I have received a few further “update” emails from Piper Leo. I have shared them here not only because of my interest in aviation, but I love Piper’s writing style and humor. She tells a good story!
The Belle of Bethany
The photo of John Leo[Pipers husband] in The Belle of Bethany [see pic below] was taken on New Years eve day of 1949. We had invited the group from Meriden to our house for a party and I spent the day getting ready. I knew nothing of this test flight. Shortly after most of the guests arrived John came home with the rest of the crowd from the airport. We now lived in Suffield, CT directly under the north/south flyway. When this band of rascals came in the door John was hoisted up on their shoulders and given a cheer. They told me how close I came to being a widow.
He had made arrangements to test the Belle and thought it best to tell me after. In wringing The Belle out she (being female) reversed controls and really gave him a fight. He did bring her into the airport at Meriden unscathed and pretty shaken. All the folks surrounding the plane on the ground mainly the builder rushed over to see if all was well with him and the plane —-then came hanger time. A glass or two was passed around and they headed for our house near Bradley. May I add it was a very, very cheery party, right into the next morning.
Will send the cleveland story first thing in the morning.—-Piper
Will’ Note: Click on the links below to find out more in a 1949 newspaper clip about the building of the “Belle”.
The trip [sic ] to Cleveland Air Races was only a whisper in the beginning. Each person couldn’t see how they could make it. Time wise or money wise the trip was fading. Then the excitement took hold and time was forgotten , money was scraped together and the decision to go “anyway” was made. I was very pregnant and assumed I was going to be left behind–but no, I could come. This all came together in October of 1949. Good weather when we left Bradley in a DC with a full load. In order to have a safe trip I had to have a pillow between my stomach and the seatbelt while the mantra to the pilot was “NO TURBULANCE”. Really, who wants to take time to deliver a baby on the way to an airshow.
The flight to Cleveland was smooth and as we entered the pattern smoke could be seen on the outskirts of the field. We learned after landing it was the GB. Nothing left but a large hole in the ground. I do not know who the pilot was but I am sure it’s in the records. We all found seats in the bleachers, becoming absorbed by the race. The pulse of the race is still with me.Each time a plane rounded the pylon it left a resonance we could feel inside our bodies. Maybe it was the determination of the pilots we were really feeling.
In the midst of this one of the planes flew off course, over the bleachers and crashed. I’m quite sure this was Odem in his Mustang. In spite of the noise put out by the racing there was a silence. We all knew in our hearts this was a fatality. But the race continued. As if to assuage the shocked onlookers Betty Skelton [see pic below] flew over to spray all with her latest perfume. The women thought this was lovely and the men wondered what kind of a reception they would have at home. The crowd was buzzed by P38s near the closing of the show -a great finale. I’m quite sure what I took away from that race was a sense of determination that pushed aviation forward so quickly.
A couple of emails where Piper answers my questions about (1) John’s test flight (2) Was your Dad a pilot? (3) What was your first solo flight like?
I hope you got the e-mail about the Cleveland Air races. To answer your question about the onlookers watching John in the cockpit of the plane-well they heard about the test flight and came to watch this event. When it became apparent there was a problem, concern started to grow in the crowd and they watched as he fought to get control of this wild lady. When he finally brought her in, that’s when the crowd gathered around.
The mechanic, Bob Lambert is standing on the near side of the plane and the designer and builder on the opposite side (wearing the dark overcoat). I don’t know much about the design except it was referred to in conversation as the racer. I have never heard what became of her or if the design was used elsewhere.
You also asked about my first ride in a plane. On my fathers lap, belted in tight, in the friend’s Stearman at
Mullers, age about 4 years. Might add my mother was not around or it never would have happened.
Soloed out 7 hrs. 25min. and began a career of mooching rides to log time.
I have a question for your friend of a friend who had ties to Mullers. Had she any tales of the Cleavenger Bros. They were responsible for building the Eaglerock and I understand they were at Mullers. If true, some of their adventures are worth relating.
From what I gathered the test was not at Meriden but at Bethany airport. I could not bring up all of the article on my screen I noticed today after looking at the expression on John’s face that was not his real smile, it was forced so he must have still been under tension.
My dad was not a pilot although given a chance he would have given it shot. My mother and his folks were not at all happy with these new gimmicks. So he had to watch his friend who was not married do daredevil things.
I soloed in an Areonca champ but did mooch time in the Tim. My first flight was Revere and my instructor was Eric Ericson an army aircorp vet and really nice person. After my lesson on a particular day he said to taxi off the runway , he wanted to lecture me, which he did. Then I was to taxi to the runway where he would get out and I was to solo. Whew! I didn’t want to disappoint him after his hard work so I bit down followed his instructions and headed down the runway. When I was airborne I realized I was really doing this! So I recited Poe’s The Raven. I’m sure old Edgar Allen rolled his eyes a bit. But did it and landed-got a hug from Eric–did not sleep that night. So there you have it.—-Mark and I have a date to fly tomorrow. Again, I may not sleep tonight. Will let you know about the flight.