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Flight


Sun, Jul 2nd, 2000
Posted in

Monday, July 3, 2000

On December 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright flew a powered aircraft for twelve seconds. Their flight covered a distance of about forty yards at a speed of almost seven miles per hour. Six years later, the Wright boys sold their invention to the Army. That craft, the first airplane the Army bought, could fly at speeds up to forty miles per hour. The Army paid thirty thousand dollars for this contraption. In todays money, that amounts to just over a half million dollars.

Fifty years after the Wrights first sale to the Army, my brothers and I shared a fascination with airplanes. It was a still a time before most people had ever flown. We made it a point to try to identify every plane that came near the farm. Even during suppertime we had to know what type of airplane was flying over. When we heard an engine, one of us kids would jump from the table and run to the door to catch a glimpse of the intruder. We might have to wait a moment before the plane came far enough over our big maples to be identified.

"Is it Roger?" someone at the table would yell.

"I dont know. I cant see him," the boy on watch would say.

The plane engine noise grew louder as it seemed to just skim the tops of our trees.

"Is it Roger?" someone who was just sitting there would holler through their mouthful of liver and onions. They were getting impatient to know who had the nerve to fly over our farm.

"Yeah, its Roger," the lookout finally said as he came to sit down again.

Of course it was Roger. It was always Roger. Roger was Roger Tolefsrud, our neighboring flying farmer. As far as I knew, Roger was the only one who ever flew near our place. His airfield, an alfalfa strip behind his house, was just a half-mile from our line fence. His landing approach often took him right over our house. I think he did that just to check out what we were doing. Because he flew an airplane, Roger was the most interesting person I thought I knew. When I finally met him face to face, I recall being surprised that he looked just like a normal human being. I guess I expected a pilot to sport a helmet and a parachute at all times and not to show up in public wearing farm clothes and a cowboy hat. Some of the mystery and romance went out of flying just then.

A recent trip to Oklahoma City on airplanes finally brought me down to earth regarding the romance of flying. Of four scheduled flights, my traveling companions and I failed to ride on any one of them. The potentially disturbing "blue-collar" aspects of flight are conducted behind closed doors by the folks who know what is best. The rest of us are kept in the dark to keep us calm and belted down. Once in a while we are let in on their secrets. For example, we thought we were lucky to catch an early flight that would have gotten us to our destination almost an hour ahead of schedule. After about ten minutes of just sitting at the gate, the captain spoke to us and said dejectedly, "Ladies and gentlemen, my airplane wont start." He went on to say that a mechanic was coming to fix his airplane and we should be on our way in about thirty minutes. Two hours later, he told us to get off his airplane and make other plans. He sounded sad that he would not get to drive his airplane that day.

The plane we got to ride instead had propellers and made a lot of noise. Friends of ours call airplanes like this one a "flying culvert". It bounced and rumbled. It flew low and, in case of sudden cabin depressurization, there would be no oxygen masks dropping down from the compartment above. We just had to remember to breathe normally. The flight attendants did not bother to tell us about the flotation devices we were sitting on. If we went into the water, we were pretty much on our own. They were betting that we were going to make it or die trying. It was somewhat refreshing and honest of them. Not romantic or fast, just up in the air and back down to earth. It was flying the way Wilbur and Orville intended it be when they invented it almost a hundred years ago.

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