Poem of the Month–May 2022

The poem of the month is “Ground Loop,” by William Sloan. Sloan was a civilian instructor employed by the Ryan School of Aeronautics at Randolph Field, San Antonio, Texas.  This poem was first printed in Randolph Field: A History and Guide (1942).  A ground loop occurs when the pilot makes a faulty landing and the aircraft spins around, often violently, before coming to a stop.  Although Sloan never identifies the aircraft, it may have been the Stearman biplane trainer.  But any aircraft with two main gear and a tailwheel was /is susceptible to doing a ground loop. 


When a pilot’s been a-flying for a couple years or so,

And can kick a plane around, and put on quite a show,

It’s a thing he takes no pride in, and unless I have been scooped,

If he’s ever done much flyin’, he’s at different times ground looped. 


When the kaydets get together for a stage at Randolph Field,

And you’re due to draw a ship with a wobbly tail wheel,

You come in for your landing and you put her down O.K.

But before you know what’s happened, she’s headin’ for the hay. 


So you pour the gas into her and she bounds up from the ground,

And you’re feeling mighty thankful for a chance to go around;

Down the base leg you come roaring, cut the gun and make the turn,

But you know that they are watching and your ears begin to burn. 


You head in for the runway, note the drift and drop a wing,

And you feel the ship a-settlin’ as the wires begin to sing. 

The ground comes up a-tearin’ and you ease back on the stick,

And you bear down on the rudder and you do it mighty quick. 


But you know your case is hopeless when you feel her start to go,

And you crack the throttle open, but you know you’ve been too slow;

The horizon starts a-spinnin’ and the plane is swapping ends

As the dust begins to shower while the wing-tip slowly bends. 


You can hear the spar a-splittin’ and the fabric tear apart,

While the terror down inside you takes a death grip on your heart;

Your hands and feet are paralyzed as the dirt goes flying past,

And you duck down in the cockpit as the motor coughs its last. 


Then you climb out from the wreckage and your knees begin to shake,

And you feel humiliated for the ribbing you must take.

All the pilots crowd around you and advice begins to flow

And they tell you how it happened, just as if you didn’t know. 


They criticize and advise you, and although they’re meanin’ well,

You try to laugh it off and tell ‘em all to go to hell. 

Lots of pilots give prescriptions and enjoy to rub it in,

But there’s few that gave descriptions of the ground loops they were in. 


Notes: 

“cut the gun”: pull the throttle to idle. 

Poem of the Month, April 2022

The poem of the month for April is a group of three short poems taken from a book of aviation poetry by Louis De Jean, Winged Trails, published in 1927.  These three poems are part of a group of similar poems called “Twelve Soliloquies.”  Each poem is spoken by a now deceased pilot identified only by his initials.  Each one of the poems tells the story about how the pilot died while flying.  De Jean, who must have been an instructor pilot, was evidently influenced by Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, a book-length collection of poems in which men and women speak about their life experiences from beyond the grave.  


R. M. 

I was one of the younger fliers. 

From the first I loved the game,

And I flew at every opportunity. 

I like to show off,

And when I had flown two hours solo,

I climbed high above the airdrome

And tried to loop. 

A barracks flier had told me how. 

When the plane was upside down,

Something went wrong,

And it began to spin on its back. 

I lost my head and forgot

How to get out. 

We spun seven thousand feet

To the middle of the airdrome. 

My last thought was

That everyone would see me hit. 


L. W.

I had read of the wonderful exploits

Of Guynemer, Bishop, and Ball. 

And my whole being thrilled withy the thought

That some day I would be like them. 

The U. S. Air Service rejected me

On account of my eyes;

I was near-sighted. 

I went to Canada and bribed my way through. 

The Royal Flying Corps needed pilots. 

I worked hard and passed through the ground school

And was sent here to fly. 

I soon found I could not see to land a plane;

So I had powerful lenses fitted inside my goggles. 

And no one knew but my best friend. 

When I had flown for two months without a crash,

One day the strap which held my goggles broke,

And they blew away behind.

I was two thousand feet in the air. 

I came down and tried to land. 

But I couldn’t tell how close the ground was,

And my eyes blurred from the cold wind. 

My plane struck nose first.

Cruel fate!  I had so longed to surpass

The marvelous feats of Guynemer. 


V. C.  

I was sent here to teach the novices to fly. 

Upon my chest I wore the Cross of War,

Though I had done nothing to earn it. 

Before I entered the service of my country

I was a dancer of renown. 

I was a good entertainer and became popular

With all in the Service. 

I was only a fair flyer,

But I loved the game. 

They sent me back from France

Because they did not want me killed. 

At Taliaferro the boys worshipped me. 

And all tried to get into my flight.

I led what some called a wild life,

But I liked my work and did it well. 

One day a student flier

Crossed in front of my plane

When I was landing. 

Instinctively I pulled my nose up.

My plane turned on its back

And dived into the ground. 

The whole camp mourned me

And everyone said

I had given my life to save another. 

I did not deserve that, but—

I am glad I was a “good fellow.” 


Notes: 

Although we do not know the identities of two of the speakers (“R. M.” and “L. W.”), we can be quite confident that “V. C.” is Vernon Castle, who was a successful dancer and entertainer before he became a pilot in the Royal Air Force.  His dancing partner was his wife, Irene. Vernon Castle was killed February 15, 1918, when he tried to avoid hitting a student pilot who landed immediately in front of him.  The accident occurred at Benbrook Field.  Both Benbrook and Taliaferro fields were World War I training fields near Fort Worth, Texas.   

Poem of the Month, March 2022

The Poem of the Month for March 2022 is “Heroes,” by Ben Ray Redman.  Ben Ray Redman was a pilot in 79 Squadron in the Royal Flying Corps during World War I.  After the war he became a columnist for the Saturday Review of Literature.  He edited the works of Edwin Arlington Robinson and Voltaire.  “Heroes” was first published as a preface to his collection of flying stories about World War I, Down in Flames, published in 1930.  The poem describes the reactions of the men in the squadron as they tensely wait in their squadron mess (dining area) for a German night bombing raid to end.  It is written in the classic sonnet form.


Heroes

Ben Ray Redman


Dinner was ended when the warning came

(They’d bombed us every evening for a week): 

The night was scarred by futile jets of flame,

While searchlights madly played at hide and seek.

The Mess grew tense; then came the shrill high whine—

The roar!  Another, closer.  Then the third. 

“That got the ‘drome.”  The Major sipped his wine;

Muscles relaxed and stiffened figures stirred. 

But one sat rigid, fingers tightly clipped 

About a lightless cigarette, ash-white. 

That afternoon his lonely plane had dipped

Quite uninvited to a reckless fight

Where one faced five.  We prate of heroes when

The talk should run on circumstance, not men. 


Notes:

The ‘drome: the squadron’s airfield, typically a flat, grass-covered area. 

Poem of the Month–February 2022

Poem of the Month, February 2022

The poem of the month for February 2022 is “Night Celestial,” by John Ciardi. The poem describes a navigator trainee’s thoughts during a night celestial training mission over the Gulf of Mexico. In 1943 John Ciardi was in training as a navigator for the U. S. Army Air Forces at Selman Field, Louisiana. He subsequently flew as a gunner on B-29 missions over Japan in 1944 and 1945.

After World War II ended, he taught at Harvard University and then at Rutgers. He was poetry editor of the Saturday Review of Literature for many years. He published over twenty books of poetry.

Night Celestial

(published August 1943)

John Ciardi

You know the towns by neon. The camps and plants
By white light only. All the rest is lost.
Except, down there, the moon in the Mississippi,
And the shadowy cloud we crossed.

And then, far off, the white line of the beacons
Snapping nimble fingers on the night.
And at the last reach of the darkened land
The red wink of the code—the on-course light.

And then The Gulf. Now time and place are stars
And only stars may hear which way we wish.
Therefore, because there is no world below,
Let world be Vega, Spica, Regulus.

A myth and calculus—Shaula, Alioth, Caph,
Antares, Deneb Kaitos, Fomalhaut–
Dark Arab, bearded Greek, Nile ritual:
They sit on the shelf of wing that bears us out.

Over the endless lava of the moon,
Tracking the maddened motors of our flight,
Sprung from the dimmest history and no world:
Like Father Ape or Adam—a first night.

Notes:

Vega, Spica, Regulus; Shaula, Alioth, Caph, Antares, Deneb Kaitos, Fomalhaut: bright stars used for determining the position of the aircraft at night.

“They sit on the shelf of wing”: a reference to the large book of navigation tables containing the location of stars suitable for navigation to which the navigator refers before using the sextant to locate the stars while flying at night. When not in use, the book was placed on a small bookshelf at the navigator’s position in the training (or, later, operational) aircraft.

Poem of the Month–January 2022

Poem of the Month, January 2022

The poem of the month for January 2022 is “The Aviator,” by A. M. Sullivan, one of the best poets you never heard of. Sullivan’s poems never appeared in popular poetry anthologies, largely because his poems address the daily activities of modern life. Sullivan was associated with the firm of Dun & Bradstreet from 1932 through 1971, serving as editor of Dun’s Review. He was very active in poetry activities in the New York City area. He helped to host a radio program, The New Poetry Hour, on station WOR, from 1932 to 1941. He served several terms as president of the Poetry Society of America. He published over fifteen books of poetry.

The Aviator

A. M. Sullivan

(In Memory of Frank Hawks)

I met him first, leaning against the pillar in the McAlpin
Lobby, still dizzy with a continent etched on his
brain.

Two oceans remembered, and the steel thread stitching
the mountains and rivers; smoke of the morning at
Tucson; smudge of the evening at Newark.

Deaf with the speech of his motor, the roar of a voice
too swift for an echo from earth, but not too fast
for the shadow that burned with the friction of flight.

I knew them all—hedge jumper, pond hopper, barn-
stormer, clowns of the skyramp, snobs of science
with frost on the edge of their tongues.

But one, only one, who could smile his way through the
stormy tangles of air, and the foggy chatter of men
and women who talk through a stencil.

Knight of the vertical empires, wasp of the endless azure,
lost at high noon in the frivolous air,

Frank Hawks, whose name is a heavenly pun, we salute
you, child of wind, in the rich contagion of laughter.

Notes:

Frank Hawks was a well-known American aviator in the 1920s and 1930s. He was almost as well-known as Charles Lindbergh. Flying a variety of aircraft, he set a number of speed records. In 1929 he flew from Burbank California to New York in 18 hours and 21 minutes. He flew another west coast to east coast flight in 1930 in a time of 12 hours and 25 minutes. He was killed demonstrating the Gwinn Aerocar in September of 1938 when the aircraft snagged a telephone line on takeoff and crashed. He was 41 years old. He always appeared in photographs as smiling a friendly smile.

The McAlpin Lobby: In the 1920s and 1930s the McAlpin Hotel in New York City, located on Herald Square, at the corner of Broadway and 34th Street in Manhattan, was one of the most modern and popular of hotels.