Aeroplanes (1930-1943)

1912_2 FkaFlyer
My father, (Francis) Kerr Atkinson

My father was connected to flight as a member and builder for the Cornell Aero Club in 1912. He took part in the design and building of single-seat bi-planes which  were then “flown”—towed behind autos—around a large circuit on the playing fields above Schoellkopf stadium in order to learn flight control.  The Wright brothers had made their epic flight at Kitty Hawk only nine years earlier, and Wilbur his historic flight at Le Mans in 1908.

In June of 1919 my mother, too, took flight in an airplane over Paris. She was between assignments, having left her attachment to the AEF (American Expeditionary Forces) as a canteen girl in Bay-sur-Aube and waiting to join a Friends Service group in Epernay,

In her own words:

“But in the meantime I must tell you what I have been doing in Paris. Besides relieving myself of beaucoup francs in their perfectly fascinating stores, I have managed to see quite a few of the sights and, from a strange angle for, let me announce to you the fact that on Sunday I was 700 metres above Paris in an aeroplane!  Yep, it’s the actual truth.  Joy and I were in the Hotel Petrograd for lunch on Saturday and found that there was a French aviatrix who would see that people went up in her plane for the small sum of 60 francs.  She herself didn’t take them up, but her pilot [did], a Capt. in the Escadrille. So—along with four other adventurous souls we went with her to Le Bourget on Sunday afternoon.  After waiting from 3 until 8 P.M. we all six got separate rides of about 20 min. each.  The only time I was really scared was when they hoisted me up into the little front seat and clamped a seat belt around me.  After the propeller started with a whirr and the machine actually moved I lost all fear entirely and just enjoyed every minute.”

19061501_ECA Caudron
Elsie Sterling Church at Le Bourget, Paris

“You can’t imagine how wonderful it feels to go soaring over the country, to look down on buildings, fields, roads, trees, gardens and mere mortals stalking around on the ground.  It was a wonderfully clear day and the view of Paris was superb.  We went towards the city and turned around just about over Sacré Coeur.  Underneath us lay the Seine winding along, spanned by bridge after bridge, on the left was the Eiffel Tower, and on the right was the Place de la Concorde, the Louvre and all those lovely public buildings near the river.  It was a sight I will never forget.  You had the whole city before you in a mass and at the edges stretched fields which were finally lost in the surrounding hills and they in turn in the haze of the horizon.  The ride was over all too soon, but I would have paid twice the price I think to go. The one I went up in was a Caudron.”

My own first memory of airplanes is that of having just stepped off the DL&W sleeper from New York City [probably on July 17th, 1929 with mother, my sister Holley, then three, and “Nanny” Bennett] to the platform at the Lackawanna station in Ithaca, NY where Aunt Edith [Church] had come down the hill in her new Dodge touring car to meet us.  I would have been four and a half.

Someone must have remarked an airplane in the clear sky and we all looked up.  “Aeroplanes” were hardly twenty-five years old then and still a novelty.  It was a biplane.  I was transfixed.  It was tiny but seemed to me to be extremely close like a drifting mote or toy that I could have reached out and taken into my hand and I long wondered how that illusion could have been.  Many years later I decided that it had been an optical illusion—that in reality there had been two planes flying in tandem and that my (slightly crossed) eyes had merged them into one seemingly much nearer; the way two images are fused in the stereopticon, or the way the bathroom floor tiles sometimes seem to merge and to hover in the air above the floor when you are musing on the toilet.

It was on this—or another of these Ithaca trips—that we had seen Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis as we passed through Grand Central Terminal in New York City.  It was elevated on display in the great concourse.  We climbed some wooden steps and mother lifted me up so that I could see into the cockpit [1].

For many years mother was part of a sort of therapeutic women’s “Rhythm” group who, as near as I could tell, spent their time dancing and swaying in flowing and diaphanous gowns, all with a classical Greek motif.  [Such a group would today be seen definitely as “New Age,” in fact, the same Noyes Rhythm movement exists still; I found it on the Web.

So it happened in the summer of 1932 that Holley and I were sent to Cobalt, Conn. for six weeks of family Rhythm group camp where, incidentally, I learned to swim in the lake and was exposed to the humiliation and the terror of boxing.  My memory of the adults is one of ghostly dancers in the waning light of day, in diaphanous gowns and crowned with flowered wreaths, clasped hand-in-hand, weaving in and out among the trees in the twilight.  Incongruously it was here that I first became aware of model airplanes.

The older boys—I was seven—had been given model airplanes to build at camp workshop.  They had wingspans of about 24 inches.  I was fascinated and remember that the wings were of thin silk somehow attached to bent loops of fine wire or bamboo.  At that moment all I wanted in life was to have a kit of my own to build but, in spite of tearful cajoling, I was told that I wasn’t old enough.  Model airplanes were deferred.

Autogyro
Autogyro

Planes were then uncommon enough that one always looked up at the sound of an engine overhead.  As the years passed flights increased—we would even see autogyros (planes with no wings but with helicopter-like free rotors driven by the forward motion of the craft)—and the novelty began to fade.

One afternoon in 1933 Holley and I were playing in the back yard in Wellesley [Massachusetts] by the inlet to Rockridge Pond when we heard a huge, deep, and growing noise in the sky overhead.  Suddenly, at first filtered by branches and then in the clear over the water, a huge silver airship loomed moving majestically eastward seemingly just above the treetops.  We ran pell-mell toward the house shouting for the others to “come see” but too late; it was immediately lost to view.  The next day we learned that it had been the huge American dirigible USS Akron en route to East Boston Airport.

Mother notes in her diary of 1933 that [daddy] helped William with an aeroplane and later, in 1936: “Wm. worked all P.M. on an aeroplane.”  The first was probably some crude assemblage of parts but the second could have been my first model in kit form.  It wasn’t of silk and fine wire but of balsawood and colored tissue paper.  The company that made the kits and the glue was Megow’s.  The direction sheet spoke of “templates” so I asked Dad what was a template and he had no idea.  This surprised me because until then I had always thought he knew everything there was to know about technology.

This model was the first of uncounted successors.  I set up a card table in my room and had an old soft wood drawing board of mother’s that would take straight pins with only moderately killing finger pressure—a permanent callus formed on my thumb and forefinger from planting endless pins to secure the work over the plan outlines while the glue dried.  Wax paper, eventually shredded by the cutting, covered the printed plans so that the glue would not stick.  Eventually “X-Acto” knives replaced the stiff single-sided blades borrowed from dad’s razor.  The glue was orange “Ambroid” and later clear “Duco” cement which built up on the fingers to be eaten off in layers.  It had a sharp chemical flavor and, when not quite dry, a real bite.

Often I would be up long before breakfast for days on end to have extra time to work on the current model.  Waiting endlessly for glue and lacquer to dry was a real frustration; an introduction to the virtues of patience.

The outlines of the fuselage bulkheads and wing airfoil “formers” were printed on thin balsawood sheets to be carefully cut out with the razor blade.  Some models had formers only for the wing sections; the boxy fuselage being made only of sticks.  The stringers, long and thin, sometimes of bamboo, were glued into notches in the formers and three-dimensional skeletons began to take shape eventually ready for covering with the tissue paper.

Covering was fun and went pretty fast.  A surface of the skeleton would be painted with banana oil which came with a brush in a little bottle and had the wonderful fruity pungency of the overripe fruit.  Then the paper would be laid on the oiled form and later trimmed around the edges.  The result when dry was loose and wrinkled but when sprayed with water (using one of mother’s charcoal drawing fixatif aspirators) and dried it shrank to a skin, tight as a drum, which could then be painted with lacquer which also came in little bottles and in various colors.

The result was a real airplane that would glide and fly when the rubber band (propeller motor) was wound up to “double” or “triple” knots and the plane released.  Some were “ROG’s” which meant they would take (Rise) Off from the Ground if given a runway with enough scope.  If the balance was right some would even land again at the far end of the basement playroom—or down the street—before veering off into some obstruction.

Daddy would sometimes take us to the East Boston Airport (now Logan) to watch the planes.  One fall [1936] mother noted in her diary that I had made a Beechcraft and in October she took me to Richard Knight Auditorium at Babson (Institute, now College) to hear Amelia Earhart lecture [she was lost in the Pacific the next summer].  We sat high up, in a balcony, and the afternoon light streamed through the vast arched windows.

I remember nothing of the lecture but after it there was an indoor model air show that used the great height of the hall to advantage.  I had never imagined that models could have been built like these—endurance models designed to circle, for hours it seemed, gradually gaining altitude and then descending, gliding down after their rubber band motors had wound down.  They were large—three or four feet wing span and light as feathers.  I think some of them weighed no more than three or four ounces.  The wings were of “gossamer”; actually films of collodion only a few molecules thick applied by immersing the wing skeleton in water, applying a drop of collodion to the surface where it would spread out instantaneously into an invisible film, and then lifting the wing through the surface to capture the layer.  The collodion rippled with rainbows like those seen in soap bubbles.

The propeller lobes were made the same way—collodion covered loops of bamboo like the wings of dragon flies.  They turned slowly, perhaps once per second, as the planes rose majestically gaining maybe a few inches of altitude at the end of each fifty foot circuit.  Each remained in the air for at least fifteen minutes it seemed.  I was fascinated but never aspired to enter that school of model building.

When I was twelve I began a really big model of five feet wingspan.  Dick Haward, a school friend, also had a big plane and for it a small gasoline engine.  We would try his engine in my model when it was finished.  It was common then to invite various school teachers to dinner occasionally and that spring my airplane was being proudly shown to Miss DeLura, the school principal.  She took it unexpectedly in hand and—crack—broke one of the stringers in her clumsy grasp.  I could have fixed it, and perhaps I did, but I have no recollection ever of having tried it out with Dick’s motor.

One Sunday in October of 1937 Holley and I were awakened unusually early by mother and dad and told to prepare for a surprise.  We drove into Boston and out to the airport.  We were to fly to New York City for the day!  The plane was, I imagine, a Douglas DC-3 37100301_DC-3and seemed in my memory to have had about two dozen seats in rows of one and two.  At 10:20a we taxied out to the runway and took-off.  What excitement!  We were enthralled.  On the way a steward(ess?) served snacks.  We landed in Newark and got to 42nd Street by 12:30.  We saw the science museum at Rockefeller Center and went to the Planetarium.  The taxis had folding jump seats in the back and we had lunch at an Automat—a wall of cubbies with glass, coin-operated doors behind which were sandwiches, chicken pot pies, shiny bowls of jello, and a corps of workers dutifully refilling the empties from behind—the grand daddy of all fast food.  Later we went to friends of mother’s [the Fairchild’s] for dinner.  We came home on the Pullman sleeper from Pennsylvania Station. This was mother’s first flight since her sight-seeing jaunt over Paris in 1919 and surely my father’s first flight ever.

At one time daddy worked on a model of his own design; a kind of helicopter device.  The rotor, elaborately constructed of thin paper, looked like an unfurled umbrella with curved vanes—like the chambers of a nautilus or the fine gills of a mushroom—on the underside.  I still have the propeller and the wooden stick frame that stretched the rubber band motor.  I haven’t the least memory of how it was supposed to have worked.

When I was fifteen I conceived and built a balsa wood and yellow tissue paper ornithopter; a plane that flapped bird-like wings.  I fashioned tiny cranks and levers out of piano wire with needle-nosed pliers.  A rubber band powered it.  It flew—sort of—mainly flopping toward the ground with a sound like a broken window shade and much sooner than I might have wished.

Gradually my room filled with models both flying and (more detailed) solid models aiming for realism.  Some were suspended on wires overhead.  My best was the Beechcraft, a biplane of about eighteen inch wingspan with staggered wings (the lower forward of the upper) and a radial engine.  I photographed them all once but the photos are now lost. Eventually the planes found their way to the attic to be retrieved several years later for the final act.

By 1942 the War was well under way.  Somewhere in that period a friend and I conceived the idea of simulating, in a small way, aerial combat.  This began by the opening of the front window of my corner room at 85 Ledgeways. Those models that would fly were wound up, anointed with kerosene, ignited, and launched out the window to circle, dive and to crash and burn in the driveway two and a half stories below.

43121001_WcaPiperJ3
WCA & Piper J-3

During my later service in the Army Air Force in training at the University of Cincinnati we had occasion to be taught to fly in Piper J-3s. We learned a long list of maneuvers in addition to simply taking off and landing with a minimum of jolting, careening from side to side, and bouncing clumsily back into the air. We learned to keep the nose up during turns—with the wings at an angle vertical lift is reduced.  I had trouble with the rudder controls because they were counter-intuitively the opposite of what I had learned as a kid on my Flexible Flyer. We memorized and executed a codified “series of turns” without losing track of our bearings, and had to be able to recover from a vertical tailspin in a prescribed number (like two-and-a-half) wild gyrations while trying to keep track of how many times the highway below had rotated. I was not much good at this emergency counting but in the end my instructors gave me a good report.

After the War, while a freshman at Cornell, I made a last detailed solid airplane model.  It was a B-29 carrying the markings of our 20th Air Force, 498th Bombardment Group on Saipan in 1945: T-Square 37 on which I was the radar navigator.  I have it still.

B-29Model1
My Last Model Airplane (~1947)

[1] As of this writing I can find no proof of my ever having seen the Spirit of Saint Louis in Grand Central Station. An exhaustive Google subject and image search seems to confirm that the plane was never there on display. It is possible that it was the German plane “Bremen” on display in 1929 during one of our passages through the station. It had just completed the first east to west Atlantic crossing. But the plane was suspended in air with no possibility of having a close look.


 

 

 

 

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