Riders of the Wind - Sample Chapter

Riders of the Wind
Robert DeBurgh (author)

ON MAIL SERVICE, 1922-1931


It was mid September 1929 and clouds the dirty gray of overlaundered sheets scudded beneath the wings of the biplane as the pilot guided her in the direction of Albany and his final destination of the day’s flight. Above, the high layer of cirrus clouds was broken by an occasional opening that let through rays of an already setting sun, igniting spots of red fire on the undercast. It was dead smooth flying between layers like this and Charlie Cross was appreciative of not having to fight the turbulence that normally came with flying the Hudson River Valley at this time of year. The quiet time gave him time to relax and to let his thoughts wander.

The airplane was brand new. A big Pitcairn Super Mailwing built especially for the mail service with a Wright J6 Whirlwind engine of 225 horsepower. This powerplant gave the big bird the capability of taking off from some of the shorter fields on the route with a full load of mail and perhaps the one passenger that there was room for in the cramped seating forward of the pilot’s cockpit. There was only a small square side window for light in the forward compartment and no way to communicate with the passenger, but Charlie deemed that a blessing since he didn’t have to listen to idle chatter throughout the flight as he would have in the one Curtis Robin cabin monoplane that the company possessed.

Not that Mr. Keller, Inspector for the US Post Office was given to idle chatter, but his presence made Charlie nervous. It was, on Mr. Keller’s approval only, that the Pitcairn would go into regular service on the Hudson River run and it was desperately needed as the Curtiss biplanes were getting old and run down.

“Good enough for a while yet,” thought Charlie. “I’ve flown many an hour behind those old Liberty and OX-5 engines with only a few blown cylinders and one total loss of oil pressure. Of course they did tend to overheat in the summer. The Wright gives a whole new dimension of reliability and safety to these long flights, especially at night. Another plus is that this new Pitcairn has a good radio and the gyroscopic turn and slip indicator. Sure helps when a guy can’t see, like in bad weather or at night.”

With an hour or so of flight yet to go before beginning letdown for Albany Charlie let himself drift back in his thoughts to when he was first learning to fly. He found himself again on his Father’s dairy farm in Franklin Lakes New Jersey. A boy of fifteen, he was precocious, with a penchant for getting into mischief (though with a gift of gab that as often as not, got him right out of trouble). Charlie was tall for his age, tended toward skinniness and the awkward look that many teenagers have before they start to mature. He was dark of hair, which his mother kept close cut, and with the humorous brown eyes of his Father, Charlie Senior. He had a ready smile; always willing to laugh at a joke or to play one on someone.

Charlie had an affirmed aversion to farm work. This was why, on that day in 1922 that changed his life forever, he was lying in his special hiding place in the bushes near the east pasture, studiously ignoring his Mother’s calls to come help Uncle William get the cows in for milking.

Suddenly, from a distance away toward the East, came the staccato sound of engine exhaust and the swish of air through the wires and wings of an aeroplane. Shortly a Curtiss Jenny came into view, flying low over the fields and woods, heading directly for him. The Jenny circled the pasture once, cut power and glided in to touch down in a rather bouncy landing in the middle of the field. The pilot taxied over to the fence line, killed the engine and began to climb out.

This was too much for Charlie. He bolted from his cover regardless of being caught for chores and ran toward the plane whose pilot was now walking toward the house. “Uncle George, Uncle George,” Charlie cried as he assaulted the tall bulky figure who was desperately trying to remove his flying helmet and goggles. Hitting George amidships Charlie managed to tumble both of them to the grass where they rolled over and over in mock battle.

“Take me up Uncle George, please, please. Fly me over town. I want everybody to see me flying.”

“Not today Charlie,” George said a little breathlessly. “I’m nearly outta gas and I’ve got to talk to your Papa right away. Maybe tomorrow.”

“OK Uncle George,” Charlie replied, “but you gotta promise.”

“I promise, Charlie. If I possibly can, I’ll take you up tomorrow. Let’s go up to the house now and get something to eat. I’m starved.”

George Strasser was Charlie’s mother, Kristina’s brother. Five years younger than Kristina, he retained a youthful exuberance, energy and a joy of life that Charlie’s mother found it hard to fathom and his father criticized as being irresponsible, but secretly envied.

George had been a fighter pilot in the Great War, flying SE-5s and Thomas Morse Scouts and ever since he had been unable to settle down and hold a real job for very long. He had worked on the farm for a while, but tired of the rural life, had quit and using every penny he had earned as a down payment, had bought the Jenny a year ago. Since then he had been barnstorming the East Coast doing passenger and sightseeing rides out of farm fields in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Not making much money according to Charlie’s Papa. “Having lots of fun though,” thought Charlie. “I bet he gets all the girls.”

Actually George was in serious financial trouble. The barnstorming business was too competitive and his old aeroplane just didn’t attract the customers the way the newer, flashier planes did. The weather had been bad too and he had nosed over in a muddy field, breaking the propeller and costing him all that he had saved. Now he was behind in the payments for the plane and the bank was looking for him to repossess it.

None of this Charlie or his Father knew, though George had told Kristina over the telephone a month ago and between them they had worked out a solution. George would leave the Jenny tied down in the back pasture for a while and go into New York to find a job that would pay enough to bail him out of trouble, at least for the winter. In the spring he would take the Jenny out to Ohio and Illinois where the business was better.

This seemed a great cure for the money problem, but when Kristina greeted her brother at the kitchen door he sprang another surprise on his long-suffering sister. “Teeny,” he said, “you’ll never guess what I’m going to do. I’m getting married.”

“You? You great oaf? You’ve had an eye for the girls as long as I can remember. You know what happened with your first marriage. I can’t picture you settling down to married life and besides, you haven’t any money and no job to support a wife. Who’s the lucky girl?”

“Milly Sieger,” said George. “You know her. The Siegers lived a half block down from us in New York. We’re really in love Teeny and we’ll make it all right. I have a job lined up and we’ll stay with her folks until I save enough money for an apartment. We do need a little to get started though. Do you think I could borrow a hundred dollars from you?”

Suddenly Kristina realized that Charlie had been listening to all this with a dazed look on his face. “Scat Charlie,” his mother said, “and if you tell your Papa what you heard, I’ll skin you alive.”

Uncle George married? Charlie just couldn’t believe it. That meant he would be living in New York and leaving his aeroplane here at the farm. At that point one could almost see the devil prodding Charlie in the rear with his pitchfork and a thoughtful look came over the boy’s face.

The next morning when Charlie awoke George was already gone, headed for New York, his girlfriend and hopefully, a job. Charlie was disappointed that he didn’t get to ride in the Jenny and went about his chores sulkily for the rest of the day. Until, that is, he went down to the pasture where the plane was tied down to the fence with a couple of big rocks under the wings. Charlie just stood and stared at the Jenny, the seeds of an idea forming in his mind. He had taught himself to drive the tractor and sneaked a drive or two in the family model T when he was just thirteen.

“Why not the plane? I’ve been up twice with Uncle George, how hard can it be? I’ll just teach myself to fly it. Can’t be much harder than the tractor.” Charlie thought. He had to do it soon though since school would be starting in a few weeks and he would have no free time, what with the school work and his chores. So it was decided. He would teach himself to fly and no one would be the wiser. Then he could be a part of all the books about the war aces he so loved to read.

The next morning Charlie was up before the rest of the family, secretly draining gas from the tractor. He got a full five-gallon can and set out for the pasture. The first problem presented itself when he tried to find where to put the gas. He found a filler cap on the side, behind the engine, but no, when he opened it there was just black engine oil. This was the oil tank. He climbed around and finally found another cap on top of the cowling just ahead of the front cockpit. This one smelled like gasoline so he poured the can into it feeling satisfied when the little wire that protruded from the cap, having been near the bottom, was now about one third up. “Got gas,” Charlie thought.

“What now? Better figure out how to start this thing.”

He climbed into the rear cockpit because that’s where Uncle George flew from and he started to play with the controls and work the switch and the throttle. Finally he figured out that the switch that said left, right, both and off was the ignition. “Hmmm, not like the tractor or the model T. They’re either on or off. Must be both. Two is better than one. No crank though, and I didn’t even see a hole to put it in.”

Then he remembered seeing George swing the propeller to start the engine. Now he knew how to start the engine. He was familiar with the lever that said, throttle since the tractor had a similar lever. The stick wiggled the little flaps on the wings and when he pushed or pulled it, it moved the tail. There was a wooden bar near his feet that didn’t seem to do much until he pushed it right and left and found that it moved the part of the tail that was sticking straight up. “I got it. This is how you steer left and right, and the other flappers on the tail make it go up and down.” He had oversimplified but was basically correct. “This is going to be easy,” he thought.

Charlie targeted his first flight for Sunday morning. He would play sick and his mother and father and Uncle William would go on to church. He would be alone on the farm with no one to hear when he started the engine. He planned to circle the pasture a couple of times land and tie the plane down again. Longer flights would have to wait until he stole more gas.

Sunday morning dawned bright and cloudless with a gentle breeze barely waving the branches of the maples outside Charlie’s window. He disdained coming down for breakfast. His mother would know he was sick if he skipped eating and would consign him to the thermometer and bed for the day. It worked extremely well, almost too well since his mother wanted to stay home from church to nurse him, “I’ll be OK, Ma. I just feel a little sick to my stomach. Just go on without me,” Charlie said.

His mother replied, “All right Charlie. We’ll be gone only a little while. Stay in bed and rest. Your chores can wait.”
About an hour later Charlie heard the model T rattle off down the road toward town. Jumping out of bed, he threw on his clothes and ran down to the pasture. There it sat, that beautiful aeroplane. And… he was going to fly it today.

He untied the wings and climbed in the cockpit. For a while he just looked around and moved the controls up and down and back and forth until he was satisfied that he knew what everything did. He pumped the throttle several times and jumped to the ground, walking to the nose of the craft and scrutinizing the propeller. He had seen Uncle George swing the prop to start the engine but he didn’t remember which way he had turned it.

“Let’s see, it blows air back over the aeroplane so it’s like a big fan. It has to turn so the blades take a bite of air from the front. OK, this way.”

Charlie had it figured out right. The prop turned counter-clockwise when viewed from the front. Realizing this, Charlie walked up to the prop, grabbed the big blade and gave it a hefty swing. Nothing. Several more attempts gave similar results. He then remembered he had not turned on the ignition switch, so returned to the cockpit and turned the switch that said ‘magnetos’ to where it pointed to ‘both.’ Tugging on the prop again yielded more satisfying results, a spit from the carburetor and several pops from the exhaust pipes.

Charlie was pretty winded by this time so he decided; “One more pull. If it doesn’t start I’ll rest for a while.” Charlie had left the throttle in about half open position and when he pulled the prop again the OX-5 engine started with a roar. Charlie ran back about a hundred feet, afraid the prop would chop him into little pieces of Charlie.

Fortunately, he had forgotten to untie the tail from the fence so the Jenny, straining to move forward, went nowhere, simply sitting there bending the fencepost, roaring and shaking.

Charlie finally got up enough courage to approach the plane, reach into the cockpit and pull back the throttle to idle. He then went to the tail and untied the tiedown rope. He climbed into the cockpit and experimented a bit with the throttle. Like the tractor, more gas and it goes faster, less and it goes slower.”

He fastened the seat belt and advanced the throttle until the plane began to roll forward, then slowly added about half throttle. By this time the plane was bounding over the pasture at a good clip and the fence at the end was approaching rapidly. Charlie searched in vain for the brake pedal.

“No brakes, that’s stupid, and I’m stupid for trying this.” The fence was within a hundred feet of the plane, which looked like it would crash and destroy itself when another idea flashed through Charlie’s head.

“The stick Dummy, pull back on the stick. Back is up. I’ll jump the fence.” Charlie gave a firm yank on the stick and slammed the throttle to full open. The Jenny bounded into the air like a flushed pheasant and climbed for all it was worth to about five hundred feet where the novice pilot began to get a bit worried that he might climb like this until he ran out of gas. Then fall rapidly and disastrously to earth. He eased back on the throttle to try to save some fuel and the plane leveled off all by itself.

During the climb they had been making a left turn not of Charlie’s doing. He didn’t care though, since he was going to go that way anyway. He had intended all along to circle the pasture to the left, only because he had seen George do it that way. As the plane leveled off, the turn stopped and headed straight for town. This was another imminent disaster. His parents would see him and he’d be in the soup for weeks. He started to experiment with the controls. The stick yielded nose up or down and when pushed left or right banked the plane in a similar direction and when banked, started a turn.

He still couldn’t figure out what the rudder bar was for. When he pushed it, the plane gave a lurch in the direction of the side he kicked, which made him feel kind of queasy. He decided not to fool around with that and tried the throttle. When he reduced power, the nose came down and he lost altitude. When added, power increased altitude.

“Wow!” thought the intrepid aviator, “this is easy and lots of fun. A little scary, but fun.” About that time he noticed the fuel gauge wire was down almost to the level of the cap and he decided to go back and land. This couldn’t be too hard. He’d seen George do it many times.

“Just push the nose down, ease back on the throttle and land.” Just about then the engine gave a sputter, a cough and completely died. Silence reigned except for the whisper of wind in the wires. The Jenny nosed toward earth and began a glide all by itself. They were near the pasture and Charlie hoped they’d make it over the fence. The Jenny seemed to be still flying all right except for going down so Charlie eased back on the stick to try to hold altitude. A shudder ran through the entire frame of the plane and Charlie eased forward again.

“Don’t do that again. That feels dangerous,” he thought. By now they were at about fifty feet high and over the end of the field, still coming down rapidly. Charlie saw the ground approaching shut, his eyes in anticipation of the crash and accidentally pulled back on the stick for something to hold on to. The Jenny rotated nose up, stalled about ten feet high and dropped in. The first bounce opened Charlie’s eyes and he watched in horror as the Jenny proceeded to bounce and carom across the pasture, dipping from right to left, main gear to tailskid. Finally they bumped to a stop several yards from the fence, Charlie collapsing in a trembling heap in the cockpit. At last he managed to pull himself together enough to climb out. Lifting, pushing and pulling he dragged the Jenny back to the tiedown ropes. He walked around the plane, but could see no damage and with youthful resiliency shook off the scare and vowed to try it again as soon as he could.

Next time though, he’d go to the library and read all the books about flying he could find before getting in the Jenny. Charlie checked out and read several books on aeroplanes and flying before he found what he was looking for. A book titled An Army Aviators Guide to Flying the Curtiss JN-4, written by an army colonel in 1918. There was another book by Army Flying Corps ace Billy Mitchell that really thrilled Charlie but didn’t give much information on his present problem. He decided that there was only so much one could learn from books, the rest only came from practical experience.

The next Saturday Charlie dragged two five gallon cans of gas down to the pasture, poured them into the Jenny and armed with his rather skimpy guide to flying the craft, set out to teach himself to fly. He now knew what all the controls were supposed to do and had practiced with them on the ground before starting the engine. Charlie felt confident that he could really learn to do this by himself. Besides, there was no other option if he wanted to become a pilot. The nearest airport was an hour’s drive in the family model T and flying lessons were bound to be expensive. This was the only way.

Charlie’s takeoff on this second flight was less than perfect but infinitely better than his first, purely accidental one had been. This time he MEANT to take off. The book had said to always take off and land into the wind so Charlie taxied across the field, swung the ship into the wind and pushed the throttle full forward. The OX-5 engine responded with a roar and they went bumping across the field, Charlie keeping a semi straight course with the rudder.

When the Jenny reached flying speed she lifted off smoothly, beginning a normal climb with Charlie keeping the nose at the proper angle with the stick. At about a thousand feet on the altimeter Charlie eased back on the throttle to about mid way and pushed forward on the stick until the nose was level. He spent the next half-hour experimenting with the controls, flying around in circles, doing turns, climbs and descents. He figured by that time his folks would be back from the farmers market where they sold produce on autumn Saturdays, so he turned for home. A problem arose when he tried to find the farm. Everything looked different from the air and he had done so many turns and circles he had become disoriented.

“Not lost,” he told himself, “just off course a little.” This was a term he had learned from one of his books. He circled again, a cold feeling in the pit of his stomach, until suddenly he spotted the kidney shaped lake at the west end of the farm property. Now he knew where he was and proceeded to fly with a heading of south on the compass until he saw his airport, as he had begun to call it.

This time his landing was a little better. At least he kept his eyes open and worked the controls as the book said he should, even though he bounced and jigged across the pasture before coming to a stop by pulling back full on the stick and digging in the tail skid. This time he taxied to the tiedown spot and didn’t have to push the Jenny halfway across the field.

After that, Saturdays became flying days for Charlie. He got a newspaper delivery route and saved money for gas and oil, also salting some away for future use. He changed his attitude toward chores, getting them done in record time, as he did with his homework. He conned his father into driving him to Wayne Township airport to buy an aeronautical chart “just to study” and a pair of war surplus goggles “to protect his eyes from the dust when cutting hay with the tractor.” By this time his parents thought him responsible enough to be left at home in charge of the farm while they spent a weekend in New York visiting old friends and neighbors.

By Thanksgiving Charlie had become quite proficient in the Jenny, flying increasing distances on the nicer days and practicing his maneuvers until they were perfect. His landings were, on the most part, good. The only maneuver he had trouble with was stalls. The first one was the scariest. He entered the stall by easing back on the throttle to idle and pulling up the nose. The recovery was simple. Just push the nose down and add power and the airplane would start flying again. Charlie however, didn’t count on a wing dropping away and when it did he pushed the stick in the opposite direction to bring it up again. The falling wing fell even faster and very quickly Charlie rolled over and began to spin. In panic he held the stick full back. The plane spun even faster with the nose pointed straight toward the ground.

“I’m gonna crash. Gosh, I’ll probably die. Then what’ll I tell Dad?” Thinking this Charlie let go of the controls and covered his eyes, waiting for the impact. After a bit however, he felt the Jenny stop spinning and start to nose up slightly. Opening one eye he saw that he was in a shallow dive and still had altitude so he shakily pulled the nose up, added power and headed right for home. That night he re-read the chapters on stalls and spins five times. The next time up he entered and recovered from spins both right and left.

Charlie was, by now, wanting one of the new Bureau of Aeronautics pilot licenses. One was still not required to fly one’s own aeroplane but it would prove to his parents that he was serious about becoming a pilot. The flying bug had bitten the boy and would be with him his entire lifetime.

The weekend after Thanksgiving Charlie climbed in the Jenny and made the short twenty-minute flight over to Wayne Township airport. He circled the field twice looking at the windsock, turned into the wind and made the best approach and the prettiest landing of his short career. He taxied up to the hangar, shut down the engine and pushing up his goggles asked the man who was walking toward him, “Sir, is there anybody around here who can teach me to fly this aeroplane?”

Two weeks later the man from the Bureau of Aeronautics came to Wayne airport and watched as Charlie did three takeoffs and landings. Calling him into the office, the federal inspector wrote Charlie out his first pilot’s license at age sixteen. He had kept it the past years for good luck and even now it was in the pocket of his flying suit.

In the past seven years a lot had happened. Charlie had taken a job at Wayne airport, washing and fueling aeroplanes in exchange for flight time, a small pittance and tips from transient pilots. George had married Amelia, taken in his daughter Mildred from his previous marriage that had lasted all of two months and had three more children. George was quite a success now. He owned the bottling end of the dairy business in Franklin Lakes, a diner in the city and had bought a half interest in the farm and a big house in Englewood. One thing saddened Charlie though; George had sold the Jenny and totally given up flying even though it was his first love.

Charlie had worked for a year at the airport and finally amassed enough hours to get his commercial pilot’s license at seventeen years of age, He began flying passengers on sight seeing rides and even flying charters in the company’s Bellanca every once in a while. For several years he worked at one aviation job or another, flying in Pennsylvania, New York and even as far away as Virginia, gaining invaluable flight experience over all types of terrain, through all kinds of weather. His flights covered most of the east coast from Maine to Florida and inland as far as Illinois and the Great Lakes area. He felt he had been really lucky in the breaks he had gotten and his advancement in the aviation business.

In 1927 his experience and resourcefulness landed him a job with Mid-Hudson Airlines and here he was today, in September 1929, flying what was to his way of thinking, the best mail plane ever designed. Charlie loved aviation and everything about it including being a pilot for Mid-Hudson.

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