MY FLYING DAYS
My father was an aeronautical engineer graduate of MIT. He’d been interested in aviation and flying since he was very young. At age 15 he built his own glider in the backyard of his Brunswick, Maine house and planned to take people for rides at $1.00 a ride at the Topsham Fair. The day before the fair opened, dad crashed his glider. He decided to put the glider in a tent and charged 25 cents for people to come look at it. In his own words:
In 1912, I built an unsuccessful monoplane glider based on Bleriot’s design, and in 1915 designed, built, and successfully flew a biplane glider. . . .I graduated from Ground School at Mass. Inst. of Tech. in Flight 29. I was sent to the Naval Air Station at Miami for flight training, which was interrupted by the Armistice. [Nov. 1918].
Dad went on to serve in the U. S. Navy in World War II, becoming a Commander in charge of aircraft components. He flew planes (mostly Beech Crafts) all over the USA from his Washington, DC headquarters visiting aircraft companies. In early 1945, he lead a technical mission to Germany primarily studying the V-1and V-2 rockets. He visited the main Bavarian Motor Works factory and flew a Messerschmitt 109 himself.
He returned from the war to run his textile factory in Moosup, Connecticut determined to have his own airplane and airport. He imagined a ‘great future’ for small to medium plane flying. This is where I came into the picture.
I was twelve years old when the war ended. I learned much later that dad borrowed some of my saving’s account funds, together with his own, to buy an airport on the Connecticut-Rhode Island state line—called RICONN AIRPORT. The 39-acre field had once been a dog-track and was turned into an airport during WWII. Located half way between Providence, Rhode Island and Hartford, Connecticut, original owners envisioned it as an emergency airfield. It had one fairly long runway—perhaps 2,500 feet long, and another shorter runway giving pilots their choice depending upon the wind direction. It had one plane hanger and was located about five miles from Moosup. Dad was inspired with what he’d learned in the navy and enthusiastic about getting into aviation himself. Now he needed his own plane.
He’d heard about the Stinson Aircraft Company during the war. Founded by Eddie Stinson in the 1920s, Stinson designed and produced small fixed wing aircraft. Although Eddie was killed in a 1932 plane crash, his company continued and produced the U. S. Army Stinson 105 Voyager, known as the Army L-5 Sentinel. Stinson built 3,590 of these single-engine planes for the U. S. Army from 1942 to 1945 and the navy bought some from the army. After the war, Stinson improved their model 10, designed in 1939, into a four-seat model with a 150 horsepower Franklin engine. Dad had owned various small planes before WWII and studied this Stinson airplane in great detail—which he explained to me, also in great detail. The Stinson was a safe plane; practically stall-proof with special slots in the leading edge of its wings and specially designs ailerons. Dad stressed its ability to take off and land on a field the size of RICONN.
In 1946, dad and I took the train to Wayne, Michigan to pick up his new Stinson single-engine airplane, model 150—one of the first of these new models to come off their assembly line. We toured the factory and I met some of dad’s lieutenants living in Detroit, who’d served with him in the war. I was treated as an adult on this trip and dad treated me almost as a partner rather than his son.
We flew dad’s new Stinson back home from Michigan. Over the Hudson River north of New York City, we ran into a fog bank and turned around, landing on a small airport near Kingston. The next day we took off and landed a few hours later at our own airport. Mr. Simmons, the manager of RICONN and a pilot himself, was waiting for us and there were half dozen small planes at our airport. We were in the airplane business with expectations to have fun and make a killing with the renewed interest dad anticipated in small-plane aviation.
Dad loved flying. His textile business was thriving and he used to pick me up at Moosup Grammar School and head out to RICONN. Later, he found a longer runway at the Plainfield, Connecticut airfield and moved his new plane there. They also sold gas in Plainfield. We mostly flew all over Eastern Connecticut and Rhode Island.
Dad was always teaching me. We’d take off and land repeatedly and even tried stalling our plane to test the Stinson marketing that it was ‘practically stall-proof.’ Stalling is when a plane is in a steep climb and doesn’t have enough power to sustain the climb. If it stalls, it turns downward and one has to recover fast before a crash occurs. It can develop serious problems with balance and control of the plane. We never had any problem with stalling.
From 1946 until 1950 dad and I flew all over New England. He loved flying to his hometown of Brunswick, Maine where a small airport had been turned into a major Naval Air Station—and where his father lived and practiced dentistry. It was also the location of Bowdoin College where Dad had gone before MIT—and where I would graduate later.
My parents owned a summerhouse in Barnstable, Massachusetts (on Cape Cod). My twin sister, brother, and I spent summers there with dad’s flying down from Connecticut weekends. He’d buzz our house in his Stinson and mother would pack us into her car and drive over to the Hyannis Airport to pick dad up. Occasionally I would fly back to Connecticut with him and he’d let me fly the plane. I remember his telling me we’d always look out for a field to land in in case our single-engine failed. He stressed safety whenever we flew.
Dad traded his 150 HP Stinson in for a 165 model that was slightly faster and had a larger gas tank. He used his plane to call on customers for his textile business. He had customers in Ohio and one large one in Columbus, Georgia. He had a sheep painted on both sides of his Stinson 165 with the words—BRUNSWICK WORSTEDS – FROM SHEEP TO SHUTTLE.
One day he told me, “Let’s practice takeoffs and landings at the Hyannis Airport. This was before the Kennedys became famous and Hyannis became much busier. I actually took off myself (with dad beside me, of course) but I was a little hesitant to land. I was fifteen years old and planned to get my pilot’s license when I turned sixteen and was able to fly alone, i.e. solo.
About this same time, dad and I flew to Brunswick, Maine. Dad said, “Let’s fly to Brunswick tomorrow for a lobster lunch with your grandfather and we’ll fly back home after lunch.” This sounded like great fun to me. I believe it was in the late spring of 1949.
Our flight up to Maine went well and dad got permission to land at the naval air station. Grandpa’s lobsters tasted good. He loved the hard-shell type, which had to be opened with a hammer. About two o’clock in the afternoon we returned to the Brunswick airport to gas up our plane and head back to RICONN Airport—perhaps a two and a half hour flight for his Stinson that cruised at about 125 mph. Grandpa Haskell said he’d watch us take off.
This Stinson plane was known as a “tail dragger” as, unlike a fixed wing model with tricycle landing gear, our 165 dragged its tail on the ground. Visibility was poor until one gained enough speed to level off with the tail off the ground. This was a problem but one that dad usually compensated for by sticking his head out the plane window. That particular day the wind was quite strong. I remember taxing along the cement pad headed for the runway looking out at my grandfather waving at us.
The next thing I remembered that afternoon was waking up in the cockpit of our plane, which had nosed over. The naval fire brigade was asking me if I needed help in getting out as they were prepared to spray that white foam over the engine to prevent a fire. They helped me out as I’d apparently hit my head in the crash and was knocked out for a while. Dad was not hurt at all but our plane; particularly the propeller and engine were pretty badly smashed.
That was the end of our small plane flying. Dad decided to sell the plane as-is. He decided, at age 52, he was getting too old to fly and I had lost my enthusiasm also. We took the train back to Connecticut and shifted our interests to sailing.
About a year later, Dad read notice of a plane crash off the Nauset Beach on Cape Cod and saw the serial number was the same as his Stinson 165. I guess this plane was doomed.