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 must watch for 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 airborne.
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 taxied in, shut her down, and coasted to a stop a few feet from where she started. The ground crew lifted her tail onto 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 known 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 barn wood 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, Lloyd, 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 was gone, Father and Son visited her again. Father dressed in his Sunday best, Son dressed in 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 gun smoke 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 impossibly 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, Rejuvenator of Old … they would sit and 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 whose 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 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 … again … slept.
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, overfly 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 had 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 heartbeat 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.
This story was written to honor the first flight of Jim Miller’s TravelAir 4000.
About the Author
After more than 30 years and 15,000 hours in all sorts of flying machines from fiberglass gliders to glass-cockpit jets, Rob Bach has collected a few stories along the way he likes to share when he slows down long enough to write. He lives in southern Wisconsin with the love of his life, Stephanie, a Pietenpol or two, and a Hatz biplane.
Two photos of NC2937 on the ground by Russell Williams.
Sunset photo by Larry Murdock.