Aviation Lore and Date Nails

Why pilots love to reminisce about the past.

There are folks who collect date nails. There is even a publication dedicated to the hobby called Date Nails. What, one might ask, are date nails?

These are the 2-inch little fellows which the railroad drove into each of their crossties. There are approximately 800 million crossties in the United States, and each is identified by a date nail. They are made of iron, steel or aluminum.

The shape of the head — square, pentagon, hexagon, round — and of the shank, told the beginning of the story, which was completed by a stamped or molded code on the head, indicating the tie’s composition, coating, manufacturer and date of installation.

Folks devote their lives to collecting date nails. And to collecting keys from all the world’s Holiday Inns; and license plates from all the presidential inaugural motorcades; and — as we all know — grievances, proofs that the British or Cherokees are the Ten Lost Tribes and so on.

And there is a love of aviation, independent of the love of flying, which spawns collections not only of trinkets but of information.

My wife came upon me mooning through the Bombphoons website. For the not-yet-bitten, this is a Brit collection, for sale, of the most significant of aviation memorabilia. It is predominantly military and WWII, and one might find here a pair of pristine Luftwaffe flying boots, a Spitfire pilot’s sweetheart brooch, the altimeter from an RAF Mosquito, a trench-art model of a Spad and so magnificently on.

The site was on my iPad, the iPad was on the table, and my Sporty’s catalog lay open beside it. My wife shook her head.

“Yes,” I said, “It’s tantamount to having a mistress.”

“What do you mean ‘tantamount?’” she said.

Here are some of my be- loved bits of collectible lore.

Israeli Air Force

The first combat aircraft to bear the livery of the brand-new state was the Beechcraft Bonanza.

Part of its lucky bag of assorted aircraft, the 1948 Israeli Air Force removed the Bonanza’s rear doors and used the airplane to drop ordnance. Our beloved V-tail. First in war and first in peace. How about that?


Several pilot memoirs of WWI record this mnemonic ditty:

“He died with his hand on the throttle
And this is the reason he died:
He forgot to recall that IOTA
Is the maximum angle of glide.”

Well, as an amateur of language, this had me stumped. I reached out to a couple of lexicographers — which is a phrase one isn’t likely to hear every day — and they were baffled too. So, I put myself to taking it apart.

I did not know the meaning of IOTA, so I placed it on the right-hand side of the equation and concentrated on the variables which I understood.

The verse concerns a glide. A glide is a power-off descent. The unfortunate died with his hand on the throttle, that is, in an act of hopeless desperation — he knew the engine was dead — trying, magically, to stretch the glide.

He died, then, because he forgot what he had been taught about “the maximum angle of glide.”

Well, that, to my ear, could only mean the angle of maximum glide — and perhaps the phrase was mis-transcribed, or the British, then as now, just talked funny.

Now, what is there to remember about the angle of maximum glide? One thing: a number.

The number is an airspeed.

So, our friend forgot something about the airspeed.

My code-breaking skills kicked in, and it became clear that IOTA might be a mnemonic acronym, the last two letters of which could be: THE AIRSPEED.

What, then, would the first two be?


The fellow died, perhaps because he forgot that the angle of maximum glide was marked on the airspeed indicator.

A good thesis, and conceive my delight in finding, on photographs of airspeed indicators of the Sopwith Camel, a marker, at what seems to be 65 mph. Stalling speed is listed at 48, and there were no undercarriage or flaps to consider, so the mark had to be the angle of maximum glide. Thus: He forgot to recall that the angle of maximum glide is Indicated On The Airspeed. And there we have IOTA.

My delight in this discovery is so great that it will not even be diminished by readers explaining to me my error.

Like the geocentric universe, the theory is “good enough for everyday use.” And the ditty unites us as recipients of the very hard-won knowledge that the toothpaste will revert to the tube sooner than will a glide be stretched — the final reduction of the verse being “remember that wishing will kill you.”

Merle Oberon

She was one of the great British movie stars of the 30s and 40s. See Wuthering Heights, The Private Life of Henry VIII, The Scarlet Pimpernel, et cetera. A magnificent actress and a raving beauty.

I now mention Richard Hillary. He flew Spits in the Battle of Britain and wrote the best book on the subject, The Last Enemy. He was shot down, and horribly disfigured by burns. And he had been considered the handsomest man in London, and quite a favorite with women.

Read More: By David Mamet

The groundbreaking plastic surgeon, Archibald McIndoe, worked to reconstruct his face. (Hillary wrote about it in his book.) Between surgeries, Hillary took himself off to a dark room and solitude.

Merle, who didn’t know him from Adam, heard of his tragedy. She went to his hotel room, rang the bell and asked if she might keep him company. She stayed with him two weeks.

Hillary badgered his way back to flight status, and died, several months later, on a training mission in a Bristol Blenheim. In his previous crash, ditching his Spitfire in the Channel, he’d been rescued, it’s reported, by the Margate Lifeboat.

T.E. Lawrence

The type of boat which performed the Hillary rescue is not recorded. The best of the air-sea rescue boats were designed by Hubert Scott Paine, of whom you probably have not heard, in partnership with T.E. Lawrence, of whom you have.

Lawrence, who used to go around wearing a sheet, returned to England after the First War and took to portraying anonymity.

He enlisted under an assumed name in the RAF, as an Aircraftman (private). It seems he loved the menial tasks, the camaraderie and the spartan conditions. In fact, he wrote a book about them. The Mint is his record of the adventure.

His fame, of course, caught up with him, and he was released from the RAF. He reenlisted under yet another assumed name, and in this second hitch found his way into the realm of air-sea rescue boat design. It was likely one of his boats which pulled Richard Hillary from the Channel.


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