by Hal Janneck
Flying, flying and controlling an airplane, have been part of my consciousness since what seems to be the very dawn of my memory. One of my earliest readings included a story that I still remember. It was one in which the hero was a farm boy who constructed a two-engine model airplane, powered by twisted rubber bands, and launched it from the top of the silo on his farm. In those years, I don’t think that the tiny engines that power the more sophisticated model airplanes of today had been perfected. But this lad made an airplane, with sticks of balsa wood, glue, paper, and rubber band “engines,” and it flew.
With that inspiration, over several years I tried dozens of times to make a stick and paper model plane, but never quite succeeded. I completed wings, and I completed fuselages, and I completed vertical and horizontal tail surfaces, but I never created all the parts all at the same time and all part of the same model. My interest never waned. I continued to read about flying and I watched airplanes at every opportunity. My Dad’s farm was directly beneath the flight path of airplanes flying from Minneapolis to Fargo and every day I’d watch them flying overhead. The first commercial plane I was ever able to identify was the DC-3, which was the passenger plane flown by Northwest Airlines beginning in the late 1930’s and continuing for the next two decades.
Just two miles south and a bit west of the farm was an “airline beacon.” This rotating light, high on a tower set out near the community cemetery, was a guiding light for night-flying aircraft of that day. Many lonely nights were rendered only slightly less lonely as I watched its repeating sequence of two reds, a green and a white. The sequence was repeated every thirty seconds or so from sundown to sunup. Beacons just like this one were installed every twenty to thirty miles along any path that the aircraft was scheduled to follow anywhere in the United States. On really clear nights in the winter, I could see light being reflected from the snow around the beacon in Fergus Falls and the one in Fargo/Moorhead . . . in addition to the one by the Barnesville cemetery. In making the flight from Minneapolis to Fargo, the pilot would find the first beacon on his route and would then fly over the procession of identical lights until he arrived at his intended destination.
When World War II began, that same Minneapolis/Fargo flight route served as the flight path for hundreds of military aircraft that were ferried from points east and south to Fargo, where they had a refueling stop. From there, the route extended to Great Falls, Montana, then north across Canada to the Eilson Army Air Force Base near Fairbanks, Alaska. Once in Alaska, Russian pilots took over the aircraft, and flew them across western Alaska to Siberia and across that vast area to more western parts of the Soviet Union. Included in the airplanes flying that route were the P-39 Bell Aerocobra, and the Lockheed P-51 Mustang (basic trainers with an unknown designations), and a number of transport aircraft. I learned about them in school where, in support of the “war effort,” we carved small model planes in Mr. Jacoby’s shop class. These models, all painted with flat black paint, were shipped to military bases all around the country, where they were used to train military personnel to identify various enemy as well as “friendly” aircraft. With the knowledge gained in shop class, I was able to identify a number of the craft as they flew overhead day after day during the war years.
One day in the late 1930’s, my Dad and Mother took me on an automobile ride to the neighboring community of Rollag, Minnesota. Just northwest of the town itself, we stopped to visit a retired farmer who lived there on his homestead. Part of the story he told that day (the part I listened to) dealt with the fact that he had constructed and had flown his own airplane and had never taken a flying lesson. This had not been the type of “home-built” that we think of as we near the end of the 20th century, which is built with composite skin, an aluminum framework and powered by a reliable high powered air-cooled engine. This one was really home built, built up from written descriptions and sometimes rather rudimentary drawings in books, with a framework made largely of wood, covered with painted cloth and powered by a water-cooled automobile engine. I never did find out what he did with the plane, but given the time, it was probably rotting away in the grove of trees that surrounded his farm yard. However, he had lived his dream . . . he had built an airplane and he had flown it.
On a Sunday afternoon a few weeks later, we were attracted by the sound of a low flying airplane and we went out into the front yard to see what was happening. There, flying past the house, was a brightly colored biplane. We watched it as it flew over the fields just west of our buildings and on over the town which was just a mile and a half away. It flew above the town in a huge circle two our three times, and then headed back toward our fields. Approaching a stubble field a quarter mile from our house, the plane flew still lower, made another circle and landed. Now on the ground, the pilot slowed the plane, turned it around and shut off the engine. We could see him from our front yard as he climbed down from the cockpit.
We had a real airplane in our field. At my urging, Dad, Mother and I got into the car and drove down across the field to the airplane. By the time we arrived, there were other cars raising plumes of dust as they came out the gravel road leading from town to our farm. We were the first arrivals and as Dad got out of our car, the pilot came over and they introduced each other. He explained to Dad that he would like to use the field as a landing place, and if it was okay with Dad, he would put on a little flying demonstration for any townspeople that would come out. He went on to explain that following his little air show, for a charge of $2.00, he would take people up in his airplane for a ride around the area.
He told Dad that he would be happy to give him and Mother a ride as “rent” for the field. Dad agreed and the pilot went back to the plane and began making some adjustments on the engine. Without saying anything, I was hoping that when the time came, I would be included with my parents on the “rental” flight. More people arrived on the scene. Once fifty or more people had assembled, the pilot announced that he was going to put on a little “air show” for their entertainment, and that after the show, people could take a ride with him for a small charge.
Standing with one foot on a step jutting out from the side of the aircraft, he reached into the controls in preparation for starting the engine. Then he jumped down and trotted around the end of the wings, approached the propeller, reached up and turned it a little way. Bracing himself, he pulled down on the prop with all his strength. As he let go of the propeller, the engine made a popping sound, smoke came out a pipe on the side of the airplane, and the propeller turned around once or twice, stopping with a jerk and a backward kick. Again the pilot reached up, pulled down on the prop, braced himself and pulled down even harder than the first time. This time the engine popped and smoked once . . . then again and still again, smoking all the time. It stopped.
The third time he pulled the prop through, the engine popped a couple of times and then continued to bang and bark as he ran around the wings again, this time climbing up into the cockpit and dropping down at the controls. I could see him as he devoted his attention to what I knew were the engine controls in the front of his cockpit. The engine began to run more smoothly, finally settling down to coughing/roar that was unlike any sound I had ever heard.
The speed of the engine increased, the propeller blast kicked up a cloud of dust and straw particles. Men shielded their eyes from the dust while the women clutched their hats, their skirts and their “Sunday hair,” all at the same time. Then, at full throttle, the airplane began to move, slowly at first, with the wings rocking from side to side as the wheels of the plane struck irregular places in the ground. The plane moved faster, the tail came off the ground and moments later it was in the air!
Prior to World War II, private aviation was almost unheard of, and those few people who did own aircraft, paid for them by “barnstorming.” This meant they would go to small towns, give flying demonstrations, do flying stunts, and take people up for sightseeing rides (for a fee) in their airplanes. There were no laws that precluded them doing this, and I’m sure, few regulations governing their activities. This man was a Midwestern “Waldo Pepper,” one of the last barnstormers in the late Depression Era. After making several low altitude passes over the gathered crowd, the plane gained altitude. Flying straight for a few seconds, the pilot rolled the plane into a shallow turning dive, and threw a role of toilet paper out of the open cockpit of the airplane. Caught in the “wash” from the propeller of the airplane, the light weight paper formed a huge white loop in against the pale blue background of the warm fall sky. The plane pulled out of the dive, pulled up at a steep angle, fell off sharply to one side, and dove back down through the center of the paper loop!
Suddenly, after completing the recovery from the dive, the engine began to backfire. The plane flew level for a few seconds, then banked and glided toward the ground. It landed, the engine still misfiring. In a few seconds it began to move again as the pilot opened the throttle and with the engine running erratically, taxied back to place where he had originally parked.
The engine stopped, the pilot climbed out of the cockpit and jumped down to the ground. He assured the crowd that it was a small problem and he would soon be able to finish the show and take folks for a ride. Reaching into the storage compartment behind the pilot’s seat, he took out a tool kit. He then asked Donald “Claw-bar” Olson, one of the local high school kids that was standing close to him, to give him a helping hand. We waited, and waited, and waited. The pilot continued to work on the stricken craft. Finally, we went home, and so did the other people who had remained for the resumption of the “show.”
Darkness came, and the plane remained on the field. When I awoke the next morning, I went down stairs and out on the porch to see if it was still there. It was. Nearly a week passed. Each morning I would go out to see if the plane had left during the night. Each morning it was still there, sitting alone in the middle of a fifty-acre stubble field. Finally, on Saturday, some men arrived in a car and went down to the plane. The plane had become part of the scenery by then, and we didn’t pay a lot of attention to it or to its visitors. However, by the time we finished evening chores that day, the aircraft was gone, and we never saw it again.
My personal, first-hand initiation into the wonders of flight came a year or so after the incident with our barnstormer.
The “Barnesville Boosters,” the “Barnesville Community Club” or some similarly named group in my hometown of Barnesville, made a decision to do something to elevate the image of the community. One of the first steps they took was to declare that Barnesville was to be the home of the “National Potato Picking Contest.” In those years, all potatoes were picked by hand, usually with two pickers teaming up to pick together. In a contest such as this one, only those pairs of pickers capable of picking two or three hundred bushels a day would even be considered as candidates to participate. Even with such high standards, expectations were that as many as fifty pairs of pickers would be in the running for the championship. There was a lot to be done to organize and operate the contest.
The next thing they did was to put up a sign on the west side of Highway #52, about three miles out of town, near the Ralph Mathews farm that read “WELCOME TO BARNESVILLE” and in smaller letters below, “City of Friendly People, Industry and Agriculture.” Below all of that, in bold letters, the sign read, “HOME OF THE NATIONAL POTATO PICKING CONTEST.”
My Dad’s farm extended to a point about a half mile from the edge of town. In one of those early years the committee asked him if he would “host” the contest. He agreed, and acceded to their request that he plant potatoes on that part of the farm that was most accessible to the town. He planted the field called “The Brickyard,” so named for the quarry at its west end where, in the latter part of the 19th century, clay was mined for use in locally used bricks. The crop flourished, and the field became the site of the “National Potato Picking Contest.”
Preparations were in progress for months before the day of the celebration. Although the actual potato picking contest was the “main event,” there were many associated activities scattered throughout the festival weekend. They were carried out in town, out at the Clay County Fairgrounds and on the potato field itself. There was a parade complete with bands, floats and baton twirlers, a potato peeling contest and a contest to see which person could sew up a one-hundred pound bag of potatoes the fastest. There were also demonstrations of new potato equipment and supplies, and samples of potatoes cooked just about any way you could imagine, available for tasting.
But everything, every activity was in preparation for the main event – the picking contest on Saturday afternoon at the Janneck Farm. Bunches of people came… by that I mean hundreds and hundreds. People were everywhere. Special parking areas had been established with attendants directing the incoming traffic. Food booths had been set up, there were flags and banners, full meals, sandwiches, and pop. The pop had been kept since early morning in water filled stock tanks, cooled with ice. The ice had been “harvested” from the surface of frozen lakes during the sub-zero weather during the previous winter. The blocks of ice had been taken by horse-drawn sleds from the lakes to nearby icehouses, where the blocks were stacked, with each layer covered with an insulating layer of sawdust brought from area sawmills. Blocks were often two feet or more thick and stacked seven or eight high in these often rather primitive structures.
But I digress.
This was more than just a potato picking contest. Rather, it was a community festival . . . a time for town and country people to “strut” a bit. Dad had invited his friend Kenny Sprague, from Fergus Falls, to bring his family and join us for the celebration. Kenny and his wife had a daughter Patty, and it was my “job” (I guess), to see that Patty had a good time and stayed out of trouble. During the day, as the events were being staged, we wandered around the area. We watched the machines, cheered the pickers, drank warm pop, and I suppose we made nuisances of ourselves as much as possible.
By early afternoon several Barnstormers, attracted by the pre-event publicity, had landed their airplanes on farm fields close to the contest site. I wanted to go for a ride more than anything in the whole world, but I only had a quarter. Rides cost two or three dollars, and what kind of ride could I get for twenty-five cents? I could have asked my Mother for money, but I knew that she wouldn’t give me that much… and she certainly wouldn’t give it to me so that I could ride in an airplane.
There were three pilots that had “set up shop” and stayed in the immediate area. Two of the planes were relatively new high wing models and had enclosed cockpits. The third was an older Waco open cockpit biplane. Two of the operations were doing a pretty good business, but the man with the open cockpit model had no customers at all. I remember when he arrived in the area and landed. As a landing place, he chose a hayfield kitty-corner across the road intersection from the corner of the contest area. The field had a significant uphill slope away from the road, and he chose to approach and land the plane going up the hill. He must have misjudged the degree of the slope, because when he touched down, he hit so hard that his tail skid threw up black dirt fifteen or twenty feet into the air. Perhaps that landing had something to do with his lack of business. Maybe I wasn’t the only one that saw him.
I had been watching these airplanes off and on for several hours and an idea began to germinate in my mind. I was about to get idea that would get me a ride in an airplane. Patty and I sat in the shade of a truck, and I told her what I had in mind. After discussing it for a little while, I convinced her to help me carry out my scheme. I wanted to go for a ride in an airplane and I had figured out a way to do it without cash. The potatoes that were being picked that day were worth three or four dollars per hundred pounds. We weren’t going to spend money, we were going to make a “trade.” We would trade a half bushel of potatoes to the pilot of the biplane in exchange for a ride.
But we didn’t have any potatoes.
Our first step was to “borrow” a new burlap potato sack from one of the trucks. We chose a new sack rather than one of the used ones on the truck because it just looked nicer. It had a colored picture of a potato field and the words “Red River Valley” imprinted on one side and some wording on the other side that I don’t remember. Any way, we “swiped” the sack. Being as unobtrusive as possible, with the sack folded up under my arm, we meandered past people and equipment to a low-lying corner of the field. Early summer rain and the lay of the land had kept the soil wet, and the crop wasn’t as good here as it was in other parts of the field. The potatoes had been dug even in this area, but the actual picking was being done in an location where they were more plentiful. Once at our selected site, some distance from the crowd that was watching the contest, we were able to quickly find enough good sized potatoes to fill the sack about half full.
Continuing to attract as little attention as possible, we dragged the half-filled bag to the ditch of an abandoned road which bordered the field. The road had fallen into disrepair and especially in this low area, there was a lot of tall grass, brush and weed growth in the ditch. Once down in the depression, out of sight of the crowd back in the field, we rested for a while. It was a great hiding place for two little kids and the ditch provided a great route for “smuggling” potatoes.
After catching our breath, we dragged and carried the sack down the ditch for several hundred yards, being as careful as we could so that we didn’t get the sack dirty. Once at the crossroads, we waited in the brush until there were no cars or people in sight and then scooted up and over the road intersection, stopping in the relatively open ditch on the other side. No one was around except the Waco pilot, two or three hundred feet away, who was working on the lower wing of his airplane. His back was toward us.
I knew it was now or never. Now it was too late to change our plans and return the potatoes to the field, ’cause it would be just our luck to get caught on the return trip. After a quickly whispered conference with Patty, I grasped the empty top part of the burlap bag in both hands, and she helped me hoist the sack to my left shoulder. Balancing the bag of potatoes just like I’d seen my Dad and the other men do, I took a deep breath and began the walk over to the airplane. The pilot was still fussing with something on the wing and didn’t see me coming. I arrived and nervously stood there for a moment. Lowering the bag of potatoes to the ground, I stuttered, “He – Hel – Hello.” Startled, he straightened up from his task and turned around.
With a glance over to where Patty was standing, he responded, “Hello. Well . . . what can I do for you today?”
Pointing toward the contest field over my right shoulder I said, “My Dad owns the field over there where they are having the ‘National Potato Picking Contest.'”
Motioning over my other shoulder, I amplified my position by saying, “Yes sir. That’s our farm down at the end of that pasture,” looking north and gesturing with my left hand, “right there, where you can see the big house and the barn with the two concrete silos.”
“Yes sir,” I politely answered, then blurted out “I want to ride in your airplane.”
“You would, eh?”
“Yes sir. I don’t have any money, but I’ll trade you a half a bushel of potatoes for the ride.”
The pilot leaned back against the airplane, holding onto a wing strut with one hand. I suppose he was pondering the advisability of making a deal with this little boy with the dirty hands and face. Looking over at Patty and then down to the potatoes, he asked “Are those good potatoes for boiling?”
Actually, these were not the best variety for boiling, and I knew it from hearing Mother talk about them. But without hesitation, I “stretched” a little with “Yes Sir. These are ‘Early Ohio’s, and are really good for boiling and frying.” That last “and frying” was pure invention.
He hesitated for a moment, then leaned down and hoisted the bag a few inches off the ground, estimating it’s weight.
“Hmmmm,” scratching his chin. Then, “Okay, let’s go,” and he carried the potatoes over to the side of the airplane.
Once there, he opened a hatch in the side of the plane just behind the pilot’s cockpit. He fit the bag of potatoes between what looked like a rolled blanket and a tool box. He removed a spare pilot’s helmet from a cardboard box he found in the dark chamber, straightened up and closed the hatch door.
Turning to me, he said, “Come here a minute.” I obeyed, stopping immediately in front of him. He carefully put the soft leather helmet on my head. It fit just right. The helmet had ear flaps that came down on each side, with a longer strap on one side. Carefully grasping the strap, he pulled it under my chin and buckled it on the other side. Looking into my eyes, he softly patted the side of my head, reached into the pocket of his aviator’s jacket and handed me a pair of real aviators’ goggles with an elastic head band.
“Here, put these on.”
I did, knowing just how they were they worked, because I’d seen them in illustrations included in a number of the books and comic books I had read.
As I was adjusting the goggles, two women came across the field and began talking to the pilot. They were the “Hilgers girls,” Mary-Margaret and her sister, daughters of one of our neighbors. Of course, they were grown up . . . at least eighteen years old or maybe even older. I overheard them talking to the pilot about a ride in his plane and was immediately worried. Maybe he would take them and not me. Their discussion continued, and then I watched as they each gave him two dollars!
He carefully put the four dollars into his billfold, then explained how they were going to get into the plane. Taking Mary-Margaret’s arm, he helped her as she stepped up on the lower wing. She hesitated there for a minute, put her left foot into a step placed in the side of the fuselage, grasped the edge of the compartment and swung into the passenger compartment. Her sister followed the same routine, with the pilot climbing up on the side of the plane to be sure they had their seat belts fastened properly.
“Okay young fella, you’re next,” and he dropped down from the plane, took my hand and helped me up the same route taken by the young women. It was a little snug, but I fit down on the seat okay. I buckled the safety belt and pulled it across my lap.
“Have a great ride,” and the pilot was back down on the ground getting ready to leave. While he was preparing to start the engine, I reached over the side of the cockpit and stroked the shiny black side of this marvelous machine. This was really something. Try as I might, I couldn’t quite reach the upper wing. I was in a real airplane.
The pilot came around the wing to the front of the plane. He slowly moved the propeller through about a half turn, then bracing himself, he pulled down on the tip of the blade as hard as he could. There was a harsh “barking” sound, followed by another. The whole airplane shook as the engine’s cylinders began to fire, one after the other. The pilot raced back around the end of the wing and vaulted up into the pilot’s cockpit. As he adjusted the controls, the shaking reduced and the engine began to run smoothly. The engine speeded up, the roaring increased and we began to move.
My goggles very properly in place, I stuck my head over the side of the compartment to see where we were going. We were bouncing up the slope parallel to the road leading toward the Arnold Erdman farmstead. Once at the top of the slope, almost to Erdman’s driveway, the pilot turned the airplane around until it was facing into a light breeze now coming out of the southwest. Rumbling of the engine increased to a roar, but the airplane didn’t move. The noise of the engine increased even more, and then the brakes were released . . . we were moving.
We bounced over the ground, with the wings alternately tipping up and down as the wheels of the airplane rolled over pocket gopher mounds, depressions in the ground and small stones. Then, moving still faster, the ride smoothed a bit and almost before I knew what was happening, we were over the road . . . in the air.
I was flying!
As the plane gained altitude, the pilot began a gradual right-hand turn over the potato field. As he banked, the right wings were low enough so that I could see past the Hilgers girls and view almost the whole field. A tractor pulling a two-row potato digger was moving down the north side of the field. Several trucks and lots of cars were down there in the adjoining stubble field, and I could see the people below moving about, many of them looking upward as we passed overhead, probably less than a thousand feet above the ground.
We continued the turn, from west to north, to east and back to south. We headed toward town, just a half mile away. Still gaining altitude, the pilot lined up to parallel Main Street, flying west of the railroad tracks about two blocks west of the center of town. The Catholic church, the water tower, the Red Owl Store, the Bowling Alley, Fred Jensen’s Cafe and Bus Depot, the Standard Oil Gas Station, Eagles Cafe, all passed below the wing on my side. The engine slowed a little bit. Nearing the south end of town, just past DeWerd’s Feed Mill, we again began a lazy turn to the left. We circled east of the high school/grade school building, over the fairgrounds and almost directly above Blue Eagle Lake before beginning a second circle around town.
This was unbelievable! I was on a magic carpet with the whole world stretching out before me. Cars smaller than ants were moving slowly down the streets and people were just specks. I could see the entire town with a glance. Farm fields and little groves of trees stretched away forever. Whiskey Creek, with rows of willow trees on either side meandered off to the west and out of sight.
I was living my dream . . . I was soaring through the sky! I was in an airplane!
We neared the end of our second circle over town, now heading north toward our landing field. A thousand feet above the Gromesch farms I was prepared for the pilot to begin the process of landing the plane, but he didn’t. Instead, he maintained his altitude right over our departure point, with the potato-picking contest to our left, and continued north toward our farm buildings. This time the pilot veered the airplane to the right and then into a steep left bank (my wing pointing to the ground) two times around our farm buildings. Past the unpainted concrete barn with the two silos, the coral, the sheep sheds, down to Stoney Creek and back to the shop, the other barns, the garden with the threshing machine almost hidden in the trees, over the big, square, dark green house with the huge porch in front and again, one more circle. I still remember that several cows were at the salt box, out behind the corral, oblivious of the fact that we were near by, just a thousand feet over their heads.
We headed south again with the airplane aimed at our starting point. The roar of the engine decreased and we started to descend. This time we flew very low over the Erdman farm, turned into the southwest and touched down on his hayfield. The pilot taxied back to the place where he had stacked some of his gear and the plane rolled to a standstill. The engine slowed and then jerked fitfully to a stop.
My ears buzzed with the sudden silence and my continuing excitement. Then the pilot was standing by the passenger compartment, saying, “Ride’s over.” I reluctantly climbed over the side, down to the wing and jumped to the ground, turning back immediately to look at this marvelous machine as the Hilgers girls got out. My entire body resonated with elation. The ground felt somehow unnatural beneath my feet. I haltingly took a couple of steps forward and touched the side of the plane.
I had really done it.
My eyes were drawn from the plane over toward the potato field and reality set in. There, standing by the road was Patty, and beside her was my Mother, a somber set to her jaw. Evidently, as soon as we had taken off in the airplane, Patty had run to the potato field, had searched out Mother and had “tattled” on me.
I never really liked Patty – then I knew why.
However, I was so excited when I got back on the ground that I don’t even remember Mother scolding me, which I’m sure she did.
But it just didn’t make any difference. I had actually flown in an airplane. That flight reinforced that my love of flying and that passion continues unabated to this day.
Nearly forty years later and half a continent away, I walked into a hanger at a small uncontrolled airfield in Fairbanks, Alaska. As I approached the desk, the attendant asked me if I needed assistance. My response was, “Can you teach an old man to fly?” He said that he thought he could, and in less than fifteen minutes I was sitting in the pilot’s seat of an airplane more than fifteen hundred feet over the city. This time I was not just a passenger. I was actually flying an airplane.
Less than a month later another I had another “biggest thrill” as I flew solo for the first time.
The magic of flight still exists for me, and the sound of an airplane engine still prompts me to stop to scan the sky… to envy and sometimes wonder, “What if?”