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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Russian Visitors in Vancouver

There were other memorable events during that summer of 1938 before I started my senior year at VHS, both involving airplanes.  The first occurred while I was still working at the riding academy.  One afternoon Charlie Barnett came in and told us that a big Russian airplane had landed at Pearson Field in Vancouver from a direct flight over the North Pole from Russia.

When I got off work that afternoon, I was burning with curiosity since anything having to do with airplanes always got my full attention.  I had the bicycle that day so I raced across the Interstate bridge and out to Pearson Field.  There, guarded by soldiers from the Barracks, sat a sleek monoplane.  The slender fuselage was painted green and the long, tapering wing and the tail surfaces were red.  It had a single in-line engine in the nose.
I was a bit disappointed.  I had expected to see something really impressive like the fabled Maxim Gorky that was the largest airplane in history (until Boeing build the 747 many years later).  The Russian monoplane did not look big enough to carry much of a crew and it definitely was not a passenger airplane.
Since I could not get close to the airplane because it was in the Army part of the field and was guarded, I went around to the private part of the field where I had several friends.  There I found that it was truly an historic airplane and flight.  A Russian crew of three had taken off from somewhere in Russia and had flown, without refueling, directly across the North Pole.  They had evidently been heading for San Francisco, but had run short of fuel and had landed at Pearson Field which was shown as a military field on their charts.  It was a real milestone in the history of aviation.
The following Saturday, I was in Gerhart’s Drugstore with David Schaeffer, Ariel Mansfield, and a couple of the others.  We got to talking about the Russian flight.  None of the others had been in an airplane and I told them about the flight Dave and I had taken.  They were very skeptical and did not think we had really done it.
I had my weekly pay from the riding academy in my pocket and was sort of “feeling my oats” so I said cockily, “Okay, I tell you what I am gonna do.  I am going to down to Pearson Field right now and have an airplane ride.  I will have the pilot fly over here and I’ll wave to you to prove that I have been in an airplane!”
The others pooh-poohed the idea so there was no backing out.  I got on my bicycle and pedaled down to the airport.  I found a fellow that had a Bird biplane and bought a twenty minute ride for three or four dollars with the condition that he would fly over the courthouse square as low as the law would allow.

The airplane was an open cockpit biplane and I felt like David Niven or Errol Flynn in “The Dawn Patrol” when the pilot strapped a parachute on me and handed me a helmet and goggles.  When we taxied out to the runway, I was wishing I had a long white scarf to throw around my neck and let flutter in the slipstream.
The flight went great.  I gloried in the open cockpit with the wind rushing by and the engine making so much noise that voice communication with the pilot was impossible.  He knew what I wanted, however, so he broke out of the patter and headed across downtown Vancouver at less than five hundred feet.
I did not see anyone in the vicinity of Gearhart’s during our first pass over the courthouse.  I signaled the pilot to go back by pointing at the drugstore then made a waggling motion with my hand to indicate that I wanted him to rock the wings.  He nodded and threw the little airplane into a steep bank to fly back over the square.
That time I saw Ariel and a couple of others come out of the drugstore and wave while they jumped up and down.  The pilot rocked the plane and I stuck my arm out into the slipstream and waved.  As we flew over the apartment building at the end of the block, I saw David Schaeffer leaning out of a window waving a white handkerchief.  It was a very gratifying experience.

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