I have a good friend who belongs to the First Aero Squadron in Columbus New Mexico. Columbus is the birthplace of the U. S. Air Force and many of those who live there are airplane buffs, particularly vintage, WW1 and pre-WW1 airplanes.
Pancho Villa raided the U.S. in 1916 and Columbus was his target. I could go into great detail about the raid and General Pershing’s punitive action but that information is well covered on the First Aero Squadron Foundation’s website,www.firstaerosquadron.org You can subscribe to their newsletter or get updates by going to their website. They have a lot of plans under development, one of which is to have a 100th anniversary celebration in 2016. Check it out, I plan to go and it will be fun.
The Pancho Villa New Mexico State Park has a lot of memorabilia in the interpretive center, including old solid tire trucks and a biplane hanging from the ceiling. I did some promotional video for the park right after the interpretive center was opened and they’ve expanded their collection quite a lot since I was there.
Looking at the FASF website brought back some biplane memories from my teenage years.
My father was a fighter pilot instructor and taught navigation when he was in the Army during WW2. We traveled a lot and I have a lot of stories, some of which have been posted on my websites www.larryRmiller.com and www.notnormaladventures.com I’ll be posting a lot more here and on the sites as soon as I flesh them out and finish the cartoons that accompany the articles.
After the war, my dad flew for a freight airline. In 1948, my parents went into the chicken egg business. But, that’s another story.
In 1955, my dad decided that he would like to fly again and contacted an old Army buddy named Ray who had a crop dusting business in Northern California. Just before Christmas that year, my parents sold their business, their house and we moved.
My dad worked with Ray on the planes during the rest of the winter and by spring we had completed all the details of our move and had settled in. Spring was a busy time for Ray’s crop dusting business. My dad was flying almost everyday and I went to work for the crop dusting business as a flagger.
Flaggers stand at the ends of the fields that are being flown over, for seeding, fertilizing, etc., and wave a flag so the pilot can line up for the next pass. The flagger has a chain or other measuring device that has been adjusted to the proper length in order to get the correct coverage without excessive overlap for each passover flight. It sounds a lot more complicated than it was: you went from one spot to the next and waved a flag.
Usually there were two flaggers and we drove to the field in a pickup and then back to the home airstrip when done. Sometimes, if there was only enough work for one pilot, my dad would flag one end of the field and I would flag the other.
The planes were Boeing-Stearman model 75 biplanes with a much more powerful engine. The planes landed on dirt strips at the ends of the fields or as close as they could get where there was enough room so trucks could load them with whatever they were applying.
One day after the work was done, we were all at the landing site. I was going to ride back in the pickup with my dad and Ray was going to fly the plane back to the home airstrip. Ray asked me if I wanted to fly back instead of ride in the pickup. He said I would have to ride in the hopper where the seed was loaded because there was only the seat for the pilot but that was OK with me. I hadn’t flown since my dad had quit flying for the freight airline and flying in a biplane would be a new adventure.
The plane had horizontal metal pipes in the hopper that tied into the sides of fuselage. The pipes kept the sides from being pushed out when the hopper was loaded. Ray gave me a strap that had a lot of holes in it and told me to wrap it around one of the pipes and buckle it to my waist. He said the ride could get a little bumpy and wanted to be sure I didn’t fall out. Me too!
Ray told me that it was illegal for him to take a passenger and, when we got close to the home airstrip, he’d have to close and latch the hopper doors in case anyone was at the airfield. If an inspector was there he could lose his license. I didn’t see any problem with that and crawled up on the lower wing and into the hopper. I wrapped the strap around the pipe, secured it to my waist and adjusted it so I could see out but not fall out.
The airplane had been idling, Ray brought up the RPMs, swung the nose into the wind and we sped down the road on the top of the irrigation ditch bank that had been the airstrip. With all that horsepower and no load except for a skinny teenager, we were airborne almost immediately.
The work site was quite a ways from the home strip. The view of the valley below was spectacular and we cruised along, taking the long way back. Ray had given me a pair of goggles and I found that by sitting on one of the pipes I had a bird’s eye view with only my arms, shoulders and head sticking out of the hopper. I had to keep my arms on the doors that closed the top of the hopper, otherwise the wind would have blown them shut and whacked me on the head.
We flew with the birds below a few dozen feet and the clouds above. We were high enough to get a panoramic view but low enough to see details of the terrain below. Wow, how cool!
When we got close to the home strip, Ray tapped on the side of the plane and signaled to me to crouch down in the hopper so he could close and latch the doors. I bent down, got as comfortable as possible and he closed the doors above my head. He had told me to be sure to hang on tight because the landing could be a little rough. He hadn’t told me about what would happen next.
Shortly after closing and locking the doors, we did a few little ups and downs, sort of like going over a speed bump. I think he did that to make sure I got a good hold on things. Then, we did a steep climb followed by some steep banking turns, dives, climbs and other maneuvers that would probably have been applauded if done at an air-show. To say my knuckles weren’t white would be a lie. We power climbed, banked steeply to one side and then the other, we may have even done a rollover but my world was so disoriented I’m not sure.
Then we made a steep descending swoop, the power was cut and we touched down. After taxiing around for what seemed an eternity, which was in reality probably less than a minute, the hopper doors opened and I saw my dad standing near the hanger.
As soon as we stopped rolling, I unbuckled and prepared to get the hell out of there. When I looked back, Ray was laughing, my dad was laughing and a friend of theirs who was standing next to my dad was laughing. I saw absolutely nothing humorous in the whole thing and, upon getting to the ground, walked stiff-legged to my car.
I’m sure the whole thing was planned ahead of time because the flight had been long enough for my dad to get back to the home strip. Ordinarily, we would have gotten there quite awhile before he could have driven back.
When I got to my car I had a hard time finding my keys and Ray came over. He told me to take a few deep breaths and look at it as an adventure, one that may never happen again. I thought about what he’d said for a little while. I wasn’t hurting, other than my ego, and it really had been an adventure, an adventure that possibly no one else would ever experience. I walked back to the hanger, tried to smile and noticed that everyone else was trying not to smile.
I had to swear that I would never tell anyone, even my closest friends. If the word got out, Ray could lose his license, my dad would be out of a job and a lot of people would be adversely impacted. How could I keep something like that a secret? I had just turned 16 and wanted to impress my new friends at school.
Less than a year later, Ray was driving home from Sacramento one night and was killed in an automobile accident. Nothing good came from his death, he had a wife and two kids. But, I was released from my promise and able to tell others about my adventure.