This story isn’t so much about the game of football as it is about flight and the transformation of a young man during his experience in a Stearman.
We begin with my arrival at Galesburg on Thursday, 29 August 2002. The hope was to beat our friend George Triche, but no body can beat George. Touch down for me and our 1941 Stearman, NC32498 was at 1435 Galesburg time. My wife, Polly, was driving and due to the rearrangement of 1-80 and getting disoriented (lost) she didn’t arrive until close to 1800.
As I was putting the tie-down staked in the ground, Jackie Lam, who is president of the “Sports Booster Club” over at Warren High, came out to the field and asked if I’d do the drop of the game ball as we did last year. Sure, no problem, I said. In fact, Phillip Wolford was all set to be the bombardier as well. Jackie was to come back next day, Friday and pick up the handheld radio and do our mission brief.
Friday afternoon, Jackie came over as planned along with her son, Cody. Phillip Wolford had to assist in the delivery of a new Cessna to its owner up in Wisconsin. Betty Campbell was the replacement bombardier. Jackie introduced me to Cody and asked if there was any chance he could drop the ball. Well, I s’pose, but I have a good ball-dropper lined up. Jackie then explained that Cody was a junior at Warren High and played guard, but he had just been in the hospital for an appendicitis operation. Talk about body piercing, Cody lifted his shirt and displayed his neatly stapled incision. Ok, that’s different, so sure, he can do the drop. Be sure he’s here about 1830 and wearing his game jersey. Jackie agreed and we got on with the mission brief. Daniel Wolford provided a handheld radio that was fully charged, we agreed on a frequency and the time we’d be airborne. Then, Jackie was to call us in so we could drop the ball just as the band was finishing. Timing was critical here because we didn’t want to incur a “delay of game” penalty”.
Stearman was fueled and waiting for Cody and the game ball. He and his dad arrived at 1815. His dad explained that Cody had never flown before; not ever! Oh boy, what am I in for?
Cody had a “just-in-case” double plastic bag along for the trip. Ok, we gotta go with the mission cuz you have the game ball, I told Cody. As I was strapping Cody in the front seat, I noticed he was real cold and shaking, almost shivering. The temp was close to 85°, so I knew it was nervousness. I told Cody to “cut that out, you are not gonna have a problem, this is the most fun you’ve had, promise”. “What if I get sick?”, Cody asked? “Get sick and you clean it, that simple.” I replied. I explained the intercom and how to use it, it’s voice activated, so all you need is talk, ok? Cody said he was all set, but still afraid. Then as I was getting in the rear seat, Cody spotted a hot air balloon just north of the field drifting ever so slowly in the general direction of the school. I mentioned to Cody that he’s drifting toward the ball field and we should smoke him just for fun. “Can we do that?” Cody asked. “Sure, we can, we can do almost anything with the Stearman”. I replied. I then explained that when the engine starts there’s gonna be a lot of smoke for a few seconds then it’ll settle down to a nice rumble and we’ll get going.
Engine start and taxi out, run-up all ok. One more time I asked Cody if he was ready and told him not to worry and to quit being afraid, this was gonna is a fun trip. I lined Stearman up for a north takeoff on the grass runway, rolled a few feet, locked the tailwheel and with throttle up, we were rolling. Just about liftoff, I heard this awful moan and groan over the intercom. I expected the worst and began a left turn towards the balloon. I looked at Cody in the mirror, asked if he was all-right. He said, “I think I’m gonna like this real quick”! All Right Cody!! We got us a mission! Keeping the balloon in sight; I made a nice right hand circle around it with the smoke on. Now, Cody seemed to be really enjoying the ride.
We headed more or less west bound toward Monmouth and Warren High. I briefed my now unafraid bombardier on the mission profile. How when his mom called in the drop, we had to get moving from south to north across the bean field just south of the school and missing the huge maple tree that stands just off the field was primary. If we didn’t miss the tree then dropping the ball was no longer an issue. I tried some turns and slips to give Cody a feel for what he would experience during the bomb run. Then he tells me his hand is not big enough to hold the ball in one hand. “No sweat”, I said just hold it with both hands and let it go. Cody suggested I drop the ball. “No way”, I said, “This is your game and you’re on sick leave and it’s your night, you do the drop”. “Ok, if you think I can do it”, says Cody. “Don’t matter, just do your thing and I’ll get us positioned as good as I can and what happens, happens.” We agreed!
More turns and a couple stalls while we waited for the radio call. Now as I looked at Cody in the mirror, he seemed really getting relaxed and more aware of what we were doing in the air. Few more minutes pass and about 1905, the call came. “Bring it in!” “Ok, Cody, mission is on get ready” I told him. Heading for the bean fields and picking up some speed, well a little bit anyway, we headed for the ball field. Just above the maple tree and a bit to the west of it, I had the field bore sighted. Told Cody to get ready for the drop. Maybe a hundred yards from the field, smoke on, missed the tree, got down on the drop zone, put Stearman in a left wing down slip. Cody was all set “Ok, let it go”, I told Cody. He did! As I put the power on, my once shivering and afraid rider loosened up his shoulder straps and stood as high as he could waving and hollering to his teammates. We did a nice reversal and gave them one more pass from north to southeast.
Jackie told us we hit the 50-yard line dead center! Climbing up a bit, I asked Cody if he wanted to try flying. He asked what the stick did and what the rudder pedals did. I gave him the down & dirty fast & furious basics. You know, forward stick is down, back is up, left is left & so forth. Wiggle the pedals and see what they do. Kinda use the rudder and the stick together when you turn. “Ready to fly, Cody?” You got it! “Hey, you live here and you know where Galesburg is, so how about flying us back to the airport?” I told my new flyer. Cody experimented with the controls and really yanked the stick back then pushed forward rather vigorously. I explained to move the stick with easy gentle movements, showed him where straight & level was and told Cody to play around now and just try to feel the Stearman respond to his movements. Too soon we were back at Galesburg. I told Cody to hold the stick gently and follow with me on the landing, but not to resist my control movements. I managed another rather nice landing back on the grass runway. As we taxied to our parking spot, there was a changed young man in the front seat. In place of the fearful look was a beaming, smiling from ear to ear “new” Cody Lam.
I shut the Lycoming down and asked Cody to wait so I could assist him getting out. We climbed down from the wing just as Cody’s dad was walking over. Wow, talk about a guy who enjoyed his ride. Cody couldn’t thank me enough, excitedly tried to explain what he had experienced to his dad. Just before he left, Cody turned around and said this to me; “I know you’re a pilot and all, but you really made the night for me, spose I can give you a hug?” Yeah, Cody, that’s ok. He ran off to watch the remainder of the game with this family and his team.
Warren High demolished their opponents, Princeville, 35-6. I think we have a new friend of aviation as well. In closing, one more thing; No matter where or what happens, Cody Lam will always be able to say his very first airplane ride was in a 1941 Stearman and he dropped the game ball at his high school football game.