Heading out…

Well all, tomorrow’s the big day. I’ll be leaving with Short Stack for a while in the hopes of seeing the Shuttle launch on Monday at 6:22 AM.

Wish me luck with the airports, the rental cars, the hotel and keeping a four year old up all night long for three minutes worth of, “Wow!” Here’s hoping!

Naturally, I’ll be writing more later. Hopefully, I’ll even get a chance while I’m there. That’s assuming that I don’t fall asleep too while he’s napping.

AND, WE’RE OFF!!!

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Tickets, Part III

Our next door neighbors, Barry and Carole are a lot of fun. They’re a mostly retired couple who moved to the island about four years ago and bought the ancient farmhouse that sits on the opposite side of our backyard stonewall. There are lots of reasons why we like them, the most immediate of which that spring to mind being their good nature, a mutual interest in history, and the fantastic manhattans which appear one after the other almost magically from their bar. Man… the manhattans are just great. Another interest which we have in common is a love of flying.

So far as I can recall, I’ve always been entranced with the notion of flight and as a young child, my father would take me down to the local airport about once a year, charter a small, two or four seat airplane and a pilot and take me for a flight over the little valley where we lived. Things were a lot more relaxed back then when it came to air safety and regulation and I’d simply sit on my Dad’s lap for the duration of the flight. I got to see how everything worked, watch the gauges and if the pilot was feeling particularly friendly that day, even get to “fly” the plane a bit. This really only entailed me steering with the yolk, but I still found it a thrill. What kid wouldn’t?

With the hook firmly set, it was inevitable that some day I’d go and get my pilot’s certificate, which is exactly what I did. It was never something I wanted to do as a profession but rather enjoyed as an unbelievably fun way to unwind on a sunny weekend or after a stressful day at work. When my wife and I lived in Vermont, we were only a few minutes from a wonderful little airport and flew quite often. After I started my business, I didn’t have as much time to spend zipping around, boring holes in the sky for no particular reason. Once we relocated to our current runwayless island home, my flight time dropped off even further. When our son was born, that was pretty much the final blow to my time spent in a cockpit. The concept of free time and extra money are nothing more than the vague and fleeting memories of a life that might as well have been a thousand years ago. Did I actually get to do that? Was that me? Well, I do still have the certificate and it has my name on it, as does the black logbook that details every flight I’ve ever made. It rests dustily on the shelf in the hopes of someday being tossed into a flight kit and being toted into the air once again. It must have been me. I don’t know when it will happen again, but I can be patient.

Barry also liked to fly, though he, like me, no longer takes to the sky these days. He spent a lot of time in the air and now he’s happy to reflect on his experiences and leave it at that. I think it’s fair to say that he was far more into it than I was, however. His joy of flight propelled him from the humble seat of a tiny two seater, where all pilots seem to begin, and then followed it all the way up to becoming a director of the Federal Air Administration in Washington, DC. You don’t get much more enthusiastic about flying than that!

We have a great time on summer evenings, relaxing in his living room, chatting about flights we’ve made, the merits of various aircraft and how low the drinks are getting in our glasses. I knew that Barry had been out of the FAA for a long time now but he still does consulting work in the aerospace industry and has a lot of connections. With my new understanding that getting my tickets was going to require some serious effort, I thought talking to my fellow airplane friend was worth a try. Surely he must know someone at NASA? After explaining my situation to him, I asked if there was anything he thought he could do.

“Wow. That’s…ah, that’s a great thing you want to do with your boy. You know, I used to know the director at NASA very well.”

This sounded promising! I was hoping for a connection like that.

“The problem is that he’s been retired now for ages, just like I have. He’s not there anymore and I can’t think of a single person I know who works there still.“ I could tell that the situation pained him and I was instantly regretting having asked. Barry’s a great person and the only thing that would pain him more than not being able to help a friend is not being able to help a friend when at one time, he could have easily.

“No problem!” I tried to interrupt with out interrupting and save him from making any other apology for a situation completely not of his making. Now we were both feeling uncomfortable. Great. “I just thought I’d call and see and… um.. So, How’s Carole?” My attempt to change the subject must have been transparent as cellophane, but thankfully we managed to steer the conversation to other grounds and ending with only a parting “Sorry about that” from my friend.

Strike one.

Next I’d try something that was less potentially embarrassing, but far more of a long shot. I’d contact one of my Senators.

Now, to set the record straight here, I am not a government botherer by any measure. I don’t’ write letter after letter to Congressmen or even City Council members. I don’t watch C-Span or go to political rallies. I don’t, to be honest, hold elected officials in a lot of esteem. Mostly, government officials seem to be concerned with one thing and one thing only and that is to get them reelected as many times as humanly possible. There’s a very good reason hardly anyone in office likes the idea of term limits. This time though, I thought that it might, just MIGHT work in my favor. What all officials like is good public relations story and this was a pretty good one. What I needed to do was something I did a lot in my youth but almost never anymore. I needed to write a letter. By HAND.

Deep in the confines of the top drawer of a little used bureau sat my few remaining monogrammed letters that I must have purchased some time in during the first Clinton administration. Writing a hand letter was something that was so common not that long ago, but now, with the advent of good and cheap inkjet printers, not to mention email, the common household letter is a thing of the past. An anachronism. Despite this, in face, because of this, it is also the very best way to get your self noticed in our otherwise type written world. Knowing the condition of my horribly deteriorated penmanship skills, I decided to do this thing write… I mean right.

Sitting up straight in my chair at a cleared off kitchen table, I carefully wrote out my letter in the faintest pencil, all the time using an index card to keep the lines of text parallel and neat. Once accomplished and carefully checked for errors, only then did I pull out the pen and overwrote the pencil. When I was sure the ink was dry, an eraser took care of my earlier marks. It reads more or less as follows:

Dear Senator Collins,

My family and I live on an island off the coast of Maine and my three year old son is fascinated with space and rockets to the point of obsession. His birthday is in March and as a very special present, I want to take him to the Kennedy Space Center to watch the Shuttle launch on the 18th. The problem is, that it’s nearly impossible to obtain tickets. They go on sale to the public at an unspecified date, at an unspecified time and sell out in less than an hour. The only advice I could get from the space center was to, “check back often.”

As you can guess, the likelihood of me calling in time to get tickets is practically zero. I would happily pay for tickets if there were some why I could be given a chance. I would like to ask you if there is anything you could do or suggest so I might get this chance to show my son a once in a lifetime view. This is something he would remember for the rest of his life as well as I.

Thank you for your time and attention as well as for whatever assistance you might be able to offer.

As I looked over my work, I grinned. Instantly, I was a sixth grader again, just about to hand in my hard work. I was proud! Then, in a moment of balloon like deflation, I realized that Miss Aubin would have sent this right back for me to do again with a terse remark scrawled at the top in her unforgiving red pen. In sixth grade, it would have had to be in cursive. No excuses.

Luckily, Miss Aubin wasn’t going to get a chance on grading this one and without remorse, I stuck it into the envelope, copied the address onto the front, affixed the postage, made sure that my return address was easy to decipher and carried it by hand to our little post office down by the ferry landing.

These moments are interesting things for me. I like to think that I’m not a naive fool, blundering through life with the misplaced belief that people are happy to solve my problems for me, but at times like this, I actually get this sensation that I’ve got a good shot at getting help. Somehow, as I walked back to my house, I was sure I’d hear something from the Senator, even if it was just a form letter. I’d get something.

Right?

As hopeful as I was, I’ve also learned not to bank on hope. Hope’s great. It makes you feel good and keeps morale up, to be sure, but I’m willing to bet that most people adrift in life rafts who’ve died of exposure had hope just welling up in their hearts. Personally, I vote for rowing. The problem was picking a direction. Then, as luck would have it, I got a sign from above. Well, the Internet, actually, but the effect’s much the same.

When I had been messing around on that hideous time vampire, Facebook, I had discovered that the Kennedy Space Center had a fan page. It’s where I had gotten the advice about where to see the launch from. Apparently, while I was there, I had clicked the “Become a Fan” button and put on their electronic mailing list. It was the only way I can explain the email that arrived in my in-box.

“STS-131 space shuttle launch viewing tickets at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex go on sale Thursday, February 11 at 9:00 a.m. ET.”

WHAT?!?

Facebook, if I ever spoke ill of you before, please forgive me.

More later….

Flight of a Lifetime, Part II

When the time got close, we needed to help get the plane ready for take off. Both aircraft have four massive radial engines. The radial is a fantastic design. Tough, easy to work on, very powerful and air-cooled. The only problem with them is that if you shut them down and let them sit, all the oil collects in the lower cylinders. To fix this, you have to “turn them through”. That means is that you rotate the propeller by hand to get the oil up into the top cylinders. It took a group of about ten of us ten minutes on each engine. By the time we had finished, all of us were sweaty and my hands hurt. For the record, those blades might be massive but, boy, are they ever sharp and they only spin with a good deal of effort. It was like pushing a piece of sheet metal, edge on, through mud.

When it was done, it we headed for the door. Doors, actually. There are two access hatches on a B-17. One is the smallish door on the right hand side, aft of the wing. That’s where everyone was heading except me. There is another, far smaller hatch, three quarters of the way under the nose on the left side. When the door opens, you are at eye level, looking directly into the navigator’s station. The opening is only about twenty inches square and there is no ladder. To get in you have two options. First is to reach through, and pull your self through as your legs bicycle foolishly in the air. The other option is the cool one. It’s what the boys who flew this plane over seventy years ago did. You reach up, palms toward you, and grab the top lip. Then, like an overenthusiastic chin up, legs are pulled up, shot through the hole and you push off with everything you’ve got, hopefully, flinging all parts of your body after them. There was no one at the hatch and I was sure that if I asked, the answer would not be the one I wanted. A quick glance around, a grab and… Heave! In I went, just like on the newsreels and, off came my hat. I looked through the hatch from inside the bomber at my hat as it lay on the tarmac. To go back out and get it would both kill the “I’m so cool!” sensation that was coursing through my veins and open me up to being in trouble with the ground crew. Crap. Just then, a face appeared through the hole covered with a big toothy smile. It was one of the ground crew. I smiled back sheepishly. With one hand, he scooped up my hat and handed it to me through the small opening.

“Ever see ‘Twelve O’clock High”? He asked, still grinning.
“Um.. Thanks. Yah, a few times. I own a copy, actually.” I replied as I retrieved the hat.
“Heh, me too. Have a great flight!” And with that, he reached in, grabbed the hatch and swung it closed. I scrambled back to the radio room for takeoff, happier than ever.

FAA regulations dictate that all passengers must be belted in for take off and landing. The B-17 was not built for regulations like that and accommodations had to be made to fit the times. The floor of the radio room is wooden and along the sides, against the fuselage, they had bolted seatbelts right to the floor. You simply sit down with your legs out straight and buckled in. The sitting portion of the flight would be short anyway.

As I sat down on my bit of plywood, I looked around at the others who had paid for this privilege. I knew that it would be a few minutes before takeoff and I was curious what drove the other guys here to plunk down enough cash for a flight to Europe, just for an opportunity to fly in a plane that used to drop bombs on the same. To my left sat an older man. He looked like he was in his seventies and unlike the rest of us who were casting our gazes around the interior of the plane; he looked more like he was meditating. I decided to ask.

“I used to fly in these during the war. I was a waist gunner.”

This is always a trick moment for me. I desperately want to know all the details but at the same time, don’t want to be intrusive. I don’t remember asking him any more questions, but I probably did ask a few. He was defiantly there for a personal experience and I quickly left him alone with his ghosts. It seemed like what he wanted, I recall.

Across from me, lashed to the floor sat another man. He looked like he might be in his late fifties or early sixties and was well dressed. He looked like someone who didn’t spend much time sitting in anything other than an executive, leather office chair. I decided to chat with him a bit and found him to be quite affable. I also detected a hint of an accent. After a few minutes, I asked him why he wanted a ride. With out skipping a beat, he told me.

“ I grew up in Germany during the war. I remember as a little boy, running for the air raid shelter with my mother as the planes came over from England. Even then, I thought that these planes looked so beautiful and I always wanted a ride in one. Now, I finally will get my wish.”

Two men who were on opposite ends of the bombing of Europe, together in one of the planes that was used. Amazing.

Before I could pester anyone else, engine one barked and puffed to life. The B-17 was built for fighting, not for comfort and when the engines are running, you can forget about holding a conversation. Little could be seen from our seats as we took off, but once in the air, we could roam all over. I felt like I was living a dream. I poked my head through the open radio room top window and the slipstream hit me like a tidal wave. The force was amazing and I let out a long, “WOOOOOOOOHOOOOOO!” into the prop wash

Eventually, I found my way to the nose and sat in the bombardier’s seat. A huge, bowed window of Plexiglas sat in front of me and as I pressed my forehead against its center, the rest of the aircraft disappeared from my view. All I could see was the rolling hills and open air in front of me. It was an amazing view and it made you feel as though you were alone in the sky.

I crawled back through the plane and visited each station. I stopped and watched the pilot and copilot for a while and stood in the top turret and looked around. With no German fighters present, I decided was safe to keep moving. The radio room was empty for the most part as I passed through on my way to the tail. The openings for the waist guns yawned open on either side of the plane and the wind and sound of the engines made an amazing noise. You had to shout to be heard. In the port waist window, the old gunner stood at his post, just looking out at the rolling countryside. Like the others here, I gave him his space. It was obvious that he had wanted the ride for very different reasons than we did.

The only restricted areas were the tail gun position and the belly turret. The turret on the bottom of the plane is very difficult to get in and out of and you need the help of someone in the aircraft. It’s also very cramped and during wartime was reserved for the smaller crewmembers.

The tail too was roped off. This was due to the fact that you have to step over the yawning opening that the tail wheel mostly fills. Essentially, it’s a hole in the floor that is big enough to fall out of if you aren’t careful. OSHA would have a field day with one of these things.

The ride was just as fantastic as I’d dreamed. As luck would have it, because it was the last ride of the day and the last day of the visit to my area, the half hour flight went on for well over an hour. By the time we landed, they had the strobes and landing lights on.

It took about an hour after we landed and shut her down for my hearing to work correctly again, but I didn’t mind in the least. It was grueling and deadly work to ride those planes into war and I feel like I can imagine what it was like a little better now. We didn’t need oxygen or flack suits. No one was shooting at us and no live bombs were on board, but the mixture of excitement and fear must have made a toxic cocktail for those young men who did it every day. I’m feel honored that I had the chance to do what I did and marvel at what others went through in the name of duty.

Epilogue:

The Nine-O-Nine is still flying today, as is the B-24 that I opted not to fly on. They belong to a group called the Collings Foundation and if they come to your area, they are worth the visit. I don’t know if they still offer rides, lawsuits what they are these days, but I’d ask if you care to. It’s a almost vanished part of our world and some day soon, they will no doubt be put on permanent display in some worthy museum, but never fly again. Grab the chance while you can.