FLYERS have the World’s Strangest Club (Jul, 1929)

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FLYERS have the World’s Strangest Club

By a Member of the Club

To join the famous Flying Jackass Club, one has to earn the title of “Flying Fool,” by being proved guilty of some outstandingly silly piece of piloting. Related here are some of the thrills which have made men eligible for initiation.

LOITERING in the benevolent shade of one of the hangars at Wright Field, a group of army flyers watched with casually interested eye the aerial capers of another lieutenant who was putting his machine through screaming chandelles, wing overs, and sickening dives. His masterful piloting was up to the usual army standard. The exhibition would have brought forth newspaper headlines ten years ago. Today it was all in the day’s work. With a last roar the gun was cut and the pilots yawned. The Curtiss pursuit leveled off for a landing.

Suddenly the little group became quietly intent, stiffening with attention as though electrified.

“What the deuce is Lieutenant Blank up to now?” whispered one man to himself. Then, as he deduced the intent of the pilot in the air he muttered softly, “The flying fool!”

For it had become apparent that after] getting his daily time in the air, after having put the fast pursuit ship through “every thing in the book,” Lieutenant Blank intended to finish the performance off with a spot landing between two ships which were drawn’ up with just enough room to allow another ship to slip through—perhaps.

Whirr! The singing of the rushing air fell off, the motor ticked over softly as the pilot kicked rudder and brought his plane in line with the opening. The tail settled. The ship seemed to be stretching her glide to the line between the two other perfectly groomed flying engines of destruction.

“By George, he’ll make it,” cheered one, then—- Crash! Crumph!! The two other ships suddenly came to life, and borrowing motion from the wing tips of the other plane, the three were embroiled in a splintering crash.

“It isn’t everybody who can crash three ships with one landing,” voiced the onlookers. “Get the trophy—we’ll initiate him into the Society of Flying Jackasses.”

Wherewith the unfortunate Lieutenant Blank was presented with a trophy—a silver loving cup, on which his name is added to the list of flyers at Wright Field who have miraculously lived through dumb-bell maneuvers.

Kelly Field has a similar Club. It is called the Dumb-bell club and is organized to perpetuate the asininity of pilots who can qualify by coming back alive from their fool flying.

One pursuit pilot at Kelly recently was flying alone above the field. Feeling frisky, and wishing to engage in a sham battle, he selected as his opposing “Plane” a darkey plodding along on muleback. Nosing his ship down for a third time, he leveled off. This time he was closer than ever, and the screaming flying wires sounded like a fire siren.

Terrified, the darkey “took to his parachute” as the Dumb-hell Citation reads— but the mule elevated his rear guns and let fly at the prop. This was something the pilot had not counted on. The heels of the mule sent the mop one direction, the landing gear the other. The ship was wrecked. The pilot, unharmed, is now a member of the Dumb-bell club.

An unusual exploit was experienced by William Thomas Ponder, Modern Mechanics’ distributor at Fort Worth, Texas. During the Democratic national convention held last year at Houston, Texas, Ponder was engaged to fly some pictures in a night flight from Houston to St. Louis.

Ponder was flying through the darkness over the Ozark Mountains when his motor conked—went dead. Volplaning down over the jagged peaks estimating his chances of avoiding a total washout he sighted a small open, level spot, the only possible landing place within his gliding radius. But the plot was so small Ponder knew that he must either strike a haystack in the yard or the solid-looking farm house.

Accustomed to split-second decisions, Ponder decided to literally “hit the hay” for the night. Diving with the wind whistling past the wires of his ship, Ponder so manipulated his controls that one wing of the ship crashed into the haystack and sent his ship pinwheeling around the stack. Instantly on hitting the hay Ponder was asleep—unconscious and counting stars. He was not severely injured, however, and soon was making plans to speed the pictures on to St. Louis.

An exploit of this kind is part of a day’s work for Ponder, who flies constantly in connection with his work of distributing Modern Mechanics and conducting his airplane agencies. He is a flyer of long experience, a noted wartime aviator.

Civilian flyers have their “unwritten clubs,” too. The Caterpillar club, so-called because it is composed of flyers who have had to jump in a parachute to save their lives, has little short of a hundred members today. Charles Lindbergh is a four-time member, having had to jump four times to save his life.

The men who are in commercial aviation have many tales of incidents paralleling the Flying Jackass and Dumb-bell exploits.

For instance, take this for a strange tale —which is true, however. At an airport near Robbinsdale, Minn., one Sunday about two years ago, a comely girl answered a newspaper want ad, stating she was an experienced parachute jumper and would consider the proposition of the local air man for an exhibition jump that day. The jump was to be the crowd-attracting feature.

Hanging on to a strut, with the exhibition type parachute sack tied to the strut for a drop-away jump, the girl and the pilot took off. Given the proper signal, the girl closed her eyes and let loose. The shrouds of the harness got jammed in the strut, and the drop was checked when she was twenty feet or so down. Helplessly the pilot cruised above the airport, unable to land without certainly dashing the girl’s brains out on the ground.

Wing Walker Stages Rescue Another ship took to the air with a man hanging to the strut. By careful flying the two ships were flown close enough together so that a ship-to-ship change in the air was made. * The daring wing walker now made his way to the strut from which the shrouds were hanging, and cutting the sack in which the chute was encased, he freed the girl.

But that’s not all! The girl, it so happened, had never made a jump before. She was either desperate for money, or out for a thrill. She got both! Imagine if you can, having yourself freed from a predicament like the above, floating downward in a parachute—right into the middle of a lake, when you couldn’t even swim! That was the girl’s fate! Fortunately she was rescued by fishermen, and was returned to the field physically none the worse for her adventure. The girl’s name is Frances Clark.

Then they tell the story of a high ranking air corps officer who was making a tour of inspection of the various fields in the United States. He came down one noon on one of the largest army fields in the country and the wing of his pursuit plane struck a stump—the only object on the field of more than 600 acres. This high officer had hit a grass roller and left for another station that day as a member of the local club recognizing such feats.

However, though the exploits of the army’s Flying Jackasses and Dumb-bells are highly interesting because they are colored by a background of high grade equipment and the finest possible training, the real romance of incidents of the air comes from commercial pilots. They have ships which must be kept going in order to provide their owners with the staff of life, and the predicaments these flyers sometimes find themselves in are amusing—after they are over.

For instance, Gene Shank, one of Modern Mechanics’ aviation editors, tells of the time he was barnstorming an Aeromarine flying boat on one of the lakes in the northern summer resort region.

The day had been clear, but gusty, with an east wind blowing across the narrow part of the lake, making a takeoff difficult. The sun was sinking, the day was nearly over, when a load of passengers drove up to the shore base, paid for a ride, and insisted on a “hop.” Pilot Shank loaded them in, headed down wind, gave her the gun, and was barely clear when the motor quit, out of gas!

Rescue on the Wing The sun was soon down, it was dark, and the boat was at the mercy of the strong easterly wind.

It so happened that the lake had several islands in it, with rocky points jutting out so as to overlap each other in the path of the wind. After drifting past one island, into the lee, the plane started drifting for the windward shore of the lake, where the water was rougher and the plane would surely suffer grief.

The plane was about two wing lengths from the second point. It was impossible to reach it with a rope or boat hook, so one man crawled out on the wing nearest shore, and hanging in the water from the wing, kicked vigorously so as to stop the drift in that direction. As on a pivot the other wing swung around, and by sending a man over the opposite wing from which the panting, kicking, dragging swimmer was pendent, the second man was able to step off a few feet of water and nose the ship ashore, thus saving the fair cargo!

At another time, with a Curtiss flying boat, a pilot was hopping passengers on the well known two-for-five plan. Two girls, giggling, thrilled, and scared, boarded the plane and seriously asked the pilot if he thought he would bring them down alive. Jokingly he remarked that he had a premonition that this would be his last trip—that he felt his end near.

Imagine the lump in his throat when, upon taking off, he found his tail surface control gone! Cut wires, plots! Other possibilities raced through his mind, until, upon looking back, he saw that a large hatch, about five feet square, had not been clamped down, and was standing up, supported by wind pressure, dancing daintily against the motor struts and waiting at any lime to slip off into the pusher propeller!

The hatch had blanketed the air stream so that no solid air was going past the tail surfaces, and there was no tail control at all. The pilot gingerly closed the loose hatch with one hand, while standing up and flying with the other, all the time praying that the flimsy pegs which held the hatch would not slip loose and mix the hatch up with the prop.

Flying Without Landing Gear Pilot Shank also tells one which is remarkable in that it exhibits the seemingly impossible type of flying which experienced men can pull off and get away with. In this particular instance, Shank had been test hopping a new Jenny. He came down, let the ship’s motor run, and walked across the road from the tarmac for a drink of pop and a piece of candy. While he was gone, some other pilot removed a wheel from the Jenny intending to replace it after one hop on another ship. In fact, so bent was he on getting the other ship into the air, that the wheel he put on the Jenny with a slightly deflated tire, was not keyed on at all. Shank just then had a customer for a short hop, and taking off with the Jenny, imagine his surprise upon looking overside as he climbed, to see a wheel go racing along beside him!

“I could only make a wild guess as to which wheel was off,” says Shank, “but I figured it was the left wheel as that was the side I saw the wheel travelling on. Landing on one wheel is no cinch, even without a joy-rider along. I swung around cross wind, keeping the left wing into the breeze, and made a cross wind landing, cocking the left wing up high and holding her off as long as I could. When she came down on the axle she was only going about fifteen miles an hour, and though the ground loop was a lulu, the ship only ploughed up a little sod. No one was hurt.”

Equally amusing are the incidents related by Dick Grace, movie flyer of renown. One of them relates the predicament of the man who underbid him on a stunt for the movies. For a sum of around $2,000 this flyer agreed to fly a ship into the range of the camera, touch off a fuse, jump out, and let the ship blow to bits while he parachuted to earth. The time fuse, set at ten seconds, was faulty, and the charge of dynamite with which the front cockpit was loaded went off instantaneously. The pilot was blown out of the ship in an upward direction, with his chute opening! It ignited, and as he fell through space, the flyer slipped the chute, smothered the flame, released the chute again, and landed safely in the ocean, bemoaning the fact that his pet chute was demolished!

  1. Hirudinea says: April 29, 20113:49 pm

    At first I was disapointed, because I thought it was about the Mile High club, but as I read on I found it a really good article!

  2. Daniel Rutter says: April 29, 20119:00 pm

    Note also the small piece on the last page, shamelessly acknowledging widespread consumption of an illegal drug!

  3. Stephen says: April 30, 20119:41 am

    This really does have a “bygone age” atmosphere about it. Military pilots who wanted to have fun and play games with the little aeroplane and ended up breaking it would be court-martialled. Nobody would hire a “professional” parachutist without checking if she had experience, nor drop her without a life-jacket if there was any chance she could land in water. and no modern pilot would take off with loose parts or a nearly empty tank – that’s what checklists are for. As for the small piece about testing your bootleg alcohol, anybody who tried complaining about substandard products to the Genna Brothers (… ) would probably have ended up face down in a ditch.

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