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April, 2011

Of Aircraft and Me

by Larry

For someone who has never piloted a plane or helicopter and is a little afraid of flying, aircraft have accented my existence to a remarkable degree. My first conscious memory, which Mom later told me was from a movie theater newsreel during World War II, was of a huge mechanical monster (a B-29 bomber, I believe) roaring toward me, then taking off with a harsh blast just before reaching the camera's position on the runway. I screamed so much, Mom had to hurry me outside and missed seeing the film.

My father, then overseas, was an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corp, which later was separated into its own military service, the United States Air Force. He proudly delighted during my growing up years in presenting to me the airbases and their planes where he worked, as we hop-scotched around the country with his rapidly changing assignments, averaging one move a year till I was sixteen. He took me to several air shows, and I often was on hand as the latest cool, powerful craft were taking off and landing.

Dad went, after that second great war, from the Signal Corps into the Office of Special Investigations (OSI), and in his new capacity was sometimes responsible for testing base commanders' security precautions. He showed me at one point the mammoth B52 bombers lined up in a vast array at Offutt Air Force Base, in Omaha, NE, and told me how, in the last few days when he had mostly been away from home, he and his team of "sappers" had infiltrated the base, placed and "set off" bombs on many of those same B52s, "blowing up" each of them (fortunately with fake bombs, but whose timers recorded when they would have gone off had they been real) before he drove over and woke up the soon to be retired base commander and let him know of the havoc just done to his base and his career. About two years later, my old man similarly embarrassed the colonel in charge of security at a Tacoma, WA, base, then was assigned to take over that man's job.

When Dad wanted to give his first child a toy, he naturally thought of aircraft and in his basement workshop made me a wooden model of one. Later, much of my weekly allowance would go for cheap balsa wood glider kits. I would play with the little planes for hours out in vacant lots near our residences. Meanwhile, at home in the evenings, I would make paper airplanes and fly them about our rooms. Dad even showed me how to make crude rockets out of matches and bits of aluminum foil, and I would fire these off in the relative safety of our kitchen sink and counters area. He also made and flew some impressive box kites while we were living in Falls Church, VA.

The Blue Angels (public domain)
Around January, 1949, shortly after my fifth birthday, my great grandfather on my mother's side died. We were still in VA, but Mom took me with her on the flying trip from there to Waco, TX, for the funeral. This was a most intriguing passage and involved my first three flights, each way, on aircraft, one so small and low it seemed to hardly exceed the speed of traffic on the highways not far below. While we were in the Lone Star State, my step great grandmother died as well. I was staying in the room with her that night. My step great grandma finally ceased an awful coughing noise. She had been making great sobbing, hacking, wheezing, coughing sounds for hours while I had been praying for her to be quiet so I could at last get to sleep. The next morning, I realized her final cough had probably also been her last breath.

I acquired, from a neighbor who befriended me, neat military aircraft models, with which I proudly festooned my room.

Dad took me and others to see the aircraft in the Smithsonian museum, and I marveled at how far we had come since the Wright Brothers' efforts with fancy winged bicycles, only about four to five decades earlier. I wonder now if things we see as innovations today will in another half-century be regarded as but quaint relics of flight.

Our grade school class one year was taken on a field trip to a local airport where we had a tour of the facility's hangars and even were allowed to enter and walk around in one of the larger airplanes. I found this excursion quite interesting.

Dad gave me a heavy little metal model of a hydrogen bomb, the first real ones in this country's arsenal having at least 700 times the power of the atomic explosion that had destroyed Hiroshima about a decade earlier.

When I was about ten and living in San Antonio, we were ringed by airbases and I recall experimental planes that would often thunder over, quite low, like the flying wing, its motors on the rear of a great widened "V", looking kind of like a giant metallic boomerang. The flying wing's propellors were mounted behind the engines, so that these vehicles really seemed odd. There were B-36 bombers as well, the last, I think, of the colossal bombers, before jet engines were used on most of them.

In 1956, Dad told me with satisfaction how the U.S. had so many bombers that we could make a ring clear around the world with them, each a mile behind the one before, and set them to bombing the hell out of any enemy, like the Soviet Union, that might dare again to challenge us militarily.

In 1957, the initial Sputnik satellite was launched and went into orbit. In quick succession, there were other satellites, a dog in space, and then even a human cosmonaut. Four years later, when President Kennedy announced our program to put a man on the Moon and safely return him to Earth, I understood it was not so much about the adventure of humans doing the next great thing in the larger universe, though that was keen enough, as it was about beating the Russians in the arms race, proving in case there were all-out war that our ICBMs could beat theirs in both numbers and destructiveness. I remember the day, barely eight years later, that Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon's surface for the first time.

In high school, I learned basic principles of heavier than air craft being able to overcome Earth's gravity, of the Bernoulli principle, and of how it is not so much how light a plane is as how powerful its engine is, in relation to its weight, that determines what may fly or not. Mastering this last piece of engineering craft has permitted plane designers to create flying machines of staggering immensity, several stories high and able to deliver immense tonnages on short notice all around the world.

Once computer technologies have been added into the mix, vehicles that ordinary human pilots simply cannot fly on their own now decorate the skies, achieving speeds and agilities heretofore almost beyond our imaginings.

In the Texas Army National Guard I served for awhile in a medical unit as a corpsman. Our training involved whirlybirds. In battlefield settings we were to load stretchers with properly field-dressed wounded soldiers and install these in turn on evacuation helicopters which were to take them on to aid stations to the rear.

I would be pleased in time to have three of my brothers working for the U.S. Air Force. One brother went on to become an electrical engineer for a major defense company, helping to make the planes and their systems that keep pushing the envelope of what is possible in modern air travel and combat. I shall not be entirely surprised if one day he reveals that he has been helping to develop anti-gravity devices or saucer-like craft that can turn on a dime and speed through air or space with such slight of hand that in a blink we can neither see nor detect them, the stuff of UFO science fiction since Roswell. Indeed, he has in vague terms discussed enough to reveal that such wonders are still possible in my lifetime.

One day when I was visiting him, he took me on a short drive, parked just outside the large perimeter of his company, bid me look in a certain direction, and then, moments later, I watched in awe as one of our country's first space shuttles, on its way to Cape Kennedy, was safely brought in for a landing atop a modified Boeing 747 jetliner.

My first good job was in federal civil service as a safety management intern. In that capacity, I received a lot of training, some of it at Fort Rucker, AL, in flight and aircraft safety and aircraft accident investigations.

Shuttle Carrier Boeing 747 (public domain)

A number of years later, my youngest brother bought himself a single-engine airplane and learned to fly. Once, still in training, he took me up with him while an instructor was putting him through his flying paces. At a certain point, they looked back to make sure I was strapped in and then, with no warning to me, did what they called "float the pencil," a maneuver in which, once some height has been achieved, the engine is cut so that the plane begins to fall. Pencils and other things that are loose, like one's stomach, tend not to remain stable and may even float during this maneuver. It can have a peculiar effect on a person's sense of equilibrium, not to mention safety, and in short order I felt the need of a barf bag. Evidently this is a favorite trick to put novices through, and my brother and his teacher seemed to enjoy how well I took it.

Later, once he had his pilot's license, this same brother took me on a short flight in his plane out from a small Houston airport. A weather front was coming through, so a quite strong wind was blowing as he practiced coming in and then leaving the runway again, explaining that it was useful to get comfortable with both landings and take-offs under such conditions. The last time around, the pilot of the small plane coming in just ahead of us did not judge the forces quite right, and the rear of his vehicle hit with enough shock to let us see sparks and hear a loud bang. It later turned out this craft had severe enough damage to its tail landing gear that it needed to be replaced. My brother, however, did fine in landing his plane on this occasion. His greater skill at landings under adverse conditions would come in handy when he and his next older bother (my next to youngest sibling) needed to get down rapidly amid a big storm system in a small mountain valley in CO. The two of them were on an adventurous jaunt out from TX to CA together. On that occasion, the buffeting crosswinds were so intense my brother was not at all sure beforehand that he could avoid a crash, but he somehow did so, though the angle of the plane to the runway, to counter the force of the winds, was extreme.

The greatest ordeal I had in aircraft was not one in which I felt the excitement of a near accident, but rather was on a long, British Airways flight from New York to London and then on to New Delhi. Due to the times of day of our journey and the conditions of the clouds, the trip was not broken up by much possible sightseeing. Instead, hour after hour, there was simply the numbing roar and vibration of the engines (not that I am complaining, as it would have been of greater concern had the engines' drone ceased) coupled with the increasing sounds and smells of unhappy babies. For some reason, the plane I was on had a very high proportion of Indian community passengers who were under one year of age, and their combined urea excretions were, within the first few hours of our multiple hours' long total flying time, evidently beyond the air filters' or fresheners' capacities. The bawling meanwhile was often intense enough, on through the periods of darkness, to rival the jet turbines' noise. Even a harrowing middle of the night stop in Karachi, where machine-gun wielding soldiers escorted us off the plane and into a terminal in which there was no available water for drinking and communal wet rags were provided in lieu of toilet paper, was a welcome break from the urchin smell and cacophony.

Despite how some of this sounds, however, I have actually had a number of rather pleasant flights, among them while heading out to CA with relatives accompanying me to celebrate my sister's (as well as a brother-in-law's and sister-in-law's) 50th birthday, the beginning of a most uplifting vacation, and the flight quite consistent with that, offering alternately awesome visions of mountains, canyons, or deserts beneath us, all competing with splendid blankets of clouds or entire circles of rainbow for supremacy of enjoyment.

Though I do at times feel extra tension when on a plane, my imagination then evidently somewhat too active, it is not without having a certain thrill as well, and since we all must go in any case, I can think of few ways I would rather depart this existence than in a sudden impact while on an aircraft. It would, I believe, be only fitting thus, the symmetry of planes completely filling my consciousness in both my earliest memory and my last.

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