Unpeeling the Layers of Aviation History

Aviation is, to stretch it, perhaps like the history of the Jews: It is an artichoke.

David Mamet Husky Bent Prop
A photograph of my bent Husky prop, to which is affixed a photograph of Julien Mamet's 1910 Bleriot mishap in Spain.Courtesy of David Mamet

My grandparents were Eastern European Jews, and I am the grandchild of immigrants. They came here with nothing. The civilization from which they came was destroyed by the Nazis, so, growing up in the 1950s, there were virtually no physical artifacts of my family’s long European existence.

Most of the houses of my contemporaries (all Ashkenazi; that is, Eastern, Russian or Polish Jews), held a menorah, a ritual Chanukah candelabra; the two Sabbath candlesticks; and/or a samovar. Over the years the samovar was turned into a lamp and then disposed of in a move or a redecoration.

In my college years, meeting contemporaries of a different background, I was stunned by their reference to family histories.

My people came fleeing the Cossacks. Those who remained were killed by the Germans. The history of my people may be found in books, but that of our family is gone. Which is perhaps why I love memorabilia.

I have always collected trinkets (tchotchkes in Yiddish): employee badges of the movie studios; pin-back buttons commemorating worlds fairs, products, political campaigns; Judaica; cast iron toys, et cetera. I have aviation buttons stuck to every surface in my office.

Here we find a Guard's Badge for the Cleveland Air Races, 1935, an employee's badge for United Aircraft, a Curtiss-Wright Visitor's Badge, a pin-back button from the 1930 National Air Races in Chicago and a beautiful red and white cloisonné badge for Texaco Aviation Products.

On my desk is a silver ring commemorating the Douglas Aircraft First Round the World Flight (1924). The Douglas World Cruisers took off from Clover Field, now KSMO, which is 200 yards south of my office.

Aviation is, to stretch it, perhaps like the History of the Jews: It is an artichoke. Keep peeling it and, at the end, there is little there. It happened, and one had to be there. So my various memorabilia are a bit like the fly in amber. It’s stuck, but it ain’t mobile anymore.

My favorite find is a pencil.

I saw an advertisement for an ancient Gerstner toolbox. They’re still made, these, the Rolls-Royce of the genre. But they’re made now, I believe, in China, out of some wood which, unfortunately, wants to go yellow. The older ones were quarter-sawn oak, which aged deep, dark brown. At least mine did.

A fellow in San Diego advertised the box for sale. I flew down and bought the thing from him. I took it home and found, in one of the drawers, a green pencil marked NORTH AMERICAN AVIATION: WORK WITH PRIDE. Now that’s a find.

Some Brit could perhaps have seen the world in a grain of sand, but I defy him to conjure a P-51 Mustang out of a pencil stub.

I have three beloved Aviation photographs. They are all, curiously, of Jews.

The first is of my grandfather, Jack Silver. He came over from Warsaw in 1916 and was drafted into the U.S. Navy. A photo of him in uniform hung on my wall for decades. One day I looked closely and saw it was embossed “Bureau of Naval Aviation.” I got his military records and learned he’d spent the American portion of the War in France, as a mechanic working on seaplanes. Never mentioned it.

There is a photo of a smiling pilot leaning on the prop of his Corsair. He is my late friend, Lou Lenart.

Lou was a Hungarian immigrant. He came to the United States in the late 30s and enlisted in the Marines. They gave a test to any interested in aviation, and he scored first out of 4,000 applicants.

He flew Corsairs air-to-ground at Okinawa. After the War, he fought in the Israeli War of Independence.

There was an arms embargo against pre-statehood Israel, and the only airplanes the Israelis were permitted to buy were Czech surplus “Avia” 199s, their knock-off of the Messerschmitt Me 109.

Lou flew them against the Egyptians. He was the fellow who stopped the Egyptian Armor Column at the 14 Mile Bridge, outside of Tel Aviv. (The bridge, since named "Ad Halom": "That's it: no farther.") When all the 199s were exhausted, Czechoslovakia graciously sold Israel, and Lou flew their superior war-surplus Spitfires.

Frank Sinatra played Lou in the film Cast a Giant Shadow. Ezer Weizman, later president of the state of Israel, was Lou’s wingman. Lou was the lead pilot of the pre-state Israeli Air Force (four planes). After the ’48 War he flew Connies for El Al. He is, as Barry Schiff notes, the only man to’ve flown the Corsair, the Messerschmitt and the Spitfire in combat.

Some Brit could perhaps have seen the world in a grain of sand, but I defy him to conjure a P-51 Mustang out of a pencil stub.

The third photo is of a small Belgian fellow named Julien Mamet, Louis Bleriot's mechanic. He was my oomteenth cousin. There is a film of about six seconds length showing Bleriot's final preparations for the 1909 Channel flight. And there is cousin Julien fussing about the plane (he is the fellow in the white flying suit).

He was a barnstormer, flying stunts, exhibitions, air races and air shows all around Europe. One might ask of what his routines consisted, and here’s an answer from the June 4, 1910, issue of the British Flight:

Mamet at Valencia
As a finish to a series of exhibition flights which he has been giving at Valencia, Mamet arranged to fly over a ballonet at a height of 500 metres on Monday last. After a flight of 15 mins. he attained the height of the ballonet, but just then his motor stopped for some reason, and he fell into the sea, from which he was rescued by a motor boat. Nothing daunted, the aviator determined to make another attempt on his second machine, but this time the cord holding the ballonet broke. To compensate, the aviator gave the crowd a series of thrills by flying in the form of a figure eight.

In the May 14, 1910, issue of that estimable rag, we see my cousin being congratulated by Queen Victoria of Spain, and at the top of the page “a unique instantaneous photograph” of an accident of Mamet’s in his monoplane during his exhibition flights in Spain. Here he has stood the Bleriot on its nose. I have another photo – different country, same maneuver. The monoplane is, as before, rooting, nose down and pointing at China. The caption reads, “Atterrissage brusque de Mamet,” which I believe requires no translation.

Which brings me to my largest piece of memorabilia.

There I was, flying the Husky from Santa Monica to Apple Valley. I put it down in a very hefty crosswind, congratulated myself and taxied to transient parking, to tie down and stretch my legs.

All the airplanes were parked heading west, away from the runway. But no, I thought, these fools, as we are all going to have to turn around to get back to the active, why not put the nose toward the runway?

So I proceeded to turn it around and, shutting down, the vicious crosswind picked up the plane and stood it on its nose.

Well John, my friend, and flight instructor, salvaged a blade of the bent prop and fixed it on a stand, also mounted on which was the photo of my cousin’s “atterrissage brusque.” And around the blade a ribbon tied to a card reading, “Runs in the family.”