of the wing and encircling the wooden strut. Panasiuk and Lieutenant Lavrov, the copilot, jumped out of a window and ran on the lower wing catwalk to the rebellious engine. Lavrov stepped on the engine frame, reached the shutoff valve and closed the fuel line. Then the two men attacked the fire furiously with their overcoats, finally succeeding in defeating it.

    Sikorsky made an emergency landing. Panasiuk repaired the fuel line, then they restarted the engines and went on with their trip to Kiev with Lavrov at the controls while the rest of the crew gathered around a cozy coffee table in the cabin. It really was easier in the old days. (— Igor Sikorsky: The Story of the Winged-S)

Rule Of Thumbs

This is a story about a scientific method called "fingertip aerodynamics," evolved by Hawley Bowlus in the early 1920s, at the time the shop superintendent of Ryan Airlines in San Diego. Several years later he would become famous for his excellent sailplanes.

    It all began when T Claude Ryan bought six surplus Standard J-1 biplanes from government stores. His intention was to use them as "mini-airliners" on his Los Angeles-to-San Diego run, which incidentally was the nation's first year-round scheduled passenger airline. Bowlus was given the task of transforming those old WW1 trainers into profitable passenger carriers, and an extensive modification program was started.

    Out of it came a practically-new airplane. The original asthmatic Hall-Scott engine was exchanged for a 150hp Hisso, and instead of an open front cockpit, there was a comfortable closed cabin housing four passengers. That cabin, however, proved to be a bit too narrow for comfort, and a widening of the fuselage was proposed. Enter fingertip aerodynamics. One of the shop workers described it like this:

    "We rode in the cabin and put one hand out each window until our fingertips reached the slipstream. That's the way we determined how wide we could make the cabin."

    As a result, the fuselage was widened about six inches. It was a success. The passengers were happy, and Bowlus was surprised to find that the plane flew faster than before. (— Ev Cassagneres: The Spirit of Ryan)

Great shot of the moon from an airplane

Night Flight Fright

James Doolittle lived an adventurous life long before he bombed Tokyo, as we all know. In 1930 he was hired by Curtiss-Wright Export Company for a ten-week tour around Europe to demonstrate their P-6 Hawk biplane fighter. One of the countries he visited was Hungary, where he and his team were given a reception by Admiral Horthy, the country's dictator. Quoting Doolittle's autobiography:

    "The American ambassador reciprocated with a dinner where we met Horthy's 20-year-old son. Afterward, young Horthy wanted to show us the Budapest night spots. En route, when we were driving alongside the Danube with its many low bridges, young Horthy asked if I could fly under one of them. I took one look, estimated that I could, and volunteered to show him. We immediately drove to the airport, where I warmed up the Hawk while they returned to the bridge and waited."

    After a while Horthy Junior and his attendants heard the faint sound of an airplane engine at a distance, and in a few minutes, James Harold Doolittle, future General and Commander of Eighth Air Force, passed under their feet.

    "I admit the squeeze underneath for the Hawk seemed a little tight, especially in the dark," Doolittle remarked.

    I don't know why some bold pilots live to be 97 years old. They must be born pilots. (— James H Doolittle: I Could Never Be So Lucky Again)

For the Birds

Glenn L Martin was a formidable airplane producer. It is somewhat less known that he also took a keen interest in wildlife conservation. This passion could sometimes found odd expressions.

    In 1940, he devised a means of banding the legs of wild birds in order to trace their migrations. As was customary with Martin's outside projects, some of his employees—in this case a group of young engineers—were involuntarily embroiled in his plan.

    One day they were summoned to the company laboratory where they found the floor covered with bags of shelled corn. They were seated at workbenches and given power-operated dental drills with .03" bits, and instructed to drill a hole in every individual grain of corn, but not drill completely through, and told that further instructions would follow.

    Two days later, Martin entered the lab to find small mountains of drilled corn on the benches and men nearly blind with fatigue.

    "We have a drug mixture that you will now insert into those holes," Martin explained. "We hope to band thousands of ducks and geese. They will eat this treated corn, which will render them unconscious for a short time. That's when a team of men can quickly apply little metal bands that will make it possible to trace their migrations."

    There were some muffled grumbles, but no one dared protest the orders of the almighty boss. Two painful days later, the tedious work was done, then the drugged corn was mixed with untreated corn and scattered around Martin's Green Oaks farm.

    Wildfowl flocked in, but for some reason—wild instinct, perhaps—they would not touch the drugged corn. They ate the untreated corn and flew off happily.

    One lesson was learned from the experiment, however. It was that the domestic chicken is less intelligent than the wild duck. From miles around, farm hens and roosters flocked to the corn bonanza in the open field. Soon hundreds of chickens were lying on their backs, feet pointed toward the sky. (— Henry Still: To Ride the Wind)

Oops! Sorry 'bout that ...

Sounds Strange

Back in the '50s, SAC used special versions of the Boeing B-47 Stratojet for electronic reconnaissance. They were fast and efficient, and crowded. The Specialist Signals Operators — officially called "Ravens," but more popularly known as "Crows" — were crammed into a compartment only four feet high where they sat facing aft, strapped into ejection seats in the midst of banks of scopes, receivers, and recorders.

    Despite awkward conditions, they did a good job recording myriads of exotic Sovjet radar pulses for later analysis. Often, however, flights were long and boring, with no sign of activity. One former Crow recalls:

    "Those sorties gave us time to dream up pranks. Since a Crow's greatest ambition was to pick up a new or an unusual signal, we sometimes made up our own. We brought kazoos, noise makers, whistles, signal generators, and other devices to stump the analysts. Once we brought a cricket along and recorded its chirping, which we mixed with the navigational radar pulse and electrical noise from a fuel boost pump. We recorded and photographed the result and called it a new signal, speculating that it was most likely from an advanced fighter radar. Two weeks later, the analyst's report came back. They had properly identified the nav radar, the boost pump, and the cricket. As a crowning touch, they had even determined the cabin temperature at the time of the recording and the sex of the cricket." (— Robert Jackson: High Cold War)

Jumping the Hurdles

Airmail pilots of 1920 were a colorful lot. Dean Smith, who was one of them, described their hazardous business in his memoirs. The standard mail plane at the time was de Havilland DH-4M, a slightly modified WW1 scout bomber. One of the routes was New York to Chicago to Omaha to Cheyenne to San Francisco... not bad for 1920!

    "From North Platte to Cheyenne, endless miles of flat prairie provided superb flying as compared with the tight hills and valleys of the Alleghenies. It was along this stretch that Frank Yeager, flying his regular run from Omaha to Cheyenne, ran into dense fog, landed, and taxied for 35 miles. At each fence—which were usually at least two or three miles apart — he would taxi back far enough to take a run, hop over, and land on the other side, continuing on the ground until he worked into better weather." (Dean C Smith: By the Seat of My Pants)

So, we'll just sit here until this fog thins out a bit

A Yankee Loose in France

Bert Acosta was a brave pilot and a lighthearted soul. He was one of Richard Byrd's two pilots during the famous 1927 Atlantic crossing in the Fokker Trimotor America; the other was Bernt Balchen. As the reader might know, the flight ended up in shallow waters outside the French coast, but they had, indeed, crossed the Atlantic and were treated as heroes.

    Before boarding the steamship for home, members of the America crew stopped at the casino in Deauville, where the Prince of Wales and his suite happened to be dining at a center table. Celebrities Balchen and Acosta were introduced, and His Royal Highness asked them to join his party. With the Prince was a beautiful Hungarian dancer, a chilly blonde whom Acosta eyed with lively interest. Next to Balchen was a very British general with a drooping mustache.

    Wine flowed freely, and Acosta's glass was refilled several times. Couples were waltzing around the floor to seductive music. Suddenly Acosta pushed back his chair and slapped His Royal Highness on the shoulder. "Say, pal, can I dance with your girl?"

    There was a moment of dead silence. The British general stiffened and looked at Acosta as if he were a worm, but then the Prince laughed. "Go right ahead, old chap."

    Some hours later Balchen returned to the room he and Acosta shared, but his companion never showed up.

    Next morning, when Balchen went into the hotel courtyard, he found the Prince sitting alone at a table, looking morose. On seeing Balchen, His Highness asked, "Aren't you one of the chaps who was on the America?"

    Balchen admitted he was.

    "Where is your friend? He went off with my lady."

    Acosta was later located in another hostelry with a no-longer-chilly blonde. (— Richard Montague: Oceans, Poles, and Airmen)

The Wrong Address

Back in 1933, the American people was entertained by something called the American Air Aces Show. It was managed by John Livingston, and two of his pilots were Len Povey and Roy Hunt, the well-known racing pilot. One day, while flying over Wilmington, Delaware, prior to the show, Hunt in his Great Lakes fell out of a snap roll and connected with Povey's Taperwing Waco, and the two airplanes were momentarily locked together. Povey lost four feet of his top right wing, but was able to get the Waco down in one piece. Hunt's engine fell completely off and he had to bail out.

    The story could have ended here, but it doesn't. While Hunt was still congratulating himself on a successful parachute jump, he was grabbed by the local constabulary and thrown in jail, and he couldn't for the world understand why.

    It eventually appeared that his engine had fallen right into the roof of a house of ill repute, starting quite a fire. A customer was seen running out of the house and down the street clothed only in his underwear.

    Obviously, some influential person in town had felt quite humiliated. (— Bonnie Jean Borisch: Taperwing Wacos)

And make that "to go"

Not Your Everyday Accident (#2)

Strange things happened in the old days of aviation.

    Art "Steve" Stephenson took his friend, Al Stewart, on a ride in an OX-5 Jenny to give him some dual instruction. They were flying out over the Helena Valley near Lake Helena when the elevator control under the rear seat came unhooked. Steve took over and tried to "wish" his way down by use of the throttle—more power for nose up, less power for nose down. He nearly made it, but stalled out from about 20 feet.

    The Jenny hit so hard that it left them both sitting flat on the ground in the wicker seats, surrounded by fabric and splinters, but in the same relative positions they had had in the cockpits.

    Steve asked Al if he was all right. Al replied that he was. Steve remarked that they sure were lucky, and Al agreed. Just as this trivial conversation ended, a brass tip off the propeller came from out of the sky, hitting Al on the head and knocking him out.

    It should be added that Al Stewart survived this rough treatment and lived to become a credible pilot. (— Frank W Wiley: Montana and the Sky)

Never on Sunday

When Henry Ford entered the aviation business, he did so wholeheartedly. Not only did he start building hundreds of sturdy three-motored airplanes, but he also constructed the most modern airport in the world, Ford Airport in Dearborn. It was dedicated in January 1925, spread out over the countryside with two runways, with the then-incredible length of 3,400 and 3,700 feet respectively, and a modern terminal building and roomy hangars completed the picture.

    Dr Hugo Eckener, of Zeppelin fame, told Ford that he would love to come visit the airport, but couldn't because there was no mooring mast. Consequently, Ford erected a mooring mast. When pilots complained that the field was too muddy and used the not too flattering expression, "Lake Ford," Henry Ford promptly constructed concrete runways, the first in the world.

    Traffic grew, and eventually Ford persuaded the transport lines flying into Detroit to use his airport as a terminal. This, however, came to an abrupt end. One Sunday a large number of airplanes flew over the Ford house. Mrs Ford told her husband that she thought those planes ought not be flying on the Sabbath. The next day, Ford ordered his airport manager to stop all flying from the airport on Sundays!

    Thus did Ford Airport not only became the only one in the world with concrete runways, but the only airport in the world that was closed on Sundays. Two firsts. Not bad. (— The Wartime Journals of Charles A Lindbergh)

65mph speed limit strictly enforced

Helpful Enemies

Bromma Airport in Stockholm was a beehive of international activities during WW2. German Lufthansa transports landed there regularly after trouble-free flights in Germany-controlled airspace. Allied military transports, disguised as civil airplanes, arrived in a steady stream from Leuchars in Scotland after flying in hostile skies during moonless nights. They brought with them VIPs, diplomats, vital machinery parts, film and photo-chemicals, books, fresh newspapers. When they left Bromma on other moonless nights they were loaded with new VIPs, Norwegian resistance people, roller bearings, special steel products, and whatever was needed out there in the West.

    During the last years of the war this clandestine traffic was intensified and organized by old polar bear Bernt Balchen in what was called "Operation Sonnie." The standard plane was Consolidated C-87 Liberator Express. On Bromma, German and American airplanes were mixed together in a comic hodgepodge, and the two parties watched each other carefully.

    One day, one of Balchen's Liberators cracked a cylinder head on a flight from Leuchars. They could have sent for a spare cylinder from Scotland, but Yes-Vee-Do-It-Balchen did it his own way. He knew that the DC-3s the Germans were operating between Berlin and Stockholm used the same engines, so he asked his friend Carl Florman, of the Swedish airline ABA, to borrow a spare cylinder from the Lufthansa representative at Bromma. The German replied that he didn't have one on hand in Stockholm, but would arrange for one to be sent up from Berlin on the next plane. The following day Lufthansa delivered a cylinder from an American B-24 which had crashed in Germany. Balchen installed it in his Liberator and flew back to Leuchars. There he got a spare cylinder and took it to Stockholm the next day to replace the one borrowed from the Nazis. Everybody happy. (— Bernt Balchen: Come North with Me)

A Universal Tool

De Havilland's DH-88 Comet, the eternal beauty, was specially designed and optimized for the MacRobertson Race from England to Australia in 1934. With its two 230hp Gipsy Six engines, it had a cruising speed of 220 mhp. Three large fuel tanks gave it an ultimate range of nearly 3,000 miles.

    As in all long-distance races, it was essential to be able to make take-offs in an overloaded condition, which made variable-pitch propellers highly desirable. The obvious choice was the American-made Hamiltons, but there were technical problems which could not be overcome in the short time available. Instead, they chose the French Ratier design, a two-position propeller of simple and rather clever design. Fine pitch was achieved on the ground with the help of compressed air.

    When the plane was airborne and had reached 150 mph, a disc on the spinner was forced back to release the internal air pressure, and there was an automatic change into coarse pitch. This implied an obvious disadvantage. Once the coarse pitch had been selected, it was not possible to change this state of things without landing. Thus was it also practically impossible to make an overshoot. One definitive landing, that was all.

    The device that delivered compressed air for the switchover to fine pitch was—guess what? A bicycle tire pump! (— A J Jackson: De Havilland Aircraft since 1909)

Ho-ho-ho-ooooly mackerel!

Horsing Around

Karl Albert Byron Amundson, mostly called KABA, was Commander of the Swedish Army Air Force, later Swedish Air Force, from 1915 to 1930.

    Judging from photos he was a rather stiff and haughty person, but photo-judging is a doubtful business. As a young officer he had nothing against playing a good prank, such as this one:

    He and a fellow officer were driving their car on a narrow country road when they found their way blocked by a horse-cart. The horse was grazing peacefully on the roadside. On the driver's seat sat a peasant, dead drunk and fast asleep. They honked their horn, but nothing happened. The horse just lifted his head for a moment, then went on grazing.

There seemed to be nothing left but remove the subject by force. They unbuckled the horse and led it to an opening in the fence which separated the road from the pasture on the other side. Not satisfied with that, they put the shafts of the cart through the fence and re-buckled the horse on the other side. Then they quietly turned the car around and left the scene. (— Flyghistoriskt Maanadsblad, Dec 1989)

Lost in the Big City

The year was 1929. A man named Jack Lynch ran a fixed base operation at Rogers Airport in the Los Angeles area. Into his office one day, fresh from Bozeman, Montana, came a pilot named Wayne Siefert, who asked for a job. The chief pilot checked him out in a flight around the field, and then he was hired on an hourly basis to haul sightseeing passengers.

    The next morning Siefert took off with a load of passengers, and didn't come back. Lynch was seized by despair. Every available pilot was sent to search the area and look for a downed airplane, but they found nothing.

    Late in the afternoon, Siefert showed up with his two passengers. With a shame-faced expression he explained that he flew out to the middle of Los Angeles and became lost over the sea of houses. He said he flew around for a considerable time before he could find a landing field, and then when he had landed, he couldn't remember the name of the field he had started from. He had spent the day in a process of elimination, landing at every field he heard about until he finally made Rogers Airport.

    Siefert spent the rest of the season in the coffee shop on the field, washing dishes. (— Frank W Wiley: Montana and the Sky)

Piper Cub 43 Echo, your cleared for an immediate take-off

A Nearly Perfect Landing

One of the first Swedish military pilots was Count Henrik David Hamilton. He really shouldn't have been.

    Somehow, he had succeeded in getting a pilot's license down in France around 1910, in fact Swedish license #2. Back in Sweden, he was based on Malmen military air base. There he soon became infamous, because he crash-landed his Breguet biplane every time he flew. One of his well-known statements came after the twelfth crash: "If it continues like this, I will soon lose confidence in this airfield!"

    His superior, Gösta von Porat, was determined to see Hamilton make one successful flight. They planned it carefully, a flight from Malmen to Skenninge, some 30 miles away. He took Hamilton with him in a car to the field at Skenninge, and they walked it over, examining it in every way. Hamilton commented that there were several potholes and a lot of small stones in the field. Porat then sent a contingent of soldiers to collect the stones and pile them in a corner of the field, then fill in the holes. When they had finished, the field was as flat as a dance floor.

    The flight took place on a perfect day. The sun was shining, it was dead calm, and visibility was unlimited. Hamilton took off in a new Blériot, located the field, made his approach, and crashed into the pile of stones. (— Stig Kernell: Vingar over Vadstena)