Mid-Century Memories

The July 1953 Aero Digest commemorated 50 years of manned flight, and on its pages were fillers comprised of personal remembrances by many notables of early aviation, some of which are presented here to give impressions of what pioneering flight was like from the eyes and minds of the pioneers themselves:

Horsing Around

    By Capt R S Barnaby, USN (Ret)

Back during the summers of 1929 and 1930, the American Motorless Aviation Corporation had a gliding school on the sand dunes of Cape Cod. In those days, gliders were launched by the old bungee slingshot method where a glider was hooked to the vertex of a heavy shock-absorber cord, about 50' long on each leg. Three to six boys—depending on the power desired—would group themselves at each of the outer ends of the V and, while the glider was held back by its tail and supported at the wing-tip, they would walk out ten paces, then start running, stretching the shock-cord. At the proper time, the command "Let go!" was shouted, the glider released, and the launching was under way.

    One day, someone suggested using horses for the purpose. By hitching a horse to each end of the bungee, the launching crew could be reduced to a rider for each horse, one man on the wing-tip, and two to hold the tail. It seemed like a sensible plan, so two horses were drafted for the job, and the shock-cord securely tied to their harnesses.

    The call "Let go!" was given, and the glider started forward. It immediately became apparent that there was not quite enough room between the horses for the glider to pass through. Additionally, the launching was not powerful enough to enable the glider to soar over them.

    Hearing excited screams of the onlookers, the riders looked over their shoulders to see the glider bearing down on them, and dove off the horses into the sand. The glider whizzed by, just high enough so that the wing-tips grazed each horse on the top of the head, then went on to make a somewhat shaky forced landing.

    The horses, however, surprised and obviously perturbed by the intruder, lit out at full speed in opposite directions, stretching the shock-cord between them. The further they went, the slower their progress, until finally they were pawing the sand but making no headway. At that point, the shock-cord, which had become chafed at the center where the launching ring was attached, broke! Did you ever see a horse turn a somersault? That pair executed two beauties and then lit out for parts unknown.

    That ended operations for the day—it was long after dark before the horses were found and retrieved—and for the season as far as the horses were concerned. We couldn't drag them anywhere near a glider thereafter, so thus ended the experimental application of real "horsepower" to gliding on Cape Cod.

All Wet

    By Waldo Waterman

At San Diego in 1912, while flying with Ensign V D Herbster about 100 feet above the bay in a Wright biplane with a Burgess hydroplane attachment, the control jammed. The machine fell sidewise into the water and turned over until only the pontoon was visible. We climbed on it and waited for rescue. The accident was seen by a Curtiss Hydro pilot who flew out and picked us up—his name was Atwater.

Two-For-One Special

    By Roscoe Turner

They say you can't kill two birds with one stone, but I know better.

    During barnstorming days I flew an old Curtiss Jenny. One day my motor cut out after take-off and I had to land in the middle of a herd of grazing farm animals. Unnerving, to say the least, especially since one of the cows kept on chewing its cud as I hurtled toward it, eyeing me with casual suspicion until my plane brought the beast to an untimely end. Perverse creature that it was, the cow fell on a hog, killing it, too.

    It was a flying feat I'm sure I could never do again.

Putting In a Good Word

    By Harrison Brand Jr

An amusing memory I have of aviation started very soon after I joined the Aircraft Industries Association staff, a complete novice in aviation affairs and, particularly, nomenclature. Another staff member, who had been an aviation instructor, was telling me about a third person, describing him as "so dumb he doesn't know what an empennage is." I said, "OK, I'll bite. What is it?"

    Several years later I repeated the conversation to someone else and his reaction was, "You should have known 'empennage' is the landing gear." When I objected that that wasn't what I had been told, the man pulled down an aviation dictionary, found out how wrong he was, and then pointed to the fly-leaf showing his name as its compiler!

Country Boy

    By Harry Bruno

One evening in the early '20s I was sitting with Tony Fokker in one of the restaurants in the old Waldorf Hotel. He used to get his "alcoholic" stimulant by putting powdered sugar into a tall glass, leaving just about two inches from the top to put some milk in. He then stirred that sweet mess and became very happy while drinking it.

    His steel-tube monoplane had created quite a stir in our aircraft industry, and I asked him what he thought would happen in the next 50 years of aviation. As he stirred a second glass of his concoction, he said, "I don't think we have even touched on the right way to fly. Furthermore, our powerplants are not what we will eventually have, and certainly the designs are not."

    I then asked him what he thought was the solution. "I will use a typical American expression," he replied. "Someone from 'the sticks' who has probably never even seen an airplane, let alone having flown one, will come up with an answer that will enable us to go through the air in comfort at speeds better than 1,000 miles an hour."

The First Airline

    By Jay Dee Smith

We started our airline operations on January 1, 1914. Tony Jannus was pilot of the two-place Benoist flying boat, and I was traffic manager, ticket agent, chief of maintenance, and line mechanic. Our printed schedule called for flights from St Petersburg at 10 am and 2 pm, and from Tampa at 11 am and 3 pm.

    The second month we got a new Benoist which carried two passengers, and Tony got the first government license ever issued for an airplane.

    About the middle of February the Commerce Department ruled that flying boats came under the Steamboat Inspection Service rules. We had to observe all surface-craft rules, such as carrying life jackets, fire extinguishers, and even a tin horn for signaling. The rulebook stated: "Three short blasts (of the horn or whistle) mean 'my engines are going at full speed astern.'" We never had to give that signal.

A Reluctant Hero

    By Beckwith Havens

On a one-day stand at Enid, Oklahoma, I was lunching with the editor of the newspaper that was sponsoring the exhibition. This was just before my flight, and he told me that John McCurdy had been booked to fly there the year before, but that the wind was so bad he didn't dare try it. At that point, a gust of wind blew the front door open and knocked a picture off the wall.

    After lunch we went out to the field, but the wind was still howling, so I kept stalling. I was walking over the field, partly to kill time and partly to look for gopher holes, when a buckboard caught up with me, with the horses driven at a gallop by the local sheriff, complete with six-gun and belt. He looked down at me and asked, "Son, are you gonna fly?"

    "Sure," I said, and climbed in. He drove me back to the grandstand at a gallop, and after pulling the pony back on its haunches, the sheriff stood up, raised his hand to quiet the roaring crowd and shouted: "Give this boy a chance. It's his last ride before he gets to ride with the undertaker!"

    I made the flight and got an enthusiastic ovation.

Engine Trouble

    By Igor I Sikorsky

In January, 1909, when I was 20, I arrived in Paris full of enthusiasm for aviation and looking for a motor with which I expected to power my first helicopter. I was unfamiliar with the field and, in seeking advice, approached an "experienced" aviator. He had cracked-up several airplanes, hence knew all about the subject.

    I asked him which was the best aviation engine. He replied, "There is no best engine, because they are all bad." I did not want to let him get off so easily, so I started to discuss "which is less bad than the rest," and in the discussion discovered that the Anzani motor answered that description as it possessed a lesser number of "bad" parts than the rest. The smaller number of bad parts was the result of the simple construction of the Anzani.

    Despite gloomy predictions, the little Anzani I bought was a good motor for that period, and somewhat later I made my first solo flight with that engine.

Inventing the Stall

    By Vice Adm P N L Bellinger

Friday, June 13, 1913. I was a Navy aviator then, in the days when naval aviation consisted of eight pilots, five planes and their ground crews. For several months, Lt Herbster and I, flying hydroaeroplanes, had been competing with each other to set an altitude record. I had reached 3,800' in my Curtiss, but two weeks later Herbster had topped that with 4,600' in his Wright. The rivalry between our crews was terrific.

    A sealed recording altimeter was strapped to my control column, and I was ready to try again. Flying one of those machines was quite a thrill. The only thing between a pilot and thin air was the control column. There were no instruments, and it was only by feel that you knew you had sufficient speed and weren't skidding or slipping.

    One of the reasons we almost always flew at low altitudes was to gage our action by ground speed, but that day I left the ground behind and started climbing. The higher I went the more I realized that my direction control was not as good as usual and, before long, the plane seemed to be wallowing in the air. Then, with a terrific lurch, the right wing seemed to disappear. As I instinctively pushed down on the control, I thought: Friday the 13th—that was it! The plane headed down and, as I glanced fearfully to the side, I was amazed to see that the wing was still there. I tried all of the controls and everything was fine, but I had the hell scared out of me, and headed for home.

    When the altimeter was opened, I found I had raised the seaplane record to 6,200'. Quite a difference from the records of today, but in days of pusher planes and shoulder yoke controls, when successful flying required a real feel of the air, 10,000' was an awesome altitude.

    I didn't say anything about my plight as I was ashamed to admit that something had happened to my plane that I couldn't explain. It wasn't until a couple of weeks later I discovered that I had stalled!

Occupational Hazard

    By Dr Hugh L Dryden

In this supersonic age, it is sometimes hard to reconstruct the era of slower speeds. Yet I remember vividly my first experience with a supersonic jet—on Christmas Day 1923. As a result of it, several of us caused some unintentional consternation on the streets of Lynn MA.

    The supersonic air jet was on a balcony at the Lynn works of the General Electric Company. The jet was twelve inches in diameter and somewhat noisy, to say the least. It didn't even help to plug our ears with absorbent cotton soaked in Vaseline, so we learned to coexist with the racket.

    Shortly afterward, we walked down the street in Lynn, discussing the jet, and noticing passers-by staring at us strangely and shaking their heads. It was some time before we realized that, temporarily deaf as a result of working with our heads only a few feet from the large jet, we had been shouting at one another at the top of our lungs.

Oh, Those Flying Machines!

    By Otto W Timm

My first attempt to build an airplane was in Milwaukee in 1910. The plane, a replica of the Santos-Dumont monoplane, was about 90 percent completed when I had to give up because I couldn't afford an engine. I then moved to a room on Chicago's south side to be near the old Cicero Flying Field where a number of exhibition pilots made their headquarters and where various planes were built.

    Several projects at the field centered around attempts to work out lateral control devices that would not infringe on the Curtiss or Wright patents. One such monoplane had a series of large rectangular holes in the wings that were opened and closed by means of shutters. All the pilot had to do was to open the shutters on the high wing and it would promptly drop. The only trouble was the contraption wouldn't fly.

    Also under construction was a large amphibious monoplane finished in fine mahogany with deep leather upholstery. It was extremely heavy and was powered with a 50hp engine. A large crowd gathered to see the test flight. Four men were holding onto the fuselage as the engine opened up. When the signal was given to let go, the plane did not move, so the men pushed and got it started. When they stopped pushing, however, it rolled to a stop. It not only wouldn't fly, it wouldn't even taxi.

    A monoplane with a fiber fuselage was capable of making short hops, but usually spun around and dug a wing into the ground, sometimes buckling the side of the fuselage where the wing was attached. That was nothing to worry about. The mechanic would crawl inside the fuselage, brace himself against the side and push, and the fuselage would pop out again as good as new.

    In the following years I designed and built a number of planes, but the day I soloed that pusher, sitting out there in front of the wings with nothing around me but space, was a milestone I'll never forget.

Solo Fright

    By Admiral John H Towers

In 1911 the Navy assigned me to Hammondsport to learn flying at the Curtiss School. I expected that Glenn would be the instructor, but instead, Lieutenant Ellyson, Navy pilot #1, was assigned the task. Training procedure on the single-seaters was to have the student taxi across the field with the throttle's foot-pedal limited so the airplane could not take off.

    After many trips over the course, the pedal limit was removed and the student could then get up enough speed to become airborne. Ellyson put on a few demonstrations of this ground flying and then had me take over for my first lesson, "Don't worry," he said. "I have a wedge jammed under the pedal, and you can push it all the way down without getting enough power to take off."

    I climbed in the seat—the first time I ever sat in an airplane. The engine was started and, with my foot pressing down on the pedal, the plane bumped across the field like a scared rabbit. Before I realized it, I found myself about 30' high, then remembered I wasn't supposed to be there. Hastily pushing forward on the control wheel, I headed for the ground at a steep angle and hit with a splintering crash. The plane was badly damaged, but I was lucky to be only slightly injured.

    We figured later that Ellyson weighed about 25 pounds more than I did, and that difference in our weights was overlooked when I took his place. Power that was insufficient to get him off the ground was more than I needed to get into the air. In those days we learned flying the hard way, but it was mighty embarrassing to wreck a plane on my first flight.

An American Touch

    By Harry Bruno

Twenty years ago the English flying ace, Major Jack Savage, arrived in New York with a new gimmick he called "skywriting." He hoped to sell the idea to American business and industry, and his first target was George Washington Hill, head of the American Tobacco Co. Savage persuaded Hill to view a rehearsal of his new advertising method from the ground. His pilot, Capt Cyril Turner, flew over Times Square, spelling out: "HELLO USA" while gawking crowds stared up. But Hill was not impressed. "Interesting," he commented, "but it won't sell cigarettes."

    Savage came to me as a publicity agent, and we decided to give an Yankee touch to the demonstration. The plane went up again, and this time it spelled out the telephone number of the Vanderbilt Hotel, to which Savage had invited Hill. For three hours the Vanderbilt's switchboard was swamped with phone calls. Extra operators were needed to handle the load.

    Hill was immediately enthused and signed with the Skywriting Corporation of America for a million dollars worth of skywriting.

Calculated Risk

    By Stedman S Hanks

Back in World War I, you will recall, captive balloons were an important element in the defense of airfields. It was during the same period that parachutes were being developed, and the one experience I seem to recall most vividly has to do with a combination of the two.

    One day in 1917, General George Squier and I were up in a captive balloon as it floated high above an airfield. The commanding officer of the base who was up with us wanted to demonstrate two of his new parachutes that he had brought with him, along with one sandbag to use as a dummy.

    He then suggested that I—then a major and a military pilot—might like the honor of being one of the first pilots to make a parachute jump. Before I put the chute on, General Squier decided to use the dummy first to make some calculations.

    It was a decision I'll never forget, because that 'chute never opened.

The Beginnings of SAR

    By Harry Christofferson

On April 26, 1915, I was in my hangar at Ocean Beach, San Francisco, when a mounted policeman dashed up and said that a fishing boat had just foundered beyond the breakwater with seven persons aboard.

    I flew down to the South Side Life Saving Station with Harvey Crawford, another flyer, and we picked up some life preservers. We then flew over the men in the water, but Crawford was afraid to drop the life preservers, fearing they might tangle in the propeller. I landed on the beach and let him off, then flew out again. One of the three preservers I dropped got tangled in the switch and shut off the motor. I grabbed the switch and started the motor just in time—the plane was only about 20 feet above the waves.

    In spite of our efforts, none of the men managed to grab a preserver and they were all lost. Although it ended in tragedy, that flight 38 years ago was the first attempt at an air-sea rescue.

No Time For Comedy

    By Roland Rohlfs

Back in 1918, when I was testing planes for the Curtiss Airplane Company, an unpredictable hydro-aeroplane called the "Dunkirk Fighter" turned in a performance I'll never forget. The shop initials for this plane were HA—a most prophetic designation.

    The designers were so certain of a successful flight that a number of Government officials, among them Commander Read of transatlantic fame, were invited to Port Washington to witness the test.

    USMC Maj B L Smith, was my passenger, his duty being to pump the gasoline. After a very short run on the water, the tail dropped suddenly and we shot into the air. From that moment, witnesses saw an unparalleled flight. One moment we were at 1,000' and the next at 800'. The plane's erratic path carried us alternately over water and land with such speed that my only thought was to finish the flight one way or another before it fell apart.

    I closed the throttle a little and the gyrations increased. I pulled it back, and still they continued. I waited until the next dive and then closed the throttle more than before and, unbelievably, the plane steadied. As it gained speed in the dive, however, it became unstable again. By closing the throttle still more I was able to counteract this.

    Finally we landed with a resounding flop in Hempstead Harbor, ending the wildest airplane ride I've ever known. I know Smith felt that same way—he was black and blue for a month afterward. We learned later that there had been a serious miscalculation in design. The lift of the wings was 12" ahead of where it belonged and the stabilizing surfaces of the tail were far too small to hold the craft straight.

    The HA was no laughing matter.