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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A Love Affair Deepens

1931 Bird Biplane

It was in the spring of 1937 that my interest in aviation increased to a near obsession.  I had always liked airplanes and Charles Lindberg was my idol.  I had a “Lucky Lindy” brown leatherette aviator’s helmet that I almost always wore during the winter.  I read World War Flying Aces pulp magazines avidly and would always stop whatever I might be doing to watch when very infrequent airplanes flew overhead.
One time before he left for Washington, my father dropped Richard and me off at a little silent movie theater on the square in Greenfield to see the original version of Howard Hugh’s film “Hell’s Angels” twice, but not because of Jean Harlow.  We did not think she amounted to much at all.  To us she was just a blonde woman that looked like a grownup version of our cousin Mary Catherine and who had the same kind of high-pitched voice.  We sat through it again just to see those old airplanes dogfighting, the zeppelin getting shot down, and the German bomber episode.
Anyway, in the spring of 1937, Grandpa, Grandma, and I went to Springfield one day.  Grandma had been poorly and she had to have some tests at the hospital as I recall.  They told Grandpa it would take a couple of hours so he asked me if I would like to go to the zoo or something.  I asked if, instead, we could go to the Springfield Airport to look at airplanes up close.
In those days Spring Airport was just a big level grass field with a row of wooden hangars along one side.  There were no airplanes parked outside and, to my disappointment, none were flying.  Grandpa went to a little office and asked a man there if there was an airplane I could look at somewhere.  He directed us to one of the hangars which had the door standing open. 
I got goosebumps on my arms when we walked into that hangar and there sat a beautiful open-cockpit biplane.  It was shiny red and it and the whole hangar had a heady aroma compounded of airplane dope, grease, gasoline, and rubber.
I suspect that my eyes were as big as saucers.  I walked around to the front of the airplane and it had an honest-to-goodness radial engine.  I had read all about that sort of thing.  It seemed like a big airplane and engine to me then but in later years when I was flying myself I concluded that it was a little Bird biplane with a small five-cylinder Kinner engine. 
While I was gaping in awe and reverently stroking the taut fabric of the wing covering, the man from the office came in.  He watched me for a minute then came over and said, “You want to sit in the cockpit, kid?”
I could only grin at him delightedly as he boosted me onto the lower wing then helped me get into the back cockpit.  He pointed out the instruments and controls and let me wiggle the stick so I could see the ailerons move.
I was in seventh heaven and I am sure it plainly showed.  As the man helped me out of the cockpit I asked, “Can you fly this here airplane, mister?”
He nodded.  “Yes, it belongs to me.”
When I was back on the dirt floor of the hangar, I turned back to the man and said emphatically, “I aim to fly one of them airplanes someday!”
He grinned and whacked me on the shoulder.  “By god, boy, I bet you will, too!  You got the right look.”

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