A city boy learns to fly in the country

With only a few instructional hours logged, I had virtually no flying instincts. Mac, my instructor, called “power” and simultaneously shoved the throttle forward. It was all that kept us from cutting a swath through a cornfield bordering the runway’s approach end. The Cub wallowed ahead, barely above a stall, bouncing down on the grass just yards beyond the stalks. It was my introduction to descending air. A year later on a sunny summer day I’d stand helpless at the edge of the cornfield bearing witness to the unforgiving physics of flight and wondering if those innocent stalks greening up in the sun may have played a part.

It was the mid-1950s and I was a 16-year old Bronx kid learning to fly Piper Cubs on weekends, all funded on a $40 a week summer job at Arnold Constable, a prestigious but long gone Fifth Avenue Manhattan department store. The closest affordable flight instruction was at Stormville airport, a sod strip 60 miles north of the city in the mid-Hudson Valley.

Stormville airport
Stormville airport was once a thriving grass strip. (Photo courtesy of Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields)

Just walking around the field’s tie downs and small hangar was a tour through two world wars and the 1950s post-war general aviation boom. Bonanzas, Aircoupes, Aeroncas and Luscombes were common sights. A twin-rudder Lockheed Lodestar with its low-slung fuselage almost touching the grass and a Cessna T-50 known in WWII as the Bamboo Bomber were also tied down with the group.

And there was more.

One weekend I walked into Stormville’s small wooden hangar to find a World War I Spad XIII with American roundels and hat-in-the-ring emblem on the fuselage looking like it was ready for its next mission against the Red Baron. It belonged to Cole Palen, an antique aircraft enthusiast who had a gaggle of flyable WWI planes at his Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome about 35 miles north of Stormville.

Cole bid on and bought a bunch of the planes when Roosevelt Field airport and the nearby museum on Long Island were shut down to make way for a shopping center. Cole was friends with Pete O’Brien, who owned Stormville with his wife, Rose, and from time to time he’d drop by in one of his old warbirds. There was no telling what one might see in Pete’s hangar or out on the grass by the runway: a Snipe, Jenny, Spad, even a Bleriot.

My trip began at dawn with a subway ride to Manhattan then a bus to Danbury, Connecticut, connecting to another bound for Poughkeepsie, New York. In retrospect, the trip was a sociology course in the stratification of American society. Often riding with me out of Manhattan were around 15 plainly dressed women in their 20s and 30s carrying string wrapped packages in shopping bags.

They mostly sat quietly and apart, looking out passively as we headed north through Harlem and up Manhattan’s east side toward the Bronx and Westchester. But from snippets of conversation, I gathered that they lived in the city, working its hourly jobs and, like me, this was their only transportation north. Drivers called it the weekend prison bus because most passengers were wives, girlfriends and mothers of inmates at Greenhaven State Prison, a half-mile wide maximum security high-walled square studded with guard towers just over the hill from Stormville Airport.

At Danbury, a group of cheerful girls on the other end of America’s socio-economic spectrum joined us. They were Vassar students, a little older than me, returning to school in Poughkeepsie. They came on chatty, upbeat and smiling, gathering in the back behind the prison ladies who sat expressionless with their bundles. It was about a 45-minute ride northwest from Danbury through the Connecticut countryside into the Hudson Valley along highway 216 then up the long, circular driveway to Greenhaven’s main entrance. Guards peered down from watch towers on the high concrete walls. The Vassar girls in the back of the bus who minutes before were cheerfully chatting, fell silent and watched as the women gathered their bags and got up to leave. Even to a 16-year old kid, the juxtaposition of realities and expectations between the two groups was palpable and I think the Vassar girls felt it as well.

Stormville airport home
Pete and Rose O’Brien’s white house was the operations center for the Stormville Airport.

My stop was about a mile down the road at Stormville’s rutted dirt driveway leading to Pete and Rose O’Brien’s white clapboard farm house where they lived with their young daughter. Its ground floor served as the operations office, briefing room and snack bar. Everyone used the home’s only second floor bathroom where Rose taped conspicuous signs above the toilet defining what should and shouldn’t be flushed. Other sharply worded reminders about cleanliness and bathroom protocol were taped here and there at eye level on the walls, by the sink and on the wooden bathroom door with its dangling privacy hook which could be dropped into a metal eye screwed to the door frame.

At the back of the house, facing the grass strip and tie downs, a covered wood plank porch with a row of rocking chairs was the lounge and general gathering spot. When Pete was wasn’t out pumping gas, tending to other airport functions, or the weather turned inclement, he was often seated there in a rocking chair spinning flying tales and local country lore. The little strip had a history. During World War II, it was a training site for Women Air Force Service Pilots (known as the WASP), who ferried military aircraft around the country, freeing up men for combat missions. My, how things have changed!

Mostly my instructors were Walt and Joe, who lived near Stormville and worked full time at the airport instructing and doing chores. Preflight briefings were sparse. Walt or Joe just climbed into the front seat and I’d strap in behind them in the rear seat where the pilot sits in a Cub during solo flights. Turning their heads to the side, they’d speak in normal tones before engine start, raising their voice to a near shout in order to be heard over the engine’s roar as the period progressed. Walt was an enlisted bomber crewman in World War II; I didn’t know much about Joe.

My $40 a week summer job limited me to one hour of instruction a week. An hour of dual was nine dollars, solo six. Around midway through the summer of 1957 after about five instruction periods, I had mastered level flight, turns, climbs, descents and stalls and was almost consistently making decent three-point landings. With minimal preflight briefings and post flight discussion, Walt’s terminology yelled over the engine’s roar sometimes didn’t seem connected to anything aeronautical. But I just accepted it without question, doing my best to replicate what he had just done. It took a few instructional periods before I realized that the gliding banked stall I had mastered was an approach turn stall, not a “poach stall.”

Learn to fly sign 1960s
Prices have gone up over the course of 60 years.

I always booked instructional periods for the following week before taking the bus back to the city, rarely canceling for questionable weather. On blustery weekends, Walt would declare, “It’s too windy for landings. If you wanna fly, we can do spins.” I was already there and primed to fly so rather than let my nine dollars burn a hole in my pocket until the following weekend, I say, “Let’s go!”

I’d make the takeoff and we’d laboriously climb to around 3000 feet while gusts rocked the little Cub this way and that. Then Walt took control, pulling on the carburetor heat, setting the throttle to idle and pulling stick back as far as it would go. The little plane got quiet, then buffeted in a deep stall. Walt shoved in full right rudder. The nose pitched down sharply, the slipstream roared and the ground whirled around in a blur. It was terrifying.

We went around two turns, then he neutralized the rudder, eased the stick forward and recovered. The farms and fields of Dutchess County looked a lot bigger after we leveled off and I’m guessing we lost at least a thousand feet. Two weekends that summer were unsuitable for takeoff and landing practice and relegated mostly to spins and stalls. With about eight hours under my belt, I never got to solo that first summer.

The following June, after two hours of takeoffs and landings over two weekends, Joe, my alternate flight instructor, casually said, “I guess you didn’t forget much from last year, I’ll just climb out and you can do it yourself.” He climbed out and stood at the end of the runway by the cornfield that nearly snagged me the previous year. I swung the Cub around, lined up, pushed the throttle full forward and rumbled off into the air.

First solo is like two final exams: a test of self-confidence to go it alone as well as demonstrating the skill to safely fly off and make it back. I had made the cut. But the next trip to Stormville that summer had a darker ending and gave me insights about pilots and flying that I hadn’t read in any book.

The following weekend, feeling exuberant and expectant, I strolled out for my first unsupervised solo flight past the tied-down menagerie of Cessnas, Luscombes, Aircoupes, and Tri-Pacers. Pete must have come by earlier that morning with his tractor mower because the scent of fresh cut grass filled the air.

With preflight preliminaries done, I strapped into the back seat, secured the bottom flap door, snapped the top door flap to the wing’s underside, cracked the throttle about an inch and set the elevator trim. The ground handler called: “brakes and contact.” I reached up, switched the magneto handle to BOTH and called out, “brakes and contact.” He tugged the prop to be sure both my heels were pressed against the small brake pedals below the rudder bars (Cubs don’t have parking brakes) then he sharply spun the prop. In the warm June air, the 65 hp Continental caught immediately. I waved the ground handler away and soon was climbing to join the downwind leg for what I expected to be an hour of takeoff and landing practice. But I wasn’t alone in the traffic pattern.

Arnie with instructor
It took two summers, but solo finally came.

A Waco UPF-7 piloted by a young doctor and his buddy in another biplane were going through their aerobatic paces nearby, sometimes making low passes close by the runway. As I glided toward the runway on short final approach, a biplane’s shadow swept over my Cub, passing close overhead about a hundred feet off the left wing. I continued down, judicially keeping airspeed pegged at 60 mph, adding a burst of power above the cornfield, flaring and rumbling onto the grass in what I considered a pretty good three-point landing. Rollout was fairly short, perhaps 300 feet or so, and I swung the Cub around and headed back for another takeoff. But unknown to me and out of sight, the Waco was coming in low toward the runway on an aerobatic run.

Taxiing slowly along the side of the runway, S-turning as I went (a necessary taxi technique in a tail dragger like the Cub to see the way ahead), I spotted a small plane about 300 feet across the runway pitched tail high with its nose mostly gone just resting there, tranquilly. It wasn’t there the last time I looked and it took a moment to realize that it was the Waco just seconds after it crashed.

I switched the magnetos OFF, jumped out and ran toward to wreckage as a small fire erupted from the Waco’s shattered nose. Joe, my instructor, who was in a Cub taxiing behind my plane, ran close behind me. By the time we reached the Waco it was engulfed in flames, its fuselage skin burned off exposing the pilot, crumpled, charred and burning in the cockpit. All we could do was stand there and watch. Cars sped across the airstrip and people came running from the house. With no crash-rescue equipment on the airport, people could only stand back as the wreckage burned itself out. After about 20 minutes a fire engine arrived along with the state police.

Whether the cornfield’s persistent downdraft was a contributing factor, or if a control problem, or something else occurred, we’ll never know. But, after that day, I understood why savvy pilots plan for things to go wrong and also make allowances for their imperfections and those of others. And just as important, I learned to be wary of those who banked on flawless performance to survive. Some would call it being wimpy, but it got me safely through 43 years of military and commercial aviation.

Later that afternoon standing at the driveway by highway 216, I flagged down the bus to Danbury and headed home. At the Greenhaven Prison stop, nobody got on. I guess the visiting ladies caught the earlier bus to the city.

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