It was one of those hot and humid afternoons in the middle west of the early 1960s. Brad would rather have been giving a flight lesson or even working in the shop, but the airport was deserted. He saw that Earl had the shop doors wide open, hoping to capture some of the almost non-existent breeze. The line boy was nowhere in sight, which probably meant he had been drafted to help with an oil change. Ironic, he thought, that hot and humid in August meant airport business was as slow as on the coldest day in January. And, just like in January, he was on the airport tractor. In January, the tractor pushed a snow blade, and in August, dragged a mower to keep the runways and taxiways cut close and even.
A hawk circled lazily above. The farmer contracted to work the land between the runways was cultivating soybeans, and the dust he raised looked like fog as it drifted slowly across the airport. Ground squirrels popped up and down from their burrows everywhere along the runway sides, and Brad wondered how long it would be before one of the little bastards again chewed into a runway light cable.
“If only there were enough students to give instruction instead of mowing,” he thought, trying to work out the calculation in his head, “Three dollars an hour to give instruction, and six-hundred dollars a month to manage the airport. Let’s see, if I spent forty hours a week on the tractor, changing light bulbs in the beacon or runway lights, or digging to locate where a squirrel had chewed through the cable insulation, that would be just under three-fifty an hour. I actually make more money on the damn tractor than I do in the airplane!”
On the tractor, everything seemed to slow. Even with the side windows wide open, it was stifling inside the cab, and Brad was beginning to feel pretty gritty, with the grass and dust blowing through on every turn. He had the unicom volume way up, partly to warn him of approaching airplanes and partly so he could radio the wind and runway information in the event someone actually called. Mostly, it was up to help him stay awake, if not really alert. He drifted between daydreams, listening to radio calls at other airports, and watching barn swallows swoop past the cab like fighter planes making runs on a slower bomber. Every once in a while, a quick peripheral movement caught his attention just in time to see the hawk dive out of the sun, trying to catch one of the squirrels as the colony members scattered into their burrows. He tried to remember whether he had ever seen a hawk catch one of the squirrels, but could not recall a single time. When he had seen a hawk make a successful run, the victim had always been a rabbit late in the day under dwindling light.
He suddenly realized there was someone at the fence next to the office building, and started in from the grass runway. As he got closer, he could see that it was an elderly man, dressed casually and with no hat, despite the glaring sun. He was slight of build, his gray hair was thin, and his skin was weathered. “Probably a farmer”, Brad thought at first glance, although the old man was dressed more like a city dweller.
As Brad climbed down from the cab, the old man waved. “Say”, he shouted, “Can a fellow get an aeroplane ride here?”
“Sure”, Brad said, and motioned him towards the office.
As they met and shook hands, a few pleasantries were exchanged about the heat. Brad explained the type airplanes he had for rent, and the prices. The old man’s eyes lit up a bit when the J-3 Cub was mentioned, and Brad asked if he wanted a lesson, or just a ride.
“Just a ride”, the old man said with a smile, “I’m too damned old for a lesson”.
Brad pulled a cold soda from the machine for each of them, and they walked towards the storage hangar, visiting about nothing in particular.
The old man’s name was Carl, and Brad liked him immediately. He was recently retired. His wife had died, and his children lived far away. Brad sensed a bit of loneliness as they talked, and asked how he found the retirement lifestyle. “Easy and hard”, Carl said. “Having the time to do what you want is easy, but feeling irrelevant after a lifetime of involvement is hard.” It was Brad’s introduction to a man whom he would come to learn was very intelligent, sometimes profound, and always unassuming.
Brad grabbed the propeller and pulled the J-3 into the sunlight, then went to the tail and swung it around nose into the breeze for the preflight inspection. He explained what he was doing as he went through the process of checking the oil and gas levels, controls, tires, and the rest. Carl was attentive, but said nothing. Brad asked if there was anything in particular that Carl wanted to fly over, but there was not.
Brad walked to the shop door, and called to Earl for some help with the engine start. He turned towards the J-3, and saw that Carl was already in the front seat, moving the stick from side to side. Brad reached in to help with the lap belt, but it was already fastened. As Brad climbed into the rear seat, Earl was there to pull the engine through, and then swing the propeller for the start.
The airplane was a lot more comfortable than the tractor cab, and Brad decided to leave the upper door in its clip with the lower door loose so the propeller blast would provide air conditioning. He didn’t try to talk with Carl over the engine noise, but just taxied to the active runway, reaching across Carl’s shoulder to do the engine checks as they went, made a quick three-hundred sixty degree swing at the runway end to check for traffic, and started the takeoff roll.
The climb was full of those slow rolling and pitching moments that accompany convection-filled afternoon air at slow airspeeds, but the haze layer topped at two-thousand feet or so, and the air suddenly became both smooth and cool. Brad flew over town, and then turned west over farmland. Carl was turning his head from side to side and grinning like a kid. Brad leaned forward and asked if he would like to try flying it. Carl nodded affirmatively, and Brad felt him come onto the controls. Brad was ready to begin shouting some basic instructions, but held back, because it was immediately clear that Carl knew how to fly. The airplane was steady on altitude and heading. Carl made a gentle turn, and Brad felt the rudder move just enough to keep the adverse yaw in check.
Brad just sat back and watched without comment for the next half hour or better, until Carl turned and asked if Brad wanted the airplane back. Brad shouted that Carl should just fly back to the airport when he was ready. Twenty minutes later, Carl touched the Cub down in as pretty a three-point landing as one could make.
As they walked back to the office, Brad asked about his flying background, but the most he could get out of Carl was that he had “flown some during the war”. Brad pressed the issue a little, but Carl clearly did not want to talk about his war-time flying.
Over the following months, Carl became a regular at the airport. When the weather was good, Carl flew and Brad watched. When the weather was bad, they played cribbage and talked. War in the Southeastern Asian sub-continent was more and more in the news, and a recruiter for the CIA had already been to the airport, trying to entice Brad into a contract tour. Brad asked Carl what he thought about the clearly impending war, and was surprised at the response. Although Carl had always been reticent to talk about his own wartime experiences, he easily and knowledgeably talked about war more generally. His references to the reasons offered by President Wilson for involvement in a foreign conflict were Brad’s first clue that the war in which Carl had done some flying may well have been the “Great War”, and not the second world war, as he had first assumed.
One day Brad asked if Carl wanted to fly one of the newer airplanes. He did not. Another time he asked if Carl would like to re-validate his pilot’s license. Again, the answer was negative. They continued to fly the Cub, and as more flying time together was accumulated, Brad became ever more impressed with the pure joy Carl reflected when flying.
Carl loved to slip. He would often turn on final approach high by hundreds of feet, and simultaneously roll and yaw smoothly into a forward slip, finally correcting to coordinated flight even as he was flaring to land. One day, Carl climbed directly over the airport until the gas supply was exhausted. Absent a sensitive altimeter, Brad was not really certain of the altitude, but it must have been thirteen or fourteen thousand feet. Carl slowed and, as the propeller wound down to a stop, gently pulled and yawed the J-3 into a spin. After a few turns, he smoothly moved the stick to put full aileron into the spin. The rotation slowed and the spin flattened to a rhythm that seemed to go on for hours. Carl recovered from the spin a thousand feet or so above pattern altitude, and dead-sticked to the taxiway, coasting to a stop in front of the hangar. He was still grinning as he drove away.
Carl came around less that winter, and one day in March, Brad was stunned to read his name listed in the obituaries. The text was brief, reciting his birth in 1892, the prior death of his wife, and his retirement from the university as a professor, but little else.
The visitation service was sparsely attended. A young man about Brad’s age was shaking hands as people left, and introduced himself as Carl’s son. Brad explained the circumstances of his friendship with Carl, and was surprised at the reaction. The young man retrieved a scrap book that he had discovered while cleaning out the family home, and brought to the service. He explained that neither he nor his sisters had known anything about flying in his father’s past, and none could remember any conversation about or reference to it. But there, in the scrapbook, were pages of photographs and clippings that told the story.
Carl had indeed “flown some in the war”. In fact, he had flown in two wars. He had been a volunteer American aviator in France with the Lafayette Flying Corps in 1914, and later with the Escadrille Americaine and Army Air Corps. After the first world war, he had worked as an army air mail pilot, barnstormer and air racer. Apparently too old for military flying in the second world war, he had served as a civilian flight instructor. His son offered the opinion that his mother may have asked Carl to stop flying. Whatever the reason, Carl married after the second world war, completed a college education, and undertook a complete change in career as a middle-aged man. He had apparently not flown again until he showed up that summer day at the airport fence.
Brad asked for one of the photographs, and added it to his own scrapbook. In it, younger but clearly Carl, a young aviator held up a scrap of fabric from a German airplane, and smiled as he leaned against a large wooden propeller somewhere in France.
Mark H. Goodrich – Copyright © 2013
He “Flew Some During the War” was first published in the June 2013 Issue (Vol 10 No 2) of Position Report magazine.