Poem of the Month, July 2022

The poem of the month this month is one of my poems. It describes one of my more interesting adventures when I was in pilot training in central Texas many years ago.

Dodging the Butte

Early one morning, solo in my small training jet,

practicing maneuvers in my assigned area west of Snyder,

I decided to explore a cloud deck that was moving

slowly south, low above the surface of the flat west Texas plains. 

A thin layer, roads and fields visible beneath. 

I dipped a wing, pulled power back,

dove through the thin edge of the gauzy cloud,

banked left along a country road,

followed it for a time, then pulled up 

through the cloud into the open skies above,

a metal porpoise playing in a foam-filled sea. 

A second effort, farther west, through thicker cloud,

the ground lost briefly from sight then visible again

underneath the white layer, lots of room to spare

as I rolled wings level, a hundred feet above its deserted surface,

I might have been a rancher checking his fence line.

Once again above the cloud, I sought a new section

to explore.  Farther west, a cloud layer more thickly woven,

one white bubble rising above the ground-covering blanket. 

I dipped the left wing in a shallow turn, banking to the west,

easing into the whiteness, waiting for the ground to appear. 

A red light flashed past my right wing, cloud-shrouded,

attached to a tall tower, neon lights shining up from the ground,

a blinking traffic light at a road intersection, not fifty feet

beneath me, a gas station, restaurant, obscured in the cloudy

morning darkness.  The road below vaguely visible

through the dark gloom.  Ahead I see a dark object

rising to a height above my flight level too high to pull over.

A solid rock butte standing up darkly in the grey cloud,

growing larger in my windscreen.  The road below

angles to the right, past the object.  The road my guide,

I follow it, the butte a black shadow now past my left wing

as I pull up hoping for sky. 

Later, I checked my map. 

I had flown out of my training area, to a section where

the ground rose gradually.  My final dip through the solid cloud layer

had taken me over a small Texas town, whose early rising residents

had witnessed an early morning flyby

from a young air force flyboy

cruising past in exhilaration and fear

westbound over Highway 180. 

Book Notes

Wolfgang Langewiesche, I’ll Take the High Road.  Harcourt Brace and Company, 1939. 

Wolfgang Langewiesche’s I’ll Take the High Road became a classic of aviation literature almost as soon as it was published.  It describes his experiences learning to fly in the late 1930s.  He tells us almost nothing about his life away from flying.  He was involved in education, first as a student at Columbia University in New York, and then as a teacher at Sarah Lawrence College.  All he tells us about him time away from airports is that he worked in order to earn money to pay for his flight instruction and cross-country flights.  According to his account, he lived to fly.  We never learn why this was so, but there is no doubt that it was so.  In addition to capturing the experience of flight well, his account shows what a lucky aviator he was; he could have killed himself at least three times. 

The book charts his path from student to licensed pilot, flying small, single-engine aircraft.  His narrative is exceptional for the details he provides about what it is like to fly (and even jump out of) an airplane.  This trait is evident in the chapter titled “The Mysterious Factor X”; although he never defines what he means by the “X factor,” I believe he is referring to thinking aeronautically, developing the sense that a pilot has to develop to anticipate what will happen next in flight, whether taking off, cruising, or descending for a landing.  Part of developing the X factor is becoming confident of the capabilities of the aircraft a pilot is flying as well as his or her ability to control the aircraft successfully.  This sense of confidence is necessary to avoid the fear of flying, or to be more exact, the fear of what might go wrong when you are in an airplane, especially a small, single-engine plane. 

His personal flight training program begins in Chicago, where he learns to fly in a “Travelair” (probably a Travel Air 4000, built in the late 1920s by Clyde Cessna, Walter Beech, and Lloyd Stearman).  After he moves to New York, he flies a “Fleet.”  His third and final training stop is Al Bennett’s flying field near Princeton, New Jersey, where he develops his ability to fly a Piper Cub, the aircraft which he flies on his cross-country flights. 

Two of the most engaging chapters are “Knapsack of Salvation” and “Neurosis in Miniature,” both of which describe his sensations when he intentionally jumps out of an airplane wearing a parachute.  In “Knapsack,” he makes the jump in order to qualify as a stunt man at local airshows.  As he approaches the ground he sees a sturdy barbed wire fence in his path and mentally considers his options to avoid it.  Fortunately he misses the fence; if he had hit the fence, he probably would have been killed, but he considers this possibility only in passing.  In “Neurosis” he decides he wants to free fall through the air as long as he possibly can before deploying his parachute.  Again, he is incredibly lucky, as he waits almost too late to pull his rip cord.  His description of his sensations as he falls through space, especially in “Neurosis,” are detailed and comprehensive.  Although he was one of the first to “sky dive,” as we call it today, I doubt that there is a more accurate account of what it is physically like to fall a long distance through the air. 

Sandwiched between his parachute jump accounts is a chapter called “Flying Team,” in which he ventures on his first cross-country flights with an eager female pilot, Ellen.  Initially he is the navigator and she is the pilot on the outbound flights, and the roles are reversed on the return flights.  Flying out of Chicago, he and Ellen fly across the Midwest, to Minneapolis, Madison, Wisconsin, and other fields of similar range.  It is clear that the two of them develop a special working relationship (though he says not romantic), and he is horrified as he watches from the ground as she, flying solo, fails to pull out of an inverted spin: 

Half a turn later, horribly late, she began to recover.  She succeeded in stopping the turn and went into a straight dive, first nosing down at about seventy degrees, then vertically.  As if coming out of a loop. She was beginning to pull out right side up, but still pointing almost straight down, when she hit the ground. 

The front of the ship crumpled, and the wings cracked and folded backwards, and thus the ship stood on its head, for a moment quite like an arrow that has been shot into a tree and quivers.  It was a quarter mile beyond the airport fence.  Everybody started running, but there was a bit of smoke, and a slight sound saying “P!”  Out of that broke a high yellow flame which kept burning for almost half an hour while the sirens wailed. (132) 

After Langewiesche earns his pilot’s license, he flies a series of cross country flights down the east coast of the United States, first to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and then to Key West, Florida.  In the chapter titled “You Must Beware of Hatteras,” he describes his solo flight in a Piper Cub down to Cape Hatteras, where he lands on a beach.  He meets and interacts with the coastal people who operate the Hatteras light, forming a friendship based on their mutual fascination with communication from shore to ship.  As a cross-country pilot, he can speak their language of navigation.  He flies to Kitty Hawk, where the Wright brothers flew their first successful test flights, paying homage to their efforts.  When he lands to investigate an abandoned shipwreck, he is almost trapped by the incoming tide as he struggles to clear his small plane from the uncooperative sands. 

In “Key West with Lady,” he persuades an air-minded young lady to ride in the front seat of a Piper Cub as they fly down the coast to Miami and then to Key West.  He is less interested in the tourist attractions of coastal towns than he is in the phenomenon of flying over long stretches of water with little or no possibility of landing safely if the engine fails.  This episode is followed by a chapter titled “Adventure in the Forest,” in which he finds himself engulfed by dense fog while flying low over the pine trees of Georgia.  Low on fuel, he determines that he should land but in the wispy fog cannot find a clearing large enough for a safe landing.  So he chooses the next-best alternative: he lands in a less-heavily forested area where the tall pine trees can cushion their landing.  His account reads like a make-believe story: 

I kept the ship barely flying with small bursts of power just clearing the crowns of trees hoping the maneuver had been properly gauged and the clearing would appear again. 

            Then it opened up under me. 

I cut the gas.  She stalled and mushed down like an elevator; out of the corner of my eyes, I saw the trees grow up beside us.  Halfway down I gave her another burst of power so she wouldn’t drop entirely out of control.  Two tree trunks loomed up dead ahead: the crash. 

I gave a fast kick on the rudder and jerked the stick over so as to stick the ship’s nose through between the two.  This way the wings would take the shock and shear off, rather than the ship’s nose and our heads.  My hand was on its way to the ignition switch.  But before we reached the trees, her wheels brushed through some flimsy greenery, with a noise as of a deer breaking through some underbrush, and she stopped almost on the spot. 

The forest was quiet except for the slow throbbing of our engine.  I switched it off.  (217-218) 

Unbelievable!  The aircraft comes to rest on the ground without causing injury to himself or his passenger.  With the help of some enthusiastic locals, he lowers his aircraft to the ground, where he discovers that although the aircraft has suffered some damage to fabric and spars, nothing structural has been broken, and he decides to take off after the weather clears.  His woman companion returns home by another means. 

Although he never identifies the woman passenger who shares these challenging adventures with him in the book itself, it is unofficially dedicated to “Elizabeth Coit, passenger.”  Elisabeth Coit was an award-winning architect who specialized in designing economical housing in the years before World War II.  Not only did she have an adventurous spirit, she must also have had great trust in her relatively inexperienced but level-headed pilot. 

Poem of the Month–June 2022

The poem of the month for June 2022 is “The Reconnaissance Plane,” by Dabney Horton.  Like Horton’s poem, “Pilot’s Luck,” which was the poem of the month last December, this poem is based on his experiences as a pilot flying with a French squadron during World War I. 

Horton was an American pilot who flew for the Aviation Militaire branch of France during World War I. He joined in the summer of 1916 and flew with three French escadrilles (squadrons) for the next two years. After completing his flight training, he was assigned to Escadrille C. 17 (which flew Caudron aircraft) from July 1917 to January of 1918. He then flew with Escadrille Sop. 255 in January and February of 1918 (this unit flew Sopwith aircraft). Finally he flew with Escadrille Spad 75 from September 1918 until the Armistice (11 November 1918). This escadrille flew SPAD XIII aircraft. A brief profile of Horton can be found Nordhoff and Hall’s Lafayette Flying Corps.

The Reconnaissance Plane

Just above the trenches, a mile or so in height,

We’re after information and we haven’t time to fight,

Wireless man’s a-signalling the batteries below,

“Five to left,” and “Two to left,” “Hold it now, just so!”

Direct the guns for half-an-hour; we’re the only eyes they’ve got;

Hope the Boches don’t knock us down with a bloomin’ lucky shot! 

Keep the motors roaring, then you’ll never hear

The shrapnel that’s a-busting all along the rear. 

Pilot’s got to watch above.  Mustn’t fail to see

The stubby wings and rounded tail that mark the L.V.G. 

The L.V.G.’s a wicked bird, got to use your eyes, 

He’ll send the wind right up your back if he takes you by surprise. 

Cra-a-ang!  In the right-hand motor!  Must’ve been a shell! 

Dive and turn—Dieu Merci, t’other motor’s going well! 

Cut the juice and shut her off, else we’ll share the fame

Of Elijah’s ride to Heaven in a chariot of flame.

With one single motor to do the work of two,

Keep your eyes about you, the job is almost through. 

And now for home.  “Ah, le voila!  There he is at last! 

An L.V.G.’s a-coming, and he’s coming mighty fast!”

The Luft Verkehrs Gesellschaft’s a beautiful machine,

He’s full o’ speed and full o’ guns, and twice as full o’ spleen,

But now that we have seen him, we’d better go away—

It’s supper-time there down below—we haven’t time to stay.

So au revoir, my speedy foe, as you volplane from the blue,

You may have a better motor, but I can drop as fast as you. 

Every wire a-whistling, hangars drawing near,

Flatten out against the wind.  God! I’m glad I’m here! 

My mechanician’s going to weep when he sees the wreck,  

But what’s a busted motor against a busted neck! 

A cigarette, and in the shade a soft and roomy chair,

To watch and count my comrades returning from the air,

Like a troop of homing swallows a-circling to their nest–

That’s the part of flying that I like the best!  

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.