USS Shenandoah


The still country air carries sounds from a long way off—a jet climbing from Detroit Metro toward Chicago, not even visible among the red-gold cumulus overhead; voices nearby blending with the sounds of birds and distant barking dogs and tools dropped into wooden tote boxes; a car going by on the gravel road, raising a little dust. To the west, immense billows grow by the minute, threatening to hide the late afternoon sun, but here it is calm and whisper quiet. The smell of freshly mown grass fills the nostrils. A couple of old airplane hangers of corrugated sheet metal sit off to one side of the field, comfortably rusting. An ancient gas pump, an icon of long-past barn-storming days, grows out of tall grass like a stone monolith in a greedy jungle.

The airplane on the flight line is painted dusty blue with startlingly shiny, bright yellow wings. It appears to be a generic sort of light plane, that high-wing design common to thousands fastened to tie-downs on little airfields all over the world, an older Cessna perhaps, a tail-dragger that would have held two people and some luggage. Except that its engine cylinder sticks up out of the top of the cowling, like a customized ‘36 Ford V-8 with chromed rocker covers.

A fifty-foot man leans over the plane and reaches carefully behind the still propeller to attach a cable somewhere on the engine. With his other hand, he thrusts a large cylindrical tool against the hub of the prop. The electric motor whines briefly, and the engine immediately roars into life. Disconnecting the cable and the starter, he puts one hand on top of the wing to hold the airplane in place, and throttles back the engine with the radio controller at his side. Then he stands up and looks around.

The scene zooms back to full size, with a dozen other people standing, talking together along the flight line, their own model planes waiting quietly at their feet for their turn to fly. Stepping out of the way of his plane, he revs up the engine. The others turn to watch.

The airplane, its five-foot wings wobbling as it taxies through the tall grass, slowly makes its way out of the flight line toward the grass-strip runway. Twenty feet from the flight line, it turns into the wind. The four-stroke engine roars, and the tail lifts almost immediately as it accelerates over the grass. In twenty feet it is airborne, yellow wing dipping briefly, thin blue smoke trailing in its wake.

Such models operate on a mixture of alcohol and oil, volatile enough to turn their propellers at ten thousand RPM but much safer than gasoline for amateur pilots.

Holding the transmitter in both hands, he watches the plane climb over the tall grass at the end of the runway, then deftly fingers the controls to bring it around in a sharp banking turn. Attached to the transmitter’s shiny antenna is a clothespin, printed with his radio channel number, a “key” that tells others on the line that his frequency is in use.

A hundred feet in the air, the plane swoops and soars and climbs another hundred feet. At that distance, the sound of the engine is somebody’s lawn mower, a voice somewhere between a whine and a roar, the pitch varying in the graceful slow dance of the airplane over the heads of the now-miniature people standing in the field below. Soon it is far away, climbing into the afternoon sun, circling with the birds, wings dipping one way then another, making lazy hawk-circles in the sky.

The man, never taking his eyes from the far-off plane, moves the levers on the box in his hands, and soon the airplane turns dutifully toward home. Its engine is quieter now, subdued as a puppy called back from the chase. After one last circle over the field, it dips one wing steeply at the end of the runway, turns and settles toward the grass. Directly opposite its master, it drops tentatively, rises a few feet, then lightly touches down. It rolls a few feet, then turns, its engine again roaring in the effort to move through the wheel-high grass toward the flight line. At the man’s feet, it obediently falls silent and still. He picks it up gently and places it again in line with the other waiting planes. Like a hunter praising a favorite hunting dog, he drops to his knees and carefully wipes it down with a cloth as he talks with the nearest person, acknowledging its performance and ease of handling.

The tip of a cloud thrusts itself in front of the sun, and a glorious sunburst radiates through the western sky. In another moment, the golden globe reappears, bowing deeply to silent applause from below.

Nearby, another flier readies his aircraft for flight. This is a peculiar little plane, half the size of the first but fat, with stubby wings that sloped up at the ends. The covering is a transparent yellow plastic, stretched taut and smooth over the visible frame. The fuselage hangs down, almost touching the ground, and inside you can see the motor, the large battery, a radio receiver and several small servos that operate the tail surfaces. A cartoon of an airplane, it draws smiles and comments from people passing by.

The grass is too high and the wheels too small for this plane to take off by itself, so someone picks it up and walks a little way out onto the runway. The pilot stands by with his transmitter, and calls, “Ready?” At a nod from the launcher, he starts the electric motor, and the fat little plane is sailed gently into the wind. It dips a little, then catching its breath it tilts upward toward its home and rises slowly into the air. The electric motor whines—another difference from the first plane aloft—and after a minute you can barely hear it.

This plane is a fat house dog compared to the energetic soaring of the young retriever that just returned. It turns in tight little circles, and noses up and down readily as the pilot signals his instructions. Never moving very fast, it obeys quickly and amiably. Nor does it venture far. A hundred feet away, it is a silent leaf bobbing in the currents, swirling rather than soaring. Only on its final approach, nose toward us, yawing and pitching slightly, sinking slowly toward the runway, does it look like a “real” airplane. As soon as it touches the thick grass, however, its little wheels disappear and it stops in its tracks, helpless, a tiny beached whale. A gentle hand retrieves it and carries it back to its place on the flight line.

On the horizon, blue-gray mountains appear where before the Michigan plain had stretched taut and flat. A gust of breeze rustles the grass.

Next to go is another electric, this one a long, sleek plane with what seems to be a very large wing for the slender fuselage. It, too, is launched by hand, but it immediately rises at a steep angle, and escapes into the air like a fish just released into a lake by a sympathetic fisherman. The whine of its motor quickly fades in the distance. A little slower than the roaring four-stroke that flew earlier, it still dances lithely and smoothly around the field. It seems to belong to the sky.

At the end of its flight, it approaches the runway directly from a long way off in a slow, shallow glide. The large wing holds it confidently, smoothly, and it resists the command to return to earth and captivity, settling to the grass far down the runway. Its little wheels, like those on the fat dog, are no match for the tall grass, and it stops quickly after rolling but a few feet, and sits waiting to be rescued.

The orange wind sock lolling at the top of the old hanger slowly turns on its pole and stretches itself, then falls back to daydreaming.

The next airplane readied is fat-looking in comparison, with two electric motors, a scale model of an army transport, vintage pre-World War Two. Painted silver with Army Air Corps insignia on its wings and tail, it taxies toward the runway after some minutes of pre-flight check. Turning into the wind, it looks heavy as it lumbers down the grass strip—then suddenly veers to the side and stops.

After a brief conversation among the people, the plane is returned to the flight line for new propellers, it being judged that the original props were not large enough to pull the plane into the air. A quick change is accomplished, and it is again readied for flight. This time, it whines down the field confidently and rises into the air. The pilot circles it back toward the field, and holds it a few feet off the ground as it parades by the spectators. Although it is not especially nimble in maneuvering, the realism of the model and of the way it flies brings comments of approval on each pass.

A few minutes later, the silver plane makes its final approach just as realistically, touches down in the grass, and rolls to a stop. Its motors start again, and it turns and lumbers back to the flight line, solid, business-like, and confident. No scampering puppy this, but no beached whale, either.

The sun disappears again, this time diving behind a large thunderhead, outlining the cloud in golden neon.

Radio channel keys are exchanged between pilots, and another electric is launched, a stylized Cessna-type with large high wings and sleek lines. “Trainers” they call them, stable, easy handling, favorites of new pilots. Their large wings have a lot of “dihedral”—sloping upward from the fuselage to the tips. In order to make construction and flight control simpler, many do not have ailerons, those moveable panels on the trailing edges of the wings. The rudder turns the plane in the air, and a generous dihedral causes the plane to bank into the turn automatically. Dihedral also helps the plane to level itself if the pilot simply lets go of the controls—essential in the inevitable beginner’s panic situation.

Not that radio-controlled (R/C) airplanes fly themselves—even trainer-type planes. This one is coming in for a landing, its pilot a little nervous (landing is one of the most difficult maneuvers for the beginner to master). The wings waggle as he tries to line the plane up with the runway, and the nose keeps tilting up and down in his attempt to find the proper glide angle. At mid-field, it is still eight feet off the grass. At that moment one wing dips sharply as it loses lift, and the nose turns toward the earth. As the plane hits the ground, it cartwheels, and pieces can be seen flying off. Someone on the flight line groans. It finally comes to rest in a heap, and the dejected pilot makes his way to the scene, fearing the worst.

The wing mounting is broken, the motor has been torn from its mount, and the wooden propeller cracked. But the craft is repairable, and the pilot shrugs, gathers up the pieces and leaves the field for his workshop. The others had watched the crash soberly but philosophically; broken airplanes are common here. They say that the first crash is the worst. After spending many hours of painstaking construction to turn out a beautiful flying machine, the horror of watching helplessly as the bird smashes into the ground can bring tears to the eyes of the most macho flier. And if you’ve done it yourself, made that tiny error in judgment, coordination or attention, to cause your plane to destroy itself, the self-directed anger can be devastating. Few things, such as perhaps a missed field goal at the end of a close game, or a careless move in championship chess, can so cloud one’s self-esteem.

But radio-controlled flying is as addicting as cocaine to some. “Real” flying—that is, climbing into the cockpit of a full-size airplane and leaving the earth behind—is adrenaline-pumping, to be sure. So is rounding a bend in a road and happening upon a lavender-and-blue-and-gold sunset on a warm summer evening. But the thrill of capturing those same colors with paint on canvas stirs something in an artist that the “real thing,” glorious as it might be, cannot, and the joy of guiding these miniature blue and yellow and silver and red birds about the sky, delicately conducting their graceful dance with the tip of a shining antenna-baton, creates in the builder-flyer-artist music never heard in a hall.

The pilot seated inside a full-size airplane cannot see what the observer sees, the miracle of flight. True, one sees the earth from a breathtaking vantage point, and no earthly experience quite compares. The pilot on the ground, however, experiences the reality of the airplane in dialog with the earth and the sky in a way that the pilot in the sky can only imagine. This choreography-on-the-spot is jazz guitar in three dimensions, Fourth-of-July fireworks, performer and spectator combined, an out-of-body experience.

A red biplane goes up next, its large 1920’s-style wheels rolling easily through the tall grass, the same way its full-size counterpart did seventy years before. A powerful four-stroke engine lifts it lightly from the field, then pulls it up in a steep climb. The wings roll as the airplane roars through a corkscrew maneuver even as it climbs. Then straight up for a hundred feet before hanging, almost motionless, and then falling over on one wing and diving toward the ground. At thirty feet, it swoops up again and circles the field at full speed, one wing pointed straight at the ground. The miniature head visible in the open cockpit seems to smile at the upturned faces. One can imagine a white silk scarf trailing from the cockpit. Someone on the ground laughs.

This plane lands the way it has flown—fast and confidently. The engine suddenly quiets twenty feet over the end of the field, just as the plane turns into its final approach. Down it comes, then flattens its dive just over the grass. The nose comes up and the propeller stops, and wheels and tail touch the ground together. Applause thunders faintly on the horizon.

Many radio-control fliers dote on aerobatics, or racing. But the zen of model flying is in the landing, bringing a bird in for a perfect touch-down, wings level, the tiniest flare-out in the instant before the wheels make contact, and a smooth, straight roll to a stop. It takes hundreds of flights, delicately playing the controls, watching the response of the craft, getting the feel of it, to learn how to land well.

A sudden gust of cold wind comes across the tall grass on the other side of the runway, and the nearby trees whisper of rain. The fliers gather their tools, remove the wings from their planes for transport, and move off the field toward their cars. The wind sock stands out straight, tugging at its fastenings. A loose sheet of corrugated metal flaps against the old hanger. And the ghost of an old barnstormer checks the ropes in all the tie-downs holding phantom biplanes that sit, noses into the wind, waiting for the storm.

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