Unusual Attitudes: Saints, Rabbits’ Feet, Garters and Boomerangs

Pilots have plenty of superstitions, from simple knick-knacks to truly bizarre personal items. Alamy

When St. Mary’s Church asked Cincinnati bishop Joseph Binzer to officiate at a “Blessing of Aircraft” ceremony at Grimes Field in Urbana, Ohio, Bishop Joe demonstrated remarkable faith in divine providence and flew with me in 72B to this central Ohio town. It was September 18, the feast day of a 17th-century Italian monk famous for praying so fervently that he’d levitate off the ground. So although it would be several hundred years before the rest of us — fervent or otherwise — would levitate in flying machines, Joseph of Cupertino became the patron saint of aviators.

Actually, you can take your pick of aviation patron saints; in addition to this Franciscan friar, there’s my personal favorite, the archangel Raphael, the familiar but enigmatic St. Christopher (also the patron saint of bachelors and toothaches), St. Theresa, and Our Lady of ­Loreto. This last refers to Mary’s birthplace, a little house in ­Israel, which was miraculously scooped up by angels and “flown” to Loreto, Italy. Thus Our Lady of Loreto became the patroness of aviators, and the merchants of Loreto reaped huge benefits from the pilgrim trade.

Charles Lindbergh is said to have carried a Loreto medal across the Atlantic, as did Italian Umberto Nobile when he crossed the North Pole in the dirigible Norge. A chapel in Loreto with a painting depicting American astronauts and an image of angels bearing the Holy House of Loreto is called the American chapel or the aviation chapel.

Not to minimize the efficacy of invoking help from ­Joseph, Raphael, Christopher, Theresa or Our Lady, I am fascinated by the other rituals and charms, amulets and superstitions that aviators have employed over the years — and boy are we a creative bunch!

The good old rabbit’s foot has been invoked for good luck since 600 B.C. — well over 2,000 years before Wilbur and Orville launched the Flyer. But it won’t work unless it’s the left paw of an actual dried and preserved bunny “dispatched” in a specific way — and I won’t go any further into that.

Given the primitive flying machines and dreadful circumstances, it’s no wonder that World War I fliers ­depended on a wild variety of golf balls, horseshoes, or the Queen of Spades from a deck of cards. Others stuffed a ­teddy bear or, better, sewed the locks of a wife’s or girlfriend’s hair inside their jackets. While most avoided black cats, Lafayette Escadrille pilot Edwin Parsons attached one (not real, I hope) to the strut on his airplane. When Kitty got torn to hell by deflecting a bullet and saving Parsons’ life, Parsons restuffed and stitched him up so he could go back on the strut before the next mission.

French pilots of the time preferred wearing a girlfriend’s silk stocking to the traditional white silk scarf. They carried rings, hankies, baby shoes and riding crops, but the ultimate good-luck charm was a girlfriend’s garter — especially one removed from the leg of a virgin during the dark of the moon — and I’m not going any further with that one, either.

You may not think of German flugzeugführers as superstitious, but the Red Baron’s ­younger brother, Lothar von Richtofen, wouldn’t fly without his riding whip, and Ernst Udet scrawled his girlfriends’ initials all over the cockpit — which he would climb into only from the left side. ­Another German carried a baby turtle, and several squadrons kept live lion cubs as mascots. Not to be outdone by the Teutons, an African-American Allied pilot, Eugene Bullard (who later opened a jazz nightclub in Paris called L’Escadrille), flew with the ultimate good-luck copilot — a live monkey.

French aviatrixes (possibly those who had lost their garters) were equally creative: “Baroness”(really an actress) Raymonde de Laroche, the world’s first licensed female pilot, was famous for flying over Paris (illegally) in her signature bright green sweater. Hélène Dutrieu, a cycling champion and race car driver, carried her father’s army gaiters. Jeanne Harvieu flew with a baby pig until he got so big she’d give him a brief cuddle in the cockpit and then send him off to wait in the hangar. America’s first female pilot, Harriet Quimby, wouldn’t fly without a little brass idol, while her contemporaries favored wisps of their husbands’ whiskers, string dolls and pairs of old golf shoes.

When they came home from “over there” to barnstorm the country, pilots adopted the habit of touching their noses before taking off, and sticking a piece of chewing gum on the tail for good luck. As late as 1938, when Wiley Post took off from Floyd Bennett Field on his round-the-world flight, a woman spectator ran out to the plane just before takeoff to stick a wad of gum on the tail.

Pairs of dice decorated many World War II cockpits — both for luck and to acknowledge the high risk of ­being shot down. A silver dollar was considered especially lucky if the numbers in the year added up to 13 (such as 1921), to correspond with that coin’s 13 stars and its ­eagle’s 13 tail feathers. And allowing your picture to be taken ­before ­flying was avoided at all costs — a superstition that ­supposedly originated with the Red Baron.

Lots of guys wore religious medals or other tokens for good luck, but there’s an especially fascinating story about so-called Capri bells. These small bells had their origin in a legend about St. Michael leading a local shepherd boy to his lost lamb by ringing a small bell. In 1944 and 1945, small replica bells, believed to bring the wearer joy and good fortune, were made by monks on the Isle of Capri, and AAF pilots and crewmembers wore them on flight jacket lapels or as zipper pulls. Near the end of the war, the island actually donated a full-size bronze Capri bell to President Roosevelt to hasten an Allied victory. It’s still on display in the Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum in New York.

While Black Sheep Squadron Marine pilots scoffed at sheep bells and rabbits’ feet, they always waved a salute on takeoff to a real specimen named Midnite, grazing in a nearby meadow. This ritual, they claimed, was no superstition; it was an irrefutable fact that no pilot who paid his respects to Midnite on takeoff ever came to grief, and no serious accidents occurred after he joined the squadron.

Boomerangs were seen as good-luck devices because they always return to the place where they began. A B-29 named Boomerang made it home after 10 missions, ending with a raid over Tokyo in August 1945. With a colorful boomerang painted on the nose and an actual boomerang on board, it was considered bulletproof. Of course, nose art — often depicting exotic females with or without their garters and other stuff — is a subject all to itself.

Other WWII and post-war rituals included never ­writing your destination in a logbook until reaching the airport, taking the exact same route to the airport for every flight, peeing on a wheel on preflight to show the airplane who was boss, and wearing a lucky baseball cap — a favorite with everybody from Cub drivers to a British Concorde pilot.

Jet Age technology didn’t mean jet pilots were any less superstitious. In Korea and Vietnam years, they carried Snoopy dolls, wore special bandannas, or grew ­mustaches that weren’t shaved off until a tour was over and the ­pilot back on U.S. soil. One pilot wouldn’t fly without attaching his dad’s old flight suit name tag with gold Naval ­Aviator wings to his flight bag; others carried special pens or pocket knives. John Penney tells about the custom flying boots he and his buddies bought in Vietnam at the Good Luck Boot Shop. “I wore mine on every combat mission in the A-7 and never took a hit,” he says. Years later, when he raced Rare Bear at Reno, Penney’s wins, speed records and several successful emergency landings all happened when he was wearing his good-luck boots.

Airline companies as well as pilots have some interesting superstitions. Flight numbers like 666 and 911 aren’t used because of bad juju, and many airlines don’t have a row 13 or use a gate 13. You’ll see lucky numbers on flights to gambling destinations, like Southwest Airlines Flight 711 from San Antonio to Las Vegas. Another airline — believe it or not — tries to avoid boarding nuns and a passenger with a guitar in the same cabin. Then there’s a small South American airline that keeps lighted Virgin Mary candles at its base station when the weather’s down and, when things get really bad, plugs in a rotating Jesus lamp.

Astronaut Robert “Hoot” Gibson recalls that an extra 15 minutes between suiting up and heading to the pad was always programmed into the launch schedule. A deck of cards would appear, and the astronauts, joined by the flight crew operations chief, would play a homegrown game called Possum Fargo. Five-card hands were dealt with no betting or further cards, and whoever had the lowest hand won the round. “The lowest you could get was 2, 3, 4, 5, 7. That was the winningest hand,” Gibson says. (A 6 gave you a straight.) But the crew couldn’t leave until the commander of the mission won a hand — for good luck.

Not flying on a birthday; wearing a special pair of boxer briefs, a necktie or a pair of socks; or carrying two smashed pennies, a “lucky shop rag,” a favorite pair of Ray-Bans, or even an airline barf bag with a hole in the bottom — we’re still at it!

While I, of course, don’t believe in superstitions, who doesn’t give her airplane a pat or maybe a hug? Then there’s that blessing from Bishop Joe and, OK, a rabbit’s foot on my keychain.

Martha Lunken is a lifelong pilot, former FAA inspector and defrocked pilot examiner. She flies a Cessna 180 and anything with a tailwheel, from Cubs to DC-3s.

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