It was August 15, 2015, the day my two daughters invited me out for breakfast for my 90th birthday. They took me to the EAA gathering held the third Saturday of every month at Marv Skie-Lincoln County Airport in Tea, South Dakota.
As we ate breakfast with the local pilots in the main hangar on this fine morning, outside sat a 1942 Waco open-cockpit biplane. Several people came over to our table and congratulated me on my birthday. Little did I know I was going to get a ride in that airplane that very morning! My daughters, Susie and Brenda, surprised me by arranging the ride. My son-in-law Kevin, an Army master sergeant, had connections with the South Dakota Air National Guard and was given the name of Bruce Beecroft, the pilot who owned the plane, from one of his colonels.
After I met Bruce, he gave me a safety briefing and we put on our goggles and headgear, climbed up the wing to clamber into the cockpit and strapped ourselves into that taildragger. Trundling down the runway on that clear, blue morning, I realized how lucky I was to have had a full life with the love of my family still by my side.
Soon, we were flying high above the cornfields and prairies in that open cockpit, staying level and true; there would be no aerobatics, or parachutes, that day.
My thoughts drifted back to another time 68 years earlier, a memory that, if it had ended differently, could have changed my life, as well as those of countless others.
I graduated from high school when I was 17. The year was 1943, and World War II was in full swing. I enlisted in the Navy and wanted to join the Navy Air Corps.
I applied for the V-5 program, which was training for carrier pilots at Pensacola, Florida. Their quota was filled and they told me to apply next time, but next time never came.
I was assigned to a ship at sea for the remainder of the war.
When I was discharged, I came back to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and learned to fly on the GI Bill when Joe Foss owned the Flying Service at Joe Foss Field, which was named after him for his distinguished military service. Joe was a Marine Corps major in World War II and the top Marine fighter ace (he shot down 26 Japanese airplanes). He earned the Medal of Honor and Distinguished Flying Cross, was a founder of the Air National Guard in South Dakota and a brigadier general, and later became the 20th governor of South Dakota, among other accomplishments.
Col. Curtis Shupe, a former Air Force flight instructor, was my main instructor. He had enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and became an instructor in B-24, B-25 and B-29 bombers, and in later years piloted P-51 Mustangs in the Korean conflict. After Korea, he was recruited by his senior officer, Joe Foss, to be a fighter pilot for the newly established South Dakota Air National Guard. He also began working as a pilot and instructor for Joe’s Flying Service, which Joe had purchased from Curt’s father, Cecil.
Curt taught me how to fly and perform aerobatics in a Luscombe, a Stearman, a Fairchild PT-19 and a PT-26. Joe, being a friend of mine, gave me a pre-check ride to be sure I could pass the flight test for my Private Pilot License before John Smith came down from Huron, South Dakota, to give me the flight test for my license the next day.
I passed with no problem.
My friend Charley from Yankton, South Dakota, soon purchased a war-surplus Fairchild PT-19, which is a low-wing, single-engine open-cockpit monoplane with tandem seating. He flew it to Sioux Falls for a Standard Oil dealer meeting. He asked me if I knew how to loop a PT-19; he wanted to learn how. I said sure, I had done it many times in the Stearman and the PT-19 with my instructor, Curt, and I also did it solo several times.
It was a beautiful day in August. The sky was blue, and the weather was perfect. We put on our parachutes, which were required in an open-cockpit airplane when doing aerobatics, and took off for the practice area 30 miles south of Sioux Falls. I climbed to 4,000 feet and looked out at the cornfields and beautiful prairies below. I told Charley I would do two loops, and told him he could follow me through on the controls to get the feel for it. Then, on the third loop, I’d let him take the controls, and I told him I would follow him through.
We went into a shallow dive to pick up enough airspeed to go over the top. Near the top of the loop, we ran out of airspeed and were about to stall; I could see we were not going to make it over the top. I did what I was taught by my instructor in this situation. I took control of the airplane, and I gave it full left rudder and put the airplane into a spin, from which I knew how to recover.
When we started down, I wished we were higher; the airplane was slow to enter the spin, and we were losing altitude fast. It was time to make a quick decision to either bail out and activate the parachute or stay with the airplane and pull out before we hit the ground. About that time, the spin was slowing us and I decided to stay with the airplane. When we finally leveled out, we were only about 300 feet above the ground.
We flew back to Foss Field and landed. When we inspected the wings, we discovered a crack in the paint next to the fuselage. We were lucky when we dropped from 4,000 to 300 feet that we didn’t lose a wing. What I learned from the experience is always to have adequate airspeed and altitude for a loop.
In later years, I went on to get my instrument rating and commercial license and rating for multiengine airplanes. I have owned several airplanes, including a Cessna 170A and a Beechcraft Bonanza, and was part owner of a Piper Seneca twin. I flew for about 58 years, until I was 80 years old.
My thoughts returned to the present, back to August 15, 2015. The 20-minute ride in the Waco was much too short for such a fine aircraft, but we had to come down sooner or later. As the airplane touched down on the grass airstrip and jolted me back to reality, there on the field, my family was waiting. My son-in-law Terry was taking photos for us and for Kevin, Susie’s husband, since he was not able to be there. He was deployed to South Korea as a crew chief on F-16 fighter jets with the South Dakota Air National Guard.
My eyes were watering when I climbed out of the cockpit, thinking about how truly blessed I am — or perhaps it was from the wind in my face from the ride. No matter, it is an experience I will always cherish. My Susie is buying a ride for my son-in-law Kevin as a gift. Then he too can experience flying high in an open-cockpit biplane above the cornfields and the prairies of South Dakota, staying level and true. Aerobatics — wouldn’t you?