If Rod Serling did not have something to do with the last 60 days, then I’m missing something. They read like Twilight Zone episodes. There we were, enjoying a relatively calm and pleasant summer. Next thing we know, all the Fall events have come and gone, weird weather- which included tropical storms that zapped the area- seemed to be the norm, and, last but not least, a snowstorm before Halloween… To top everything off, I lost a very dear friend who went before his time- he was only 15 years old. Or, should I say IT was only 15 years old. Let’s begin with a (fateful) September 2011.
The annual Rhinebeck jamboree was, as always, a great time. More guys showed up, and showed up to fly, and the weather held for all three days. No one of my direct acquaintance crashed- everyone had fun. However, I should have known something strange was up when all three aircraft of my usual “Rhinebeck Squadron” were awakened from their hibernation, and actually started up and ran pretty flawlessly during preparation the days before. Things continued to get more ominous when I was able to get five flights in on Friday, including a beautiful one with “Old Reliable #5”, my Balsa USA Bristol M1 Bullet. Things were just going along too well, and I was having too good a time. And then came Saturday…
I can’t blame bad weather, equipment failure, or anything else other than a VERY disconcerting lack of focus and concentration- for what seemed to be only a moment or two- for what happened around 9:30 AM that morning. It was my second flight of the day (the first one being with the 46 size Fokker D-VII ARF which, again, went splendidly, with a picture perfect takeoff and landing- hmmm).
I decided to take the Bristol up again, after having replaced the sagging faux flying wires, and scrounging around for some Velcro to add another layer of “security” to the front wing fastening. Engine started up and was idling soooo sweetly (another ominous sign) with the help of on-board glow power. Took off into the wind, and calmly made one, then two sweeps of the pattern. It looked great up there, with its almost penguin-like silhouette and semi-elliptical wing shadow- very nice.
I was halfway through the third go-around, nearing the South end of the field near the beginning of the tall tree line opposite the main hangars, when I went blank. Literally. One moment I was starting my right hand turn. Next moment, all I can remember is it’s VERY far away, and I can barely see it. I hear voices around me asking if everything is OK, if I need help- all of the reactions we have when we see trouble in the air. My mind felt like it was swimming in molasses. I normally call out for “eyes” to see if someone else with better long-distance eyesight can tell me what it’s doing, but no…
I saved it three times. Then I just stopped- gave up, essentially. First time I can recall ever doing that. The Bristol disappeared into the trees accompanied by a soft, collective groan /gasp by everyone around, even some spectators. I remember a wave of grief, a momentary weakness, then silent rage as I walked back to the flight line to return the transmitter, and solemnly headed towards the general direction of the tragedy site. I was heartened to see a few other “mourners” walking along with me to assist in the post-mortem search. A total of six or seven, if I recall- all friends, and fellow sufferers of the same feeling at one time or another.
As we entered the forest (literally- with a high tree canopy, and roughly 200 to 300 feet or more until a clearing on the other side) I struggled to piece together what had just happened. How could I have shut down as never before? Why didn’t I continue to fight for control? Why didn’t I ask for help? Guys were walking all around me now, some glumly, some offering words of support, scattering slowly in a circle around the spot where the far-end overfly marshal had directed us.
Four, maybe five minutes passed by with the sound of feet crunching branches and leaves. My first thought was that it was, like many other victims at the Aerodrome, hung up in some branches, 20-30 feet up in the air. I said a silent, desperate prayer, hoping that, although it would be a bitch to reach, it would still be relatively… intact?… waiting up above for its rescue. Then, off to my right, someone shouts “Found It!”. I looked in his direction, and then up, but I couldn’t see anything in the branches. I then realized he was looking down at the ground, slightly elevated from where I stood, gingerly picking up the ugly, fractured, broken, remains of my good friend of 15 years.
I think we all felt like crying- certainly I did. The Bristol had somehow penetrated straight down through the trees and had impacted on something solid on the ground. The wings were nowhere to be found (one of the underside roundels- perfectly scored out of the monokote- was all that remained of them) my “pilot” was missing, and the fuselage was shattered into three or four pieces, all amazingly still strung crazily together by the plastic sheathed pushrods I had secured to longerons and cross members to avoid flexing, so long ago. The cowling was intact, but one of the valve covers on the Saito 60 was cleaved open. All the servos were still in place, and the landing gear was partially sheared away.
I gingerly gathered the cadaver and led the procession back out again, inviting everyone to have lunch on me, just like at a regular funeral (the traditional steak and cheese sandwich with its French fries and malt vinegar a bit later did not have its usual soothing, satisfying effect). As I walked down the flight line there were condolences, some well-meant jokes, and some pointed silence as everyone stared and either recalled their own disasters, or thanked themselves for not yet having one involving such destruction- for now.
The fin and rudder assemblies also survived intact, with all 15 Rhinebeck jamboree participation stickers (it had not been flown anywhere else for over 10 years) in place as a reminder of all it had enjoyed- and survived- prior. All of the building, all of the work, all of the compliments, all of the flights- calm or exciting, all of the great, and not-so-great, landings, all of the close calls, all of the sublime moments of fulfillment that involved creating and flying this creature of wood, plastic, metal… and love. I plan to put them in an acrylic case, as part of a perpetual, mobile shrine I’ll bring back next year, to remind me of my stupidity- and heartache.
The epilogue had the rest of the weekend as uneventful, with a few more flights by both my Fokkers (D-VII and the Triplane). The platform I had cobbled together for the van to aid in transport now served as part hearse for the “deceased’. Mrs. Fred was, as always, comforting and sympathetic. I carefully separated all the pieces, put aside all the components, sent the engine off to Horizon Hobbies for repair (just got it back, looking like new, including new fresh bearings- for only $74), and I’m clearing out a space on the building board for its successor. I have two other Bristol M1 kits, one of which I’m already re-building in my mind. Funny how it’s all coming back to me…
I am still trying to come to terms with what happened that morning. Was I just mentally lazy for those moments? It still gnaws at me, that possibility- if I’d only done this- if I’d only done that- DAMN. I’m also worried that it might happen again, since it may have had something to do with my increasing length of time on the planet, and an ongoing, slowly creeping… decrepitness?…of my senses and reaction time. I’m loathe to think this is the case, since no one readily admits they’re going down the tubes, however slowly (even though it will, eventually happen). All I know is that something I SWORE would never happen, happened. I only wish the airplane would have been another other than my long time, faithful friend. Everyone profit from my experience- complacency is, as far as I’m concerned, the greatest enemy.
The N.E.A.T. Fair came and went in a blur, with the electric “Blackbird” DR-1 Triplane gathering interest here and there. With little or no wind, a great flyer. With some- or a lot- of wind, quite a handful. A great time was had by all, but as I lay on my luxurious fold out combo chairs-into-a-bed in Mike and Pete’s rented RV at 1 AM in the morning, I kept replaying the image of the Bristol disappearing into the woods in my mind, as if I could somehow regain control again, and save it just one more time. Didn’t get much sleep that night…
I had planned on possibly going down to the Pennsylvania Museum shindig, but Mom was forced to finally come to terms with a degenerating heart valve, and most of October was spent shuttling between home, the Vassar Bros. Medical Center where her open-heart surgery took place, and the Osborn Rehab center (thankfully, a minute or two away). The ultra-difficult task of finding someone to stay with her now during the day when she gets out is just now beginning.
And so, 60 days gone by, just like that. The Fall Cleanup Day is Saturday, November 5th . It’s the second of three participatory days for a 2012 dues reduction. The Swap Shop is Saturday, December 3rd. The membership database and website has suffered what may be irreparable damage as a result of “Irene”, per Lyle the webmeister. As a result, 2012 renewals will be delayed until 12/1/11- watch our website for updates. Now that the snow has melted, try to get some flying in while daytime temps hover between 55 and 60 degrees. And, as always, fly safely…
… but FLY !