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.


1 comment:

  1. The story of the flight of Ransom Merrit and J, Spilleno is also told by Flight rigger Sgr. Wilfred Mack in Cross and Cockade USA 1971 - number 1.
    The two were actually flying the second ordered LWF Type V serial 113 (from the batch 112-113). There exist two pictures of the machine after the fatal crash, which look devastating.

    By the way the spelling of names given by Wilfred Mack and the Hughes brothers differ somewhat. Fascinating to see a picture of the unfortunate Merrit / Merritt.