A short story by: Robert F. DeBurgh
I was one of the fortunate few people who was born into an aviation family. My father was an A&P aircraft maintenance technician, at that time simply known as an aviation mechanic and my mother held a private pilot certificate. My uncle Charlie was an ex-mail pilot who had pioneered with several infant airlines and my aunt Doretta held commercial pilot and flight instructor certificates in the 1930s. Their lives were rich in the excitement of those early years in aviation and I was lucky to be able to share, mostly vicariously, in their adventures.
My earliest recollection of being in an airplane was when I was about five years old. On a chilly autumn morning in 1940 I first took flight firmly strapped in my aunt’s lap, in the front cockpit of a Travel Air biplane piloted by my uncle. The flight was a short one and my memory of it is hazy, since I was so young, cold and a little scared, but unimaginably excited, whooping with joy throughout the flight. I decided then and there that no matter what, I would be a pilot when I grew up, and so it happened. I now have fifty years of aviation behind me and I wouldn’t change a thing.
But that is another tale. This one begins when I had just received my student pilot’s certificate from the (then) Civil Aeronautics Administration. In those days a flight instructor could sign a student off for cross-country in his logbook and on his student pilot certificate. The student could then fly cross-country anywhere with no further sign offs, merely by having his instructor check his flight planning.
Of course, as students, we were not permitted to carry passengers, but I got around this restriction by taking my black Labrador, Smokey, along. I figured that as a dog he did not count as a passenger. He was the best passenger I ever had though. He never had a complaint or a gripe about a rough landing or turbulence. He would sit up in the back seat of the little two seater Aeronca Champ, secured in the harness I had made for him and critically eye my takeoff. Once we were at altitude he would promptly fall asleep and remain so until I throttled back for descent. He would then sit up again and look over my shoulder, perhaps giving a mental critique about the landing.
I was not alone in taking my animal friend along on long flights. A pal of mine had a ferret that regularly flew with him and an old friend of my uncle’s, Dick Merrill, who eventually became chief pilot for TWA, had a squirrel that traveled in his pocket, sometimes riding on his shoulder.
Once when Dick was flying the mail in the 1930s, on a night run, the squirrel decided to jump from his shoulder to the top of the instrument panel of the Pitcairn Mailwing Dick was flying. The slipstream caught the little creature and swept him overboard. Dick wasn’t too concerned about the incident though; after all it was a flying squirrel.
At the other end of the aviating animal spectrum was Roscoe Turner, Pilot and showman extraordinaire of the 1930s who flew with a lion named Gilmore in the passenger’s seat.
I flew many hours with Smokey and when I finally turned seventeen and got my private pilot certificate, he still occupied the back seat a lot. One reason I brought him along whenever I could was because when I left him behind he would howl and whimper from the moment I propped off the Champ until the moment I returned to the airport and he could see me on final approach. This was, to say the least, disconcerting to everyone and I was instructed by the airport owner to either bring him along on my flight or leave him home.
There was one day that I should have brought him. At that time I was dating a girl by the name of Ingra who had emigrated with her family from Germany to the US after World War Two. Supposedly I was teaching her English and she was improving my high school German. This however, escalated into a romantic attachment that I remember fondly to this day.
She lived on a farm about forty miles from my home and rather than drive the winding roads through the Jersey hills, if the weather was good I would fly over and land in an apple orchard where the trees were spaced just widely enough apart to give me ten feet or so of wingtip clearance on each side of the plane and plenty long enough for the little Champ. Ingra and I would spend the day flying, walking around the fields and woods, swimming in the pond or enjoying her mother’s wonderful cooking.
One day she asked during one of our lengthy telephone conversations, if I could find a home for her large tabby cat that kept having litter after litter of kittens and was becoming a nuisance. Rudy, a friend in the city was having a mouse problem and I thought that the solution to both dilemmas was to fly the cat home and present her to Rudy, thereby pleasing both my friend and my girl. Little did I know. I was used to Smokey flying with me and I thought the cat would be little different.
The following day I flew up to the farm armed with a length of cord to tie the cat in the back seat, just in case. After spending a pleasant summer day I prepared to head for home. I ensconced the cat firmly is the back seat. Tying her securely (I thought) by the neck to one of the seat tubes. She seemed content enough and I stopped worrying about it due to a few smooches and hugs from my girlfriend.
I propped the Champ, climbed in and with a wave and a blown kiss to Ingra, taxied down to the end of the field where I did my runup. At this point the cat began to meow loudly but I cheerfully ignored her complaints. I turned the Champ into the wind, added full throttle and started my takeoff roll. When the tail came up the meows from the back seat became a panicky howl but I still was not concerned.
Just at lift off, the howls became increasingly louder and as we hit a small downdraft, the cord securing the cat broke. Suddenly Tabby was on the top of the instrument panel, screaming her indignance and spitting at me. She made a jump to my shoulder, digging in with all fours in complete terror. She then apparently decided that the top of my head looked like an attractive refuge and proceeded to climb up there. By this time I was bleeding profusely from claw lacerations in my shoulder and was beginning to bleed from Tabby’s attempt to hang on to my head. I don’t think that we ever got more than four hundred feet off the ground.
The Champ was describing some very odd maneuvers as I tried desperately to dislodge the cat and control the airplane at the same time. If you think this sounds easy, you try it. Finally I managed to get the kitty into a position where I could hold her down beside me on the seat. I remember thinking that I couldn’t land the plane this way and had to get rid of my troublesome
passenger before she killed us both. I had just come over a large lake and so slid the window open and forced kitty outside to drop her into the water. She again refused to cooperate but with the slipstream and me shaking my arm she finally furrowed her way down to my wrist and finding no purchase there, went sailing down to splash within a few feet of two men fishing from
a small boat. These two individuals shook their fists angrily at me but I didn’t care. I was free of my tormentor.
Wiping the blood from my eyes, I shakily flew home and managed a safe landing. I rolled the Champ into the hangar figuring on cleaning it up the following day, but when I arrived at the airport the next morning my uncle was already there, glaring at me as I parked the car. He said not a word but beckoned me over to the Champ, which he had rolled out, intending to fly himself. I opened the door and got a whiff of one of the foulest odors I have ever smelled. It seems that Tabby, in her panic had totally lost control of her bowels. The inside of the plane looked like someone had been stabbed to death in an outhouse, blood and cat doo-doo all over the cockpit.
My uncle was furious and who could blame him. After all, it was his airplane. After looking at me like a level five thunderstorm for a while, he simply said, “Clean it up, NOW. You’re grounded.” He was one of those people who could speak volumes with a few words and a look. He then turned on his heel and stalked toward the office.
In the end, my uncle forgave me and had a good laugh at my expense. The grounding lasted only two weeks, but Rudy was angry with me for breaking my promise to bring him a cat. The worst part though was when Ingra opened her back door the following day to find a soaked, bedraggled cat
meowing pitifully at her feet. Yes, the cat survived the fall and the dunking and came home. I tried to explain but she wouldn’t speak to me for a month.
It finally dawned on me that some creatures fly well and some don’t. Dogs mostly are good flyers. I’ve had several over the years that were wonderful companions and loved to fly. I’ve never tried flying with another cat but probably would only if the cat were in a pet cage, tied, and drugged into unconsciousness.
The exception would be if it were a small stuffed toy cat like my uncle used to put on top of the panel along with a little rubber duck, but that too is another tale.
Robert F. DeBurgh