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Flying Memories

By Robin Mayes, Farm Educator

The author’s father, George, in the Carolina Belle during World War II.

It has been several years since I was up in a small plane, but I can still see the patchwork scene of crop fields and pastures spreading out before me: the gray ribbons of roads intersecting the corduroy-like plowed fields of early spring or the golden and green calico acres of late summer. As a youngster, the most easily-recognized feature for me when sitting beside my Dad in the cockpit of his Tri-Pacer was always the shimmering green Scioto River snaking through the landscape. Once I spotted that tree-lined river I knew we were nearing home.

With a glance at the windsock floating above our barn, Dad would line the small plane up with the neatly mowed grass landing strip that was flanked by the growing corn. We would slowly drop back down to earth. The seeming magic of flight would come to an end as we bumped along the ground. At the end of the runway, the plane would come to a stop and Dad would turn it around and taxi to the hangar – which was a part of the hog barn where he had installed a door large enough for the wingspan of the little red and white plane.

In recent weeks, researching aviation history for the Park District’s upcoming “Adventures in Flight” displays has brought back a flood of happy childhood memories. Of course, no fond recollections of flying would be complete without the less-than-fond memories of severe motion sickness! I found out early that it was a mistake to stow away in the backseat of Dad’s plane when he was taking someone who had never flown before, but I could seldom resist the temptation for a flight. Inevitably, Dad would give in to the temptation to do a bit of “showing-off” for the novice flyer. This would usually include some sort of aerobatic maneuvers which would leave me feeling as if my stomach were still up at 1,000 feet.

Like many pilots his age, Dad learned to fly during World War II. Even as a young boy, he had been keen on flight. Any money he could earn went to balsa wood and other supplies to make model planes. So it was natural that when he signed-up after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he joined the Army Air Force. In recent days, I have pulled out photos he took while stationed in Italy. Some I had seen many times in the past, but a few were new to me. Some are quite extraordinary … such as the one he took while flying over a steaming Mount Vesuvius. I wish he were still here so he could tell me more about these photos and the young men whose roguish smiles are frozen in time standing in front of those warbirds.

Following the war, after settling on a farm and beginning to raise a family, one of Dad’s first projects was a gyro-copter or autogiro – a one-seater flying machine that was pulled by a vehicle to achieve lift-off. As soon as he could afford one, Dad purchased the remains of a damaged airplane and rebuilt it. Over the years, he salvaged and restored several small planes.

The author’s father with his gyro-copter.

During my teenage years, young people gathered at our farm on weekends. There was always something going on. Once, Dad picked up a parachute at an old army supply store. We spent a whole summer happily floating under that chute from one end of the runway to the other, tethered by a 20-foot rope to a pick-up truck. The next flight adventure involved a hang-glider frame that Dad made and covered with that same parachute – which, by then, my sister and I had tie-dyed in bright colors! In the logical sequence of flying sport, Dad then graduated to motorized ultralights. “Never a dull moment” did apply to life with him!

I have only had the opportunity to fly once since Dad’s death. One of his neighbors, Richard Packer, is a pilot with a large airfield just a mile or so from our farm. He hosts an “appreciation day” each year and offers free plane rides to his neighbors. Because the event had always been a favorite of Dad’s, some of us went to this unusual “block party” a few weeks after he died. The flight I took that day was bittersweet. I think I finally understood why flying had meant so much to Dad. It is a feeling like no other.

Mankind had dreamed of flight centuries before it was finally achieved. Beginning May 26, come to Gallant Farm this summer to see some of the photos and artifacts from our country’s aviation heritage and Ohio’s considerable contribution to it.

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