When my Grandpa Joe was the publisher of the Excelsior Springs Standard and Town & Country Leader, he used to submit a series of writings titled “The Way It Was…” just about each week in the paper. He would tell old stories that our family has come to love over the years. I always enjoyed it because not only did I learn more about things that happened, but I learned more about my grandfather, who was a friend to everyone. Here’s one of my favorites, “First Solo”:
The Way It Was…
As Spun by the Old Publisher
There’s just something about an unnatural thing like flying an airplane by your self for the first time that brings out a crowd. My dad drove down to Warrensburg for the occasion, my girlfriend, Patty (later my dear Missus) was there as well as other assorted friends. It gave me a rather uneasy feeling somewhat like a Christian at his first lion gathering. However, everything went reasonably well. I got back in one piece. My dad presented me with my first real wristwatch and the real prize was a big hug from Patty.
The more eventful “first” solo was my maiden Naval flight while stationed at the Olathe primary base. They had several breeds of training planes there, all painted a bright yellow and appropriately dubbed yellow perils. For my big event I drew an ancient NP-1. It was told that one could cut the throttle at 500 feet directly over a circle and land right in the middle of it. To make up for this critical lack of ability to glide, they had large loops on the wings, somewhat like a W.W.I. Jennie. This did help keep yellow paint off of the runway, of course.
I had brashly told my dad, Tom, that I would fly down to Excelsior on this first trip and sneaked him a call shortly before takeoff to announce my E.T.A. for this historic flight.
My troubles began when I couldn’t fly straight down Highway 69. I’d burned that road up in the old cleaning truck so much that I probably could have made it blindfolded. But Fairfax was still a Naval base too and it was very verboten for cadet types to pollute the sacred airways around there. I thought about sneaking south and then coming back to the river, but somehow an end run around by Kansas and back by Parkville seemed a better idea. Somehow things don’t look quite the same from above and I almost made it to Cameron before I got started back in the right direction.
If you’ve ever flown over Excelsior in a small plan you’re sure to remember that the valley creates lots of convection currents and makes for pretty bumpy riding. This combined with my inexperience, not to mention my streak that matched the plane, made my two passes over the old hometown rather traumatic.
It was all worthwhile…and patriotic too! I finally spotted my dad behind the cleaning shop mightily waving his giant American flag. Normally reserved for Armistice Day and the Fourth, it was now being unfurled for a fledgling son.
With a trembling, but jaunty, salute…I headed back to the barn. I was already five minutes late and it was no time for any more “short” cuts. I firewalled it right on down 69, over Fairfax and back to Olathe as fast as my archaic machine would take me.
All of the other sheep were long in the fold as lonesome me came in for my approach. At the end of the runway was the “Blue Goose” (a C-54 that took all of the instructors into K.C. for their nightly opportunity to forget cadets). I knew that I was in for real trouble if I held them back from their revelry. In panic I kept hitting the throttle until finally I was clean past the main runway and was actually landing on the parking apron. The area was still under construction and suddenly looming ahead of me was a double row of workers’ cars. At the last moment with a might braking…and a loud ping as the prop grazed the cement, I stopped just short of disaster. I had homed in on a spot with a single row of cars so that I actually had cars parked on both sides of me.
As I started my prayer of thanksgiving it was quickly drowned out by the roar of the Blue Goose overhead as it was finally able to take off.
In a state of stupor, I could only sit there until the lineman came out and pulled me backward until I could taxi in on my own for almost certain retribution. What happened? The duty officer was down drinking coffee and didn’t see my fiasco. The crew just shook their heads as they witnessed another dumb cadet miracle. Remember I never said I was good…just lucky.