Überhaus Diary: The Biplane

Ever since I was hip-high to my father I have had a thing about vintage aircraft, especially planes from the wild experimental age between the wars. I loved the stories of Jimmy Doolittle winning the Schneider Cup, flying on instruments and generally doing insane things in the air. I loved the biplanes and sleek monoplanes. I even admired the heroes everyone else admired, namely Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart.  I gobbled up The Great Waldo PepperThe Blue Max, Twelve O’Clock High  and other movies with aircraft.  If this movie  had been out when I was a kid, I would have gone nuts.

My hero, the Red Pig.

Though I have never been in a position to learn to fly (a rich man’s sport, now), the love of aviation has never left me. Much of the action in my first novel Hawser takes place in the air, and the obsessive geeky ten-year-old in me insisted that I get all the details of aerial combat exactly right.

It says a lot about me that when I read about Harrison’s Ford  crashing his 1940s Ryan Pt-22 into a Los Angeles golf course, my first thoughts were about the airplane. It says more that I now have all its arcane details at hand, locked forever in my elephantine memory, but I don’t know if Mr. Ford is dead or alive or being fed with a tube.

I still feel the old romantic tug in my chest whenever I see a vintage plane flying overhead. A couple of years ago, somebody trundled out an old Fokker Trimotor and offered rides over the farmland for a swingeing fee of five hundred bucks. I got to watch the slow giant lumber across the leaden skies for free, but a part of me wishes I would have gone up in the plane.

Who knows? There are a couple of pilots who fly an old Stearman out of a small airport south of here. I read once that they were offering rides. Maybe I’ll go down there when the weather is warmer and look into it.

In the meantime, I found this piece from September 1998, a relatively early entry in the Überhaus canon. I was just starting my own web design agency and was scared shitless by the prospect of failure. I was young enough then to still not know that failure isn’t that big a deal.


Sept 8, 1998

Saturday I saw a biplane flying over downtown. It hung above the buildings, turning and rolling  like the planes in King Kong. I heard its radial engine whine and growl against the sky . It filled my heart with a strange nostalgia for a time I have never known. Anemoia, it is called. Minever Cheevy, child of scorn / wished that he was never born.

It got me thinking of pilots. Not the soft, modern commercial types with their clipboards and Tag Hauers and mustaches and Land Rovers, nor of the swaggering Air Force and Navy fighter jocks who always seem to walking toward you across a runway.

No, I mean the ancient ones, the crazy motherfuckers who flew planes that required two people to start, planes with unreliable engines and no safety features of any kind, no instruments save for those commonly found in modern cars.

Faulkner put it best:

 In the pictures, the snapshots hurriedly made, a little faded,  a little dog-eared with the thirteen years, they swagger a  little. Lean, hard, in their brass-and-leather martial harness, posed standing beside or leaning upon the esoteric shapes of wire and wood and canvas in which they flew without parachutes, they too have an esoteric look; a look not exactly human, like that of some dim and threatful apotheosis of the race seen for an instant in the glare of a thunderclap and then forever gone. 

Some beautiful shit, there. Romantic.

The times when they flew have been on my mind too, the era when flight itself was regarded by many people as an impossibility which had been temporarily outsmarted.

In those days there were few airfields, few regulations and few opportunities for making a living flying planes. Barnstorming was a common enough practice for flyers, jumping from town to town performing stunts and hopefully making enough money to pay for food and lodging and gas to the next town. The pilots then were mostly war veterans and they had a fraternal sense when they met each other on the ground, although they often were not friends.

The fierce independence, the uncertainty, the scoffing at regulation and rule–all of these seem to mock me now as I find myself more and more entrapped by our culture of money.

I worry about success almost as much as I worry about failure.

I guess I peer longingly into the past to find some comfort but find none there because it is not my past. It is only imagination, and it does not help.


Don't just stand there.