Monday, October 22, 2012

The Early Days of Aviation

In Eastern North Carolina

By Foy Pullen, Pilot and Mechanic

In the early days of aviation, a pilot had to be both a flyer and a mechanic. When something broke, as it often did, you had to fix it yourself most times. On the old planes, the landing axle went up into a V and was held there by elastic cord like bungee cords with a safety cable to hold it in place in case the bungee cord broke. The elastic cords allowed the axle to give a little, acting like shock absorbers on the landing. It was a pretty primitive setup, but it worked.
Rocky Mount, NC Airport in 1936

One time, when we were barnstorming in a little country town, a bungee cord broke and we had no replacement. A farmer brought us some plow line. We tied that on in place of the plastic cord. It held the axle, but there was no give to it and it made for a hard landing!
The engines in the planes we used for barnstorming were water cooled engines left over from World War I. I can remember one time when we only had one bucket and we needed to fill the plane with gasoline from a drum and also add water. We got water from a nearby ditch. Then, using the same bucket, with water still in it, we drained gasoline from the gasoline drum. We poured the gas into the plane’s gas tank through a felt hat. That felt hat was the best water trap I’ve ever seen!
OX-5 Engine
This was the first mass-produced engine for airplanes in the United States.
It was put in all old Jennie-typeaircraft in World War I. 
It was a V-8 water-cooled engine and developed 90 horsepower at 1400 RPMs.
Those old World War I engines didn’t have starters. You had to hand crank them like the old cars. To help get the engine started, we had a rig that we could hook up to the magneto that would generate enough current to start the engine. It beat cranking it!

We would go barnstorming on Saturday, always a busy day in town. As we approached the town, we would circle around a couple of times and then crank up the generator. It would wound like the engine was coming to pieces! Everybody would get excited looking up and expecting us to crash. Then we’d make what appeared to be a forced landing.
After we got down, we would open the cowl [hood] and pretend to be working on the engine while everybody gathered around. In a few minutes, we’d close it up and tell everybody it was fixed and ready to fly and that we needed a volunteer to take a test flight. Somebody always got pushed up to the front and we’d take him up. After that, we’d start hauling passengers.

Fairchild Travelair Speedwing-1937
We charged $2 per person for a flight that lasted about 10 minutes. We’d circle around the town, pointing out various sights and then land and load up again. It was a lot of fun!
In one small town, we had a man who said he would be glad to fly, if he could just keep one foot on the ground. We put a bucket of dirt in the plane and he flew with his foot in the bucket, and he was happy.
Military Aircraft in Hanger in 1938
Tommy Moore from Wilson [Wilson Co., N.C.] would barnstorm with us sometimes and he would parachute from the aircraft. The early parachutes were made of canvas and they were too bulky to be worn, so they were packed in sacks. The sack was tied to the wing step so that when the daredevil jumped, the sack would turn over and spill the parachute out. We would pack stuff in the sack with the chute so when it opened, debris would fly out and it looked like the chute had blown up. That would really excite the crowd.

Foy Pullen was born 4/17/1915 and died on 2/22/2011 at the age of 95. He wrote 90 Years of Aviation in Rocky Mount: 1917-2007. In the book, he told the story of aviation from its early beginnings in Rocky Mount, Edgecombe/Nash Counties, NC through 2007. Much of the story was told from his memories of a 60 year career as a airplane pilot and mechanic. Mr. Pullen also had a scrapbook filled with old pictures. Many of these pictureswere included in the book.
This article was first published in Vol. 12, Issue 3 of The Connector, newsletter of the Tar River Connections Genealogical Society.

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