My First Flight
by Bob Cannon
One experience that every aviator recalls is his first flight; the very first time to break contact with terra firma. For me, it was quite a few years of trying somehow to make that first flight. But once I had broken the ice, my quest never stopped. On the following web pages I have outlined my final achievement in aviation, and that was operating a banner towing business at Meadowlark Airport in Huntington Beach, California. I have added some additional pages describing some of the aircraft I have owned and some of my favorite places to fly to. The links at the end of this page will lead you to the other sites. The following tells the hurdles I had to go to in getting that first flight.
MY FIRST FLIGHT:
When does a kid get that first inkling of what it is that he thinks he wants to do in life? Be a Cop, a Fireman, Railroad Engineer? For me it was when I somehow got a copy of what was an early comic book or funny book as I called them. The books were a little different in size and composition back then being about 4" x4" and 1 ˝" thick. The reason for the thicker size was to make them with more pages. In the upper right hand corner on each of the pages was a small graphic imagery of an airplane and by thumbing the pages quickly from rear to front, the airplane appeared to be moving and doing loops and rolls. Not very technical but in the days before TV it was interesting to a 6 year old. Smilin Jack was my first hero and I think I can trace that first inkling of adventure to those books and the stories.
At an age of maybe 8 or 9, somehow or another, and I cant remember how, I managed to ride my bike from my house in west Alhambra all the way down to south central Los Angeles and on to Vail Field . It was before WWII and there werent freeways then; but without a map or other guideposts, Ill never know how I got there or even had the energy to make it both ways, or for that matter even knew about the airport. Maybe my excursion that day wasnt to go to an airport and I stumbled on to it? I would guess at the distance being somewhere like 10 or so miles away and separated from home by the small Monterey Park hills. That is a whole lot of "biking". I was short enough that I had to look up at the window counter of Hank Coffins Flight School office to ask how I could get a ride in an airplane. The lady answering me told me that I would have to come back with a note from my mother. I knew then that I was doomed, as no such note would be given. For that matter I wonder now just where I thought I would have gotten the money to buy a ride anyhow. I would imagine that there would have been something said if anyone even knew of the trip I had just made. I do remember pushing my bike over the grazing hills, through fields of stubble to get there. Even had to sneak by some Brahma cattle. And while at Vail Field I got to take a look at Anaheim and Telegraph airport, which was sort of across the street. It is now about 65 years since that venture, but I can still remember the airport office (it wasn't much).
Alhambra Airport 1930 Alhambra Airport 1960
Even though we lived in the western part of Alhambra, bordering on the town of El Molino (Spanish for "the mill"), my trusty bike often got me over to the old Alhambra Airport, which was quite large by those days standards. My maternal grandparents lived on that side of town and I had transferred to Central Grammar School, which was a better one than Marengo. Marengo was only 8 blocks from our house, but this way I could come home to either of my grandparents houses after school, and avoid the Mexican kids who always pestered me. The Alhambra Airport was only maybe 2 or 3 miles away from their house. I can remember my father taking me there when I was young enough that he was holding me in his arms. I remember a pilot coming out of the main terminal building wearing boots and having a leather helmet with the flaps buttoned up over his head. It is amazing what seemingly insignificant things one can recall from such an early age if the event made an impact on one, and for some reason that one did for me. The airport was opened in April 1930 and was the headquarters for Western Air, forerunner of Western Airlines. (Later in my tales I will tell of meeting Westerns pilot #1 and making friends with him). Western had a fleet of six 12 passenger Fokker transports. There was a supposedly an abandoned (well nobody chased me out of it!) old Fokker at the edge of the airport and this is where I got my first "stick time". The nearby hangar was shaped like a Hexagon and had doors on each face so that all six aircraft could be worked on simultaneously; very unique! The name on the hangar by the time I was hanging around was HARLOW AIRCRAFT. I was certain that this must be one of the largest aircraft manufacturers in the world! Earlier neighbors complained about the noise so the airport had been sold to HARLOW in 1945. This dates the time of my first "stick time" as probably being at age 10 or so as HARLOW had been there for a few years before buying the airport. Some 40+ years later I would be in a really old acquaintances hanger at Cable-Claremont airport. The hanger is decorated with many pictures of the old Alhambra Airport and in one of them was the old Fokker clearly sitting at the corner of the airport where I "flew it". Dale (Fuzzy) Miller had been the older kid down the street from our house in Alhambra during the high school days and we used to build models, toss a football, etc. I lost contact for 30 years until I met him at Cable Claremont airport one day and recognized him. He had retired after many years as a Fireman and had gotten into restoring antique airplanes big time as a hobby. Making a transition from models into the bigger ones seems to have occurred to a lot of us. My brother in law John Turnham gets by to see Fuzz regularly and only recently we had a chance to visit and see the work in progress on his 1934 Kinner Sportwing. (Dale passed away in 2005). I was fortunate enough to work with Gunnar Edenquist in the 1960s where we were both employed as Engineers at Hycon Mfg. Co in Monrovia. Gunnar had been Chief Engineer at Kinner before and during WWII and had been in Buffalo NY during the program testing of the Ryan PT-22, which used the Kinner 5 cylinder R-56 engine. The military selected the Ryan with the Kinner engine out of the various models tested from different manufacturers because it was the only one that would start in the early morning after being left out in the freezing weather overnight. If it hadnt been for that fact we probably would have seen a whole lot of Waco UPF-7s on the surplus market instead of the Ryans. My third airplane to own was a surplus Ryan ST3KR (PT-22) N48749.
Once while hanging on the fence at Alhambra airport I watched a formation of three P-38s coming in for a landing. Alhambra Airport had become the shipping station for Lockheeds P-38s. The first two aircraft had no problem but the third one seemed to have trouble in getting a consistent glide path; first too low, then too high, then low again until he hit the runway and the gear collapsed. The right prop flew off and in slow motion gyrated toward me coming to a stop before hitting the fence: very exciting! White smoke came out of the engine nacelle (probably coolant) and with the aircraft sitting on its nose, the pilot crawled out and threw his parachute on the ground and sat on it with his head in his hands. Very touching!
During WWII we moved to Arlington (near Riverside) where my father was working on the construction of the new Army camp, Camp De Anza. I was free to do what I wanted and somehow again I made it the many miles to a small Army airstrip, which would later become Riverside Airport. I watched the Army planes taking off and landing from this humped shaped dirt runway as it seemed. Riverside Airport still has the hump today even though it is much longer.
We moved back to Alhambra and again while spending the day with my father who was now working on the new subdivisions being built nearby Long Beach Airport (Daughtery Field at that time), I was able to spend my day hanging on the fence watching the P-38s and others coming and going. He was good enough to let me put my bike in the back of his truck and have it to ride when we got to his work site. Anywhere and anytime one was outside there were always plenty of P-51s, P-38s and other Warbirds coming and going. I got really good at imitating the sound of a P-51 which has a distinct whistle along with its roar. Once I saw three planes come over that had the Japanese "meatball" on the wings. I never found out what that was all about; damn sure they werent really Japs. Probably some movie being made.
But still no AIRPLANE RIDE! No one in our family was even close to being a pilot or had any interest in it. My Grandfather still talked of knowing Jesse James, drove a 1928 Oldsmobile and was telling me the best way to get a good shot at an Indian if one jumped me. At the close of WWII the Alhambra Airport was made into a shopping center and a part of it into the new high school named Mark Keppel and the new I-10 freeway. I found that there was another airport to go to which was even further out of town: Rosemead Airport, but now I had a motor scooter (a two speed Cushman) and it was easier to travel further distances. The airport was located just off of Ramona Blvd (which now has been replaced by I-10). This was going to be my place and sure enough after hanging around long enough a guy who had leather jacket on asked me if I wanted a ride. He must have been a good pilot because he had a leather jacket and was wearing military OD trousers. We went up in a brand new Luscombe Silvaire that had four large playing cards painted on each side, an Ace in each suit. Other than that it was pure shiny aluminum. We went out for a short hop and he did some loops. He put his hand on my thigh and wanted to know if it felt good? I think I was too confused by the fact that I was finally here, up there, that I probably wasnt very coherent. I was no longer a Groundpounder; I had finally made it for my first hop!
That airplane, the "Four Aces" and the one that was to be my second ride (a brand new 47 Stinson) belonged to Gus Gehrig, the local FBO at Rosemead. I was now an almost accomplished pilot (having made one hop and having read all about flying) and met two other guys in high school, Victor Vincent Vurpilat the third (VVVIII) and Kevin Toohy, both whom had their private licenses.
As one ages in a particular field such as being a local pilot, the pieces of the puzzle keep falling into place. On my memorable 2nd flight we flew all the way from Rosemead to Pomona (Bracket Field), a distance of less than twenty miles, each of us sharing the $12 per hour rental fee. We walked to the Los Angeles County Fair. At that time I recall Brackett as having a single small, short, and narrow runway. I had brought my trusty box camera and took as many pictures as one roll of film would allow. One picture was of a Stearman PT-17 parked at Rosemead as we taxied out. 35+ years later I met Clete Roberts (famous newscaster now deceased) while he was having lunch at the Meadowlark airport café. Meadowlark is where I finally gravitated to with my flying business in the late 1970s. I was finally the proud owner of two Stearman PT-17s (one a stock 220HP two-holer and the other single place 450HP ex-duster). I struck up a conversation with him and we talked of Rosemead airport and in the conversation he mentioned that he had owned a PT-17 back then and kept it at Rosemead. I mentioned the Stearman I had taken the photo of on my 2nd flight, and since my office was conveniently 25 from the cafés outdoor eating area, I was able to retrieve my old scrapbook and show him the picture; sure enough it was his old plane. Then I offered him a ride in my Stearman (which he eagerly accepted) and I passed the honor of flying him on to my wife Linda whom I had trained in my Stearman.
Back to the late forties, I read one day where the "4 Aces" had collided the night before into the tall KLAC radio towers, which were (are) only a few miles south of the Rosemead Airport. But by now I was a seasoned "pilot" having had several more rides in another of Guss planes with VVVIII in an Ercoupe. We flew to such distant places as Mojave airport. I missed the big fly-in from Rosemead to Pauncho Barnes Happy Bottom Riding Club! That would have been a historic flight to have in my logbook!
It has always been interesting to me when facts fall into place. During the 80s, some 35 to 40 years after the Rosemead experience, I was in the donut shop next door to Meadowlark and had a copy of the LA Times in my hand. I was engrossed in the article about a Twin Beech crashing upon takeoff with a load of Sky Divers. Seems as though the bird started to lose one engine and the divers panicked and ran to the rear toward the door. Of course at a low speed with one engine out a stall/spin was unavoidable with all the weight going towards the tail. A very well dressed guy standing next to me saw the picture of the Twin Beech and said, "I used to fly those". "Yeah, sure! I mumbled to myself; we all did!" The next day he was there again so I intentionally got into a conversation with him and now was convinced that he was a BSer for sure! He told me he used to own TWO airports himself with his brother as his partner. "Impossible I thought." Then he told me he owned Rosemead! "Further Impossible!" Then he started telling me about Gus Gehrig, the 4 Aces and more stuff than I could recall about Rosemead. Then I remembered back to my first flight and watching these "old" guys hangar flying and guffawing. One was needling the other about being "hangar happy" whatever that meant; I thought it was his nickname, but its funny how some names or events stick in ones mind. But that was this guy; he and his brother had saved all of their earnings during WWII and bought the airport when they cashed out at the end of the war. I recalled the exact impression of a midget racer imprinted on the tarmac at the airport where a guy had literally plopped in. He gave me the exact date, time and names. The guy was showing off for his wife and did a high speed stall right into the ground before them.
And then later on in my banner tow days a fellow banner tow operator 15 years my senior related how he had been banner towing in the late 40s at the old Rosemead airport and in Stearmans. The operator he had worked for was the legendary Van Noble who sort of fathered banner towing in Southern California. On one New Years day he had an extraordinary scheme planned where 3 Stearmans would pull a single large sign. However it seems as though one of the pilots had over indulged the night before (sounds familiar for banner pilots). When the formation of three either came in on New Years day for a drop of the banner (or upon a failed pickup) this guy didnt get his timing right and make the release when the other two pilots did. With the large sign stuck on his plane only he came straight down and crashed. Only a person who has banner towing experience will know just how fast an airplane stops flying when the power is reduced or cut when flying a large sign, or in the later case, when a sign needing three airplanes is hanging on only one airplane.
But by now I was totally possessed and any new friends that I was to meet in the next 45 years had to have some connection with airplanes. The next 45 years would see me earning my living, eating and breathing: Airplanes (and helicopters)!
The following links will take you to sites that give more detail about my flying career.
The SkyAd Story
Newspaper clippings about Meadowlark Airport
Airplanes I have owned
Flying Trips to Baja
History of the Old Rosemead Airport
My Favorite Airstrip in Oregon
To Use or Not to Use
These other sites are non-aviation related but are a part of my history.
Moving Old John