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Sunday, February 27, 2005

Beldar and the Aviator

I haven't seen The Aviator yet, but I read with interest Harold Evans' piece in today's WSJ OpinionJournal defending the reputation of Pan Am founder Juan Trippe against impressions the movie may leave: 

If you are one of the 3.6 billion who have flown on a 747, it's Trippe, not [Howard] Hughes, who merits the raising of a turbulence-free glass.

This line prompted a personal flashback — one of little consequence to anyone else, but still very vivid for me.

As an aviation-mad child of Sputnik, growing up during the Vietnam War era in small-town Lamesa, Texas, my occasional trip to a big-city airport, and even more rare ride on a passenger jet, was huge. My third-grader heart was broken a few months after I was prescribed my first pair of glasses, when I learned that my less-than-20/20 vision doomed my fervent goal of becoming a fighter pilot, but I remained obsessed with all things aeronautic.

In the Texas panhandle, Lamesa was a fairly short drive from the mountains of New Mexico, and I learned to ski during junior high and high school through two or three weekend trips each year to the Sierra Blanca Ski Resort outside Ruidoso. Sometimes I went with my Boy Scout troop or DeMolay chapter, and a few times just with my dad. On those occasions, we came to enjoy stopping for dinner en route at a unique bistro, the Silver Dollar Bar and Steak House, plopped down on a dark stretch of road between Roswell and Ruidoso in the tiny town of Tinnie. On one such Friday night in December 1969, my dad and I were enjoying the cuisine there — "C'mon, just try the escargot, Billy!" — when we overheard four handsome, clean cut men at the next table who were animatedly swapping pilot stories. They were talking with their hands moving in three dimensions, thumbs and pinkies splayed as wings. Angles of attack! Dogfights and ejection seats and afterburners, oh my! Eavesdropping on their conversation was even more interesting than hearing adults discussing sex.

"Dad!" I whispered, "Do you think they're astronauts? Fighter pilots?"

"Well, son," opined my pa, "You could go over and introduce yourself politely and ask 'em, if you really want to know."

So I did. They were gracious about my interrupting their dinner — they probably recognized the hero-worshipping eye-gleam even through my thick glasses lenses — and they explained that, no, although they were all military aviation vets, they weren't astronauts or fighter pilots. But they were something equally or even more cool — two test pilots from Boeing and two senior instructor pilots from Pan Am. Working out of a decommissioned SAC base with long, empty runways outside Roswell, they were doing the final certification, testing, and training for a big new jet — something called a "Boeing 747." Hey, would my dad and I like to stop by the air base on our way home Sunday afternoon for a little tour?

Pan Am's Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet, the 'Clipper Young America'As promised, they'd left our names with the security gate, and the two Pan Am pilots greeted us like old comrades upon our arrival. They led me and my dad to the biggest airplane I'd ever seen — unimaginably big, with this enormous odd hump on its nose! "What's the biggest jet you've been on, Billy?" they asked. "Boeing 727!" I instantly replied. "Well, son, you could park that 727 under the tail of this jumbo. Wanna come aboard, sport?"

The rows and rows of seats inside the Clipper Young America were pristine — still covered in plastic, in fact. Our hosts led us through them to the very front of the plane and gestured to the forward interior door. "Wanna check out the cockpit?" I opened it — to find that it was a coat closet. Big laughs. "C'mon, fellows, the real cockpit door is upstairs." (Upstairs? On an airplane?!?)

Soon enough they had me planted and belted into the pilot's seat, and then they started pointing out the various controls and computers and whatnot. "Same technology used in the Apollo program," said one pilot. "This aircraft can take itself off and fly itself across the continent to a designated airport without our ever touching the controls, if we'd let her, but — no, no! don't touch that! You'll take us to San Francisco!" More big laughs all around. We toured the upstairs lounge, all of the passenger and crew and maintenance and cargo areas, the whole plane — even climbed up into the wheel wells. "We'd love to take you for a spin, maybe do some touch-and-goes, but the insurance folks won't let us," they explained. "This baby won't be certified for passenger service for another few weeks yet."

None of my friends at school believed any of this when I got home, of course. I barely believed it myself.

Postcard: Pan Am Boeing 747 Jumbo JetAbout a month later, though, I got a postcard in the mail. The picture side showed a 747 in Pan Am's distinctive, subdued paint job, flying above the clouds. The post-mark was from London, England. "Dear Billy," read the text inscribed by one of our new friends (as best I can recall it), "I thought you'd be interested in knowing that I just captained the first commercial flight of a 747. We went from JFK in New York to Heathrow here in London. Remembered seeing you in the pilot's seat in Roswell. Thanks for the tips, they came in handy. Hope you can make the trip to London with me some day!"

Show-and-tell time at school, baby! Show-and-toldya so!

Juan Trippe would, I think, have been pleased. Howard Hughes even might have approved. But for me, that classy, thoughtful Pan Am captain will always be The Aviator.

Posted by Beldar at 12:30 AM in Family, Film/TV/Stage | Permalink


Other weblog posts, if any, whose authors have linked to Beldar and the Aviator and sent a trackback ping are listed here:


(1) capitano made the following comment | Feb 27, 2005 9:18:40 AM | Permalink

As a kid growing up near a military air base, my friends and I never tired of hearing the B-52s and B-58 Hustlers overhead. We always hoped they would ignore their orders and just once go supersonic and shatter a few windows in the neighborhood. How cool would that be?

Your story was so heartwarming and cool that I'll avoid any references to Peter Graves, Turkish baths, or Gladiator movies.

(2) Dan S made the following comment | Feb 27, 2005 9:53:01 AM | Permalink

Very nice post, Beldar. And I relate completely, right down to the late adolescent glasses and dashed hopes of the Air Force Academy follower by F4 front seats.

I grew up in small planes though. The big ones never impressed me that much, but I had my share of cockpit visits with Dad who got to know all the pilots flying up in the Amazon. The most memorable for me, is the PBY.

But any chance to see a pre-release version would have been special. As it was to you.

(3) moioci made the following comment | Feb 27, 2005 11:23:06 AM | Permalink

But I didn't even have the salmon surprise!

Seriously, this is too cool.

(4) Dennis made the following comment | Feb 27, 2005 11:57:07 AM | Permalink

Thanks. Good one!

(5) DRJ made the following comment | Feb 27, 2005 2:48:51 PM | Permalink

What a great story. I've visited Roswell many times, eaten at the Silver Dollar in Tinnie, and gone skiing at Sierra Blanca, but you don't have to have done any of those things to appreciate your post. It's a truly universal story. Our parents' generation was the greatest for many reasons, not the least of which was their willingness to inspire children.

I have the feeling that, as memorable as this was for you, it was equally memorable for the pilot who sent you a postcard. After all, he was stuck in remote Roswell with the (then) most amazing non-military plane in the world. To have an appreciative audience share it with him had to be very special, as evidenced by the fact that he followed up with a postcard to you after his maiden commercial flight.

Thanks for making my day.

(6) Joan made the following comment | Feb 27, 2005 4:16:00 PM | Permalink

I'm a sucker for nostalgia pieces anyway, but this one is among your best, Beldar. Thanks!

(7) Terry made the following comment | Feb 28, 2005 12:19:27 AM | Permalink

Great story and what an experience for a kid. My most frequent complaint about how my kid's formative years differ from mine (born in 1954) has to do with loss of freedom. We were out of the house from dawn till dusk, all over our (small) town and out into the countryside on our bikes. TV was in its infancy, no electronics, etc. etc. etc. Nowadays we wouldn't dream of allowing kids anywhere near that much space. At any rate, most of the time I have to kick them out of the house on a nice day.

What does this have to do with your tale ? In a related story, these days insurance would preclude you from ever getting inside the gate, let alone inside the cockpit.

I was also gaga for aviation as a kid. When I was 7 or 8 my parents took me to the Drive-In to see "The Hustler"; I was bitterly disappointed to find out it was about some pool player and not about the airplane ! I always harbored a dream to get to Annapolis and fly jets for the Navy, but realized pretty early that my glasses would limit me to the back seat if anything. I well remember those High School ski trips too, what a blast we had !

Thanks for the story, brings back some fond memories ...

(8) Jim Davis made the following comment | Feb 28, 2005 10:12:32 AM | Permalink

Ah, the power of the Net---I now know that I am not the only guy to grow up in the 1950's, be crazy for airplanes, and have their aviating ambitions dashed by myopia before the third grade was over! I remember my first flight in one over thirty years ago---I couldn't get over how anything that big could push you back into your seat with the take-off acceleration. Great post on great moment in your life; thanks for sharing it.

Trippe is rightly recognized for his role in ushering in the 747 and the current era of jumbo jets. But let's credit Hughes for his comparable role in what may have been the most beautiful airliner of all time: the Lockheed Constellation.

I'm willing to overlook at least a few of Hughes' excentricities for getting this most graceful of flying creations into production.

(9) LarryA made the following comment | Feb 28, 2005 11:10:58 AM | Permalink

Thanks for bringing back the memories.

I was in the Navy 1965-1968 working ground support. Got to fly in the back seat of a T34B trainer with a slightly deranged Navy pilot. The T34 is fully aerobatic...it was quite a ride...scared the crap out of me and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

(10) Mark made the following comment | Feb 28, 2005 1:18:35 PM | Permalink

Beldar-You might find "Neptunuslex.com" interesting. A Naval Aviator with some interestng "Sea Stories".

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