Ivan the terrible?

Standing: Boggs, Murphy, Wheaton, Lindsley, Blair. Sitting: Hughes, Dunn.

In the previous blog, I mentioned that the brothers Hughes were students at Mineola, and that there is a wonderful book written about their experiences, which includes flying with Ivan.  They wrote many letters to their mother, and recounted their recollections regarding their flying careers.  I shouldn’t be too amazed, but it really is kind of thrilling to read historical accounts of your ancestors in books, even if it’s less than flattering of them.

In the book, the brothers recount that they began flight instruction in April of 1917.  Ivan’s logbooks document his promotion to Junior Flying Instructor on May 9th, and that Hughes was his 5th flight of that day.  He spent 22 minutes with him in tail number T176.  He makes no entry as to the type of machine, although it might be inferred that it was a JN-4B as he had mentioned before.  I’ve had feedback here that these ships could not have been JN-4Bs due to the dates in question, and I won’t argue that point, but may return to it if it becomes clear that Ivan was in error.  At the time he transcribed these logbooks, he was a Senior Civilian Flight Instructor, and had hundreds of hours in Jennys.

At any rate, Hughes recalled Ivan, whom he remembered as “Wil” and the men in Ivan’s first group of aviators.  Jerry recalls the time by saying…
My instructor was a young fellow named Wil Wheaton.  This lad probably didn’t have much more than fifteen total hours in the air when he started with us, and he was perhaps more afraid of flying than his students.  There were six of us who flew with him - Willis Boggs, Sid Murphy, David Lindsay, Shiras Blair and Mike Dunn. And me, of course.  Mike Dunn had the distinction of being the only member of the entire outfit to crack up a plane.  I remember how Wheaton kept a tight grip on the controls all the while I was with him. It was only when he soloed me, and I was alone in the air that I felt that I was flying the ship.  This experience with Wheaton taught me a lesson because later, when I was instructing, I put myself in the place of my cadets and after a short time with them I held up my hands so that they could see they were flying - not me.  The one flight control on those craft which could get you into real trouble was the rudder.  You worked that with your feet, of course, and so for awhile I kept my shoes close to the rudder bar - just in case.  When the student overcame his initial nervousness, he was in complete control.
A couple of things about this. First, Ivan had nearly 69 hours of flight instruction on May 9th, according to his logbooks, and nearly 2 hours the day of Hughes first flight. While I might be accused of feeling the need to defend Ivan as a relative of mine, I feel it is fair to note that he was a seasoned racecar driver prior to taking up flying, so it's pretty unlikely that he was afraid of flying.  If you’ve followed this blog, you may remember that Ivan has already seen a number of his fellow flyers killed by this time and his own flight instruction seemed pretty rigid. So, it may be that he had a bit of a control problem. Hughes brother was under the tutelage of Bert Acosta, one of the most seasoned pilots at the field, so it’s not unlikely that their comparisons left Ivan on the very short end of the experience scale. After all, Bert had been flying since 1910. 

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this book when it arrives.  Since the Hughes brothers were much more prolific in their documentation, there’s a chance that more of their personalities will be shown.  I’m also learning more about historical accounts.  Simply writing one’s recollections down does not make them historically accurate, it merely makes them a recollection, which can be skewed to one’s own liking. I’ll have to keep in mind that this applies to Ivan, as well.


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A bad end for Merritt.

Merritt met his end when he commandeered and crashed an un-airworthy LWF at Mineola.  The other man is unidentified.

In comments from a reader a little bit ago, I learned about a pair of brothers learning to fly here at Mineola.  Fortunately, Google books allowed me to read the section of this book, which I plan to purchase.  It has a few great references to Ivan, or “Wil”, as they remembered him for reasons of forgetfulness or whatever. I’ll get to that in another post.

For the past few days, the photo above has been sitting on my desk, having knocked itself loose from the scrapbook I’m currently scanning from.  As you can see, the taller gent has the “death star” next to him along with his name.  I’ve seen it so much that I don’t think much of it, but it does represent a man who had died.  As I was reading through the Google display of this book I've just mentioned, I read the amazing account of this fellow, “Merritt”.

It turns out that Merritt was tasked with cleaning up an old LWF which had been condemned.  Now, Merritt had been passed over for flight instruction on enough occasions that he’d become fairly bitter about it.  So, he and another enlisted man were cleaning this old plane up for unknown reasons when Merritt decided it would be fun to start it up.  He let the engine warm up for a bit and yelled for the other fellow (named Spalino) to yank the chocks and jump in!  Who knows what was running through Merritt’s (or more importantly, Spalino's) mind, but he throttled up and made his attempt at a takeoff.  According to Jerry Hughes, who's narrative this is, Merritt had a couple of flights, but no stick time.  After a bit of over controlling, he did get the plane in the air.

Since most of the instructors and officers would have known that the LWF was not airworthy, they raised questions and quickly sounded an alarm, signaling all students to land.  An ambulance was readied at the center of the field and a crowd of some 200 men waited, wondering if Merritt would be able to return and/or land.

After 10-15 minutes, the LWF reappeared and seemed to slow down in an attempt to land.  He glided down briefly from around 1200 feet, but then applied full throttle and pointed the nose down!  I’ll quote the writer from this point…
As the ship came down and the wings fluttered away, and it was obvious that the two boys were doomed, there arose from that crowd of men an agonizing moan, the like of which I had never heard, and hope never to hear again.  It was a spontaneous cry of anguish.  That incident left a marked impression on us and let us know, in no uncertain terms, that flying has its dangers.
Now, that was interesting (and horrifying) enough to me, until my wife reminded me, over lunch today, of her father's similar story. Norman loved being around airplanes as long as I ever knew him. He took me with him (well, I was really after his daughter, but airplanes were cool, too) to fly sailplanes at Perris, California and introduced me to the Blanik L-13, which I absolutely loved. Toward the end of his life, he lived with my wife and I in Redmond, Oregon.  I used to torture him during the summer by asking him things like "Now do these clouds indicate good lift, Norm?"  Or, "Hey Norm, isn't that what they call a 'cloud street'?". He'd get playfully mad at me and tell me to shut up.  Anyway, Norm told me he got his aviation career started by bumming flights in exchange for washing airplanes as a young boy.

Norm had a rough upbringing, and he didn't have the means to learn to fly, but he ached to learn. Norm was familiar with the hangars and planes around the small airport in his hometown. He was there washing airplanes and listening to the pilots every spare moment. He knew of an old red Waco in a hangar that no one ever flew anymore, but he knew it worked. So one Saturday morning before sunrise, he sneaked into the hangar and pulled the Waco out, determined to teach himself to fly by sneaking flights before anyone arrived at the field. He started it up, and taxied out as the sun was rising, his wool beanie pulled down over his ears. He took off alright, but as he was climbing out, his beanie blew off his head.

He told me at the age of nearly 75 that he could still see that beanie floating down into a copse of trees, as he recounted the story to me.  He also remembered stalling and spinning the Waco down to the tops of the trees.  He was so intent on seeing where his beanie landed, that he forgot he was climbing out, no doubt pulling the stick back and right as he strained to see over his shoulder.  He actually managed to land the plane and get it back into the hangar, when a retired military pilot caught him sneaking out.

Apparently the old pilot knew Norm, and told him if he was so intent on learning to fly that he would risk his life (or jail time) that he would meet him on Saturdays and instruct him.  He also taught Norm about weight and balance, and how that old Waco was not being flown because it was too tail heavy.  How he got that tail-heavy thing out of a spin at the age of 14 seemed dubious to me, but I did not know Norm to be a liar.

Next post, I'll share how the Hughes brothers characterized their instruction from Ivan, err.. Wil.



JN-4b and Overton Bounds


Ivan began flying at Mineola on August 4th, 1916 according to his log books.  His earliest flights all record him having flown in JN-4bs, while there.  His initial instructors are Overton M. Bounds and Peter Carl (aka "Tex") Milman. I'll write up another post on Milman later.

This is long, but I'm going to copy it in its entirety because it paints a great picture of early flight instruction.  It's a eulogy for Overton, who died in 1942. I'm copying it, because I'm not sure that the website where I found it is being maintained, and I don't want to see it disappear.  (From here)
They won't have to issue wings to O. M. "Rusty" Bounds in whatever special heaven awaits the men who give their lives that others may learn to fly. Rusty, it always seemed, must have been born with wings and he died with them Sunday, victim of a churning propeller which struck him down from behind at Cimarron field Saturday. There, he still was keeping them flying in his twenty-eighth year at the stick.  (Bounds was killed by a taxiing aircraft - kpw)
When they conduct services at 3 p.m. Tuesday for Rusty, the damp eyes of ordinarily hardened men gathered in the First Presbyterian church will pay tribute to a great flier and a great instructor.
If Rusty had come "spinning in" calmly trying to talk some frantic fledgling off frozen controls, the heart break would not have been half so bad to the legion of pilots and former students who knew him down the years. Rusty might have expected it to come that way. But it seemed like a specially cruel and mean trick that fate played on the great instructor in the end. It seemed that Rusty had to die finally to prove the point of the first lesson he hammered into the unnumbered students he gave wings.

This reporter was one of them when Rusty was an instructor in the civilian pilot training program. Overeager and itching to get at the controls, you found no helmeted, romantic Flash Gordon waiting at the field. There was Rusty, thin, red-faced, sharp and cold eyes, wearing a brown felt hat, corduroy pants and a battered gray jacket, sitting at a desk rolling cigarette package tinfoil for his daughter to save. Everybody threw tinfoil into Rusty's desk. "Glad to know you," Rusty said, shaking hands. "Let's go." 
And then the work began. You trudged in silence behind him out to the ship and you noticed he walked with the habitual stoop of men forever with the weight of parachutes on their backs. The propeller was the first thing. "That's the prop." he would say, "and you'd better learn to respect it right now. It's a baseball bat with a motor on it and it's not something to lean on. Keep out of its way and don't guess the switch is off when you touch it." 
Then he'd show you how to spin it to start the engine. He demanded, in taxiing, that the ship never proceed straight ahead but that it follow an S-shaped path so the pilot could see what was dead ahead. "And don't trust the brakes-take it easy," he insisted. 
Horseplay was out. Wordless and poker-faced on the ground, he exercised an almost Prussian discipline in the air, rattling away like a verbal machine-gun. Precision and perfection in maneuvers were his only yardsticks and his students got a course in first-class cussing thrown in. "Damn it," he would say, after sitting calmly through the hair-raising bounce of his student's landing, "that's what I call a 'prayer' landing. You just pull the stick back and pray it'll land by itself. That's what those suicides do." 
And then the day he cut the gun at 800 feet and shouted into the Gosport tube; "Okay, forced landing! Let's see you sit down in the grass over there!" You circled and came in right over a nice green stretch, beaming with self-satisfaction. "I said grass-not wheat! There's the grass over there- it's brown!" Well, you thought it was grass. "Damn it man," he stormed. "This is a course in flying-not agriculture!" 
To alibis, he listened with the half-patient tolerance of a man who has heard the same joke countless times before. Then, he would shake his head and spend 20 minutes in explaining the correction of a stupid error. To him, an airplane was like a finely-tuned violin. The rest was up to the player-and he was a master. Could you ever forget his five-word sendoff on your solo as he climbed unexpectedly out of the front cockpit and said, quietly: "Okay, do that again-by yourself." You did it, more or less, with heart in your throat as he waved you around again. Then you taxied up to him, hoping for a bouquet, and he climbed in and said: "Okay, see if you can get it back to the hangar." 
Ages later, it seemed, came the big day when you rode with the inspector and got your private license, much to Rusty's professed amazement. He invited you over for a cup of coffee and it was only then you got to know the great other half of him. He burst into a big smile, razzed you roundly, pleaded to keep up safety and precision in flying and laughed: "I cussed the hell out of you, all right, but don't think I didn't see you out of the corner of my eye up there cussing me out, too."
But it was good for them and his students, many of them now in the army air corps and at least one in the R. A. F. in a fighter over the English channel, must when they get in a pinch hear Rusty's rasping voice talking them through. 
It's just as well Rusty won't read this. If somebody showed it to him, he would find a convenient bit of tinfoil on the floor and turn away and grumble: "Nuts! That's the damndest tripe I ever saw!" But heaven help the angels he catches skidding on their turns. 
Bounds also filed a patent for a parachute braking system in 1930, which would prevent a plane from nosing over in the event of hard braking while landing.



The builder of the gull wing!

Lewis G. Young poses with his first Gull wing monoplane, 1916. 

With the help of Rbailey and Tork1945 over at the Aerodrome, and moving to Ivan's next scrapbook for further searching, I've discovered that the builder of this gull wing plane was Lewis G. Young. As you can see in the first photo, Ivan wrote a descriptive note in the corner. These appear in the middle of the second scrapbook, but I'm going to post them here so we can tie up the mystery. I particularly love the pristine three-bladed prop in the lower left corner of the photo.

These old photos are numbered but there are no further markings on the back of the photos, unless it is under the glue in a corner. Regardless, the shape of the plane looks like something out of Jules Verne, and far removed from aircraft being designed by others of this period. It appears to me that Mr. Young is quite a craftsman to pull of the sheet metal work on the fuselage, and the construction appears to be angled steel beams with lightening holes. Also notice the fairing on the forward third of the wing, joining the fuselage! Pretty amazing detail for 1916, in my opinion.

Lewis G. Young poses in his first gull wing monoplane, 1916. 

Young's second airplane is the one we saw in the previous gull wing posting. If you look at the vertical stabilizer, you can see that it was munched on top. This means to me that it went clear over on its back in the incident (or some incident). I have yet to see any proof that it flew, but I'll be sure to give an update if I hear anything.

Notice in the photo below, that the propeller is broken, and the nose wheel has been removed, which reinforces my speculation that the photo was taken after the crash, and that it went all the way over. Check the the great photos which Tork1945 posted here, as well.

Lewis G. Young poses with his second gull wing monoplane, after its crash.

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Shell game?

Happy Bagnell - Top Left Happy Bagnell - Top Middle Happy Bagnell - Top Right Happy Bagnell - Bottom Left Happy Bagnell - Bottom Middle Happy Bagnell - Bottom Right

I doubt if there's much I need to say about these, except maybe "I told you so", if you read the last post.  Oh, and there's a guy typing a letter which you can make out on the left side of the photo.

Shoot. Well, I should also add that he's wearing what are called breeches, which were a carry over from cavalry riding pants, apparently.  I was confused about this, thinking they were called "putees".  Turns out those were worn by infantry to keep the mud out of their boots.  I'll leave it at that.  There is a ton which could be written about his uniform and hats, and of course the artillery shell.

So, another bit of a milestone has been reached!  We've finished the first scrapbook containing aviation photos! I'll count to make sure, but I think there are three more with aviation photos.  Ivan donated some photos to the Marine Corps Museum at Quantico, I believe, so we obviously won't be seeing those.  Oh, there is also an addition to the collection which I recently received from my sister.  A beautiful artillery shell which has the top lip decoratively curled, and is embossed with "1918" diagonally across the shell.  I'll post a photo of that, eventually.



Tents! Mineola, New York

Tents at the airfield.  Aviation Section, Signal Corps - Mineola, New York, 1916. 

It's pretty fun for me to get a glimpse into how my grandfather put together items in his scrapbooks.  He generally starts off with some photos that identify his new surroundings, like buildings or points of interest.  Here, he has photos of the tents at Mineola, and some shots, perhaps of his neighbors, or maybe just friends. In a recent post, I was able to identify Ralph Taylor as a friend of Ivan's. Ralph is on the right in the photo below, and so far I haven't identified the other gentleman. Ivan seems to have valued friendships and people. There are a lot of photos of people throughout the collection.

An unknown Lt. with Capt. Ralph Taylor.  Mineola, New York, 1916.

Here's a particularly nice old photo of the tents at Mineola after dark. I don't know about you, but this photo stands out to me like a scene from a movie. Crickets are singing, and off in the distance there's a guy playing guitar, or harmonica - maybe a phonograph. Laughter and camaraderie and a warm summer evening at camp. 

A night photo of the tents at Mineola, New York, 1916. 

There are more and more photos of guys clowning around as we move along, and here we see an early morning shot of Taylor (center) and a couple of other fliers in a goofy pose. The accouterments in this old photo are interesting.  I can make out a couple of watering pots, a lantern, Taylor is holding a soda bottle and a cigarette, and the fellow on the right has a cane over his shoulder. Of course their hats are on backwards and sideways. Their attire fits the time of year, which would be summer of 1916. There are more of these types of shots in other albums as well. I think Ivan had some pretty fond memories of these days, judging by the numbers of this type of photo.

Good morning, campers!  Signal Corps, Aviation Section - Mineola, New York, 1916.

I have a six photo series of Happy Bagnell coming up next, which will finish this first album in the collection.  You're going to love these, I promise.