My Old Flying Helmet

In the mid 1980’s, before earning my flying license, I (with an LVRS friend Chris) owned an Eipper Quicksilver ultralight, affectionately known as The Flying Lawn Chair, or ‘FLC’. Chris and I taught ourselves how to take off and land the FLC in southern Vermont, and lived to tell about it. This ultralight had no cabin and was open to the elements. Flying it was similar to riding my ’69 Triumph motorbike, loud, windblown, cold, and exhilarating. We wore parkas, gloves, Carhartt overalls in an effort to keep warm, and a helmet of some kind. Motorbike helmets were the most common for us, although I did wear a hockey helmet on one flight and ended up half deaf with cold ears.

My ’69 Tryumph Tiger.

Andy Hopping, a friend (and fellow Rescue Squad member) was our mentor. A former Naval Aviator and current ultralight flyer, his excitement and passion for flying was infectious. We trained at the now closed Red Fox, and Tater Hill airstrips, practicing flying until we had built up enough courage to land on the home farm hayfields. These farm fields seemed a lot smaller, landing on them, then they did while haying them.

Departure from Red Fox Airstrip in Bondville, VT (1982?)

Another LVRS friend, John Nolan, asked me to come meet his father, Tom, who had been a Marine aviator in the the second world war and the Korean conflict. I enjoyed visiting with him and hearing his stories. He assured me that on his next trip north he would like to meet up with me and see the FLC. He did a few months later. After a Quicksilver inspection, he shared a story with me. These are his words as I remember them.

“I was flying F4U Corsairs in the Pacific during the last months of World War 2. What turned out to be the last day of fighting (Japan actually surrendered during our flight), we were on a routine patrol, seeking targets opportunity that included low level strafing. At some point I received a shell round into F4U’s engine. There was oil seeping out through the cowl flaps at the base of the engine. With the oil pressure falling and the oil temperature rising, I climbed to gain altitude and headed back toward our base airfield. It became clear that I was not going to make it. I had radioed ahead and knew that there was a rescue ship headed toward me, but I was going to have to bail out, something I had not done. I went over the checklists, and tried to recall what I had learned in flight training. I had two choices; turn the plane inverted and kick straight out and down from the cockpit, or trim for level flight, climb out on the wing and jump, trying not to hit the horizontal stabilizer. I chose the latter. I knew I had to open the canopy, jump clear, count to 10 before pulling the rip-cord”.

Internet picture of a Vought F4U Corsair

“When the time came, I cranked open the canopy. I was not prepared for how loud the airstream was! I trimmed the plane for level flight, unbuckled my safety harness, tightened my parachute straps and jumped. I have never counted to ten so fast in my life. I pulled the rip-cord. Things got very quiet. What a beautiful day it was…sunny… you could see forever! When I hit the water, I got my Mae-west inflated. Then the life-raft. I put together the oars, and started rowing toward a small island I had observed on my descent. I noticed little flashes coming from shore and realized whoever was on the island was shooting at me! The war was over! I paddled the opposite direction as fast as I could. I was far out of range”.

“When I was shot down, and recovered, the Navy issued me all new equipment, even a footlocker! I sent my parachute silk home, and my ‘wife-to-be’ made a wedding dress out of it. And…(a pause as he reaches inside a bag) they issued me a new helmet. Here is my old one, and you should wear it when you fly your FLC.”

Thomas J Nolan was called up to serve again in Korea. He told me that the first thee F4Us that he flew had some major maintenance issue. He got fed up flying them and transitioned to helicopters.

I never met John’s dad again. John took his own life a few years later.

I wore that helmet for as long as I flew the ultralight. It now sits in my office, and reminds me of great stories, and old friends.

U.S. Navy H4 Flight Helmet, Given to me by Thomas J Nolan (1983?)


4 responses to “My Old Flying Helmet

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