From a very early age, I have been interested in — or perhaps more correctly stated, enthralled by — airplanes. My grade school drawing-doodles were frequently rudimentary depictions of the “dogfight” scenes (much of which was actual archival footage) I had seen on the two-season run of the TV program “Black Sheep Squadron,” which was must-see viewing for an impressionable second- or third-grader who was “lucky” enough to occasionally hear a sonic boom growing up in 1970s Eastern Oregon.
I can recall our next-door neighbor in Echo, a then-nonagenarian born well before the turn of the 20th century, regaling us with a story about the historical significance of the first “aero-plane” sighting over the town when she was a young lass. I mowed her lawn as a kid and used some of the earnings to buy a model of a bubble-top canopy P-51D Mustang, which my dad and I assembled and painted at our kitchen table. That model still hangs in the basement of our house, 40 years later, in the bedroom formerly occupied by son Willie.
Apparently, the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree; numerous models constructed by him hang near the Mustang, including a highly detailed B-17 bomber. I bought him a ride on a B-17 for his ninth birthday — the first time he flew in anything other than our friend’s crop-dusting helicopter.
When our family attended my cousin’s wedding in Homer, Alaska, some years ago, Willie and I were late to the reception (although we did witness the exchange of vows) because we had booked a sightseeing flight on a 1929 model float plane owned and operated by a 1932 model pilot with more than 10,000 hours of flying time in The Last Frontier.
Willie was also fortunate enough to serve as the unofficial aerial photographer at the Helix Rodeo a few years back when he was a passenger in the celebrity fly-over taildragger. His job also entailed opening and closing the hot-wire gate that kept livestock off of Runway One at Gerking Flat International. I, too, have enjoyed a flying tour from the same facility, albeit with a new generation of pilot and craft.
Recently, I was privileged to be invited by a neighbor to go flying on a perfect May day (please forgive my careless word choice). We flew over much of the eastern and northern areas of Umatilla County and this time I was the photographer, capturing images of my uncle’s mountain ranch, a favorite neighbor’s farmstead, and a certain fellow airplane aficionado’s Caterpillar tractor and antique chisel plow hard at work only a few short miles from where the U.S. Navy “dropped in” on a farming project I was involved in a few years ago.
The EA-6B Prowler they were flying toward the Boardman Bombing Range experienced a catastrophic mechanical failure and ironically almost crashed into the only airplane hangar in North Juniper Canyon. Fortunately, all four crew members parachuted to safety in the sagebrush-covered hills. It was in all the papers.
My friend’s plane is a 1958 model and is in beautiful condition. It has been very well-maintained and he even has a new-fangled Garmin navigation device that he has retrofitted to the controls. This reminded me of how much navigation has changed in the last 100 years for pilots in our area and brought to mind a family story.
In the mid-1920s, when my grandfather was about 10 years old, he was employed in the aviation industry, in a manner of speaking.
The farm where he was raised just south of the confluence of the Columbia and Snake rivers was smack dab in the middle of the air mail route from Pasco to Salt Lake (likely with a stop in Boise). A light beacon was affixed to a tower in one of their fields to help guide planes safely. Being it such that the power line was still more than 20 years in the future for that neighborhood, a gasoline-powered generator was installed to make power. My old grandad, then an eager young entrepreneur, was hired to keep the light plant full of gas for the princely sum of $10 a month.
A large concrete pad was poured in the field near the beacon and painted with giant orange and yellow markings to aid in daytime navigation. When the tower was torn down, my frugal Great Depression-trained grandad skidded the concrete chunks a quarter of a mile and reassembled the puzzle-like pieces into a relatively level shop floor in his repair building, which remained in use when I moved to the place in 1993. Recycling ain’t nothin’ new.