While Toby and I were doing a show at Paine Field in Washington State I was asked by “Gentleman” Joe Hughes to closely watch an addition to his act and to give him my thoughts afterwards. Joe was flying his beautiful Super Stearman with his wing rider Gordon McCollom. We had seen the act many times and considered it top class. Joe was a true gentleman, quiet, unassuming and a consummate pilot. Gordie was a professional athlete and a newly married young man. As we watched Joe bring the big Stearman across the field with Gordie standing on the wing I suddenly had the thought: “I’d really like to try that!”
I had to put the idea aside while Joe rolled inverted with Gordie standing on the wing. Something new was going on as the Stearman headed for show center. A couple of poles and a ribbon stretched across the runway! Lower went the Stearman as Gordie broke the ribbon with his chest. The spectators loved it. I wasn’t so sure.
After the show I approached Joe while he was talking to a Snowbird pilot. The conversation went thus: “Joe, you asked me to watch the addition to your act. I did and I don’t feel you need it. You and Gordie have always put on a first class show. The ribbon cut, I feel, is pushing it too close to the edge.” At this point the Snowbirds guy chimed in, “Hey, we’re professionals. We know what we’re doing. Not to worry!” And I turned to him and said, “Joe Hughes asked me for my opinion and I just gave it to him, so butt out!”
Later in the day I approached Joe about the idea of riding his wing. He looked me in the eye for a moment and after acknowledging that he had known me for some time and that I had some flying experience and was obviously serious, said it would be fine by him. We would do the deed at Abbotsford. He arranged with Gordie to brief me on the requirements for clothing: get a nylon jacket with a steel zipper, have the sleeves sewn so there’s no loose material to flap in the wind. Helmet and goggles? Yes, I have my own. Tight ski pants? Yep.
The day before the 1974 Airshow we met on the grass at Abbotsford Airport. I was wearing all the stuff that Gordie had called for. What I hadn’t anticipated was the crowd of people that were standing around handing out free advice. “Don’t fall off!” “Be sure to tape his mouth shut!” and on and on.
Then, too, there were the people who questioned, “Are you crazy?” “What are you trying to prove?” I didn’t bother to try and enlighten them.
After climbing up onto the top wing, Gordie assisted me to make sure the small waist belt was secure.
The late, great Gordie McCollum strapping me onto the wing.
When the big 650 horsepower radial fired up below my feet it was a somewhat strange feeling and yet felt quite natural. Then we were bumping across the grass to runway 18. Joe waited for my thumbs up and we were on the roll. Later I was given a short video clip which documented the whole flight from the moment the airshow smoke came on as we took off. From my perch I was thrilled at the incredibly unrestricted view as I watched a seagull slide by below our wings.
As we came around for our first approach to the show line I remembered Joe’s words, “Be sure to cross your arms tight across your chest and lean forward on the dive. We’ll be doing 150 miles an hour.” Lining up on 18, Joe dropped the nose and the pressure on my chest reached the point where I heard myself mumbling, “Pull the nose up, Joe, pull the nose up!” Finally the nose came up with a jerk and suddenly we started a roll as we screamed down the runway. I felt like I was going to fly right off the wing! Climbing away gave me a chance to catch my breath and prepare for the next maneuver. On the second pass there was a repeat of the chest crushing pressure in the dive and then we were inverted; the runway below just a blur. For a split second I thought I saw someone on the runway but we went by too quickly.
Me on the wing
It was months later that I received a video of my wing ride which showed the whole process including the second inverted pass when the camera panned down from the aircraft at mid field to reveal a group of guys holding a large wicker basket, complete with pillows, “In case I fell off the wing.”
It was a once in a lifetime experience and I have to acknowledge the generosity of Joe Hughes for giving me the opportunity.
Joe, Me and Gordie by the Stearman
In September, 1975, Joe and Gordie went to a show at Reno and I received the news that Gordie was killed during the inverted ribbon cut. It was a sad ending to a great airshow act. And I was left to wonder if that Snowbird’s pilot had any second thoughts.
On a lighter note I must mention the time I upset Richard Bach, the well known author. During the mid-day break at a Paine Field Air Show I was chatting with Joe Hughes. He noticed Art Scholl and Richard standing about 30 feet away, deep in conversation. Joe told me that Art had a little trick he liked to show people now and then. He said he’d like to get a photo of Art doing his trick and would need my help. After outlining his plan I said I was somewhat reluctant to break in on Art and Richard’s conversation. Joe made light of it, saying that this was a one- time chance and that I must not let on to Art that he was being photographed. As Joe set up his long lens camera I made my way over to the two famous fellows. Butting right in on Richard earned me a glare and a terse, “I’m in the middle of telling Art a story!”
After trying to pacify Richard, saying I’d only be a minute, I asked Art if it was true he could touch his nose with the tip of his tongue. Yep, he could do that, why do you ask? Well, could you just take a moment to prove it? Okay. And as Art’s tongue started to appear I scratched the back of my head as the signal for Joe to snap the picture. Later Joe sent me a copy of unsuspecting Art doing his funny little act. I don’t suppose Richard Bach forgives me to this day.
Me, Art Scholl, Richard Bach and Joe Hughes
Among the many interesting people that I came to know at Abbotsford was a tall skinny chap named Mike Edwards. He became a good friend but was ignored by many of the Air Show dignitaries, possibly in part because of his somewhat broken accent and the fact that he was merely a hobby shop owner. But Mike was also an honorary Colonel in the Confederate Air Force and a former Hungarian fighter pilot. Then, too, he was generous to a fault. Every year he would show up from Seattle with a bunch of exquisite scale model aircraft as gifts for pilots. In fact I was the recipient of a number of his models.
There are two things Mike did that I will always remember. One was the taping of my wing ride and the other was a very sneaky arrangement wherein he somehow obtained my measurements and later presented me with a tailor made flight suit, similar to the type he always wore. The first time I showed up at morning briefing wearing the dazzlingly white outfit Joanne Osterud exclaimed, “Look, it’s Mr. Clean!” I have to admit I felt somewhat embarrassed wearing that fancy get up but I did it out of gratitude to Mike Edwards. Sadly, Mike and his wonderful little wife passed away a few years ago.
Mike and me in flight suits. He’s the tall one
Chapter Six and last of “The Life & Times of Glenn Mathews” tomorrow