On Saturday morning, the clouds hung low and heavy over Dubois. Nearly everyone around here was glad to have some rain, to dampen the risk of fires here and the haze of smoke from fires farther west. But the people at the airport weren’t so pleased.
Sadly, the weather had not been kind to Wyoming’s Third Highway Into Dubois Fly-In and Community Aviation Day.
“You should have come earlier,” said Cathy, when I reached her canopied stand. “There was quite a crowd for the pancake breakfast.” But probably the main point of the occasion was the fly-in, and under those conditions nobody would be landing at our small airport to drop by.
Silently, I wished for better luck next year, and walked on.
Inside a small hangar, a band was cheerily playing “Here Comes the Sun,” which did not seem to be the case. A few people stood nearby and chatted. Some small children carried balloon sculptures.
This facility on a plateau west of town was unfamiliar territory for me. I had come to the event mostly out of curiosity. I certainly wouldn’t sign up for flying lessons that day; my interest in aviation ends with boarding a big aircraft to get somewhere quickly, and I leave the details to the crew.
Toward the western end of the little taxiway, I saw a modestly built man pushing a tiny biplane out of a hangar, with about the same effort someone would use to wheel a Harley Davidson away from the curb. The black and white aircraft looked like it might have been pieced together from shoeboxes.
“Jungster 1” was painted on its side. It weighs 700 pounds and runs on a battery pack.
“Some old man in Ohio made it a long time ago,” Mike Cavanagh told me. After buying it and taking a short flight, Mike decided it needed to be rebuilt. He finished putting it back together last week, and won’t take it up again until it passes an inspection. He had brought it out of the hangar just to taxi around for the occasion. He let a five-year-old boy sit inside the cockpit and give his mother a thumbs-up for the camera.
The hangar behind him was jammed with somewhat larger aircraft, all painted in bright colors and as shiny as the new models in an auto dealership. One is a glider. Another is a plane made in Lithuania in 1985 that the Russians used for training.
“Quite a toybox you’ve got here,” said a man who stopped to look in.
Mike is a retired professional pilot who began flying solo at the age of 14. His wife Misty was standing inside, surrounded by the machines. She seemed a bit shy, until I asked her about the bright green and yellow plane backed into the far corner.
“This was built by the Navy for training during World War II,” Misty told me. “Mostly, the military buys aircraft from manufacturers, but this one was actually built by the Navy. It’s really cool. It’s made of material from dirigibles.”
“Almost nobody realizes that before World War II the Navy used dirigibles. They would transport Sparrowhawk planes using the dirigibles and do what they called parasite launch or landing.”
As explained by the website How Stuff Works, small biplanes would dock onto a “trapeze” hanging below the dirigible, and fly off again from this perilous platform. Why did they dream up this challenging early aircraft carrier and then dare to use it?
“Probably, we can make the leap to say the parasite aircraft launch is indicative of the mental development of that era in flight,” she said with a laugh. “There were wing walkers, people climbing out on the wing to walk to and board another plane without a parachute, and pilots willing to fly planes with some truly sketchy building techniques with notoriously unreliable engines.”
Misty proudly rattled off the other features of the N3N model behind her – the relative weighting of its nose and tail, the fact that the spar and wings are made of extruded aluminum recycled from dirigibles, that one side of the plane is made of aluminum while the other side is fabric. Why fabric? To save weight, she said. Then why aluminum on the other side? So that panels could be lifted off easily for repairs inside the body, without damaging the structure.
“Look at this,” she said, pointing out a plastic tube hanging down from the underside of the wing above the cockpit. “This is the gas gauge. You just look up to see it.”
This remark prompted Misty to reflect on the joys of piloting in the open air. “It’s so much better for training,” she said. “You can really see around, and you get a much better feel for the way the plane is responding.”
Kind of like when I drive my Miata with the top down, I suggested, rather than being inside the Rav4. Her already bright eyes flashed a bit more. “Yes, that’s right,” she said. “You can really feel the road. It’s the same thing.”
Misty grew up in Oklahoma and used to train horses, until her first husband got into flying. “I had to know what he was doing,” she said, and things took off from there.
“Airplanes are so much better than horses,” she said as we were parting. I asked why.
“You don’t want to give your horse away to someone you don’t like,” she said at first, but then decided she had spoken too quickly.
“Airplanes aren’t subjective,” she went on. “They don’t have bad days. Sure, there can be an engine failure, but that’s just mechanical. If you’ve had a bad day, an airplane won’t respond to that. There’s no mix of personalities.”
Driving away from the airport, I thought about Mike, soon to be aloft in his 700-pound toy, and Misty’s joy at sitting in the open air hundreds or thousands of feet up, feeling a large machine moving around her. I reflected on the difference between the Cavanaghs’ passion for flying and my mix of mild apprehension and indifference at the very thought of it.
Passing through the exit, I saw a hawk playing in the currents beyond the top of the slope nearby, plunging and then rising with the updraft, as if dancing.
How lovely to be able to do that, I thought. How often have I wished I could?
© Lois Wingerson, 2021