When Clyde Edgerton was four years old, his mother took him to the local airport to see the planes. For the boy, it was love at first sight. Eighteen years later, she would take him to the same airport to catch a flight to Texas for Air Force pilot training.
Edgerton tells the story of his lifelong love affair with flying, from his childlike wonder to his job as a fighter pilot flying reconnaissance over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Now, decades after the Vietnam War, he looks back at his youthful passion for flying, at the joy he took in mastering it, at the exhilaration—and lingering anguish—of combat aviation. It is a story that will resonate with every pilot who remembers their first takeoff, first landing, and first solo flight, or any passenger who has marveled at a journey through the sky—Solo offers a “heartfelt celebration of the flying life” (The New York Times).
“Spellbinding, exciting, funny, informative, moving, and beautifully, beautifully, beautifully written.” —Tim O’Brien
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About the Author
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(1948 — 66)
GETTING THROUGH THE INITIAL SOLO
Early Notions of Flying
ON SOME MONDAY AFTERNOONS in the late 1940s, I held a rough canvas clothespin bag for my mother as she gathered stiff, dry clothes from the clothesline. When an airplane flew over, she surely noticed my looking up. The biplanes were my favorites. They seemed to lazy along with a steady gentle-thunder sound through the blue sky. Perhaps she sensed that I longed to be up there; before I was five years old, she had taken me to the airport several times just to see the airplanes and had snapped my photo with airplanes in the background. One day years later, she drove me to the same airport to catch a plane that would take me away to Air Force pilot training and a war. She did not hesitate in granting me leave nor shed a tear that I know of.
Even so, she was, early on, very protective of her asthmatic only child; she kept an eye on me and guided and disciplined me. Her shielding behavior may have influenced my moving away from her toward danger. But — and lucky for me — despite being protective, she pushed me out into the world, out into our backyard, for example, to fistfight a boy who'd just chased me home. She encouraged independence. And perhaps that also enabled my step into the sky.
One day — I was in my forties and she in her eighties — we were talking at lunch. She sat across from me at her kitchen table, her hand resting around a glass of iced tea. She asked, "Do you remember me taking you to funerals when you were little?"
"People said you were too young, but I wanted you to experience everything. Do you remember me taking you up to see the electric chair?"
"Oh, yes. That's kind of hard to forget."
I was six years old at the time, but it turns out it wasn't the electric chair. It was the chair sitting in the middle of the gas chamber at Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina. Not that I was making picky distinctions in those days. Maybe I should be thankful she didn't take me to an execution, though given my early Bible training about crime and punishment, I might have enjoyed it.
As a boy I soaked up the provincial, conservative culture shared by my teachers, parents, extended family, and church. I learned that there was a God, and that he loved America better than he did any other country, and that any country opposing America was evil — and so was everybody in that country. Nobody said those words, but the message was there.
One of my uncles had lost his arm in World War I. I knew the following numerical facts as far back as I can remember: after being wounded in his arm and legs, he went twenty-four hours without medical attention, seventeen days without a change of clothing.
Two uncles and several cousins served in World War II. A calling to war was high and honorable. The movie star Audie Murphy had been a war hero. So had Ted Williams; he'd been a pilot. The national media depicted pilots from all of America's wars as the most flamboyant of our country's heroes. To me as a boy, that portrayal was compelling.
I toyed with the idea of becoming a fireman, then a doctor, but when I realized I could be a fighter pilot — a war hero flying airplanes — there was (it turns out) no stopping me, especially after I started seeing "the film." It aired on a local TV station just before sign-off at midnight. An F-104 fighter jet (resembling a rocket with short, straight wings) flew through clouds, performing an aileron roll (a complete rollover from right side up, to upside down, to right side up again) and other maneuvers while the poem "High Flight" was read — all this just before the national anthem played in the background. The film centered all my aspirations and hopes about where I'd end up: in a jet fighter cockpit.
My ticket, I discovered along the way, would be the four-year ROTC (Reserve Officers' Training Corps) program at the University of North Carolina. Cadets wore uniforms and marched in drills once a week, took classes in "military science," attended a summer camp after junior year, and on graduation became Air Force officers, though not necessarily on track to be pilots.
Soon after arriving on campus in the fall of 1962, I walked into the ROTC office. A cadet sat behind a desk.
"If I sign up for the program, can I become a pilot?" I asked. (I'd yet to fly in an airplane.)
"Sure. You'll have to pass a few physicals and some academic tests. You got twenty-twenty vision?"
We talked for a few minutes. Then he asked, "Ever had asthma?"
"Because that's the first thing they ask you, and if you've ever had it, you're gone. I've got bad eyesight. That's what stopped me."
A week or so later, I was filling out ROTC forms for those wishing to fly:
HAVE YOU EVER HAD ASTHMA? ___ YES ___ NO
Well, yes, but ... I checked no. I would lie to fly.
I WAS NOT A HAPPY CADET. The whole business seemed "Boy Scoutie." I earned demerits for not having my belt buckle lined up with my fly. I quickly got into the UNC ROTC marching band — playing trombone — where the military protocol was more friendly. In my senior year I'd be offered a chance to earn my private pilot's license. If I didn't like flying in a small propeller-driven aircraft, or if I was no good at it, the program would allow me to pick a nonaviation Air Force career — but I wanted no part of that.
During my junior year I learned that a former girlfriend of mine, Ruby, was dating a guy who had a pilot's license. I called her.
"Ruby, would you do something for me?"
"Tell your boyfriend I'm an old friend and ask him if he'd take me flying?"
"Well, you know, whatever. Yes."
"Is that what you want me to do?"
"Sure. I mean, you could go with us. Have you flown with him yet?"
"Was it fun?"
"Will you ask him? I haven't flown in an airplane yet and I need to find out if I like it or not ... on account of this ROTC thing."
"Oh, all right."
I met them at Horace Williams Airport in Chapel Hill, and Ruby's boyfriend took us up in a Cessna four-seater.
I sat in the back and watched and listened as he taxied out; then I lifted away from the earth for the first time and felt suspended, completely dependent on the little airplane holding me. Piloting didn't seem terribly complicated.
I'D BE TRAINING AT the Raleigh-Durham Airport, where my mother had taken me all those years before to see my first airplane on the ground. The airport sits on land where my mother and previous generations of her family lived from the eighteenth century until the airport was built in the late 1930s. Less than a half mile from the airport boundary is a family graveyard with twenty-six graves. I've been there almost every year of my life for an annual grave cleaning.
The Cherokee 140 and the Basics
IN THE 1960S, CIVILIAN INSTRUCTORS hired by the government taught ROTC student pilots to fly. Mr. Vaughn (I don't think I ever learned his first name), about fifty, medium build, dyed black hair with a bald spot in back, was in charge of me and several other student pilots. Not an exceptionally able teacher, he was consistent and very safety conscious. Occasionally Mr. Vaughn displayed a sort of self-congratulatory and awkward sense of humor. But only occasionally. In fact, rarely. Maybe twice. He usually seemed a bit nervous, which didn't make me feel at ease. And he sniffed a lot: "If you'll check under here" — sniff, sniff — "you can see exactly how much strut extension is normal."
As we walked out to the aircraft, a two-seater Piper Cherokee, for my first flight, Mr. Vaughn spoke as if he'd said the same thing many times, as he surely had. What he said about the external preflight check held generally true for all the airplanes I'd ever fly. While he talked, Mr. Vaughn held his checklist — a little book — in his hand, and he insisted on the importance of using the checklist, not memory, so that nothing would be missed. My checklist was open and I was ready to follow along.
I'd studied the Cherokee 140 flight manual the night before, imagining how the real, live airplane would look up close in the morning.
There it sat, waiting, dew on the wings and windshield.
The first preflight went something like this:
1. "Approaching the aircraft, you look for general condition: no flat tires" — sniff, sniff — "no leaks of oil, gas, or hydraulic fluid beneath the aircraft."
2. Mr. Vaughn stepped up onto the wing and opened the cockpit door. "Look inside and be sure there are no keys in the ignition and that all the switches are where they should be. Remember this always: the guy who flew before you" — sniff, sniff (and here he looked at me as if to announce the punch line) — "is the dumbest pilot in the world. He left all the switches in the wrong position. And guess what? He's going to fly after you too, so you better leave everything just right for him." I looked in at the instrument panel, which was familiar from my studying. The electric, leather, and fabric smell of the interior masked another faint smell: fear.
3. "Now, back outside." He walked to the front of the airplane, and I followed. "Open the cowling, like this, just like a car hood, and check the oil level and general condition of the engine. No loose wires and so forth. Check here and here." The engine looked very clean. (I didn't think about its operating mostly in the sky away from dirt and dust.) "Close and latch the cowling."
4. "Check the propeller." Sniff. "Nicks in the propeller can really affect performance. It might not seem like they could, but they can." My hand followed his along the smooth edge of the propeller.
5. "Okay — now let's check the extension of the front wheel strut, under here. This is where cushioning comes in on landing. That's about what you want, right there, about four inches. Think of a pogo stick. Hydraulic fluid does that. Does other jobs too, like the flaps, so you look carefully for leaks."
6. "Now check the leading edge of the wing. Strong aluminum like the rest of the exterior. Be sure there are no dents or nicks that might interrupt the smooth flow of air over the wing. You'd be surprised how much drag a little dent or nick can cause."
Mr. Vaughn placed his hand against the leading edge of the wing and walked along sniffing and talking, and I followed, staring at his bald spot, trying to remember as much as possible.
We, the student pilots, were also taking academic classes about flying. One book I did not read back in those days is Wolfgang Langewiesche's classic Stick and Rudder. But I was absorbing some of its lessons. Langewiesche says,
Get rid at the outset of the idea that the airplane is only an air-going sort of automobile. It isn't. It may sound like one and smell like one, and it may have been interior-decorated to look like one: but the difference is — it goes on wings. And a wing is an odd thing, strangely behaved, hard to understand, tricky to handle.
I was learning that when moving into the wind, the shape of a wing causes air to rush over its top faster than across its bottom, creating lift, a kind of suction from above. Langewiesche describes it as a pushing from below. As an aircraft reaches a certain speed along the runway, the wind pushes up the wings and the wings lift the airplane right up off the ground and into the air, and generally speaking, as long as the forward speed is fast enough, the airplane is held up in the air by the wings. The faster the forward speed, the more the wing is lifted. The propeller, turned by the engine, is pulling the airplane through the air whether the airplane is on the ground or not. An airplane propeller works, in principle, like a boat propeller. A jet airplane is pushed along by a kind of sustained explosion out the rear of the engine.
I'LL LEAVE MR. VAUGHN for a minute and explain a few more fundamentals.
To change the direction and speed of an airplane's path through the air, the pilot moves controls inside the cockpit: (1) the stick coming up from the floor (or the yoke on the end of a rod projecting out from the instrument panel), (2) the rudder pedals beneath the feet, and (3) the throttle (usually a lever on a console or a knob located on the instrument panel).
The stick: If the airplane is flying straight and level, then the stick is centered. Move it forward, and the nose drops. Pull it toward you, and the nose rises. Push it left for a left turn, and right for a right turn. In the Cherokee 140, and in most civilian aircraft built since about 1950, a yoke has replaced the stick. The yoke looks like the lower half of a small automobile steering wheel. You turn it left, as you would an automobile steering wheel (instead of moving the stick left), and it causes the left wing to drop and the right wing to rise. You push it forward and pull it back to lower and raise the airplane's nose, just as with a stick.
The rudder pedals: A vertical rudder (like a boat rudder) at the back of the aircraft, located on the back edge of the vertical stabilizer (the part of the tail that sticks up), is controlled by the rudder pedals and sometimes helps turn the aircraft left or right. The rudder can also help control the aircraft at slow speeds.
The throttle: The throttle lever or knob adjusts a valve that helps control how fast or slow you go. Of course, pointing the nose up or down also changes speed, because gravity is always working for you or against you, depending on what is needed.
Sit in the pilot's seat for a minute. If the engine unexpectedly quits while you are high in the air, then point the nose down a little bit and you'll pick up enough speed to provide lift for the wings, and the airplane will fly just fine, though it's gliding downward. The steeper the glide angle, the faster you go. Level out just a foot or so above the ground. (I'm assuming you're over the Nevada salt flats, a wide expanse of hard, level ground.) As airspeed decreases, lift decreases; but you can keep flying just above the ground by steadily increasing back pressure on the stick between your legs. Soon you reach a very slow airspeed and there's not enough lift on the wings to keep you up. You'll touch down gently and roll to a stop. No engine necessary — like a glider.
On the other hand, if you're flying along and the engine quits and you raise the nose or try to hold the nose up and not let it point down, there'll be less and less wind flow under and over the wings, and the plane will get so slow that it finally becomes uncontrollable. This is a stall, and after a stall the wings are ineffective, gravity takes over, and the airplane starts falling, regardless of which way the nose is pointing.
You can demonstrate how a wing works by holding your hand stiff and sticking it out the window of a fast-moving automobile, as if your hand were an airplane wing. You've done this before, of course. Your hand is shaped like an airplane wing: flat along the bottom (the palm) and curved over the top, with the edge out front (the index finger) thicker than the trailing edge (the little finger) — a shape that creates lift. When your hand is at just the right angle to the onrushing wind, you feel your hand being lifted. Think of that as the angle at which the wing is fastened onto the fuselage (or body) of the airplane. If your hands were big enough and you could stick them out both car windows and hold them stiffly at just the right angle to the oncoming wind, then at a certain speed the car, with you in it, would lift into the air. But once the car wheels left the ground, the forward speed would quickly drop and you'd fall back to the road.
MR. VAUGHN STOPPED along the leading edge of the wing. I picture myself, studying my checklist, walking into him.
7. "Stall-warning lever check: Okay" — sniff — "here in the leading edge of the wing is this very small, flat horizontal lever, about the size of a nickle, see? It's loose and it jiggles. Anytime you get too slow and there's not enough wind coming over it" — sniff — "it drops and a stall-warning horn sounds in the cockpit and the red stall light blinks. So you want to be sure this little lever is free to move up and down. Like that. See?"
8. "Pitot tube check." Mr. Vaughn turned to look at me, then looked back beneath the wing, near the stall-warning lever. "It's pronounced PEE-tow. This little bladelike object picks up the wind flow, see. It's hollow." He bends a bit and looks. "The wind flow through there tells your airspeed indicator how fast you're going. So you want to be sure it's not stopped up by a dead bumblebee, or mud, else you won't know your airspeed."
9. "Static port check," said Mr. Vaughn, reading from his checklist. "Here, on this same bladelike device, are several tiny holes not much bigger than pinholes. They're called static ports, and the air that goes into them allows your altimeter to determine air pressure and then tell you your altitude above sea level. Be sure the holes are clear."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Solo"
Copyright © 2005 Clyde Edgerton.
Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
PART 1 (1948–66) GETTING THROUGH THE INITIAL SOLO,
Early Notions of Flying,
The Cherokee 140 and the Basics,
The New War in Asia,
PART 2 (1966–67) AIR FORCE PILOT TRAINING,
PART 3 (1968–70) FLYING JET FIGHTERS,
First Assignment: Japan and Korea,
PART 4 (1970) PREPARING FOR COMBAT,
War Fever or Flying Fever?,
T-33 Air-to-Ground Gunnery,
On to Southeast Asia,
PART 5 (1970–71) COMBAT,
Instructing in War,
Another Letter Home,
Bangkok and Prairie Fire,
The Speaker on the Wall,
End of Tour,
PART 6 (1984–91) ANNABELLE,
The Purchase and Beyond,
The Floatplane Notebooks,
The Annabelle Notebooks,
Office to Remain Open,
PART 7 (2003–05) LOOKING BACK,
What People are Saying About This
“Spellbinding, exciting, funny, informative, moving, and beautifully, beautifully, beautifully written.”—Tim O’Brien
“Exhilarating. . . . If you like flying, you’ll love this book.” — Michael Korda
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