Monday, April 27, 2009

When History Takes Wing

The Alamo Liaison Squadron picnic & fly-in was incredibly fun - so much so that I kept on keeping on, despite getting roasted through SPF 50 sunblock and flirting with heatstroke. (My skin going from clammy to being burning hot to the touch, nausea, weakness, inability to think straight, and graying out when standing up are Not Fun. More application of cold water to the head, neck, shirt, and lots more in the body, along with sitting in what shade there was, certainly helped.)

The airplanes are incredibly fascinating - and I will point out in my defense that I was there to glean knowledge on restoration from people who work on the same vintage airplanes as I have, so of course we talked a lot of shop. Of course, it was also fun to learn about different flying conditions in this environment, and swap stories, and compare flying habits, fact-check stereotypes and rumors....

I love my Taylorcraft. And she is a living example of what a P-51 Mustang owner said, once: "When these airplanes were made, they were made to be disposable. And after the war was over, they were treated as so much junk. But as the years go on, the airplane becomes something more, something precious, until you are no longer an airplane's owner. Now, I am no longer the airplane's owner; I am the caretaker of a valuable piece of history."

These aircraft weren't really expected to last - Taylorcrafts of the Great Depression were the Kias of their day - expected to be gone in 5-10 years. Now, 68 years later, she's still hanging in there, still sitting at the strip and ready to fly as soon as I sculpt metal, wood, fabric and dope together into wings for her. She isn't just a plane, nor just an old, slightly battered plane, nor just another plane modified a little for the Alaskan bush... she's a Pre-World War II plane, and her logbooks show the day that shall live in infamy. She was out flying that day, and her day was cut short when the airfield manager closed the field. She was in the Civilian Pilot Training Program / War Training Service, training young men to go fly in the war.

Still, for all that she is a precious piece of history, I met something far more valuable, infinitely more precious at this fly-in. You see, I can rebuild my little airplane. She's been rebuilt many times over the years, and that very ability to be repaired will ensure she'll likely see a century, maybe far more. But the men who flew planes like her, the eyes that have seen what now we have only fading photographs and a few movie clips to record, the men that lived a history now being lost because it is not politically correct, or because few realize how important even the "minor" parts were... sadly, they grow fewer every year, and there is now way to replace them.

It was my great fortune to be introduce (Thanks, Ryan!) to a gentleman who flew the L5 Stinson in the Pacific Theater during WWII. Like many men of his generation, he was polite, and quiet, and sparse with words - but like any pilot, if there's a "I learned from that!" story about flying, once started, he'll tell it with a grin. I only wish that I had more questions to ask him, and that I had heard more stories from him.

As it was, I sat in the shade of a hangar, panted, drank a lot of water, limped around and talked to people, and watched history take wing in the eyes and hearts of people. And while I may have been too exhausted to take part in the flour bombing, it was hard to regret that when I saw the huge grins of excitement on the faces of the kids in the rear seats headed skyward to try to drop packages of flour inside the marked circle!