There was an irritating noise intruding on my dream…what the hell was it? It couldn’t be an alarm clock…I just went to bed! I jammed the pillow over my head and burrowed into the bed. Damn! It was still there…. I rolled over and slammed the ‘off’ button on the offending clock. Fumbling badly, I finally found the light switch and blearily gazed at the dial…Four thirty! A.M.!! What in the world?
Slowly, my brain unfroze and it all came back to me. This was the morning of the famous Dawn Patrol flight at the National Stearman Fly-In at Galesburg. I had foolishly agreed to participate. It had seemed like a good idea the night before, but at 0430, the whole concept smelled like a run-over skunk. I slid out of bed and maneuvered into the bathroom for the morning’s ablutions.
Running the electric shaver over my face…thank the gods it wasn’t a straight blade…I remembered that we were to rendezvous in the hotel foyer at five. A quick shower might just wash away the cobwebs, but I doubted it. Pulling on a pair of faded jeans and a fairly clean shirt, I trundled down to the lobby. Naturally, I was the last one to show up. Mornings and I do not get along…as I’ve often said, I never saw a sunrise I liked.
We all piled into the rental car and I drove. It was still inky, black night, not a sign of dawn in the eastern sky. We pulled into the little parking lot at the airport and used flashlights to get our gear out of the trunk. John Rettick, who was to lead our gaggle on this flight, led the way to the airplanes. There were exactly 129 Stearmans on the grass parking areas…in the predawn gloaming, they loomed out of the darkness like prehistoric birds. My mini mag-light allowed me to find “Tillie”, my 1941 custom 450 horsepower beauty. She sat at her tie-down, her cockpit cover glistening with silvery dew, chocked and tethered to the cable that ran along the temporary flight line. All around me, I could hear pilots getting their planes ready to fly.
It was a little lighter now, and I saw that some folks were sleeping in small tents and shelters next to their parking slots. Man, were they in for a rude awakening! Way off in the distance, I heard a Continental radial engine cough to life. Then another. Holy smokes! I thought we were early! Obviously a lot of people would beat us into the air.
We were flying off to a little airport about 30 miles away for a pancake breakfast. This wouldn’t be a formation flight…just some planes meandering along in the same air mass. I hurriedly stowed the cockpit cover and chocks in the small baggage compartment and did a walk-around, poking into all the nooks and crannies with my mag-lite and looking for the usual suspects…fuel leaking, water in the gas, bird’s nests, flat tires, loose rigging, broken wheel-pant brackets, snapped cables…and of course, the absolutely mandatory pulling through of the big Hamilton Standard propeller the absolutely mandatory 18 blades. This ensured that oil had not collected in the bottom cylinders of the Pratt and Whitey radial, causing a hydraulic lock. If I were to hit the starter button without flushing the oil out, the connecting rods could snap like twigs and I would be out about $10,000…a wonderful incentive to do the job right.
By the time I had pulled on my wool sweater and donned a scarf and my leather jacket, I heard my friend’s motors begin to kick over and fire up. I jumped into the rear cockpit and yelled…”Clear Prop!!! Starting!!”
The big prop swung in a jerky arc and I cracked the throttle a fraction of an inch wider…Tappockata-pockata-pockata! All nine cylinders were firing in that powerful motor and I eased the throttle back to a loafing 600 RPM.
I sat there doing my cockpit checks and noticed I could read the checklist easily. The light had strengthened. Our lead called for a radio check-in. Even though we were not, strictly speaking, flying as a formation, we planned to taxi out together and take off one right after another. I was “Mustang 5”, and dutifully spoke up when it was my turn.
The lead put on a burst of power and pulled into the narrow taxi lane between the rows of parked aircraft. He then swung 90 degrees left and headed down the row. Number 2 did the same, and so on until it was my turn. I hit the throttle and Tillie shot forward a few feet until I had clearance to turn hard left. We made a comical picture, all of us doing shallow S-turns to see what lay ahead. The pilot is totally blind in the huge tail dragger unless he segues left and right and looks over the coaming.
After our run-ups we took the runway as a flight of five. Lead rolled, and as his wheels cleared the ground, number two followed. In due course, I ran the throttle up to 30 inches of manifold pressure. I had set the propeller pitch lever to give me 2000 RPM rather than the full-power 2300 RPM…it made for a far quieter takeoff, simply by keeping the prop tips subsonic.
We swung around to the east. I was closing on Number 4, Bill Austin, in the “Rag Doll”, when I heard Mustang lead call… “Lead returning to base…number 2, follow me back. Mustang flight, continue to Canton, number 3 is now lead.”
So…lead had a problem…
I saw him and his father, Jim, flying as Mustang 2, arc around to the north and back west to return to Galesburg. Later, we discovered that he had a rough-running engine, which he was able to clear on a subsequent run-up…he and Jim joined us at Canton, only a few minutes late.
Bill was closing on David Burroughs, the original number 3 who had just taken over as Mustang lead. We climbed up to 3500 feet and spread out for the flight to Canton, Illinois. As I was now able to look around, rather than simply concentrate on flying position on Bill, I was amazed to see Stearmans all around me. The sun was just below the rim of the world and the light was gray and clean. It was a sparkling clear morning, the fields below were shrouded in ground fog in the low-lying bottoms, the trees were black silhouettes lining the fences, and barns and houses were monochromatic etchings at the end of farm driveways. To my right, away from the sunrise, the Stearmans I could see were soft yellows and blues, while the ones to my left were inky black shadows against the brightening sky.
Then the sun peeped over the horizon! It rose with tantalizing slowness, inching ever higher. The airplanes on my right burst into brilliant colors, hard-edged yellows and vibrant, deep blues. On the left, they were black paper cutouts against a blazing sky. It took my breath away. I had seen countless sunrises from 37,000 feet, warm and secure and sleepy in the cockpits of airliners. I found very little to recommend them. Here, I was slicing through the silk-smooth morning air over the Illinois countryside, cold, wind-buffeted, vibrating along with the beat of the old radial engine and its huge prop, and it simply took my breath away! I felt a war whoop coming on!
I yelled at the top of my lungs, the sound immediately snatched away by the 100 mile an hour wind howling through my cockpit. No matter! I yelled again. This was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen in my life! The dawn air was so smooth that all the planes were holding their positions perfectly, and the tableau seemed frozen. I swiveled my head around, drinking in the colors and shadings, the red and green navigation lights blinking on and off, the utter lack of color to my left and the sensory overload of color to my right. Then a glance down at the still-monochromatic sleeping farms. The fingers of fog were growing as the sunrise brought the temperature and dew point closer together. They slithered through the lowlands and snaked along the creek beds. I could see cattle bunched up in fence corners, probably waiting for the farmer to bring them in for milking.
As the sun rose higher, the black and white scenes below drew tints and hues from the sunlight, and as the rays reached the ground, bright red barns appeared on more than half the farms. Trimmed in white, with black roofs, they shared the land with neat white clapboard farmhouses. Tree-lined fields marched away in all directions with their armies of corn and soybeans in perfect step.
Too soon, I saw Lead begin a gradual descent into the Canton airport. David made a lazy turn and entered the downwind leg. We all took our spacing and landed in sequence.
As we taxied into our grass parking area, I saw the massive doors of the main hangar open and lots of hungry pilots lining up for the pancake breakfast. There were at least 20 airplanes that had beaten us here!
As I shut “Tillie” down and secured the cockpit, I ruefully reflected that I had just lost one of my favorite expressions. I am a night owl, and not a fan of early mornings. For many years, I have said, “I never saw a sunrise I liked.”
I can never say that again…..