Tuesday, April 23, 2024

The Texas flying ace

by Elena JohnsonSHOLEH PATRICK
| August 18, 2020 12:28 PM

Sometimes it takes a touch to bring history from the abstract to the real.

My mother has always declared this. For her, even more than most people, Stonehenge holds more depth when you touch it, the Roman Colosseum feels sad, and a warbird feels more magical when you’re flying her.

Okay, that last part may be her bias.

Most lucky daughters brag about cool moms. But while I might be proud of sharing the stage (if not the pointe shoes, since her DNA gave me better rhythm than ballet-like grace), I get the ultimate “my mom is cooler than your mom” card.

My mom flies planes.

You know those scenes in Peanuts when Snoopy puts on a scarf to be a World War I flying “ace”? That’s basically my mom. Except you can substitute a doghouse for an actual 1942 Stearman, or – when we lived in Houston – a WWII bomber.

Long before I flew on my own, I grew up with the stories. By five I could sanctimoniously explain the superiority of a biplane and why flying in an open cockpit is practically a religious experience. It didn’t matter that I had no memories of flying in anything but a Boeing-747 (one of your typical airline birds).

But my mother loves history and the great connection to those from long before.

So when Mom met other Southern pilots who flew restored historic planes, she jumped – and joined the Commemorative Air Force.

(Mom): A moment, please, as I wipe away these motherly tears (my daughter thinks I’m cool!).

I’m not so cool, and I didn’t, not really, fly a bomber. I’m a low-time pilot with rust forming on my wings. With a daughter who’s cool in her own right, if learning to land a seaplane is any indication.

But I did sit in the nose turret of a B-17 on landing. THAT is cool. Watching the ground jump up to meet you, while you sit glassed-in at the forefront of a slice of history – the wings, the exquisitely loud and rumbly engines, even the cockpit, behind you.

She nailed it with the Snoopy allusion. That WWI Flying Ace Charles Schulz created was a childhood hero, so when I stumbled on the CAF and joined a band of historical aircraft lovers, it was almost literally heaven on Earth – or in Texas, anyway.

“Oh I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth, and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.”

Those words from WWII Spitfire pilot John Gillespie Magee’s “High Flight” describe what it’s like to fly in old warbirds. It’s as if you can feel the spirits of all the pilots gone before. Imagine their trepidation, their excitement, their fears and their ecstasies.

Seriously, you really can feel them. Some part of them – some “ghosts in the machine” – remain with those fuselages. Because once you fly, a part of you never comes down again. It’s all part of the experience of flying, and piloting, history.

So is laughter. How many times I have laughed aloud while dancing those skies, from experiencing so much sheer joy my body couldn’t contain it.

In those moments the mind can go completely silent, existing on another plane, in a plane.

Thanks to the CAF I’ve logged time in more WWII aircraft, as well as a 1920s mail plane, than I can list (as I tried and failed this morning to find my logbook).

Thanks to the CAF I was once a small part of a Pearl Harbor demonstration at the Wings over Houston Airshow. Talk about emotional, with all those “bombs” exploding beneath, experiencing a small glimpse of what it might have been like on December 7, 1941.

And it started with a 1942 Stearman, the PT-17 – a trainer that taught WWII pilots to fly before they moved on to the fighters and bombers.

Open-cockpit. Pratt and Whitney engine (hand-cranked, so don’t forget to chock the wheels). Fabric-covered, wood wings, and a stick with enough torque to make your right arm remember what it’s for. I really did have the white scarf trailing in the wind, and a brown leather A-2 issue bomber jacket, which I named Lucy.

You can’t fly a modern plane gingerly enough to spot a doe and her fawn in the brush below, grazing unfazed as you circle. You can’t keep them high-fallutin’ speed demons aloft, maintaining altitude slowly enough to fly alongside a flock of geese, and watch their eyes turn toward you, checking you out.

But you can do that in an old biplane, such as Guerdon Trueblood’s N3N, the Navy’s version of the Stearman. Guerdon is a screenwriter and former flying buddy, who happens to be the grandson of General Billy Mitchell, a founding father of the USAF and namesake of the B-25 “Mitchell” bomber featured on the front page of today’s Coeur Voice.

In those old warbirds you can feel every air current, goose-droppings (open cockpit hazard), and sense the ghosts of the aces who flew before you.

If that isn’t a spiritual experience, I don’t know what is.

(Daughter): If flying isn’t a spiritual experience, nothing is.

Joy is the word. If you’ve ever wanted to know what a bird would say to you as it soars overhead, it’s a laugh.

When you’re up there it’s nothing but you and the wind, just you and the whole world below.

I’ve never met the ghosts so close up as my mom, but if sailors at sea can commune across centuries, we lucky few who’ve gone up, even just once, have passed each other by with a nod – and a wing-wave.

Still, even without the acquaintance of a few phantoms, I’m lucky.

I’ve known my own flying ace.