Posted 7 years 212 days ago ago by Randy Mains
By the time I was four years old I knew I was going to be a pilot, and that was that—period. At four years old, I owned a rusty old airplane that my dad had bought secondhand. I used to spend hours pedaling it around the backyard. That two-tone silver and rust airplane, with bent wings and broken propeller, used to fuel my childhood fantasies for hours. It would fly me around the world and always deliver me back home safely, just before Mom called me to dinner.
When I was a little older (and not building airplane models in my bedroom) I used to sneak off to Van Nuys Airport. I would sit under the approach path and watch the F-86 Saber jets come in for landings. One afternoon I found a hole in the airport fence. I crawled under it and discovered I could make a game out of dodging airport security guards on patrol. I made my way across the airport and found an area surrounded by a chain-link fence. On the other side sat several scrapped B-25 Mitchell bombers with gear up, lying on their bellies. They were the type of airplane my dad used to fly during the Second World War. Trying to contain my excitement, I quickly scaled the fence and climbed into the cockpit of one of the planes. It had that unmistakable aircraft smell of dripping oil, leaking hydraulic fluid, and old sweat. The odor somehow signified it was a real airplane, not the make-believe machines I used to fabricate in my friend's attic out of cardboard boxes and the steering wheel from an old car.
Once I'd made the discovery of the old planes, I would often sneak to the airport to experience the thrill of sitting in the pilot's seat. I'd flick on the overhead switches, imagining I was starting the two radial engines and hearing them roar to life. I'd imagine taxiing for takeoff, take the wheel in my hands, push the throttles to the fire wall, then pull back on the control yoke and fantasize about soaring to altitude and flying combat missions over foreign lands somewhere far, far away. I would be fighting side by side with men like John Wayne, Van Johnson, or Jimmy Stewart. But in the end, in my mind, it was always just I, and I alone, locked in some deadly air battle. The battle had to be won for God and country. The stakes were always all or nothing. I had to win it, or freedom for all would be lost. In my childhood daydreams, as I had learned from the movies because I was an American on the side of God and righteousness, I could never lose.
My overwhelming urge to fly was never satisfied by my vivid imagination. I tried all the usual stunts kids try to defy gravity. I tied one end of a sheet to the belt loops of my Levis and held the free ends over my head. I then jumped off the garage roof to the grass with my makeshift parachute. Before that, I ruined my grandfather's umbrella by jumping off the same roof holding it over my head. It immediately inverted and collapsed, as in a Road Runner cartoon.
When I was 12, I thought I had the ultimate answer for getting airborne. In the secrecy of my garage, I constructed a crude airplane from an equally crude soapbox racer I'd made a week earlier. With wooden wings covered in fabric (old sheets that my mom had given me) I pulled the contraption up Plummer Hill for a test flight.
Sitting in the cockpit at the top of the hill, with a rock wedged under the rear wheel, I made my preparations. I cinched the seat belt tight around my waist. It was a Cub Scout belt cut in half and nailed to each side of where the driver (pilot) sat. I gave one last tug on the chinstrap of my Los Angeles Rams football helmet, thinking that it would protect me in the event of a crash from the great height I knew I would attain.
I took a firm grip on the rope steering, which I held like the reins of a horse. There was no way to guide the craft if it did get airborne, something I hadn't thought of. I figured I would just lean in the direction I wanted to fly. The object was to get airborne. Steering in flight was a secondary consideration that I would deal with later.
Once ready, I yanked out the rock wedged under the rear wheel. The craft began to roll down the steep hill and gained speed quickly. In no time I was rocketing down the hill on the narrow tarmac road. The wings bowed and flapped wildly as they tried to take the weight of the craft. The steering began to buffet as if the front wheels were trying to lift off the ground. I bent over in my seat and pulled the steering reins tighter to hold on for liftoff. Halfway down the hill one wing reached its structural limit and snapped off. This caused the plane to ground loop, hurling me—and machine—down a steep embankment and through a barbed wire fence. It was only by the grace of God, and with a hell of a lot of luck, that the back axle caught on a fence post to stop the remains of the contraption from flying off into the never-never over a 200-foot cliff.
It turned out to be a good safety measure to wear the football helmet. After the dust and debris settled, I took it off and noticed that there was a long, deep groove carved along the top by a rusty barb from the fence I had just crashed through.
Orville and Wilbur certainly had nothing to fear that day.
About Randy: Randy Mains is an author, public speaker, and a CRM/AMRM consultant who works in the helicopter industry after a long career of aviation adventure. He currently serves as chief CRM/AMRM instructor for Oregon Aero.
He may be contacted at [email protected]