Flying High

open cockpit biplane

Dad learned to fly in an open cockpit biplane in about 1929. I remember going out north of Lubbock on the Amarillo highway to the airfield to watch Dad practice takeoffs and landings in that biplane. Dad’s instructor was a pilot named Ben Branson. He and Dad flew to Austin in 1930 in an open cockpit biplane. Dad was doing his first “cross country” and Ben handed him a note, which could be passed from one cockpit to the other through the open fuselage. The note said for Dad to take over and fly to Austin by himself but to know where he was at all times.

Ben Branson’s note

This is the note Ben Branson passed back to Dad when they were flying from Lubbock to Austin in about 1929-30. Of course they had no radio or intercom in those days and the fuselage was all open between the two cockpits so you could pass a note from one pilot to the other. Notice they got the others attention by shaking the control stick. Oil pressure gauge was apparently only in one cockpit. All little towns painted the name of the town on their water towers and since there were no radios or navigation equipment if you got lost you flew down close to the ground and checked the name on the water tower to figure out where you were.

1929 Curtis Robin Cabin plane

After getting his pilot’s license Dad bought a 1929 Curtis Robin Cabin plane. It was a three-passenger plane with two seats behind the pilot. The seats were made of wicker. The pilot sat up front alone and the two passengers were behind him. The pilot had a control stick, and this was before any airplanes had “steering wheels” to control them. Dad was flying alone over the Davis Mountains in West Texas when his engine quit. In those days, everyone wore parachutes when they flew. He could not get the engine started so he got out on the step and started to drop off and bail out when he spotted a corral down by a railroad. He figured it was big enough to land in, so he got back in the plane and glided down like a big buzzard, going round and round and got lined up to land. As he came in, he barely made it to the corral. He knocked the top board off the fence but set the plane down successfully. However, the pen was not as large as he thought, so when he got to the other end he was still rolling pretty fast and he ground looped the plane. It finally stopped, he got out, gathered up his stuff, and walked over to the fence next to the railroad. He said it was six hours before the first freight came by. It was moving pretty slow so he jumped on and rode the train into the next town where he got a car and went on to Austin to bid on a job. They had to come in and dismantle the plane to get it out. After it was dismantled, they put it on a freight car because there were no roads anywhere close.

Another story I was an eyewitness to was when, in 1933, Dad had to go to Austin to bid on highway jobs. We would leave Lubbock before early dawn and we would pull off the road (there were no fences) and we would stop at the cap rock at about sunup where Mom would spread a blanket. We would have breakfast and watch the sunrise. We would then load back up, descend the cap rock and head for Austin. Back in those days, none of the highways in west Texas were paved and they would all follow the section lines. (A section was 640 acres) We would travel several miles due east, and then make a 90-degree turn to the south. We would then travel several miles south and turn east again and so on all day long. I remember one time, we came to a big puddle covering the road and there was a man there with a team of mules. He pulled us through the mud to the other side.

Once we were back on the road, my mother asked Dad, “What do you think he does when the puddle dries up?” Dad told her,” That’s when he hauls all the water”.