It all started with a simple phone call. ” Do you still give airplane rides?”
Nancy called me from down near Ludlow, VT. She had a dear friend who was turning 87, and wanted as a surprise to treat her to a flight. Her name was Piper, and she had always loved airplanes, and had flown some when she was younger.
I had no idea…
It was a clear and cold November morning (I did say clear and November in the same sentence), the aircraft had been pre-heated, and I headed to Rutland. I met Nancy and Piper in the FBO. Piper stood very erect, her eyes as big as saucers, and she had a grin from ear to ear. Nancy, younger, shorter, and with just as big a grin, said “Hi Will, we just watched you land, and I just told Piper that she is going flying.”
We walked out on the ramp toward my plane, Piper was talking about the Cessna’s and Aeronca’s she had flown in the 40’s. Nancy was warning me that Piper would talk my ear off! I left them to take pictures and ran back to the FBO to settle up my fuel bill. When I returned, Piper was in the plane, buckled up and ready to fly! She said she had not been at the controls of a plane for 60 years! Wow, I liked this woman.
We flew west toward Lake George. Piper’s hands were on the controls, feet on the rudders, you could see things clicking into place, memories and skills floating around some just below the surface. I don’t think I have seen anyone happier in my airplane. She shared many stories with me in that noisy cockpit. So some of the following I may have heard wrong, or remembered differently. I apologize Piper for any mistakes, and will update this post when I visit with you again.
As a young woman, Piper would hang around the Revere Airfield ,in Massachusetts, catching rides in whatever planes she could. She described being on the Goodyear Blimp, and looking down over the side. Her family was friends with Clarence Chamberlin, who competing with Charles Lindbergh for the Orteig Prize (the first to cross the Atlantic non-stop). She used to ride her bike into Boston to listen to Amelia Earhart speak. She watched Roscoe Turner perform and described him and his pet Lion de-boarding a Lockheed Loadstar, how he was dressed, and how he would tip his hat to the on-lookers. She also knew the Granville brothers from NH, designers and builders of the GB Racer. She talked about witnessing a crash of one of these stubby little racers (click on the GB link, this may be the same crash). Piper’s dream was to become a WASP pilot during WWII. While in High School, she took the exams, passed the physicals, and had a letter of acceptance to the WASP program from the great Jackie Cochran. To honor her mother’s wishes, she was waiting to turn 18 and a half to leave home and join up. Just one month after her eighteenth birthday the WASP’s were disbanded. She had earned her pilot’s license, married a WWII Navy pilot who worked for Eastern Airlines, for Cessna Aircraft, then was chief pilot for Monsanto. In an agreement with her husband, she never flew again after their children were born, not wanting anything to happen to both of them while flying.
We had flown a wide circle, over Fort Ticonderoga, along the “farm belt” of the Champlain valley, over the beautiful and history filled Lake Champlain (where Piper remarked “they must have been brave men to sail up this lake to fight”). We saw Middlebury College (where her granddaughter attended), Lake Dunmore, and flew along the spine of the Green Mountains back for a landing at Rutland airport. The hour we spent in the air went by much to fast. I introduced her to my A&P mechanic Scott and showed her my L2M restoration project before Nancy took her out for lunch.
It is not every day that you come across someone that you not only hit it off with immediately, but who also has a deep love of aviation, and a connection to the Golden Age of Flight. I can now say that I have less then 6 degrees of separation from the aviators I read and fantasized about when I was a child. Thanks Piper!
ps. After finishing this post I received a wonderful email from Piper’s son Quentin. It is filled with great photos and stories. With his permission I will post it next week.