Early birds

The airfield was quiet in the early post dawn. The rising sun cast the rural field with a golden glow that clung to the long grass runway, the hangars and the various and sundry aircraft tied down in parking spaces near the field’s gas pump. The only sounds were the songs of the birds, already at work ekeing out a living from the expanse of mowed grasses. All except down in hangar four, where a different kind of early bird was readying his plane for flight. A Waco UPF-7 biplane, it was painted a deep maroon color and had a gold shadowed black stripe down the midsection of the fuselage. It had a large radial motor, it’s cylinders poking out like spokes on a wheel that turned an eight foot paddle propeller. A two-holer, it carried two compartments, one for the pilot and the other for a would be passenger. The pilot flew from the rear seat.

Paul Scheever put his back into it and pushed the airplane out of the hangar and began his preflight check. He looked at the various control surfaces and linkages, made sure of proper oil level and that everything was secure as should be. He climbed up into the passenger cockpit and stood on its seat to visually check the gas level in the large center tank that was the center section of the top wing. Finding everything ship shape, he climbed back down and moved to the pilot cockpit. There he he cycled the throttle fully open and then closed then open again to make the carburetor squirt a little gas to prime the engine, turned the master electrical switch on and then turned on the magneto switch to engage both of the mags that privided spark for the engine.

There is no electric start on many of these old birds, and that was the case here. Paul’s plane had what was called an Armstrong starter –meaning you started the engine by the pilot spinning the propeller to turn over the motor. It took some strength to do this, thus Armstrong. With the mag switch hot, the plane was ready to be started and Paul moved to the front of the plane. Beneath his notice, his pants cuff caught briefly on the throttle, opening it almost fully. Paul grabbed the big prop and slowly turned it until he could feel the engine resist him on a compression stroke then put his back into it and yanked the prop around. The motor started witha roar, and with the throttle open, began to roll. Paul dove out of the way of the spinning propeller and watched as the wing passed over him. “Holy Sweet Jesus!” he said, jumping to his feet. 

The plane was accelerating across the field with Paul in hot pursuit. If he could grab on, he could get to the throttle and get control of the plane. Sadly, Paul’s acceleration wasn’t as good as the airplane’s was and the plane shot across the field. After about 400 feet, the plane gracefully lifted off the ground, taking to the air to do what planes did naturally. Because of the engine torque, the plane set itself up in a slow turn as it rose to about 500 feet from the ground. From the ground, Paul could only watch in horror as his $150,000 airplane gracefully circled the field. Without wind, it would likely stay that way until it ran out of gas. But there was a slight breeze coming up and Paul knew he had a problem that could only get bigger. What if the plane came down on a house or a playground? 

With a full tank of gas the biplane had about two hours of flight time. Paul groaned aloud thinking about this. He finally decided that he needed to get the plane down any way he could, and the only way he could think of was to run it out of gas. How to do this had but one answer and so Paul hitched himself up and went into the hangar and fetched a hunting rifle he kept there. The idea was for him to shoot a hole in the center fuel tank, the gas would run out, the motor would stop and the plane would glide to a landing. In a perfect world. He knew there were hangars and other planes at risk, but better the damage happen to pilots who could empathise with his plight than anyone else. 

He had to wait as the plane circled so he could get the right angle to shoot. He sighted along the barrel, focusing on the plane now headed towards his position and the gas tank peeking above the big round motor. Paul pulled the trigger and the bullet did strike the gas tank, but only after glacing off of one of the engine cylinders. The airplane exploded into a huge fireball and came falling out of the sky. It landed literally at Paul’s feet, but well away from anything else. Where there had been the sound of his plane’s engine, was now the sound of metal complaining of heat as the wreck burned itself out. It did that in under five minutes, leaving only a pile of ashes under the fuselage frame and a scattering of metal fittings discolored by fire.

As he stood there, a neighbor pilot had arrived and seen the incident. He walked over to where Paul stood and put a commisserating hand on his shoulder. “It’s a real shame, Paul.” he said. 

“Good thing I wasn’t in it,” said Paul.