Air and Lighter than Air

By Lawrence S. Howe, with M. C. Pehrson

Word Count: 1168

Rating: G

Summary: A story of one boy’s dream of flying.

Salmson_2_WW1_recon_aircraft
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Dougherty’s Flying Field was the first airfield I can remember, and it was little better than a few acres of pastureland with several hangars and a shack that passed for an operations office. Along the side of the field in front of the hangars were half a dozen Liberty aeroplanes, war surplus that the fliers coming home from WWI were buying up and then using to barnstorm the country, giving people rides for a fee.

By modern standards, they would have been called flying deathtraps, and anyone who   flew them would be considered just one step ahead of a hungry squirrel. But the real idiot was anyone fool enough to pay to ride in one.

As usual in my boyhood, I always went whole hog and so I fell into the latter classification. Rides were offered for $3.00 for twenty or thirty minutes, depending on how the pilot felt. This was the ultimate. I wanted to go, but I lacked three things: money, opportunity, and permission. Money I could earn, opportunity I could arrange, but permission—that was impossible. Dad might go for it, but Mom—never, never. It would be NO with both feet on the ground.

Mr. J.C. Penney made it possible for me to earn the money peddling bills for the store. It took several weeks to get it all together. After careful counting—and it had to be careful if I was doing it—everything worked out fine. Almost everything. Early one morning, my friend Bob and I met and climbed onto our bikes, rode up to the boulevard, and started for the airfield. Soon we had latched onto a truck going toward the flying field, and we were off.

At long last we reached the field, parked our bikes, and walked over to the small shack that served as an office and ticket booth.

“Sir, we want to go up,” I announced.

“Well now, that will cost you three dollars each,” came the reply.

We coughed up the money: dimes, nickels, half dollars, and quarters till the huge fortune—all six dollars’ worth—was piled on the table.

The pilots watched us and grinned. Then one walked over and counted it, then asked, “Now, have you got permission?”

“Yup,” I lied, and began digging into my pockets with alarm all over my face as I searched desperately for the nonexistent note. Finally I said, “I can’t find it, I must have lost it.”

“You’re supposed to have permission to fly; I don’t know whether to take you up or not,” said the pilot.

“Oh look, I gotta go up, I just gotta,” I pleaded.

“Yeah, but how do I know if it’s okay or not?” questioned the pilot.

“Oh please, Mister, I came all the way down here just so I could fly. I can’t go home without flying!”

Well, the pilot relented “just this once” and said, “Come on, let’s get a plane.”

The three of us strode across the field to an old Jenny—that’s what the pilot called her. She looked huge and smelled to high heaven of gas, leather, grease, oil-soaked paint, and canvas. She smelled wonderful. The pilot yelled to a mechanic and he came over while the pilot circled the plane tugging at struts, wires, elevators, and rudder. Satisfied it would fly, he helped us into the front cockpit, then crawled into his seat. The mechanic turned the prop once or twice, then yelled, “Contact!” The pilot answered, “Contact!” and the mechanic gave the propeller a spin. There was a cough, spit, and then the engine caught on and roared into life.

Slowly we taxied to the end of the field, then turned and faced into the wind. The noise was deafening. I couldn’t talk because the prop wash would fill my mouth and nose till I could hardly breathe. I looked at Bob—same thing, so we just grinned. Our shirt collars lashed our necks till they were red and stung like the devil. Slowly the plane wobbled into position, then waving his hand “so long”, the pilot gave her the throttle and we began to roll down the field. The engine roared something fierce as we bumped along, and then suddenly we were off the ground.

It was happening! We were flying! As we rapidly rose, the ship’s wings seemed to wobble a little, but the pilot wasn’t concerned, so neither were we. I had never been so excited in my life. What a thrill, flying like a bird. We were, I suppose, about 5000 feet high at the most, but I thought that any moment we’d bust into heaven and I’d be rejected because I had lied about the note saying it was okay to be up here.  

We had been studying about Japan in school. I knew it was a large island across the Pacific Ocean. When our plane flew over the coast, I could see the Pacific Ocean forever and I pointed to Catalina Island and poked Bob. “Japan,” I shouted. He nodded in agreement.

Cars on the road looked like ants crawling along a crack or a piece of string. People were not even visible. Oh God, we are high up! I thought as we flew over the harbor, Battleship Row, Long Beach, Signal Hill, and our hometown. I was amazed at how different things looked from the air. The mountains seemed like rolling hills—almost flat in some places. I discovered canyons I had not even known existed. The water seemed as smooth as glass, not rough like it was when I went to the beach.   

At last the pilot headed back to the field, and we started to descend. Then the ship began flying sideways. I thought something must have busted, and we were all lost.

I had just been through my first sideslip.

Thankfully, the nose came round, the road and telegraph lines passed beneath our plane, and then we went into a quiet, genteel glide. The engine roared again and then the wheels touched down. We taxied to a halt. We had made it.

For fifteen or twenty minutes our hearts could not have crammed in another beat. I’ve never been so excited as when we made that first flight. We hated to leave “our plane”. It was like leaving a good friend. True, our acquaintance was short, but the impact had been terrific. We felt like a privileged few and I guess we were, for we had flown in a Jenny, already obsolete and getting hard to find. Other planes would fly, but this pioneer type of flying was the greatest.

The hardest part was not to tell Mother and Dad. Dad, well, he might have understood, but Mom was another matter. Then there was the pilot. I sure didn’t want him to get into trouble. So I elected to shut up and say nothing, but just remember how it was when I first flew. How could I ever forget?

 

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